Editor’s note: We continue Michael G. Malaghan’s serialized historical novel, “Picture Bride,” based on the Japanese immigrant experience. Malaghan’s trilogy will take readers from turn-of-the-20th-century-Japan to Hawai‘i in the picture bride era; the Islands during World War II, highlighted by the exploits of the Nisei soldiers; and beyond.
The novel begins with 12-year-old Haru-chan from Amakusa fleeing her home for Hiroshima, where she becomes the picture bride of a Buddhist priest in Hawai‘i.
Mike Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Florida and Japan. “Picture Bride,” in serialized form, can now be read in every issue of the Herald. (Parts Four and Five of Chapter 1 were published in our June 20, 2014, edition.)
PART ONE: FLIGHT
Amakusa Island – Kyüshü, Japan – October 1904
Shigenobu and Haru stood at the door, watching Fumiyo disappear into the predawn glow. Shigenobu’s stomach tightened. What had his aunt gotten him into? Sure, he hated the Amakusan trade, but it wasn’t his job to stop it. What would happen to him if the gangsters learned that he had helped this girl escape? He imagined a beating, and then scrambling for money to pay back Haru’s contract, with interest. And his career. If Mitsubishi . . .”
“Clop. Clop, Clop . . .”
Haru turned toward the approaching hoofs. Behind her, Shigenobu snapped, “Let’s go. That’s my driver. We must board the ship before anyone sees you.”
As he closed the door with one hand, Shigenobu reached for a cap and his leather jacket with the other. He scampered down the walkway, pulling Haru behind him.
Shigenobu tapped his driver on the shoulder. “Straight to the wharf.”
He gave Haru a rough boost into the carriage and climbed in after her. He picked up a thin wool blanket from the carriage seat. “Wrap this around you,” he commanded.
He shrugged into his jacket and then thrust the cap at her. “Put this on, and pull it down. No, like this,” he said, jerking the cap’s bill over her eyebrows. “No one must know you are a woman.”
By the horse’s second trot, Haru had fallen asleep, her head resting on the man’s hunched shoulder.
Shigenobu folded his arms tightly against his chest and peered out the carriage window, relieved that the morning mist blotted out the hints of dawn. He thought of how he would have to grovel at the feet of his coalbunker’s captain as he half-ordered, half-begged him to stow away Haru. He thought of how the imperial navy torpedoing Russian battleships at Port Arthur the previous February had gotten him into this predicament. If not for the war, he would not be in Amakusa. He remembered how he had yelled, “Banzai!” when the surprise attack caught the tsar’s unsuspecting ships napping. A day later, Japan declared war. The navy’s appetite for Amakusa’s coal had exploded. Of course, if not for the war, he would not be a chief engineer.
Red lanterns hung along the pier, their oil-wicked halos outlining the shadows of men disconnecting wide chutes from empty rail car hoppers attached to the ship’s side. Other darkened shadows scurried to shovel spilled lumps of coal back into the chutes.
At the end of the pier, Shigenobu dropped from his carriage and raced up the ship’s gangplank two steps at a time. On deck, he lifted his eyes and spied the captain behind the bridge’s glass window. He climbed the steel steps and entered the warm cabin.
The captain listened to Shigenobu’s hurried plea with studied concern. He squinted his eyes.
“How will I get a girl on and off the boat without the company knowing?”
The captain sucked a stream of air through his teeth, like a rickshaw driver who had been asked to take a courtesan up a steep hill on a rainy night.
“A crewmember might report me.”
Shigenobu recognized the shakedown. Cargo ships often took on passengers; no one complained as long as the coal arrived on time. But this was different. He had asked the captain to hide Haru. Last month, he had self-righteously turned aside his captain’s hints to take advantage of a thriving black market by under-reporting the amount of coal loaded on the ships. Shigenobu was trapped. He had to get rid of the girl.
“As it happens, Captain, coal production has exceeded quota. I am worried the company will expect too much in the future. We could deliver three rail cars off the books.”
The captain’s smile exposed crooked teeth stained a blackish red from a lifetime of chewing beetle nut. He spit a stream of juice to the side. Several drops splashed on Shigenobu’s shoes. The captain offered a “Gomen nasai” apology so perfunctory as to be insulting. His breath reeked of shöchü, a Kyüshü alcohol made from sweet potato.
“Bring up the girl. I will put her in a supply room near my cabin.”
Haru sat motionless, willing herself invisible while keeping a furtive eye on the bridge. It looked like the captain and Shigenobu were arguing. Would she be able to board? The creeping dawn switched her imagination to images of her home. Hondo would be arriving by now. Did her father really have all the money to give back? She thought of the cigarettes, the fresh tea and the sweet chanpon.
Shigenobu took a white handkerchief from his pocket. The signal.
Clutching the small swath of cloth that held her life’s possessions, she alighted. Her knees wobbled as she walked up the gangplank. At the top rung, Shigenobu took her empty hand. He led her to a short, stocky man dressed in a black uniform and a naval cap, his face unshaven and stern.
“This is the captain.”
Haru bowed low, her knees still trembling.
“He will take you to Hiroshima.” Shigenobu turned and scurried off the ship.
“Follow me,” said the captain. His putrid breath enveloped her. She backed away and bowed low, unable to still her shaking knees. Haru would forever be reminded of his breath whenever she used a filthy public toilet. Her pleading eyes softened the captain’s voice.
“You will have a small room to yourself. Someone will bring you food and change your slop bucket twice a day.”
The captain gave her a set of work clothes. “You can walk on the deck after dark. If anyone is about, they will think you are a boy. Don’t talk to anyone.”
Haru vomited throughout her first day at sea, unprepared for the 20-foot swells as the ship pitched its way north, past Nagasaki. She clenched her fists at each deep tilt, frightened that the ship would fail to right itself and sink. She envisioned water pouring into the corridor.
The second day, the ship turned east and passed Fukuoka. When it sailed into the Shimonoseki Straits, the waters calmed and Haru was able to keep down the rice and bits of fish. That night she cried. As bad as her life had been, she had slept every night, protected by her parents. What if Fumiyo’s sister refused to take her in and sent her away? Where could she go?
That night, Haru paced along the railing. A troop transport ship passed. Soldiers in brown uniforms strolled on the decks. Some waved at her. Pulling her cap down, she waved back. She wondered if her brother might be on the ship. A battleship passed with gun turrets so big men could sleep in them. This was the Japan Fukuzawa Yukichi boasted of, what the karayuki-san were paying for.
Rolling seas awoke her close to dawn. She guessed they had left the straits, so Hiroshima must be close. She rushed to the deck. Lights radiated from grey warships at anchor. Loaded barges lumbered to and fro. Tugboats blew horns, demanding the right of way. The stench of garbage and oily smoke brought up bile from Haru’s empty stomach. At the sound of heavy steps behind her, she turned, relieved as she recognized the captain.
“I have arranged for a tender to take you to shore,” he said.
The first pink of dawn glowed behind Haru as the tender weaved towards a pier pronged with bustling jetties. The sites amazed her: Smartly painted schooners covered in dripping nets jammed wharfs. Spidery-legged men pushed tubs of fish to the auction house. Fishmongers, lugging carts, traipsed down piers to ply the morning catch along their neighborhood routes of waiting housewives.
Close to the pier, Haru reviewed Fumiyo’s instructions. “Go to a public bath and clean yourself. When you meet my sister, say, ‘I am happy to do any work to make your life easier.’”
“How will I find her house?”
“The Fudoin Temple is well known. It’s an hour walk along the Ota River to the township of Ushita. Anyone can point you in the right direction.”
The grumpy tender operator tied his boat, jumped off and held out his hand to Haru, who grabbed it and hopped onto the wet pier.
Bewildered by the unfamiliar commotion, she meandered into the adjacent farmer’s market, dripping in swaying light bulbs. Cone-hatted farmers carried cabbage, eggplant and tomatoes in baskets balanced on poles hung across their shoulders. Day laborers with headbands tied around their heads pushed rickety handcarts jammed with potatoes, oranges and daikon (turnips). Civilian buyers made way for uniformed men at vendor stalls. The navy buyers demanded the cheapest prices for the emperor’s ships. Haru bumped her way through the market in a daze, afraid to stop and ask anyone where she could find a public bath.
The spicy smells from sidewalk canteens reminded Haru that she needed to eat. Looking for a vendor with an empty stool and a kind face, she spied an old obasan, squatting while stirring a steaming vat of fish.
Sensing this child was out of her element, the obasan said, “20 sen, child. Sit down.” The stooped woman handed Haru a bowl of rice topped with hot chunks of fried fish.
“Obasan, where is a bathhouse?”
The woman pointed. “Walk down this road until you reach Yokuji Temple. Plenty of bathhouses nearby, and no sailors or soldiers.”
Moments later, a revived Haru sauntered toward the temple. She passed children her own age dressed in neat uniforms, laughing and holding books and bentö boxes. They were turning into a school. Nearly half of them were girls!
Haru spied a bathhouse down a street so narrow that two donkey carts could not pass each other. She gave the wizened proprietor one of her precious one-yen coins. She waited, not knowing if she would have to pay more or receive change. The man’s shaky hands fumbled until he found a 50-sen coin and slapped it on the counter.
“Do you need a towel?”
When Haru nodded yes, the man took back the coin, reached beneath the counter and placed a small white towel on top. She picked it up and entered the changing room through the hanging curtain marked “Women.” The damp sulfur smells seeping in from the bath area reminded her of Mount Unzen’s volcanic odors. Haru placed her clothes in a wicker hand basket on the bottom shelf. Holding the tiny towel over her pubic patch, she slid open the shoji door and entered the steaming bath area.
The middle-aged bathers gave Haru a cursory glance without interrupting a noisy debate on the rising price of rice. Spotting stubby stools along the wall, she sat down and, taking a caramel-colored bar of soap from the ledge, lathered and scrubbed her body with the towel. She filled a shallow wooden bucket with water, hoisted it over her shoulders and let the water cascade over her soapy body. Upon stepping into the green concrete bath, she squatted until steaming water met her chin. How wonderful, she thought, as the thermal sensation soothed her body.
She eavesdropped on the circle of women complaining about their husbands, a new sake tax to support the war and the influx of women from the “floating world” to service sailors. The oldest carped about the ungratefulness of her children. Haru was so enthralled with the entertainment offered by these city women that she let time and worry slip away in the steamy bath.
Suddenly, a bell rang. Haru’s face registered a question mark. One of the bathers noticed.
“It’s time to leave. Each day, the bath is drained and cleaned at 11.”
Haru climbed out. While she squeezed the water from her towel and dried herself with the damp cloth, she asked for directions to the Fudoin Temple.
“Oh, the Fudoin Temple,” said the woman who had complained about her children. “The home of our treasured kondo, our great Golden Hall. Five hundred years old, but so well-kept, even after the government stopped the temple funding — and still with a Shinto shrine inside . . .” She stopped abruptly as if she had spoken amiss. Regaining her composure, she gave directions.
Haru hurried along the narrow, well-swept cobblestone streets. She envied the flat-terraced rice fields hugging the riverbanks, so different from Amakusa’s mountainous terraces. Far in the distance, an arched roof breeched the sky. Haru strutted faster. The distant structure morphed into a three-story, flared-roof temple. As she neared the structure, tall, whitewashed stonewalls enveloping the castle-sized structure and grounds appeared.
Haru’s heart raced. In just moments, she would know her destiny. She stopped at the temple gatehouse tower. Granite gargoyles leaned over layers of flared roofs. Their fierce gaze seemed to dare her to enter where she knew she did not belong: Turn around and run. Go back to town. Go back to Amakusa.
She bit her lip. Images of Sandakan and her bowing parents watching her leave toughened her resolve.
To be continued in the Sept. 5 edition of the Herald.