By AUSTEN LOCK
Following is the winner in the Youth Category of the 2019 Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.
“Hey Buddhahead! C’mere! I want to talk to you. Where are you going? You’ve got nowhere to run. I just want to talk! Buddhahead!”
I run away. Again. Back to the corner where Collin will never find me. The same routine every day. I hide until right before the bell rings, wait for my teacher to take roll, and run inside the locker room as fast as possible. Thankfully, P.E. is my last class of the day, so after I can just take off and leave. I take the 20-minute bus ride to Monterey Park, hop off at Floral, and run up the stairs to me and Mom’s apartment.
As soon as the door slams shut, it’s back to my tiny room to complete another boatload of homework. I’m halfway done when Mom comes in.
“Hey, Kyle. I made some karaage. Why don’t you take a break and come have some dinner?”
Ugh. I swivel around in my chair and face her. “Why can’t we just eat pizza or cheeseburgers like normal people?”
She steps back as if she was punched in the stomach.
“What’s going on with you lately? You don’t eat Nihon ryori anymore, you dyed your hair blond, you threw away your giant collection of manga, even the ones you treated like museum material, you quit taiko, and you won’t go to Hanamatsuri or Obon! I don’t understand you. It’s almost like you don’t want to be Japanese anymore.”
Now it’s my turn to recoil back like I’ve been hit. She’s right (and she usually isn’t)… I have been trying to be less Japanese, but I didn’t think she knew that.
“No, that’s not right.”
“Well then, is something going on at school? Your grades are plummeting. You used to love school.”
“Yes you did! You used to come home every day and talk, talk, talk about how great your teachers were and what fun you had. What happened? Is there someone or something at school?”
“It’s nothing… well, you wouldn’t understand what I’m going through, no one would understand! I don’t want to be Japanese anymore, okay?!”
Mom gets quiet. She gets that faraway look she always has when she’s thinking. After a minute or so, she turns off my light.
“Let’s go. I have an idea.”
“Go where? Where are we going? I’ve got a lot of homework to finish.”
“You’ll see,” she replies. “I think you’ll be interested.”
I climb into the car, and I admit, I have no idea where we are going, but I am a little curious. After fighting traffic on Cesar Chavez and turning onto Central, we pull into a lot and get out of the car. I recognize the brick building. We pass it whenever Mom and I go to her volunteer events at the Nikkei Museum. There’s a big sign over the doorway that says, “Go For Broke National Education Center.”
“What are you waiting for?” Mom says. “Let’s go.”
I follow her in and enter a dimly lit museum with a bunch of pictures from World War II. My eyes adjust and I see a picture of Pearl Harbor, which we learned about last year. We learned how the Japanese came in and bombed Pearl Harbor, killing a bunch of Americans and wounding a lot more. It’s exactly what Collin Harrison’s been taunting me about; how my ancestors killed his grandpa at Pearl Harbor.
Although I’m an American, what if my ancestors really were a part of that? What if Collin is right? Oh well, I might as well stop worrying and see the museum. I walk up to the first exhibit Mom is at, and right away I notice that there are kids, elementary age, behind barbed wire. The caption says that during World War II, Japanese Americans, who were citizens of the United States of America, were treated very badly, especially after Pearl Harbor. Since they looked like the enemy, in the minds of others, they were the enemy. Because of this, fellow Americans treated them badly and eventually the government put a lot of the Japanese Americans in internment camps, which are prison camps.
The Japanese Americans did nothing wrong, yet the government thought that they might spy on them for Japan. Japan at the time was allied with Hitler and his Nazis, together called the Axis Powers. Maybe some people actually did go through something like what I go through every day. Maybe some people would understand exactly how I feel every day.
Then we move on to a completely different type of exhibit full of Nisei pictures, who were apparently second-generation Japanese Americans, and many of them fought for — what? The United States of America? In a unit called the 100th/442nd Infantry Battalion. I read on. It says that a lot of Japanese American men in the internment camps wanted to fight for their country, even if their country didn’t trust them. They fought bravely in many battles and had many wounded and dead, so many that they were nicknamed the Purple Heart Battalion. These soldiers, the caption reads, were brave and willing to “go for broke” and fight for a country that imprisoned their families at home, a country that insulted and mistrusted them, and a country that would not give them as high of honors and medals that other “normal” units got. These people were heroes, I realize, and they were exactly the opposite of what Collin says.
As we leave the museum, Mom asks, “Well? How did you like it? Still don’t feel proud to be Japanese American?”
“I-I don’t know,” I stammer. “I really don’t know.”
“Well, think about it,” she says, and starts walking down Central Avenue.
“Where are we going? Wait up!”
“Well, we have to stop over at Bachan’s really quick. I need to run in and grab something. You should come and say hi to her.”
“I really don’t want to,” I say.
“All right,” she shrugs. “I thought you might be interested in what I’m getting.”
“Wait. Maybe I am a little interested.”
“That’s what I thought. We’re here; let’s go in.”
We walk into Little Tokyo Towers and press the worn-down elevator button. Once on the second floor, we move towards Bachan’s apartment down the grey, echoey hallway until we get to #315. We knock, and hear “Hai, hai, dozo.”
Her apartment always smells musty, like an attic full of old cardboard boxes, except when she’s cooking her famous curry. Then it smells like, well, curry. Bachan used to be really mobile and active, but after she broke her arm falling down the stairs leading out of the hondo, she’s just not been the same. Every time we visit, she seems to get more frail and have more wrinkles. She needs a cane now and sometimes a walker.
Bachan puts a tea kettle on her rusty white stove. It seems like she lives on green tea.
“Genki?” Mom hugs Bachan.
“Maa maa. Mainichi sanpo suru kara…”
“Yokatta. Ma, I’m just going to get Grandpa’s box.” Then she walks into the guest bedroom and disappears, while I look at the photos on the wall. I notice a black and white photo that has a man in uniform without a leg in some kind of ceremony, because he’s having a medal pinned onto him and other people are saluting him. A faded inscription in the bottom right hand corner says: “PFC Bill Muramoto receiving Bronze Star — December 25, 1945.”
Muramoto? That’s my last name. Am I related to him?
“Who is this guy in the picture on this wall?”
Before she can answer, Mom comes in with a beaten-up cardboard box.
“The answer,” Mom declares triumphantly, “is in here.”
“What’s in that box?”
“This box was your great-grandfather’s, who was Bachan’s dad. You’ll see at home,” she says, giving Bachan a hug. “Arigato, ne?”
“Bye Bachan,” I mumble.
“Ja, bye bye. Ki o tsukete.”
We get home, and I figure out that what’s in the box has something to do with the man in uniform. Mom opens the box, and inside is the uniform from the picture with the same medal that was called the gold or — yeah, that’s it, the Bronze Star. She says that I can look through the box while she reheats the now cold karaage.
I pull out the uniform with the medal and under it, a pair of dog tags reading “Bill Muramoto” and a long number after. I return the dog tags back to the bottom of the cardboard box and pick up the jacket, when I feel something in one of the pockets. I reach in, and it’s a little notebook. I flip through it, and I realize that it’s a journal.
One entry says: “December 8, 1941. Yesterday Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. What a horrible thing. The radio said that thousands were killed, and even more wounded. Mom and Dad said that I shouldn’t go to school today. I don’t know why. All they would say is that it’s for my own safety.”
“December 25, 1941. I don’t understand it anymore. People here on Terminal Island are starting to say things to me that don’t make any sense. They say I helped with Pearl Harbor, when neither I nor any of my family members were there. My friends won’t talk to me anymore because they say I’m a spy. I just don’t get what’s wrong with everybody. Some Christmas this is.”
“January 1, 1942. It’s getting worse. Other kids have started to follow me home from my high school, taunting and even throwing things at me. I had to miss a lot of school because of a gash in my head I got from a brick someone threw at me.”
The entries just keep going on and on, from Bill being forced into Manzanar, which I guess is an internment camp, to joining the 442nd. He started fighting in Anzio, Italy and flew to Marseilles, France. On October 28, 1944, while trying to save some Texas battalion, he lost his leg in the Vosges Mountains, and was discharged in 1945.
This guy went through a lot worse than I did. It makes Collin look like the nicest kid in the universe. It says in this journal that Bill went on to fight for the country that imprisoned him, he won medals from that country, and he lost a leg for that country.
I’m still thinking when Mom walks in.
“Well?” she says. “Find anything useful?” I’m speechless. I turn around to face her to make an snarky retort and an eye roll for good measure, but my mouth has other ideas.
“Ac-actually, yeah, I did find something.”
“Well, what did you find?”
I start talking. I tell her about the journal, I talk about the uniform, the dog tags. I feel bad because what my great-grandfather went through is a whole lot worse than what I am going through. Then I remember something about a project for history. It was called something like “Hall of Honor” or something.
“Uh, Mom. There’s this extra-credit project due Tuesday for history. You can make a poster about a military member in your family or something and for Veterans Day they’ll post it on the wall in the main office. I think I could make one that’s about great-grandfather Bill. I could take pictures of the uniform, medals, dog tags, maybe even the journal, you know? Other people can learn about who I really am.”
“Well, won’t other people say things about you and your poster? That problem kid at your school? You aren’t worried about being more Japanese?”
I consider this for a moment. I think about great-grandfather Bill, I think about all he went through. I think about all of the untrue things Collin says and how if I know they’re not right, why bother listening to him? I finally look at Mom and say, “I think Great- Grandfather went through a lot more that I do and everyone should know about that. I didn’t know my heritage was so cool. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to handle people telling me things that aren’t true. That’s a lot better than dodging bricks and bullets.”
I pick up the dog tags and run my fingers over the raised letters and numbers. It could have just been my imagination, but at that moment I thought I heard a man say, “Go for broke…”
Austen Lock is a student at McAuliffe Middle School in Los Alamitos. His great-grandfather, William Terao, served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. For more information on the short story contest, visit the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s website at www.littletokyohs.org.