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, which is now available as a printed softcover book, opens 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.
Haru’s evening inspection saunter was bringing her back to the street when her ears picked up the sounds of a vehicle with a sputtering muffler. She looked up in time to see a truck brake to a rough stop. Emblazoned on the door panel was the emblem of Parker Ranch, with a cowboy tipping his hat mounted on a rearing horse. The Filipino driver wearing a wide-brimmed, tan-colored leather hat threw open the door. He trotted towards Haru and handed her a newspaper. “Mr. Parker said you might want this.”
She looked at the Pacific Commercial Advertiser. Her stomach tightened as she read the headline: “Jap Rabble Rouser Threatens Imperial Navy Strike.”
“You OK, Haru-san?” asked the cowboy with a worried look on his face.
“No. I mean, yes. I’m OK. Please tell Mr. Parker, ‘Thank you.’”
As the driver hustled back to his car, Haru read Pafko’s article, ending with:
While the Bolshevik Tsutsumi lets the cat out of the bag, the Japanese consul issued a weak statement trying to wheedle out of the truth. ‘The arrival of the Yakumo is part of the normal exchange among allies.’ Imperial hypocrisy at its weakest. Why the Yakumo, famed for its part in sinking the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima? It’s insulting to think anyone with common sense wouldn’t make the connection between the sugar strike attacking the economic interests of America and the arrival of an armed cruiser from a country that makes a habit of attacking its neighbors.
The patter of footsteps raised her eyes. Haru managed a smile.
“Okasan, I have seen brighter smiles,” said Kenji, his voice soft. He spied the newspaper headline. “Ah. Worse than we thought, and so soon.”
They were interrupted by the bong, bong, bong of the Chinese gong that stood at the edge of camp. Time to queue for evening rice. “Let’s get in line,” said Haru, who knew that someone would bring them a rice bowl as soon as they joined the queue.
“Look,” said Kenji pointing up the road.
Haru’s spirits lifted as she spotted Reverend Adams walking down the street. He looked worried. She saw that he was carrying a newspaper.
“You have seen this,” said Adams, matter-of-factly, looking at Kenji.
“Terrible,” said Kenji.
“Maybe it’s time to act.”
The high-steeple white Presbyterian church looked as if it had been transported from a Massachusetts farm town. Snow could easily have slid down its peaked roof. Inside, the straight, hardback benches would have earned Cotton Mather’s approval.
Today’s attendance rivaled an Easter Sunday service. Reverend Adams had spread the news: “I will be delivering the most important sermon of my life.”
He led the choir voices that began with two rousing opening hymns praising the Lord. Adams then commanded, “Turn to Page 38.” He looked up from the altar to the faithful who had gathered. “Please stand and sing with us.”
Everyone rose to their feet as the organist began. At the sharp cue, the congregation began singing. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . .”
As the hymn neared its end, Adams felt a joyous surge. He had never experienced such religious exuberance from his flock. It was, he thought, a biblical moment. Had Moses or Joshua felt like this?
“Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Our God is marching on.”
Sweat dripped from the foreheads of the Caucasian and grew rings on shirts and dresses around the armpits of the congregants in the church that was designed to trap the heat, as a proper New England edifice should. Most did not notice the Japanese Christian vacating his place in the last pew to make room for the Buddhist priest. The rustle of the congregation settling down soothed Adams, whose confidence in today’s sermon had risen during the singing. He was even more certain about the righteousness of his bold plan — the most provocative of his long ministry.
After reading Matthew 8:8 at the lectern, Adams gently closed his Bible and waited until everyone’s attention was directed to the pulpit. “The apostle Matthew tells us of Jesus’ first recorded encounter with a non-Jew — a Roman occupier of the Holy Land, a soldier, a centurion who, no doubt, had sacrificed animals to heathen gods. Yet this Roman officer risked ridicule from his compatriots and disdain from the Jewish crowd by asking Jesus to cure his servant.
“We know the centurion was a righteous man, because he worried about the well-being of a servant, most likely a slave. So great is this pagan’s faith in the love and compassion of Jesus, he says, ‘Lord, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof, but just say the word and my servant shall be healed.’ Christ must have thought that it was not the soldier’s nationality or religion that mattered, but rather his character. So Jesus tells the soldier, ‘Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.’”
Adams let his eyes wander over the congregation and paused. Those who normally dozed off during his sermons were wide-awake. “Half of our community is Japanese, and in a generation, their children will vote.”
Women’s fancy hats danced to attention. Men straightened their backs. Adams narrowed his focus on the front rows occupied by the town’s leading families, including Bilkerton and his wife.
“If this emphasis on the racial character of the strikers goes much further, I ask you, what will that do to the fabric of our society in the years ahead?”
His gaze traveled to the back of the church. “In the fraternal spirit of St. Matthew, I have asked Reverend Takayama to say a few words.”
The congregation twisted their necks like ducks picking up a hound’s bark. Kenji, dressed in a brown cassock and white surplice tailored more like a Christian priest than his traditional Buddhist robes, walked slowly down the center aisle. He kept his eyes on Reverend Adams. Craning necks followed each step in unison, as if choreographed. Murmured voices buzzed like a swarm of wasps.
At the lectern, Kenji surveyed the astonished faces. He nodded to Adams, who had sat down at the side of the altar. “Thank you for the courageous words, Reverend, reminding me that when the current troubles are settled, we need to come together again as a community, each of us with our familiar roles in place.”
Kenji cleared his throat, his practiced eyes roving the congregation. He stopped at Bilkerton, whose beet-red face glared back at him, despite the fact that Kenji had saved his life. Unfazed by the owner’s ill will, Kenji calmly returned to addressing the entire congregation.
“I have four boys. All are Americans. I have raised them to proudly recite the Pledge of Allegiance to America — and to mean it. Like you who have sons, when my boys are old enough, they will be told that if called up in a war, they must be willing to die for their country. That country is America. This is the country of Washington and Lincoln. No country is more worthy of defending, more worthy of dying for, than the United States of America.
“Our Japanese and Filipino sugar workers are on strike. They are following the American example of dockworkers, autoworkers and miners. Labor and capital may disagree on what a living wage is, but we honor America by using your traditional peaceful methods to settle this debate.
Kenji paused and let the murmuring die down. “This strike has nothing to do with international politics or the threat from a foreign power. Both diversions are trumped-up, newspaper-driven allegations. The strike is simply a disagreement over wages between the plantation owners and their workers. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
Turning his face to the crucifixion, Kenji held it and then returned his gaze to the congregation. “I wonder what the man who delivered the Sermon on the Mount would have to say about the growing acrimony between our two races.”
Kenji bowed and then walked back to his seat. As he passed Bilkerton, the plantation owner muttered loud enough for the front rows to hear, “Your heathen religion is an attack on America’s Christian values.”
Adams, too, heard Bilkerton’s insult, but chose to ignore it. Taking his place once again at the podium, he let his voice rise to prayer level. “In the spirit of Christ and Buddha, I suggest the following.” He looked at the back rows at the Japanese in attendance, including Tama.
“Laborers, abandon the strike. Union leaders, disband the unions based on ethnicity and welcome all labor — Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Puerto Rican and Azorean — in a new organization at a later time.
“Tell your union leaders to allow a secret ballot to create a workers’ committee on each plantation to amicably find common economic ground.”
Adams turned his eyes to the front rows. “Employers, look inside your hearts first and then at the working conditions of your laborers.”
“Stick to visiting hospitals and burying the dead, Reverend,” Bilkerton blurted out. He then rose and walked out. A quarter of the haole congregation followed him.
Putting his fingers under a gilded bookmark, Adams reopened the Bible. “Jesus told the centurion, ‘I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!’” Adams looked at his remaining congregation. “Go in peace . . .”
To be continued . . .