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From BAMBOO RIDGE Issue Number Two, March-May 1979, First Quarter

Sunday, January 30, 2011 8:57 PM

Born of the Pacific: Book I
     "A Letter to Hisae"
               By Toshi

      Although conceived in Hawaii, she was born in Japan.
      The cause of it was her grandfather's illness, which recalled her immigrant mother to Japan shortly before she, Hisae, was born. She was brought to Hawaii soon after her birth, but by then it was too late where American citizenship was concerned. As an oriental, naturalization, by law, was closed to her.
      Thus, Hisae was doomed to the life of an alien in America.
      That was a dark secret in her life. She guarded it as though it was something shameful to admit. As a result, only a handful of people outside of the family knew about her Japanese citizenship. Hisae herself was not aware of it until she started going to school. But still being too young then to let the accident of her birth in Japan bother her in any way, a few more carefree years passed before the import of not being an American citizen struck her.
      When it did, she suffered a stunning blow she found difficult to overcome. Like a sensitive child who learns belatedly about his adoption, she deviated from what might have been her natural tendencies. Overnight it seemed, and like the sudden darkening of a summer day, her gay laughter succumbed to a gravity induced by a premature emergence from the age of adolescence.
      Her friends could not understand why she, who used to chatter along with them like mynah birds of the evening, suddenly became quiet, reserved, and after a time, withdrew altogether from their circle. Her parents knew the cause of the change that came about in their daughter, but they were at a loss to understand why her being born in Japan and not in America should afflict her so. Besides, as they saw it, there was an easy way out: Hisae could remove herself from the scene that was somehow making her unhappy; Hisae could return to Japan. And this, they urged her to do.
      Hisae, while brooding over her misfortune, was almost persuaded. Not unconsidered was the desire of her parents to bring up at least one of their offspring in the authentic atmosphere of their beloved homeland, and thereby convert that child into a bona fide Japanese, inculcated with what they considered incomparably admirable Japanese virtues, as well as refinement of culture. Hisae knew that her Japanese citizenship made her particularly fit for that role and how much her willingness to be educated in Japan meant to her parents. Cheerfully fulfilling that desire of theirs, without having to grapple with an awakened consciousness of her being, was something she honestly wished she could do.
      Now if only she happened to be another Japanese American . . .
      But no, she wasn't. She was a Japanese, period.
      The finality of it was hard to accept, and hopeless as she felt it was, she fought against it. And because she felt that to leave America was to run away from the reality of the life she must face irrespective of where she lived, she decided against returning to Japan . . . trusting that she would have a better chance of finding herself, if not happiness, in America, American citizen or not.
      She was to oftentimes wonder about that. However, as in the years that followed, she tried to reconcile herself with, first, her new status, and second, this now alien land. And as though her life -- the form and texture of which depended so much upon amicable relationships between America and Japan -- weren't complicated enough already, the Manchurian Incident had to break out. . . .
      That they were years of transition from being a Japanese to an American she was not to realize until a year afterwards. But the irony of trying to regain America only after losing her did not escape the poor girl.
      For until she was overwhelmed by the circumstance of her life, it had never occurred to her to give serious thought to herself as an American. Well, yes, America was a wonderful country and it was good to be an American. That simply had been something she was taught in school, a lesson to be learned. Questioning where belief, with its personal touch called conviction entered had never crossed her mind. She at first even doubted that she had been taking America for granted. Yet she must have been, she had to admit. For when all things commonly called American were wrested from her, she realized how closely she had been all along associating herself as a part thereof. And they became at once heartbreakingly precious and desirable. And there was remorse that she could have been so callous about American birthrights as to matter-of-factly assume that they were there merely to be enjoyed. And with deepening perception of American values her sense of loss deepened in proportion. And this, she wasn't sure, but probably it was out of a desperation to hang on to something tangible, she could act upon. She became obsessed with a passion to pattern her life as closely as possible to her concept of an ideal American.
      And so it was.
      The change came about slowly but surely. And people, noticing only its physical manifestations, were critical of her. There was the way she carried herself -- her back straight, her head held high, proud-like. ("I am proud to be an American, even if only in make-believe.")
      There was the way she dressed -- colorfully and distinctively; the way she fixed her hair in a unique combination of braids and bangs that formed a crown of a head. ("Well, why not? This is a free country!")
      There was the way she spoke, grammatically correct and each word accorded its proper pronunciation and precise enunciation. (The Japanese-Americans were being criticized for their poor spoken English. "Think what they will of me, I am not going to speak like them.")
      Then there was about her an air of aloofness, as of a person who holds an inordinately high opinion of herself. (This last was not intended, but the inevitable by-product of a guarded behavior.)
      Add them all together and what do you get? Certainly not naturalness. Hisae, in the idiom of the Japanese Americans, was "haolefied."

      One night, I stayed up until dawn, writing a letter.
      The Year: 1939 -- about a year and a half after Japan provoked the China Incident (1937) and invaded China.
      The Place: Waimea, Hawaii -- a small farm and cattle-ranch village, located some fifty miles from Hilo.
      The Scene: A shabby room of a farmhouse, standing isolated at the edge of a field planted with corn and an assortment of vegetables, mainly head cabbage.
      "Hisae-san," the letter began . . .

      I am writing by the light of a kerosene lamp.
      It is in a room, furnished only with a table, a chair and a bed. The floor is covered with Japanese straw matting; the wall, with store wrapping paper. Overhead, there is no ceiling to hide the rafters and the roofing of corrugated iron, turned brown with rust. There is no closet either, and clothes hang loosely from nails on the wall. A battered suitcase together with several cardboard boxes, filled with personal items that are normally kept in bureau drawers, are shoved underneath the bed.
      The table where I sit writing is pushed flush against a corner of the room, facing the room's one window. Two layers of shelves, lined with books, protrude over the left edge of the table forming a part of what is my desk. The books look worn, both with age and usage. Among them are high school textbooks and classics of English Literature -- Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, to mention one; George Eliot's Silas Marner, to mention another. Also, there are books by American writers: Washington Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne, Emerson, Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway and others.
      Many of the books are inscribed with the name of my older brother, Masao. Also inscribed are the schools he attended together with dates, 1913 through 1927.
      Masao, rare for his day, was permitted to leave home and go to live in Kohala, a plantation town about 28 miles away in order to work his way through high school.
      Apart from the books mentioned, there are several other books bearing Masao's name. Printed in Japanese and dating back to 1914, there are Japanese school textbooks Masao used while attending the Waimea Japanese Language School.
      I have found these textbooks a great deal more formidable than the books published and distributed ten to fifteen years later by the Hawaii Japanese Educational Board, which is the governing body of the Japanese educational system in Hawaii. I remember trying more than once, to read Masao's sixth-year reader but failing. It contained too many kanji -- Chinese characters -- that were not included in my own reader of the equivalent year.
      Evidently, the Hawaii Japanese Educational Board recognizes the fact that the later children of the Japanese encounter greater difficulty than the earlier ones in learning to read and write and even to speak Japanese. Accordingly, it has revised the textbooks in keeping with the trend of the times. The curriculum, too, has been somewhat revised. For one thing, traditional Japanese brush-writing has given way to pen-writing in the penmanship class.
      Clearly, this is a significant sign of the cultural evolution taking place in the lives of the Japanese Americans.
      But that this cultural evolution has run its entire course, or that, culturally, the Japanese Americans are already alienated from their Japanese parents, as our leaders are claiming, I cannot agree.
      For it is only presently, in the 'thirties, that the Japanese Americans are tentatively emerging from their Japanese background and becoming aware of themselves. And not necessarily as Americans.
      (Of course, this is an opinion I can share with Hisae alone.)
      "Hisae-san," the letter began . . .

      I first knew her as a fellow student. Her home was in Hilo; mine as already noted, in Waimea. The fact that the Waimea School ended at the 7th grade determined my going away to a school in Hilo. First of all, though, I had to gain permission from father, who preferred to see me go to work for the Parker Ranch. He could have used my help on the farm, but this he never considered, farming being so poor in those days. Parker Ranch offered the best outlet for the young men of Waimea -- boys, really -- who were forced by the necessity of helping out with the family finances by going to work as soon as they finished grade school, or even sooner, in many cases.
      "Hisae-san," the letter began . . .

      The ancient alarm clock, with its dome of a bell, says it is seventeen minutes after nine. Having lived for three years in Honolulu, I know that 9:17 for a city is still early. But the hour is already late for Waimea, where the farmers and the ranch hands go to bed as soon as possible after nightfall. Apart from having to get up early in the morning, there is hardly anything doing in the village to keep them up. Indeed, life outside the hastily closed front door is practically nonexistent once the sun disappears behind the distant mountain (Hualalai) and the chilly night wind sweeps down from the Kohala mountains, at the foothills where Waimea nestles. The best place is in bed, under heavy covers.
      The house, a crudely put together collection of rough 1x12 boards, with gaps between them covered with lathings from the outside and stuffed with rags from the inside, serves as poor protection from the penetrating cold. The cold intensifies as the night deepens and the morning finds the grass almost white with frost-like dew.
      In Waimea's cold climate must be compounded the beneficial elements that are so invigorating to all things that grow here, including rosy cheeked children. But for inducing out of its fertile soil the green of the vegetables and the golden yellow of the ripened corn on a commercial scale required settlement by the Japanese who fled from the sugar plantations.
      Not many farms are discernable from the eucalyptus bordered roadside, nor can the grandeur of the vast reaches of the Parker Ranch be appreciated from the wire fence picketed highway. But climb any one of the grassy hills overlooking the village and you will be able to see, in panoramic view, the picturesque squares -- green, yellow, brown -- that are the farmlands, interlaced with windbreaks of trees. And beyond this, the cattleland, the amber-green expansiveness which stretches away for miles and finally gives way to the imposing height that is Mauna Kea, which at times looms near; at times, hazy blue and purple in the distance, depending upon your own mood or the atmospheric condition of the day.
      Standing there, atop the grassy hill, my hair and clothes tugged at by the incessant wind that blows there, my eyes measuring the width and the length of the valley below, I have oftentimes wondered how Waimea managed to escape coverage by sugar cane.
      I am glad that it has though. Glad too, that my parents left behind them the sugar-mill camp, where I was born. Not that I can recall experiencing life there, but I have heard too many stories told by the Japanese about that life on the sugar plantation.      "Hisae-san," the letter began . . .

      No other single word could have described her so aptly.
      Not a compliment. For a "haolified" Japanese American to another was one who was ludicrously out of character; bluntly speaking, a Japanese American who appeared to be aping the haoles. Behind it was the jeering opinion that such a person ignored the fact that the Japanese shape of eyes and color of skin will never be denied.
      Moreover, "haolefiedness" connoted "high-tonedness," superficiality, and other unfavorable characteristics that were said to be inherent in haoles; and these characteristics were considered to be all the more reprehensible when manifested in a Japanese American.
      But for my part, Hisae's "haolefiedness" was not an intermediary object of the Japanese American's antipathy toward the haoles.
      Partly this was because I grew up in Waimea, where its handful of haoles were personalities we villagers hardly ever encountered. Consequently, my mind was relatively free of disparaging thought association with haoles. But perhaps more pertinent was my familiarity with the characters in the books by Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Victor Hugo, plus a host of other writers.
      A bookworm, I had started reading at an early age and had, by the time I finished grade school, read many of the required readings of high school.
      Now I am not saying that I understood all that I read. But whatever I got out of all that reading must have given me a broader outlook on life than I would have had otherwise.
      Anyway, haoles or no (as a matter of fact, raciality never entered the mind) the characters in the books I loved to read were people with whom I vicariously shared love, honor, duty, with the attendant sorrow and joy, despair and hope, defeat and triumph . . .
      After reading, say, the life of David Copperfield, how could I not reflect that he, David Copperfield, was more human than I, or believe that he would not try to understand me any less than I tried to understand him.
      Ah, yes! There I was loitering in the corridor of a world created by art. . . drenched, as it were, with an idealism that must, sooner or later, leave me high and dry on the ebbtide shore of reality.
      In no other frame of mind, however, could there have developed such friendship as developed between Hisae and myself. Normal reaction to her "haolefiedness" would have repelled me from her.
      As it happened, her peculiarness -- her singular individualness, rather -- raised her in my eyes above the rest of us Japanese Americans. And meeting her was like meeting a character out of a book. This impression was enhanced by the impression she gave of one cast in a tragic role.
      For there she was, attractive (this in more ways than one) and with a studied indifference about her, as though nothing on earth could ruffle her composure. Yet, watching her, I detected signs that betrayed her; signs of inner despondency, as though carrying out her role was at times too much of a burden. Her shoulders would sag, and I could almost hear her letting out a sigh or two during some quiet interval in the classroom, when everyone was ostensibly occupied with his or her problem of a lesson. At such moments, with her defenses down, she looked almost pitiful, and I for one suspected that the face she was putting to the world was only a brave front after all. And I wondered about the nature of the tragedy that must have jarred her young life and which had not only left its mark on her but was affecting her still.
      What neither I, nor anyone else in the classroom knew was that she was not an American citizen.
      I do not know what difference it would have made to any of us even if we had.
      "Hisae-san," the letter began . . .

      I am the only one awake in the house.
      A little while back, mother came, sleepy-eyed and muttering something about not staying up too late. Force of habit, I suppose. For she needn't have bothered, tomorrow being Sunday. I do not have to get up at 4:39 in the morning to work at the Parker Ranch store. Force of habit on mother's part, I say, because from the time I was a little boy, a light burning in my room has made her get up once or twice in the night to check on me, whether I had passed on to sleep while reading. Looking back, it is a wonder that the house never caught on fire, reading as I used to do while lying in bed, laid out on the floor, with the kerosene lamp with its open flame close to my head. Of course, mother was watchful. Still, I remember waking up some mornings to find the lamp still burning or of having flamed out of its own accord from lack of fuel, the chimney all blackened with soot.
      With everyone else asleep, the house is quiet of human noise. All the windows are shut tight, but there is a current of air circulating through the house, what with its many cracks and openings. Now and then, gusts of wind rush at and slip into the house and set the flame of the lamp to flickering which brings to eerie life the shadows of the objects in the room the lamplight casts.
      Sleeping in the house are father and mother as well as a younger brother and sister. There are two other members of the family. Masao, I have already mentioned. An older sister lives in Hilo and it was at her home that I stayed while attending school in Hilo. Both are married, and each has a growing family. I had another sister immediately below me, but she died in infancy and lies buried in the cemetery, which is located in the backyard of the Japanese language school.
      So the original couple, who are my parents, have now increased to seven -- no, twelve, when grandchildren are counted.
      With Japan's extraterritorial ambition creating tension in the Far East, we are headed toward some kind of a crisis. I am nevertheless glad that my parents immigrated to Hawaii.
      But what about them . . . parents?
      Our birthrights as Americans mean little or nothing to them. They came to Hawaii, expecting to stay here for not more than three years. Yet here they are, more than a quarter of a century afterwards, still looking forward to that day when they can return to Japan. True, as they saw their children take root in this, to them a foreign soil, the motive behind their returning to Japan has changed. Now it is only for a pilgrimage home, to see their homeland at least once more before they died.
      They came to Hawaii believing that money here was lying on the ground, and all they had to do was to pick it up in order to gain riches. So what bitter disappointment theirs must have been to find out that all the wonderful stories they had been told about Hawaii were nothing more than part of a scheme to lure cheap Japanese labor to work in the sugar cane fields.
      Looking back, it is a wonder how they endured their disappointment.
      But endure it, they had.
      Paradoxically, what helped them most was an added burden upon their hardpressed lives -- children.
      Yes, it was in the birth of us children that they reassembled what meaning to working and suffering and striving that was for a time, shattered within them; even as the waves which bore them across the Pacific curled against themselves and crashed and broke upon these then dispassionate, foreign shores. It was also in us children that they transplanted what hopes and dreams they had once had as man and wife, but which they now despaired of realizing on their own account.
      And so it was for the sake of us children that they had set their hearts to establishing some semblance of home . . . trusting, in the meantime, that with proper inculcation of Japanese virtues, we would eventually do right by them, as duty-conscious children, within whose veins course Japanese blood, and whose hearts and minds were instilled with the Spirit of Yamato.
      "Hisae-san," the letter began . . .

      Thus, Hisae . . . a strange girl, was different from any Japanese girl I knew up to the time I met her, and for a long time afterwards as well. A decade or so later, Japanese girls with suggestions of her likeness were to be a common sight. Back there in the early thirties, however, while the Japanese Americans were still strictly disciplined by the proud, unremitting "Japaneseness" of their immigrant parents, her sophisticated manner of carriage, dress and speech, was radically ahead of the times.
      And on first impression, she was the last person from whom I expected the kind of friendship she extended me. Yet, apart from all others, it was she who seemed to sense the loneliness and the misplaced feeling I was experiencing as a new student in a large school, away from home. For upon learning that I was from Waimea, she seemed to go out of her way to show kindness toward me. And when I began contributing stories to the school literary magazine and newspaper, she began showing an uncommon interest, not so much in me, but in my hometown. She would ask searching questions, thereby eliciting from me stories about the people and life in Waimea, many of which I hadn't thought I remembered.
      In effect, she made me relive my boyhood in the village.
      As to what purpose it all was, I did not, in the beginning, question. It was enough to talk to her: to have something to talk about in which she evinced keen interest.
      "Hisae-san," the letter began . . .

      Why Hisae's interest in me and my life in Waimea?
She had a definite purpose in mind. But it was only afterwards, after I left school and Hilo, returned to Waimea and began working on the farm, that it occurred to me that she had subtly tried to make me see myself for what I was: a Japanese boy raised in a closely knit Japanese village. In short, a hyphenated American who had grown up more a Japanese than an American.
      "Hisae-san," the letter began . . .

      Hisae-san, I wrote, what can I say in reply to your last letter? You sounded so troubled and unhappy. As a matter of fact, in all your letters of late, you sound both troubled and unhappy.
      I know -- it is this trouble in China, dissonant with undertones of war. It has reopened that old wound you suffered back in 1931, when Japan first incurred the enmity of America by invading Manchuria.
      Why did the China Incident have to break out, just when you were emerging at last from the darkness of America Lost to the dawn-light of America Regained? Fate, would you say? The self-same fate that made you be born in Japan?
      As I recall, you did not use the word fate. You blamed "chance and circumstance." "When I think how chance and circumstance can, and does alter one's life, I cannot begin to express my fear of them," was what you said, prefacing that to your telling me that you were not an American citizen.
      But to tell you the truth, I was not able to understand what difference that should make to you. After all, Japanese or Japanese American, weren't we both being regarded as one and the same? And even after you told me how affected you were when you realized the full import of not being an American citizen, I was not able to fully understand why that should be so.
      I sympathized, yes. I said it was a shame. I said it was sad and tragic and all that sort of thing. Moreover, I made you think that I understood how it must have been to grow up thinking that you were a part of all that you learned about America, and then to find out that you were not a part of it. That perhaps you could never be, because the diplomatic differences between America and Japan seemed so great you did not think they would be able to amicably resolve their differences.
      I have been pondering over it these past weeks -- this night, especially -- as I sought for words that might be of some encouragement and comfort to you. I have been looking into the past of my life, weighing the part you have played in it against what my life might have been if I hadn't known you. I have done all this as objectively as possible, and the conclusion I have reached is this: I was not able to understand why you should be affected as you were because I had yet to know and feel what it meant to be an American, of what it should mean.
      This is not to infer that I do now. If I did, I certainly would know what to tell you to relieve you of the anxiety you must be feeling this night.
      How I wish I could tell you that the current war in China does not mean a thing. That it too, like that other war in Manchuria, will soon pass and that one of these days we will wake up to find that the fears we feared were utterly baseless.
      Can I though, when I myself am affected by it? What grave concern America is manifesting over the situation in China! You want to close your ears to it, but you cannot help hearing disquieting whispers that before this crisis in the Far East is over, there will be war in the Pacific. Of course, war between America and Japan is still difficult to imagine. But it is not so far-fetched as it was at one time. For now that the prediction -- "After Manchuria, China" -- is a reality, the motive behind Japan's troop movements coinciding with tell-tale military activities within the security-bound border of Germany is becoming clearer. All in all, it is doubtful that America, this time, will stand idly by and watch China meet the same fate as Manchuria.
      One thing is certain where we of Japanese blood are concerned: feeling against us will run at a higher and higher pitch, in relation to the rising criticalness of the times.
      Already the newspapers are creating an atmosphere suggestive of war. Day after day, news dispatches from the warfront in China are featured on the front page, topped with banner headlines. Inexorably the Far East, which at one time seemed remote, is being drawn nearer and nearer. The general effect is that, while there may be some doubt as to China fighting America's battle, there is little doubt that Japan is America's enemy.
      . . . Japan is America's enemy, and what are you, Japanese in Hawaii, going to do about it? What are you thinking? What are you planning? What will you do, if and when America and Japan fight?
      Gratingly, the oft-asked questions resound in our ears.
      Now I ask you, is this a time for us to be looking ahead to the day when we expect to be accepted as bona fide Americans?
      It appears not.
      Faced as we are, with a future that is dark in its uncertainty, this appears to be a time when we ought to be satisfied -- grateful even -- just to be allowed to retain our status quo.
      What do you say, Hisae-san?
      Do you agree?
      No, I do not think that you will.
      At the moment you are troubled and unhappy, despondent. The pendulum swung, lethargically, to the other extreme. But given time, you will find your way out. You are bound to, just as you did that other time.
      This I have to believe. At the moment, when it seems much easier not to care, I have to believe in you . . .
      There was a time when I thought that I would be less perturbed by the attacks made against us if I were, in truth, a Japanese -- say, like yourself. For then I would neither have the right nor the privilege of defending my rights and privileges as an American. And not having said rights and privileges and, also, not entertaining any ideas about the so-called Promise of America, I would not be giving up anything -- sacrificing, that is, any of the ideals and principles of America -- even if I were to let myself be beaten down to utter submission.
      For it is because we know that we, as Americans, are entitled to the rights and privileges guaranteed us by the Constitution that when they are abridged and portions of them denied us and there seems nothing we can do about them, that we become frustrated, angry, bitter and perhaps in the end, turn our thoughts against America.
      That is what I thought.
      But then, I came to know you, and as I learned more and more about you, I realized how wrong I was. I realized that I was only trying to justify my shortcomings, not to mention my poverty of understanding.
      For I found out that you are, in fact, a Japanese. And yet I did not know of any Japanese American who was more concerned about the dilemma of their problem. Still, I could not say that you were bitter. And though you held on to no hope of becoming an American citizen, you were always trying to think and live as though you were. And on the rare occasions you showed traces of anger, your anger was directed to your own self, rather than to anybody else. You were impatient with yourself for letting yourself be angered by something somebody said or something that happened on the racial front.
      Now, I must confess that that was something I could not very well understand. But that your general attitude was related to something you once told me about ideals and principles, I was quite certain. You told me that American ideals and principles cannot represent the people. That it is people alone who can represent them. That some people may not live up to them, but the ideals, as ideals, and the principles, as principles, remain the same. That they do not change. You then went on to tell me that it was important that the Japanese Americans recognize whatever outrageous things said or acts committed against them for what they actually are, and not confuse them with anything else that might tend to make them think the less of America.
      There I felt, you expressed the basis of your belief in America. And as I kept thinking about it, in time I let myself think that you succeeded in imparting that belief in me. But this was in the relatively peaceful year we enjoyed prior to the outbreak of the China Incident.
      Well, what now? Now that an actual test of that belief is here?
      Alas, I find myself falling flat on my face.
      So there, now you know.
      And I'm telling you that I am feeling tenfold worse than if I had never stopped to consider myself in relation to America in any way.
      Who was responsible for it?
      It was you, Hisae-san.
      Now, don't misunderstand me. I am not blaming you in any way. I am simply stating a fact. For it is true, is it not, that if it hadn't been for you, I would today be like most Japanese Americans, irritated to be sure by the sharp words of those who choose to antagonize us, but not too much. Not at least, to the point of being waspish about it, as I sometimes suspect I am. And since there seems little or nothing that can be done, perhaps it is better not to be all fired up with ideas, not be overly sensitive to the situation at hand. One is less liable to get hurt, under the circumstances. So the apparent listlessness and indifference for which the Japanese Americans are being criticized, may be good for them for all we know. I don't know.
      All I know is that I am not the fellow I might have been, if I hadn't known you. For which I am glad, though you may not think so considering the preceding paragraph. But I am! For, is not this problem you have made me face a problem all Japanese Americans must face if America is to mean anything to them?
      What I am leading up to is this: that you, having brought me this far, cannot now give in to the apparent blank-wallness of the times. If you were to give in now, it would be the same as telling me to forget all that you have told me of what you believe.
      I think your beliefs are sound, although God knows I am in no position to qualify them. They have helped you out of your first crisis. If they seem to crumble before the current crisis, is it your beliefs that are crumbling, or should it not be your belief in your beliefs?
      There must be a better way of putting it. Anyway, what I am trying to tell you is that, if you find yourself doubting America, you are only reflecting your doubt in yourself.
      Does that sound familiar? It should. I am only repeating what you have told me often enough. Yes, I am giving the thought back to you. I don't see what use I can make of it, if you can't.
      Am I being ironic? Believe me, I do not mean to be. I am merely trying to impress upon you the fact that you have been in the past, and are today, the medium through which I judge America.
      Judge, I say. That is a wrong word, judge. What qualifications have I to judge America? What qualification does anyone have to judge America?
      Here might lie the root of the whole trouble with us: that we dare to judge. And judging we are in turn, judged. And although irresponsible and insensitive to the consequence of the verdict we pass on to others, we on our part, react most ill-humoredly to the verdict handed down to us.
      That also, has a familiar ring to us.
      Why, of course! Is not that the sum of what you have been trying to tell me all along? Quoting scriptures from the Bible, even . . .
      Strange how in the quiet of this night, they are all coming back to me, the many things you have told me, the views and opinions you have expressed on a thousand and one things. Stranger still, how I find myself receptive to them as though they originated in my own mind. Could this mean that I am finally thinking in the light of your understanding, and thus, observing myself all the more clearly for that?
      Something is happening here . . .
      Time seems to be standing still, and I am held in the sensation of being detached and elevated about the immediacy of my being, the immediacy of my surroundings. And though I have always thought of the past as the irretrievable past, I sense an intermingled intimacy of the past and the present. The past it seems, is coming back and relating itself to the present. Nay, the past, it seems, has never been the past, but an inseparable part of the present, and the way I have always thought of the past as the past, was only in the sense of it.
      Am I making sense? I doubt it, but to me it is all very clear.
      There is this kerosene lamp, giving off its yellow, flickering light. It could very well be the same lamp by which I, as a boy in grade school, used to read, late into the night. It is a wonder that the house never caught on fire, reading as I used to do: in bed, laid out on the floor, the lamp, with its open flame, close to my head. Of course mother was watchful. Still, I remember waking up some mornings to find the lamp still burning or flamed out of its own accord for lack of fuel and the chimney all blackened with soot. How I used to hate the chore of taking care of the lamps -- refilling the fuel bowl with kerosene and washing the chimney I blackened . . .
      Am I talking of the past? What I have said in connection with this lamp by which I am writing is more real to me now than it ever was.
      There is this lamp, as I began . . . and the straw-matted floor, the store wrapping paper covered walls, the ceilinglessness overhead, showing the rafters and the roof of corrugated iron turned brown with rust . . . and there is the wind outside, rustling dryly through the plantings of corn and the scraping of the branches of the peach tree against the wall of the house . . . and there is the occasional stamping sound of the hoof of the horse tethered in the yard . . . and there is the distant moaning of cattle being driven by cowboys from pasture to seaport . . . and there is mother whom I expect any moment now to come sleepy-eyed and muttering something about not staying up too late . . .
      These and many other familiar associations which would require pages to list, are the same as when I was a child. And I guess they will always remain the same, in fancy, if not in fact, for the rest of my life.
      Where then, is the past? Where the present? Where the future -- except, in the sense of them?
      So, again, I am standing atop one of the grassy hills overlooking this peaceful village. Here, where the outside world nudges itself in only through the newspapers. Here, where in most instances, momentous happenings of the world are no longer so by the time they enter because the newspapers arrive two to three days after publication. Yes, again, I am standing atop that grassy hill, my hair and clothes tugged at by the incessant wind, and I can see in panoramic view the picturesque squares -- green, yellow, brown -- that are the farmlands, interlaced with windbreaks of trees. And beyond that, the cattle land, the amber-green expansiveness of which stretches away for miles until it finally gives way to an imposing height that is Mauna Kea -- at times, looming near; at times, hazy blue and purple, in the distance, depending upon your own mood, or the atmospheric mood of the day. And standing there, my eyes measuring the width and breadth of the vast valley below, I am wondering again how this place ever escaped coverage by sugar cane, but am concomitantly glad that it had. Glad, too, that my parents settled here, away from the sugar-mill camp where I was born. Not that they improved their lot by settling here and setting themselves up as independent farmers. In fact, they were having a worse time of it, being so poor. And yet, here was a measure of independence. What did these Japanese people here, living together, in a closely-knit community, feel and think and aspire? And what about their children, for whom they were trying to create an atmosphere reminiscent of the home country? What did they, in turn, feel and think and aspire? Parents and offsprings though they were, there was conflict between them. And what about their common conflict with the larger American community? When reflected in the light of these questions, was life in the village below as peaceful as it looked from here? No, no! Even as ocean tides flood and ebb, beneath the conventions of what outwardly appears to be an easy-going, leisurely country life, floods and ebbs a deep-set human tide . . .
      I do not quite realize it yet, but I am thinking of the people and life in the village as you, Hisae-san, might. I am trying to visualize how I grew up here, as you yourself might. Then as I begin to see the picture you meant to evoke in mind, I know at last why you showed such uncommon interest in the stories you made me tell you about the people and life in my home town.
      That was the way it was, many years ago, when I returned from school and Hilo, disappointed and maybe bitter too, for having had to start out in life long before I felt prepared for it. And it was to shut out the shame of the baseness of my thoughts, that I had gone off by myself to the grassy hilltop as though climbing to higher ground would cleanse my mind. And that is the way it is at this moment, when I sense no past, no present, no future, but only a great awareness of the now and its intimacy with that experience on the hilltop.
      So the arc, you might say, has come full circle. I am back again to that beginning when you made me see myself for what I actually was -- a Japanese boy, born of Japanese parents, raised in a Japanese community.
      That first time, I was not able to accept this basic truth about myself. I don't see how I could be blamed for it, though. (Not that you have.) For the simple truth is that I was then not yet ready. There were so many other things you had to first awaken in my mind.
     So I may have found myself, you might say. And I am going to be all right. Already, an idea of a story is developing in my mind. I am sure you can guess the nature of it without my having to tell you.
     When, earlier this night -- how ages ago it seems now -- I sat down to write this letter, I did not know how to begin, did not know where I was headed. After I began, I did not know how and where I was going to end. Such was the muddled state of my mind. However, struggling along with this letter has clarified many things in my mind and I feel encouraged and exhilarated in a way I have not felt in a long, long time.
     Now, let me check . . . Yes, the idea of the story is still there, and growing, and I am getting excited. I may still get to write the Great American Novel!
     The flame of the lamp is fluctuating -- becoming long then short, and black smoke swirls upward from its tongue, blackening the chimney. Symptom of the bowl running dry of fuel. Seems that I just made it. Something symbolic here . . . for though this flame is about ready to pass on, so too is the night, and I sense the quickening pulse of the dawn.
     One last thought before I leave: I began this letter with the idea of comforting you and I end up by finding myself comforted.
     Hisae-san, what will I ever do without you?

* * * * *

Bio: Toshi says, "My Mother had a saying -- 'Grow up into a good Japanese and become a good American.' That was the whole genre of the Japanese School and community. It's okay as a child, you understand. But when you grow older, you see a contradiction. I had to acknowledge whether I was Japanese or American."
     . . .
     "While he tried to accurately portray the plight of the Japanese in Honolulu surrounding the war years, Toshi was acutely aware of the sensitivity with which many of his people received what was written about them and how they felt it would affect their image -- and future -- in these Islands. Having felt the pressure from friends, and after struggling to depict the situation among the local Japanese, Toshi gave up his writing. 'You can't trust words," he would say often.
     "He turned, instead, to numbers. Building his mathematical towers which could 'out-compute any computer' and endlessly scribbling figures in notebook after notebook -- he sought, and still seeks, to bring to light lost knowledge which he believes would benefit the young and bring hope for the future."


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