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, fleeing her home in Amakusa, Kyüshü, 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.
PART ONE: FLIGHT
Hiroshima, Japan – June 1905
Ko was Haru’s best friend until the day she wasn’t.
Haru had met Ko in early April, on the first day of her senior year. She had been walking past a group of girls looking smart in their new striped, beige-on-brown cotton kimono uniforms. As usual, she ignored the “gang of three” clique, but stopped upon overhearing them mimicking someone’s Shimabara dialect, an accent very similar to Amakusan. The three taunters had corralled a new student. She was tall and dark-complexioned. Haru remembered how, four years earlier, the other students had laughed at her country dialect.
Haru charged into the mean circle, ignored the tormenters and beamed at the newcomer as if greeting a long lost relative.
“Good morning! I thought I heard a friendly accent. I’m Haru,” she said in the Amakusan dialect. The clique retreated. The newcomer smiled.
Haru claimed Ko as another wounded bird to take under her wing. When she felt the pain of lesser creatures, she took action. She repaired the wings of sparrows, could not resist saving abandoned puppies and fed stray cats until she found them a proper home — unless the cat wore tabby fur. In that case, Haru named it Susano and adopted the feline.
Unlike Haru, Ko made little effort to lose her country accent. Teachers took exception to Ko’s lackadaisical approach to learning the Hiroshima dialect and ignored the hazing. Free to continue, the meanest of her tormentors added a new pejorative — ainoko-san, or crossbreed — mocking Ko for her dark-copper complexion. Ko smothered her rage and never complained to her teachers. Like her favorite animal, the fox, she used stealth to strike back. Homework assignments disappeared from lockers; coins were pilfered from enabling teachers’ handbags; a nail would find its way into a bully’s bicycle tire. When others pointed to Ko, Haru assured them it was not in her nature to be so evil.
The first student who had called Ko “ainoko” owned a Chihuahua. One day, the dog disappeared. A week later, Ko shared her teriyaki chicken lunch with her tormentor. Ko wondered if the girl would ever make the connection. She hoped so.
The event that decided Haru’s destiny started in the “secret attic.”
The temple’s attic wasn’t really a secret. Occasionally, Kiyoshi would pull down the ceiling ladder and climb the stairs to fetch or store some religious scroll, vestment or other ecclesiastical paraphernalia.
If not for Ko’s remark on her first visit — “What’s in the attic?”— Haru might not have bothered to look at what she dismissed as an uninteresting storage area.
“Let’s find out,” said Haru.
Barefoot, the girls tiptoed over the floor’s creaky timbers like naughty ninja. Haru held an oil lamp at eye level. Dusty chests flanked the slanting rafters. Bold kanji characters specified the contents: robes for wedding rites, ancient scrolls or personal effects of departed priests. The girls’ hair snared dangling spider webs. Ko labeled the pungent musk emanating from scrolls layered with centuries of grime and pimpled with rat droppings “attic perfume.” The lantern’s dancing light, the wind whistling through the rafters and the pungent odors created the perfect dank atmosphere to draw out their most intimate secrets.
At a previous séance, Ko told Haru that her mother had been a Penang karayuki (prostitute) and her father “a Malay prince.” Haru reciprocated by confiding how she had escaped Ko’s mother’s fate. Haru had barely heard Ko mutter, “You got off with a few years of an empty stomach; my mother didn’t.”
Now, months later, the day’s heavy rain shelved whatever adventures Haru and Ko fancied — there would be no sampan excursion on the Ota River, or horse-drawn trolley downtown to window-shop, or rickshaw ride to the tearooms lining the harbor. After Saturday morning classes, Ko leaned into Haru.
“I have a secret,” she said, her voice throaty and conspiratorial.
Haru grabbed her hand and quickened her pace. “Let’s go.” She didn’t need to add “. . . to the attic.” It was understood.
When the girls pranced into the Fudoin compound, several monks engaged in landscaping duties greeted the cheerful pair. Haru, increasingly aware of her maturing beauty and being of marriageable age, had begun to notice and enjoy a different look in the eyes of the younger bachelors.
One monk, Maki-san, who often lingered when she passed, told her, “Sensei (Kiyoshi)and Midori-san went to town.” Of course, thought Haru, they do every Saturday. But feeling especially charitable, she gave Maki-san a smile and a slight bow and said, “Domo arigatou gozaimashita,” the politest thank you.
Once inside, Haru told Ko, “I’ll heat the tea and grab some sweet bean cakes. Why don’t you go to my room, get the lantern and incense, and prepare our ‘tea room.’”
When Haru carried the teapot into the attic, Ko was waiting, sitting cross-legged, her tawny face radiating in the lantern’s glow. She fingered the white edge of a picture, careful not to smudge the photo of a serious-faced soldier.
Haru took the photo and held it over the lantern. “Oh, he is so handsome,” she said, ignoring the scar on the right side of his forehead. “Does this mean . . .”
“Yes,” said Ko. “He is stationed in Mukden.”
“A soldier? You don’t seem the army wife-type, Ko.”
“Not a real soldier, Haru. He is a lieutenant with our Manchurian Railroad, which controls land in Manchuria larger than Kyüshü,” said Ko, referring to the slice of sparsely populated territory Russia lost in the war. “He’s retiring to take a grant of 1 million tsubo (830 acres) to grow soy beans. A million tsubo, Haru! The railroad is loaning him money to build a house and hire Chinese laborers and former soldiers as overseers.”
“I’m so happy for you, Ko, but . . .” Haru faltered, puzzled. “I thought your nakoudo did matchmaking only for Hawai‘i.”
“She does. But since that Gentlemen’s Agreement, in which our government agreed to stop sending laborers to America, the greater demand for wives is in Manchuria.”
“I would never leave Japan,” Haru said, with a small shake of her head.
“You don’t have to; you have the perfect complexion. You’re the daughter of an important priest.” Ko’s eyes narrowed. “You will live the life of a woman of leisure.”
As was her habit, Haru ignored Ko’s worn-out comparisons between their two lives. Instead, she clapped her hands and bounced on her cushion. “Let’s play shiritori!”
Shiritori was a popular word game. One person says a word. Then the next person has to say a word starting with last syllable of the previous word; the next player does the same, and so on. Today, the girls made it tougher. Each word had to be a living object — like an animal or a plant — and once one girl said her word, she started counting to five. If the other girl could not come up with a word in time, she was the loser. Words ending in the “n” sound, the most common in the Japanese language, were not allowed.
The girls had been shouting words over the whistling wind and pelting rain for half an hour when Haru said, “usagi,” the Japanese word for rabbit, and started counting. When she reached five and Ko had not countered, Haru playfully poked her friend.
That was when Ko blurted out the question that forever changed Haru’s life.
“In Tokugawa times, the Emperor was kept in a gilded cage; now his son is a god. How is that possible?”
Haru’s chest tightened. She grabbed the edge of the table. The correct answer — the safe answer — was to either giggle and say, “What a silly question,” or be serious and say, “How can anyone doubt it could be otherwise?” Either response would have shut down this path to jeopardy.
Ko kept silent as if to say, “Take your time. I know this is a shocking question . . .”
Haru was transported back four years to that day at the Zöjöji Temple grounds — the day she had startled Kiyoshi with the same question. It was raining that day, too, but not like the bullets pinging the attic roof today.
“Ojisama (Father), how did our Emperor become a god?”
The blood drained from Kiyoshi’s face and a frightened expression seized Midori’s serene features. Haru jerked back and cupped her hand over her open mouth.
Kiyoshi set aside his bentö box. His troubled eyes pierced into Haru’s and his measured voice dropped an octave.
“The Buddha became a god for his good works, the Emperor for being the living embodiment of the Japanese nation.”
He paused. Haru gave the expected “Hai,” normally meaning “yes,” but in this context meaning, “I understand.”
“Our Emperor was only a year older than you at the time of the Restoration. He rose to a godly force because he performed acts that only a god could — transforming our backward nation into a modern country, winning wars against China and Russia, making Korea our colony.”
Kiyoshi then did something he had never done before or since. He put his hands firmly on both sides of Haru’s face and tilted her head back. His eyes bore down like a lion holding its prey. Haru’s jaws hurt and she tried to move her head away, but Kiyoshi increased the pressure.
“You must never say ANTHING that shows any doubt of our Tennö’s status among the gods. The police and the Shinto priesthood do not tolerate the slightest sign — even just a hint — of such unpatriotic feelings. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
Kiyoshi released his hands. Haru stood and bowed low.
“Wakarimashita. Gomen nasai.”
Midori clutched Haru’s arm, her fingernails dug into the girl’s soft skin. “You must never again ask such a question, Haru-chan. No one can doubt the Emperor’s divinity or harm will come not only to that person, but to her whole family.”
After that day, Haru never said anything or heard anyone else utter a word questioning the Emperor’s deity status.
Ever since the Zöjöji Temple drama, Haru had thrown herself into demonstrating her reverence to the Emperor Meiji. She practiced reciting the Imperial Rescript until she was perfect. Haru led the school Rescript recitals when VIPs visited. She wrote award-winning school essays extolling the superiority of the Japanese over other nations and races.
Despite this public display, more unspoken questions nagged her. Even though she never doubted the Emperor’s greatness, she asked herself how a human could be a god. One question tore at her soul: If the Tennö was a god, why did his ministers allow karayuki to be sent to the brothels of Asia?
Something else about Ko’s question troubled her. Ko’s uncle was a part-time Shinto priest who performed the jinja (shrine) rites at his neighborhood shrine. He covered the walls of his home with the Emperor’s picture. She never suspected that Ko doubted. Then again, no one knew that Haru herself held doubts.
Now, her best friend was asking the forbidden question in their mysterious sanctuary. Haru had shared complaints about teachers, knowing Ko would never tell another soul. Except for her adopted parents, only Ko knew she had been sold as a karayuki. Haru loved Ko and trusted her, even though she borrowed clothes without asking and small coins disappeared from their home after her visits. Haru remembered the days when she went hungry and overlooked these small transgressions.
“Ko,” she said, and then repeated Kiyoshi’s words explaining how the Emperor had become a deity.
“Yes,” said Ko. “Our Tennö Heika is Japan’s greatest god, but how come his father was not?”
“I think all the emperors were gods, Ko-chan. For many years the emperors trusted the Tokugawa Shoguns to keep peace. But when the Bakufu lost the people’s trust, our great Emperor answered the call of his citizens.”
Haru refilled their teacups with the tepid dregs.
“He is a god, but not like the great Buddha, rather a god who is our wise father. We Japanese need a god to make sure we obey the laws of our country.”
Ko leaned forward. The candle caught the refection of her widening eyes. “You mean you don’t believe our Tennö Heika is a real god?”
A jolt of alarm pierced the inner sinews of Haru’s chest. She realized she had crossed a line that might endanger her surrogate parents.
“No!” she hastily explained. “We all know Meiji IS a god. How else could he make so many wise decisions and win every war?”
Ko stood and looked out the window. “The rain’s stopped, Haru-chan. Let’s walk to the harbor.”
“OK,” agreed Haru. Anything to stop talking about the Emperor. “Let’s go to the theater? The American movie, “The Great Train Robbery” is playing. I will pay for both of us.”
The girls wrapped the tea set, opened the hatch, dropped the ladder and descended into the second floor of the temple home. The three Susanos meowed and rubbed against their legs. As Haru skipped toward her room, she half-turned to Ko. “I’ll meet you on the steps.” She was too polite to say she was retrieving the movie money.
Haru entered her room, went straight to her study desk and reached for her porcelain coin bank — a hollow statue of Lady Murasaki, the author of “The Tale of the Genji.” She picked it up. The statue’s feather weight drained the blood from her face. She dropped the empty statue. It bounced on the tatami mat floor, but did not break. Haru tore down the hall to the front porch to confront Ko.
She was gone.
To be continued in the Nov. 7, 2014, edition . . .