Michael G. Malaghan
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: “A Question of Loyalty” is the second historical novel in Michael Malaghan’s trilogy on the Japanese American experience in Hawai‘i. Last year, the Herald concluded chapter-by-chapter publication of his first novel, “Picture Bride,” which chronicled Haru Takayama’s escape from Japan to begin a new life in Hawai‘i as the picture bride wife of Kenji Takayama, a Buddhist priest. In the second novel, we follow Haru’s and Kenji’s children through the World War II years.
“A Question of Loyalty” is set to be released soon.
Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Georgia and Japan.
Yoshio squatted outside the wooden guardhouse and scarfed down his lunch of rice and a stringy green Chinese vegetable in a bentö tin that the patrol truck had delivered. He was enjoying the rare day outdoors, not confined inside the border hut, as he stared across the Khalkhin-Go River, dividing the Russian People’s Republic of Mongolia and the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. It was blanketed with fresh snow and scarred by the imprint of reindeer hoofs, the Siberian wind whipping across its span.
By mid-day, the wind had slowed considerably and Yoshio felt the warm rays of the sun penetrate his padded woolen jacket. Later today, he would snowshoe over the mile-wide frozen expanse to the Russian side and barter sake and rice for beef, vodka and beets.
In 1939, after the Russians had crushed the Japanese army’s attempt to settle a border dispute on their imperial terms, both nations found it in their interest to sign a nonaggression treaty in April 1941. Neither wanted a war on two fronts. The poor showing by Japanese troops changed the imperial government’s designs — from what had been planned as the “Northern Strategy” to conquer Siberia for its natural resources, to the “Southern Strategy,” leading to the planned invasions of British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia. The Russian Siberian troops had left a month ago to defend Moscow from Germany’s blitzkrieg. Maybe in a few months, I might be facing allied German troops across the border, thought Yoshio.
Before this, he had thought that guarding Chinese mine workers, who were more like slaves, was the worst possible assignment. His sergeant had abused him miserably. When Yoshio had enough, lost his temper and hit back, his sergeant had laughed at him and in broken English snarled, “Good, Yank. Don’t worry. No brig for you. You good guard. You get promotion.”
Yoshio had arrived at the Siberian border station in August, at the height of the mosquito season. He had welcomed the crisp September freeze that sent the buzzing devils into hibernation. His fellow guards were all misfits: Koreans who had signed protest letters, petty thieves who joined the army in lieu of prison and old men unfit for combat. A certain camaraderie had developed among them. Even the sergeants and the lieutenant were almost civil in this remotest of remote outposts.
And then there was the cold. Those who had already been there a year laughed at his complaints.
“Cold, Yoshi? This is just an appetizer. In January, you will learn why the Mongols have a dozen words for cold.”
Each miserable day reminded him of his discussion with Tommy about the Christian concept of hell. “The real pain of hell is not the fire, or even the hopelessness of eternal punishment, but rather being there by the choice you made.”
Yes, thought Yoshio, who liked the Buddhist idea of reincarnation a lot better than eternal punishment for a single mistake. I couldn’t be bothered to stand in line at the Federal Building in Honolulu to obtain my American passport before leaving for Tokyo. I should be chatting up girls at Todai instead of eating stale rice in this polar hell.
Yoshio picked up a fistful of snow to clean his chopsticks before sticking them back in his inner pocket. He decided to walk along the river before the sun escaped, and hadn’t been gone even ten minutes when he heard a shout behind him.
“Banzai! Banzai!” Yoshi turned to see Fumio running toward him. “We bombed Pearl Harbor!”
Yoshio stared at the soldier, understanding the words but finding their meaning incomprehensible. War speculation centered on Asian oil and rubber countries. But Hawai‘i? Impossible. While denial froze his steps, Fumio, breathless, caught up with him.
“Well, Yank,” Fumio sneered, “which side are you on?”
Yoshio ignored the often-used slur. He wondered when he would receive a letter from his mother. Considering how many years Japan had been at war in China, he thought it might be year — if he managed to stay alive.
Kenta fast-stepped over to the rifle queue, where a sergeant issued his Springfield. Strutting over to join his squad, he heard the raised voices of his men feeding each other “genuine” rumors.
“They spotted landing craft off Barbers Point.”
“My brother got a report that we sank a Japanese carrier!”
Waving an Advertiser “EXTRA!” still damp with fresh newspaper ink, a cadet pointed to the front page. “The Army says saboteurs landing on the North Shore of O‘ahu were wearing red circle patches on their shoulders.”
“There were at least a thousand men aboard the U.S.S. Arizona when a bomb detonated the powder magazine.”
That quieted the crowd until a low, deep voice broke the lull.
“I delivered the first blow from our ROTC unit,” said Shigeto “Fats” Fukuda, whose love of rice and doughnuts earned him his nickname.
“So, this morning, my father barges into my bedroom yelling, ‘Japan is bombing Pearl Harbor!’ From the window, I see smoke rising over Pearl and hear shouts from the upstairs window. ‘Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!’” Fukuda threw his arms up to punctuate each “Banzai!”
“My idiot neighbor upstairs writes articles on Japan’s right to acquire territory and how the Hearst newspaper ‘invented’ the Rape of Nanking. A real Mr. Right Wing, let’s kiss the emperor’s ass kind of guy. He keeps shouting, ‘Banzai!’ like some zombie. I grab my mom’s butcher knife, run upstairs and kick in his door.” Fukuda kicks out his left leg. “I rush pass him and tear down every picture of Hirohito in this guy’s stinkin’ apartment. Then I smash his Shintö shrine to pieces against the wall. Well, I can tell you, he’s not shouting ‘Banzai!’ anymore. The little coward is squatting in the corner, eyes bulging, his knees shaking like cane stalks in a storm. I go over, crouch down real close and swish the knife at his face.”
“I hope you cut him up,” said Short Pants.
“Not that I didn’t think about it, but lucky for both of us my father came in. So, I left him quivering like spilt Jell-O on the floor. When I got downstairs, my mom told me I had to report to the gym.”
Kenta started to recount his boat rescue efforts when a burly sergeant who taught ROTC classes burst through a side door near the basketball hoop. He eyeballed Kenta.
“Follow me and bring your platoon.”
To be continued . . .