Rice: ‘Get away from us. We are like poison’

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Sachiko the nurse reads the diary of Haruko Harrison’s mother

Toshimitsu is back from his second trip to Japan since we emigrated. He sold the last of our family treasures in Japan in order to finance expansion of the farm, which we have been running now for well over 20 years. It is hard to believe that Toshimitsu’s brother has been dead for over 10 years now. I have long lost contact with his wife, Emiko, who took their three children back with her from Arkansas to live with her parents in Hiroshima.

At least we are able to make a living these days, though the people in northern California dislike Japanese now even more than before. “You’re the same as Indians,” said one man, a nearby landowner, “except that they’re red and you’re yella. Succotash-Americans, that’s what I call every last goddamn one of you.”

When Toshimitsu was told this, he picked up a pitchfork, hopped into his truck and started to drive in the direction of the landowner’s house. But when Haruko stood in front of the truck with her arms folded, he stopped, got out of the truck and, tossing the pitchfork into the dirt, stomped off. I’m glad that it was Haruko who was standing in front of the truck. If it had been me there, Toshimitsu probably would have tried to run me down.

Once in a while we would see a young, tall, fair-haired man standing like a statue on the edge of our property. I was bringing home some groceries with Haruko and I caught sight of him surrounded by dust churned up by the tires. He was gazing in our direction with one hand shielding his eyes from the sun. I ordered Haruko into the house. She stared back at the man as she walked toward the house.

“If your father saw the look in your eye,” I told her, “he’d put his pitchfork through you and the young man at the same time.”

Then there was a knock on our front door, and the man, introducing himself as George Bilson, said that he wanted to help us in any way we saw fit. Toshimitsu refused, telling him that Japanese people didn’t need help to grow rice.

“I want to learn from you,” he said.

We allowed him to live in a little shed that Toshimitsu had built beside the stable. He worked very hard and never spoke to us unless asked something … just like a Japanese.

Except that he wasn’t a Japanese. One night he went into town, coming back with a broken wrist and two eyes that stuck out like ripe dark plums.

“I got beaten up,” he said.

“Why?”

“For bein’ a Jap lover.”

“Then don’t be a Jap lover!” hollered Toshimitsu. “Get away from us. We are like poison, don’t you know? We poison the land with our filthy rice, we poison our horses just by being here, and we’ll poison your skin until it turns yellow like ours!”

It was a lucky thing that Toshimitsu was speaking in Japanese, for George didn’t understand a word.

“Thank you for getting angry in my behalf, Mr. Yokoyama, sir,” he said, shaking Toshimitsu’s hand vigorously.

Toshimitsu was embarrassed. He could only stand there having his hand shaken up and down by this tall blond American man. Haruko laughed so hard … I —

“What? What happened?” said Mrs. Harrison, squinting at me. I immediately shut her mother’s notebook and slipped it under her blanket. “Wait,” she said, cocking her head. “Where am I?”

Haruko Harrison

I woke out of the deepest sleep. The nurse was sitting by my bed. I had been dreaming of the time when George came back from town with two enormous black eyes. Father felt sorry for him, but shouted at him nevertheless. Father’s only way of showing sympathy for people was to shout at them a bit more softly than he did when he was cross with them.

I touched my mother’s notebook below the blanket, gripped it and placed it on my chest.

“I was reading it,” said the nurse. “I’m sorry.”

I told her that I was happy to have her read it, that I was once able to decipher the meaning of the words myself, but could do so no longer.

“Please take it, as a memento. My sons are not interested in their Japanese past. They would just throw it out. What did you say your name was again?”

“Sachiko.”

“Yes, that’s right, Sachiko. I can’t remember anything anymore except for what took place ages ago.”

We smiled at each other for a long time.

“Do you mind if I ask you something?” she said.

“Of course not.”

“What happened to George Bilson? Did you marry him?”

I started to laugh.

“Oh, forgive me. Did I ask something too personal?”

I assured her that I was not offended.

“George Bilson? George Bilson. I had forgotten his last name. I should have married him, yes. We ran away one night.”

“Perhaps I shouldn’t be hearing this,” she said.

“No. It’s all so long ago now. My parents are dead, so it makes no difference to anyone.”

I told her what happened the night I eloped with George …

George had been convinced that rice would be the greatest crop on California’s farms. Everybody was planting avocados and almonds and walnuts and olives, I mean. We had horrible telephone calls in the middle of the night with no one on the other end of the line, and this was in the days when a caller had to go through the operator to get through, so everyone in the town would have known who was making those calls. The windows and windshield on Father’s truck were smashed, and once a delegation of farmers from around Sacramento came to us, offering help in planting other crops. But Father would not be moved. His dream was to sell California rice to Japan and Manshukoku … that was a new colony that Japanese people had set up in China.

One day George, who ate dinner with us by then every night, asked my father and mother if he could marry me. Mother turned to Father, and Father refused outright, saying that I was not ready to be married and when I was they would send me back to Japan and arrange a marriage for me there.

“But Haruko is 28 years old,” said George.

“She has not reached her konki,” shouted Father.

“What is kon-key?” George asked me later that evening.

“Marriageable age.”

George went back to his shed without saying goodnight to any of us.

Second of three parts of “Rice,” which was first published on June 8. The final part will be published on June 22.