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 3
The sun rose out of the sea, climbing higher and higher into the sky, shining upon the deep blue waves. The cold mid-September wind whipped against the deck of the ship.
Osato stretched out her legs, then stood up and walked around a bit, bowing slightly as she passed passengers engaged in idle conversation. Eventually, she made her way back down the steps to the women’s cabin.
Everyone in the third-class women’s cabin was already awake. The children were playing with their toys, squealing with laughter. The young housewife who had been sleeping below Osato was now sitting up, smoothing down her tousled hair with her fingers. What a pale-looking face!
“That was some storm we had last night, wasn’t it?” Osato forced herself to smile.
The young woman merely replied, “Yes, it really was…” before falling silent again. Osato felt awkward and didn’t try to continue the conversation.
Around ten minutes later, a ship boy came and announced that it was time for breakfast. No one, Osato included, was in the mood to eat anything. The smell of miso soup alone was enough to make her feel like she was about to vomit.
Osato walked out of the third-class women’s cabin and stepped into the third-class men’s cabin next door. Unlike the women, most of the men were still fast asleep. Swallowing her embarrassment, she grit her teeth and walked up to the bunk where her husband, Ryōsaku was sleeping. He was sound asleep, lost to the world. Osato felt a little disappointed. But since it was time for breakfast, she decided to try to wake him up.
“Come on, it’s time to get up!” Osato gently shook Ryōsaku’s shoulder. He kept sleeping, completely unfazed.
“It’s time for breakfast. Don’t you want to eat something?” This time Osato tried shaking Ryōsaku more forcefully. Finally, his eyes opened.
“Come on, it’s time to eat.”
“Yes, the food’s already been brought out!”
“Not hungry.” Ryōsaku turned over and pulled the blanket back over his head.
“What a hopeless good-for-nothing…” Osato thought. If he really loved her, he would have woken up and smiled at her. Instead, the look he’d given her was one of complete annoyance. Gentle to the point of oversensitivity, Osato was disheartened by this tiny slight — that was how weak a woman she was.
After a while, Osato returned to the women’s quarters. She was completely exhausted. Her heart was filled with worry and apprehension about what would happen once the ship landed.
Could she really stay with her husband “until death do us part”? Such thoughts turned uneasily in the back of her mind.
Although they had exchanged many vows, she couldn’t help feeling doubts after Ryōsaku’s behavior that morning. In fact, Osato felt as if their entire marriage was nothing but a pack of lies. There was a good chance that she had been taken for a fool. If she had been tricked, of course her husband was to blame, but in the end, she too was at fault. He might have taken advantage of the fact that she was an especially gullible person, but it was her fault that she was gullible in the first place. Still, she was pretty sure that he wouldn’t have gone so far as to lie to her. At the very least, since she and Ryōsaku were cousins, he wouldn’t just deceive her for no good reason. And if he really was a bad man with an awful temper, their shared family would never have permitted their marriage.
But that wasn’t all. Even if they were family, there was that old proverb: cousins are the first strangers. What if that was how he thought? If so, he might feel as if he could say or do anything he wanted without a care in the world. If that was the case, then there was no way she could avoid worrying about her marriage.
Had Ryōsaku really fooled her? If so, then all the sweet things he had said to her were just a way of playing with her feelings — a far cry from the idea of “for better or for worse.’’ She really could not be too careful. When she was in Japan, there were many people around her who could support her, but if something were to happen in America — a land she had never seen and knew nothing about — it would be a complete disaster.
Still, no matter how many regrets she might have, it was too late to do anything about them. She would have no choice but to work as hard as she could, becoming ash under the sky of a distant journey. It would be nice if Ryōsaku were a good husband, or if he said sweet, affectionate things to her, but as long as he could find some work — even if it was the kind of work an eta would do — if he worked hard and thought about nothing but getting back to Japan, then she could put up with anything. She would even step into a blazing fire for Ryōsaku…
And in this manner, Osato’s endless stream of anxious thoughts continued.
View next installment here: 5
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.