By Shōson Nagahara
Some 87 years ago, Japanese American writer Shōson Nagahara serialized a novel, “A Tale of Osato,” in the pages of The Rafu Shimpo. Now, for the first time ever, Nagahara’s writings have been translated into English and published by Kaya Press in a collection called “Lament in the Night.” To commemorate, The Rafu will once again serialize Nagahara’s work, translated by Andrew Leong. Stay tuned for weekly installments that follow the life of Osato-San, a young Japanese woman who makes the treacherous journey to America and struggles to survive in 1920s Los Angeles. View previous installments here: 1 2
Several minutes passed, and the two men stood as before, continuing to talk. The dignified-looking man was smoking Manila tobacco, and with every puff, a thin stream of smoke trailed up towards the stern.
Osato turned to listen their conversation.
“The place I was living before was really cold.”
“Where was that?”
“In the middle of Montana.”
“Yeah. The winters are really rough out there. A lot of people can’t handle it..”
“Must have been difficult. What were you doing out there?”
“Railroad work. I was a section foreman.”
“Really? A foreman?”
“That’s right. The money’s a little better than what most folks get, but I’ve been working the railroads for eleven years now.”
“You must be pretty tough to last that long.”
“Not really. You just have to learn the tricks for getting by. When it’s winter and there’s two or three feet of snow on the ground, we just set a trap and catch ourselves a bear.”
“Well, it’s really easy to sneak up on the big ones.”
The dignified-looking man laughed loudly.
The hull of the Seiyō Maru suddenly swayed to the side, bringing the conversation to a halt as the two men sought to regain their footing. The 40-year-old man looked over in Osato’s direction for a moment.
She quickly turned away. The roar of the deep blue sea echoed across the deck…
“So, where exactly is this Montana where the bears live? Bears have to live deep in the mountains, don’t they? It’s probably a place with so many trees that it’s dark even at noon.
Are there really Japanese people living out there in those remote mountains, working as hard as they can? What do you do when you work for a railroad? It must be nothing like working in Japan. It couldn’t possibly be like in the moving pictures, with Indians leaping out at you and raiding the trains. That would be something, wouldn’t it? A little thing like last night’s storm wouldn’t bother you at all. Still, I’m sure nothing like that ever happens in the cities…”
From the bits and pieces of the men’s conversation, Osato tried to picture what this country she’d never seen might be like. One image after another flashed through her mind.
The truth of the matter was that for Osato, America was a total mystery. According to what she’d heard in Japan, America was a country so overflowing with money that you didn’t even have to work for more than a year or two before you’d pile up a fortune. And on top of all of that, there was nothing to prevent you from living as extravagantly as you pleased. Even her grade school teacher had said as much. Kichizō from across the street said the same thing too, and if Kichizō said it, then it must be true. He was a graduate of the Imperial University!
Thanks to stories like these, Osato dreamed of an America where money grew on trees. She honestly believed that all a married couple had to do was work hard for two or three years and they’d come back the wealthiest people in the entire neighborhood. Once they returned to Japan, all of their neighbors would be struck dumb by how rich they were. They’d be able to swing around town, showing off. With enough cash, they could brag all they wanted, do whatever crazy thing they dreamt up, and if any fool had the nerve to say anything about it, they’d just tell him off!
At any rate, Osato believed that all she had to do was land in America and she would have nothing but good fortune.
Osato was full of dreams of becoming successful and getting rich. That’s why she’d decided to go all the way to America to work.
America…the Promised Land, America… How the thought of it blazed in Osato’s young imagination! After only one more night, she would set foot on that bright, shining continent. And then, filled with these exciting dreams, she would finally rest upon a mattress made of gold. Oh, how the things she would see and hear would astonish her!
If America really was as Osato dreamed, if it really was as she believed it to be — an earthly paradise drawn from a fairy tale — then the story of her future would be so wonderful that there would be no point in trying to tell it.
Osato had faced hardship after hardship in Japan, but whenever she dreamed of the golden land of America, she would stop thinking about the inevitable suffering that comes from being human — the torment, sadness, and woe that always fester in the conflict between the individual and society. Not a single realistic thought crossed her mind.
Osato was also a young woman. She only dreamt of happiness. Not an unreasonable thing to do.
View next installment here: 4
Come celebrate the publication of “Lament in the Night” (Kaya Press, December 2012) at an event featuring readings and discussion with translator Andrew Leong, Los Angeles Times Book Critic David L. Ulin and special guests, on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013 at 2 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave. (at First Street), Los Angeles.