Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: “A Question of Loyalty” is the second historical novel in Mike Malaghan’s trilogy on the Japanese American experience in Hawai‘i. Prior to “A Question of Loyalty,” 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 and Kenji’s children through the World War II years.
Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Georgia and Japan.
By noon, everyone had arrived. Angelina placed lacquered bowls of miso soup at each setting. In the kitchen, Haru dipped the last wedges of sliced pumpkin and eggplant into the tempura batter and dropped them into the bubbling cooking oil, creating soft sizzles and inviting fragrances. At just the right moment, she worked her chopsticks and hoisted the crispy pieces of tempura from the wok, placing each piece on yesterday’s newspaper to catch the oil before deftly transferring them to a wooden platter shaped like a banana leaf. She turned off the gas grill. Done. Pleased with her efforts, she turned to Sue.
“Call everyone to the table.”
The familiar sound of chairs scraping across the wooden floor mixed with the melody of treasured voices was music to Haru’s ears. Her hand brushed her left breast, feeling the precious airmail parchment tucked under her fudangi, her casual house kimono. Until Kenji’s first letter arrived from the Santa Fe POW camp, she had not realized she had married a chef and a romantic poet. His latest correspondence shared recipes he had cooked for his fellow priests in the barracks and the nascent vegetable garden he tended. She suspected that he overstated the positive and passed over the negative. He closed each letter with a haiku poem he had written, including his most recent:
My grumbling wife —
if only she were here!
This moon tonight …
She picked up the tempura platter and carried it into the room as if carrying a priceless crown on a red velvet pillow. She gave a slight bow to acknowledge the applause of her children and placed the platter in the middle of the table. She then took her seat at the head of the table, which, in normal times, would have been reserved for Kenji. But of course, normal no longer existed.
To her left sat Sue and Angelina, still dressed in their nurse’s aide uniforms having started the day at Queen’s Hospital. Taka had tracked them down as soon as he heard that Tommy had a gotten a day pass.
Tommy took the seat to his mother’s right. He looked handsome in his Army uniform, still displaying the soon-to-be-replaced 298th Infantry patch. Next to him sat Taka. Always dressed for a seemingly important meeting, he had arrived in a brown suit and white short-sleeve shirt. At least he had taken off his tie and stuffed it into the pocket of his jacket, which he had draped over the couch when he entered the house. Haru hung it in the closet where it belonged. She had also picked up the gas masks her children had tossed on the couch and taken them to Sachiko’s seldom-used bedroom.
Kenta had commandeered the chair next to Angelina. They touched hands as they put their napkins on their laps, as if they were invisible. He felt her bare foot touch his leg. So concentrated on their subterfuge that they missed the knowing smiles around them.
“I wish our dads could see us in our nurse’s aide uniform,” said Angelina. “By the time I graduate next year, there will be a cadet nurses’ corps. I’m joining — ” A frown quickly punctuated her pause. “ If they let us.”
“Mrs. Shivers says in a year people’s attitudes will change,” said Sue a bit smugly, knowing her residence in the Shivers’s home gave her access to information others might not have.
“What do you mean?” Angelina asked, her eyes narrow and suspicious. “Don’t tease me.”
Taka shook his head. “This is no teasing matter, Sue. You have played an important role in this whole drama, although you don’t know it.”
“Do you remember when you first went to live with the Shiverses?”
“Almost three years ago,” she said, wondering where this was leading.
“Do you remember when Mrs. Shivers took you to see ‘The Wizard of Oz’?”
Sue relaxed, her smile warm at the memory.
“Oh, right. Mr. Shivers had taken a Pam Am flight to Washington earlier that week. Mom Shivers and I walked into town every couple of days. We saw that movie the opening week. We tried singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ while walking back home, but we were pretty awful.” She laughed. “I especially remember that trip because when Mr. Shivers got back, he started to introduce me as their daughter.”
“Well,” said Taka, “I have a bit of an inside track on what happened that week.”
Sue’s eyes widened as she leaned forward, and everyone at the table grew quiet. The only sounds came from the curtains slapping against the open windows.
Taka smiled at his sister. “When Mr. Shivers returned, loaded down with more pressure from Washington’s ‘ship ’em all out’ crowd, he told his wife, ‘I can’t send Sue to the camps. It would ruin her life. And there are thousands of Sues.’”
Sue sat still, staring at her brother, her dark eyes growing darker.
Haru’s eyes moistened and her voice had a sting to it. “You never told us about this before, Taka.”
“Okäsan, I didn’t know until last week. Hemenway told me the story. Mrs. Shivers told him one evening when they had the Hemenways over for dinner.” Taka turned back to his sister. “Shortly after sharing his conflicted thoughts with his wife, Shivers, along with Hemenway, established the Committee for Interracial Unity, which set the stage for Hawai‘i to avoid mass internment.”
“My sister, part of history,” said Kenta.
“And so we all are,” said Taka.
“Taka, what is it like working with someone famous like Hemenway?” asked Angelina.
“Yeah, that guy’s a legend,” said Kenta. “He’s been in Hawai‘i since 1899. Came over to teach math at Punahou. A Yale grad.”
Angelina gently elbowed Kenta’s ribs while keeping her gaze on Taka.
“Did I ask the barefoot boy in shorts? I know who he is, that he started out as a teacher, but quit to become our attorney general. Now he is Mr. Everything.” Angelina ticked off each accomplishment on her fingers. “President of the Hawaiian Trust Company, president of Queen’s Hospital, president of the Chamber of Commerce. He even founded the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, which became our University of Hawai‘i. But what is it that makes him so special?”
Taka studied his siblings as if searching for the right words to explain a mystery he had pondered many times. “Hemenway lost his only child in his early years. So, in a way, students became his children. He always treated everyone the same. Race or color or religion never mattered to him. He always had time to do what he liked best: talk to us kids.”
Around the table, chopsticks stopped clicking. Expectant eyes fixed on Taka’s earnest face.
“He is a man of deeply held convictions, passionate about fairness and opportunity. But that wouldn’t matter if not for one quality Hemenway possesses in abundance.”
“Courage,” said Haru. All eyes turned to her. “He is not afraid to stick his neck out. Otösan said he protected us Japanese from people who say we don’t belong here.”
“That’s right, Okäsan,” said Taka. “He saw the real danger.”
“The real danger?” asked Angelina.
“Yes. The real danger to us doesn’t come from the super-patriots screaming, ‘You can’t trust them.’ The greater threat comes from the larger group of whites, many of whom work with us and do not personally doubt our loyalty. But they are afraid to face up to the noisemakers. Hemenway stands up for us. He believes in our loyalty and does not hesitate to say so. He has used his reputation and stature in the Territory to hold back the dam of suspicion and hatred.”
“So, they’ll close the camps, and Otösan can come home?” Sue asked.
A surge of electricity shot up through Haru’s throat, and a fresh layer of perspiration appeared on her forehead. She looked at the stern photo of Kenji on a nearby table.
“Possibly, Sa-chan, but I doubt it,” said Taka. “I asked Hemenway the same question. He just sighed and said, ‘We are not there yet.’ The committee is still getting hysteria calls. Every time the Japanese win a victory in Singapore, Hong Kong or Manila, the telephone rings demanding that the committee ‘quit coddling the Japs and send them off before they kill us in our sleep.’ There’s one bit of irony. Remember the outcry from Navy wives claiming their Japanese maids didn’t show up for work on Dec. 7 because they knew of the attack? Their latest complaint is that their maids are quitting.”
“Good for them!” cried Sue. “Some of them are working with me at the hospital for better wages.”
Taka shrugged his shoulders, resigned to such absurdities. “Yeah, typical haoles, want to have it both ways. We have to explain, politely, that with labor shortages, the maids are switching to better paying jobs.”
“God forbid a haole wife should have to iron her own dresses,” groused Angelina. “But if Tojo can’t invade California, then what’s the reason for the camps?”
“If only the threat of invasion were the reason for internment,” said Tommy. “We’re the scapegoat, the people who look like the enemy, the people who had Hirohito pictures hanging over the Shintō shrines in our homes. I’m lucky to still be in the Army. Until two weeks ago, the 298th drilled without weapons. They keep paying us, but they don’t know what to do with us.”
“At least you didn’t get tossed out like a dead rat,” said Kenta.
“No, but not because a lot of folks didn’t want to. The brass had a helluva dilemma because we had already taken the oath and had been inducted. They started teaching us how to use dynamite to blow up bridges only two weeks ago.”
“For months, your CO, Lt. Col. Turner, has been asking Gen. Emmons to send the 299th stateside for combat training. Emmons supports sending your 298th off to fight, too,” said Taka.
“That’s what we want to do,” insisted Tommy. “Before they gave us the dynamite lessons, we were painting trash cans. There have been fistfights, talk of going AWOL and — ”
“Please let me finish,” said Taka, raising a placating palm. “HQ has been complaining about how your endless marching is affecting the morale of all of the military units. Until last week, Washington kept turning down Emmons.” Taka flashed a politician’s grin. “That’s why you guys are going to the States for training and then being deployed to fight as an all-Nisei battalion.”
“What about Turner? He’s pushing 50,” said Tommy. “We know how the Army feels about ‘old men’ leading combat units.”
“You’re right. When Turner heard that he might be relieved, he made a fuss. I guess his fire and energy — and the good-will contacts he has here in Hawai‘i — served him well.”
“And Tommy’s unit is going where exactly?” asked Sue.
“That’s still a secret,” said Taka. “But you will be fighting,” he said, turning to his brother.
“What about us?” asked Kenta.
Angelina poured some tea into Haru’s cup, gently massaging the older woman’s shoulder with her other hand.
“Don’t know,” said Taka. “It stands to reason that if Tommy’s unit does well, then it will pave the way for the formation and deployment of other Nisei units.” Not wanting to add to his mother’s worry, he stopped there. He would tell her later of his plans to volunteer as a civilian for Army intelligence, which was desperately in need of Japanese linguists.
“The Philippines?” asked Tommy.
“What!” exclaimed Sue.
“I’m guessing they will land us in the Philippines.” Tommy cleared his throat and glanced at the kitchen clock. “Oh wow! Okaasan, I have to go.”
“Me too,” said Kenta.
“Let me drive you back,” offered Angelina. “Tommy, I can drop you off at the bus station on the way.” She smiled at Tommy’s raised eyebrows. “Since the war, more women are learning to drive, and they’re doing jobs that used to be reserved for you guys.”
“Like what?” asked Tommy.
“Well, like working on cars. Two girls I went to high school with are helping out at the American Motors dealership, changing oil, checking tire pressure—maintenance things.”
Haru held her tongue, straining to control her emotions. A husband in the camps, one son heading off to war and another eager to join him. She wondered if her entire family would ever sit together again.
They would not.
On June 5, Tommy’s unit shipped out on the SS Maui as the Battle of Midway raged. Despite orders to keep the departure secret, several hundred families gathered at the pier before dawn. The entire Takayama family lined up as close to the guarded entrance as was allowed. Angelina called out Tommy’s name when she spotted him.
He turned just in time to see his brothers salute him and his sister wave good-bye. And his mother wiped away her tears.
To be continued …