Michael G. Malaghan
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: We continue Michael G. Malaghan’s serialized historical novel, “Picture Bride — A Family Saga,” based on the Japanese immigrant experience. Malaghan’s trilogy takes 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.
Author Michael Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Florida and Japan.
While the musicians took a break, Haru waved at Mayo Fujimoto, shining in a bright-green kimono, and her husband Tamatsuke. Tamatsuke, who had given up his baptism name, John, was standing next to her in a black suit with a clinched jawline. Shortly before the Great War, he had swallowed his battered pride and allowed Mayo to write Haru that their taro farm had failed. Knowing Kenji’s reputation as a de facto employment agent, she asked for help in finding a job for her husband. When the technician at Joshua Bilkerton’s sugar mill lost an arm in a conveyer belt accident, Kenji recommended him to a grateful Bilkerton. Tamatsuke had held a similar position at an O‘ahu plantation at the outbreak of the 1909 strike, so he knew the job. However, Kenji had warned the former strike leader, “Don’t do anything that will compromise my negotiating concessions from plantation managers.”
“My union-organizing days are behind me,” said a slumped-shouldered Tamatsuke.
Tamatsuke’s mechanical skills earned him $52 a month in wages — three times that of a field worker, plus a four-room cottage, half the size of their previous accommodations. His shoulders soon regained their confident posture. Mayo joined a sugar sack-sewing team. It was tedious work, but still better than weeding in the fields under the hot sun. Barren in Waikïkï, Mayo soon produced three children. For five years, Tamatsuke had kept his no labor agitation pledge, even as plantation working conditions deteriorated. Until today . . .
While Haru and the Fujimotos exchanged greetings, they both spotted Kenji walking into their garden with the acting Japanese Consul General, Eichi Furuya, who had arrived that morning as part of his annual visit to the outlying Buddhist missions. Tamatsuke resisted his impulse to approach Kenji, deferring to the consul general. But then he changed his mind. What he had come to say needed to reach the consul’s ears, as well.
“Sumimasen,” said stone-faced Tamatsuke to Haru and Mayo, excusing himself. Shoulders arched back, he strode across the street toward Kenji and the consul, whose slick-black hair reflected the sun. As he drew close, however, his confidence faltered. He stopped close enough to notice the sweat ring rimming Furuya’s white shirt collar.
The consul’s fiery eyes locked onto Kenji’s. “Now that the war has ended, relations between Japan and America are bound to change. America must stop interfering with our interests in China. We need our Japanese in Hawai‘i to remember the mother country.”
Kenji caught Tamatsuke’s presence, ignored it and edged closer to Furuya. “Our workers don’t care about imperial ambitions in Siberia and China. My time is better spent avoiding a strike by negotiating for better wages. Better you spend your time assuaging the haoles about Japanese intentions in Hawai‘i. You can start by asking your neighbor, Nakano, to stop writing Toho Jiron editorials calling the haoles ‘villains,’ while defending the imperial army’s strong-arm tactics in Korea.”
Furuya flicked his right hand in a gesture of dismissal. That’s when he realized that unwelcomed ears were nearby. He turned to Tamatsuke, pausing to take in the man’s sunburned face and gnarled hands, then stared at him like a housewife examining a cockroach on her kitchen floor. His disdain hardened Tamatsuke’s resolve.
“Please . . . listen to Takayama-Sensei’s warning about a strike.” Tamatsuke’s voice rose higher and his words fell with the speed and power of a hailstorm. “If the companies could not stay alive because of low prices, we workers would understand. Before the war, sugar was $60 a ton; now the owners are getting fat on $200 a ton. And, while the prices of food and clothing at the company stores have doubled, our wages remain the same. Is that fair?”
The consul stepped back from Tamatsuke and looked at Kenji in dismay.
“Consul, this is Tamatsuke Fujimoto,” said Kenji. “He is the chairman of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association.”
“Strikes are looked upon as disloyal,” said the frowning consul. “We are in a delicate situation, given all the talk about Bolsheviks and revolution.”
“What about the haole telephone operators and longshoreman strikes in Honolulu?” asked Tamatsuke. “Are they Bolsheviks, too?”
“Patience,” said Kenji.
“Patience? Takayama-Sensei! We’ve been patient for a decade. The more we are patient, the deeper we fall into the pit.” Tamatsuke bowed, pivoted, and with his back ramrod straight, marched back to his wife. “Take the buckboard. I’ll walk home. I need some time by myself.”
Furuya wrinkled his nose as he watched Tamatsuke stomp off. “Dangerous man, Takayama-san.” He lowered his voice. “I visited Hilo to check on this new agitator, Noboru Tsutsumi . . .”
“The language teacher who arrived last year and started the newspaper . . .” interrupted Kenji, showing he was aware of the man.
“Yes. At first, he advocated harmony between America and Japan while protecting our culture through our own schools. But now he’s writing about the so-called plight of the plantation workers. Unlike that country bumpkin,” he said, nodding his head at the retreating Tamatsuke, “Tsutsumi is smart, clever with words. A strike would be disastrous to relations between our two countries. The haoles would point to this teacher-turned-troublemaker as proof that there is something sinister about our language schools.”
“Wakarimashita,” said Kenji, affirming that he understood.
The consul bowed just enough to barely pass as courteous and hurried off toward his waiting car on the main road at a pace that kept would-be supplicants at bay.
While Tamatsuke was pleading his case, Haru had entered the temple to offer a prayer of thanks. The same building housed the classroom used for both the Japanese language school and community programs such as Haru’s English classes. The classroom door was open. Haru stopped short, backed up a step and got a clear view. Her eyes had not tricked her. She walked inside to look at the pictures along the wall. Gen. Tojo’s picture had been replaced with a portrait of U.S. President Woodward Wilson standing next to a bust of Abraham Lincoln. Haru retreated back to the temple, wiping a tear from her cheek. Her prayer of thanks lingered.
Taking a shortcut through Haru’s backyard, Tamatsuke twisted his way through fern brambles, palm trees and koa stands like a tortured man. He replayed the consul’s brush-off and Kenji’s chastened, “Be patient.” He cursed his inability to convey the severity of the workers’ plight and the need to take action now.
Tamatsuke stopped, tipped his head back and cursed the treetops. “Be patient!”
Why can’t they see that if the price of rice doubles, but wages stay the same, families eat less? Are they blind to this injustice? Do they not see how mothers raid their savings for their children’s clothes and are going into debt at the company store? His own wages allowed him to host a Sunday picnic for the families. A trifling offset to the injustice.
As he thought about how mothers skipped meals for the sake of their children, a plunging coconut skidded across his left cheek. Tamatsuke kicked it as a thin line of blood dripped off his face. The crimson splatter reminded him of his frantic efforts to stop blood gushing from between his screaming neighbor’s legs as she gave birth — a hemorrhage that had sent her on to the next world as she brought a new life into this one. The woman couldn’t pay for a midwife and refused charity. The bitter memory reminded Tamatsuke of his promise: “No more union organizing for me, Kenji-san.” Yet, at what point does keeping a promise become immoral if it aids injustice?
When Tamatsuke emerged from the forest shortcut onto the rutted road leading to his plantation, a car roared by, leaving a swirl of dust in its wake. As he drew up his cotton-sleeved arm to cover his mouth and bleeding cheek, he recognized the driver as Joshua Bilkerton. Waiting for the dust to settle, he thought of how he hated Bilkerton’s hypocrisy for espousing Christian values at Easter and Christmas celebrations, while refusing to pay a living wage. As Tamatsuke continued walking, he recalled how, shortly after arriving in Hawai‘i, he had embraced the faith of the ruling class, drenched himself in the baptism rite and been christened “John” because he liked the story of Jesus’ favorite disciple. The haoles congratulated him for leaving what they called his “Buddhist pagan ways.” Since then, he had seen little of Christ’s compassion in the treatment of workers by the plantation owners — most of them descendants of the early Christian missionaries. Angered by this duplicity, Tamatsuke returned to Buddhism and reclaimed the name his father had given him.
Dusk turned to night. The cicada choir serenaded Tamatsuke. His mind drifted back to the night he had joined his plantation’s Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YBA) chapter. At first, he sat in the back row at meetings, served on festival committees and kept his mouth shut during discussions on labor issues. Each meeting, he edged closer to the first row. Now, he sat at the front table as an officer, but one who had failed his members today.
His stomach rumbled. The certainty that Mayo was keeping the rice pot simmering over a low flame comforted him. Despite the failure of his taro farming venture, she had never complained. There were so many failures, so little time left to make his life right and provide more for her.
Tamatsuke would have been shocked and embarrassed if he were asked, “Do you love your wife?” He never uttered the words. But as he walked up the flowered path to his front door, his heart swelled with a feeling for which he lacked words. He thought of Mayo and admitted he was a lucky man.
He just couldn’t tell her.
Exhausted, Haru fell into her pillows. Ume’s tragedy, the fight with Kenji over the language schools, his back-door apology of replacing Tojo’s picture with President Wilson and the end-of-the-war news jingled her senses. She’d been so busy since returning to Waimea that she hadn’t had a chance to update Kenji on Ume. Cool trade winds wafting plumeria blossom scents through the screened windows calmed her nerves. An oil lamp crowding the edge of Kenji’s night table provided the only light. As if yesterday’s argument never happened, Kenji had propped up his pillows against the headboard and was reading Zane Grey’s “The U.P. Trail,” the previous year’s best-selling novel dramatizing the building of the transcontinental railroad. Haru edged to Kenji’s side of the bed. The loose sash around her nemaki exposed a breast, rosy-hued from soaking in the ofuro. Kenji put aside his book and reached out to her. She squeezed back and told him of Ume’s plight and her promise to retrieve the baby in April. “I’m as strong as a goat,” said Haru before Kenji could register a protest. “It’s a short ride. You’ve gone every year.”
Kenji paused before responding. “Let’s talk to the midwife as your pregnancy develops, Okasan.” He dimmed the oil lamp. “Did you forget what I told you after my last voyage? I was tossed about like a butterfly in a typhoon.”
Not eager for a new argument, Haru put her hands under the covers. “Hai, you are right. I won’t go unless I am strong and healthy.” She rubbed his stomach to let him know yesterday was forgiven. The bedroom was the great healer, she thought, as she felt Kenji’s strong response.
“Today is St. Nicolas day,” said Takeshi, picking up a piece of pancake. He looked at Yoshio. “December 6th is when Santa Claus was born.”
“Can you help me write a letter to Santa?” asked Yoshio, chewing on a piece of bacon.
Haru nearly dropped a forkful of scrambled eggs when Kenji said, “Maybe we should have a Christmas tree.”
“Can we? Can we?” shouted Takashi.
Haru smiled warmly at Kenji. “I saw that trees have arrived at Oda’s Trading Post. But I am not sure I could pick out the right tree.”
“We can help,” spouted Takeshi and Yoshio, and then giggled at their synchronism.
That was this morning. Now the tree lay across the back seat of the Ford. Haru turned down their street while Takeshi explained the finer points of decorating a tree to Yoshio. In seconds, Haru sat straighter and raised her eyebrows. A hunched-over woman sat waiting on her porch steps. Behind and to her left, two wooden lockers were pushed against the railing. Another forlorn picture bride waiting to tell her sad story? Perhaps she had been kicked out of her home, or had run away in fear? Haru sighed in resignation. As she drove closer, the woman looked up. Her features came into focus.
Haru inhaled sharply; her stomach tightened.
It couldn’t be . . .
To be continued . . .