Haruko Harrison begins her story

I cannot imagine why you would want to listen to this, why anyone in the world now would take an interest in my story. What did you say your name was? Sachiko? Is that written with the character for “happiness”? You see, I have not forgotten my Japanese altogether, not forgotten that I am a Japanese.

I have never been able to talk about myself in this country. Other immigrants could. When I had my first baby — Clark — I shared a room at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital with seven other women. They were Irish, Italian, German, Polish and African-American, and all of them knew a thing or two about the others’ nationality. They had some picture of it in their mind. But when they turned to me, instead of asking what Japanese life was like, they just shook their head and said, “Oh, it’s all so strange to us,” and “You are so different, how do you manage to live in America?”

No matter how many times I told them that I was born and raised in this country, they still shook their head in amazement at my command of English.

My two boys, Clark and Ernie, grew up and went off. One became a professional sports car racer before retiring to Hawaii, the other joined the navy. I never hear from them. Ernie … he’s the one in the navy … once played a little joke on me. He sent me two birthday cards at once. “This is for this year and next year. Happy Birthdays, Mother.” Who knows, maybe he was trying to save on postage. I didn’t hear from him for some years after that.

My husband, Jim Harrison, was a life insurance salesman who convinced everyone to buy a policy but never bought one himself. So, when he had a stroke and died in 1956, I had to go out and work, cleaning houses for rich people in Beverly Hills and Brentwood. Japanese women had a good reputation in those days. People saw us as silent, devoted and industrious. I suppose they were right.

I was a lucky Japanese-American, I think you could say. During the war I was not sent to a camp, though we did have to leave California for fear of violence against me by people who called themselves “ordinary Americans.” From January 1942 until November 1945 we lived in Cross Keys, Pennsylvania, a very small town populated mostly by Amish people.

When we returned to LA we were given our house back, though the furniture which we had left there had been sold off.

“What’s a few tables and chairs?” said Jim, hugging me and the two boys when we stood for the first time after the war in our empty living room. “I’m sorry that my country did this to you, Haruko.”

“It’s mom’s country, too,” said Clark, wrapping his arms around my waist.

“Yes and no,” I said.

“I won’t let go of you until you say yes!” sobbed Clark.

When Jim died I wrote to my mother, who was living in Kameoka, near Kyoto, but she returned my letter with only one sentence written along the margin …

“I am not surprised that your husband died young because, thanks to you, your father also died before his time.”

She had underlined the words “thanks to you.”

Mother was … she was … oh …

Sachiko the nurse takes up the story

Mrs. Harrison dozed off while she was telling me the story of her life. I felt her pulse. It was normal. I pulled the covers up over her shoulders. Beside her pillow there was a notebook bound in cracked brown leather with an old brass lock. I pressed the little clip on the lock and the notebook snapped opened. Mrs. Harrison had begun to tell me her story, so I saw no harm in reading about it myself. It turned out that the entries had been written long before the war by her mother, in a beautiful old-fashioned Japanese hand. This is some of what it said …

Toshimitsu’s elder brother has gone off to a place called “Arkansas,” but we decided to stay here in California. Our motivation is the same. Whoever harvests the first rice crop with success will call the other to him. I told Toshimitsu that I hoped his brother would fail, that California was far enough away from Japan for me, but he slapped me for my insolence, shouting in my face, “Never say a word against my brother again!”

The heavy clay soils of the Sacramento Valley are not truly suitable for rice cultivation, but we persist, using the hardy Japanese variety, Wataribune, and sowing it with an ordinary grain drill. We try to convince other farmers in the area that California is the perfect place to grow rice. You can grow it in shallow soils that many farmers consider worthless.

Toshimitsu went to the capital, Sacramento, to meet the governor of California, to tell him of the great future his state would have if he encouraged Japanese people to come here and plant rice.

“Someday California will be sending the world’s best rice to Japan, and Japan will be sending great steel weapons to America,” he said to the governor. This was not long after Japan’s great victory in the war with Russia, and I think the governor believed him.

But the governor did nothing to help us. In fact, the farmers in our area were praying for us to fail. Letters with “DEATH TO ALL ORIENTALS” were put in our letter box, and one morning our only two horses were found dead in our stable. Toshimitsu called in the animal doctor to determine the cause of death, but the doctor officially recorded it as “Unknown Disease, Death from Indeterminate Cause.”

“I didn’t know that poison caused an unknown disease,” said Toshimitsu to the doctor, who merely shrugged his shoulders and left without saying another word.

I was hoping every night that we would succeed. I did not want to have to move to Arkansas, for one thing. For another, I wanted our little baby girl, Haruko, born on Dec. 1, 1908, to grow up healthy and strong. If Toshimitsu failed, we might have to return to Kameoka, where my father had a small lumber business bringing logs down river from the mountains of Tanba and my father would …

I looked up at Haruko Harrison, trying to imagine her as a little girl running along an old fence on a farm in northern California so many years ago. Her face was that of many old Japanese women whom I had nursed in Tokyo before coming to LA, yet she had been born in America and had not once in her life set foot on Japanese soil. I returned to her mother’s notebook, turning to the back of it …

The first of three installments. The second and third parts will be published on June 15 and 22, respectively.

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