It was Friday night and, after a couple of drinks in Downtown Seattle with his friends, Nagatomi bade goodbye.
One of his friends called out. “Hey, Nagatomi, it is raining outside. Hope you have your favourite umbrella.” He then, turned to the others at the table and quipped, “He and that old umbrella are like till death do us apart.”
Another one added. “Hey, do you know? That umbrella is more than thirty years old! He treats it like his wife!” All of them laughed, but Nagatomi just smiled, shook his head and walked out.
Opening the umbrella, Nagatomi sprinted to the nearest bus stop. Even at forty-five, Nagatomi was athletic. The last bus to Nihonmachi would arrive any moment now.
Looking around, he noticed a kimono-clad Japanese woman approaching the bus stop. Since all other seats were occupied, he got up, bowed down and gestured to the woman to sit. The woman smiled, bowed slightly, and sat down. But Nagatomi continued to stare at the woman, which prompted her to look at him with a frown.
His eyes widened. “Akiko? Akiko Takahashi? Is that you?”
The woman got up, surprised. “Yes, I am Akiko Takahashi. But how do you know me?”
“Don’t you recognise me? I am Nagatomi. We studied at Broadway High School before the war.”
“Nagatomi!” Akiko let out a gasp as she got up and covered her mouth. As they stared at each other, tears welled down their eyes and memories, that were thought to be long forgotten, flashed before them.
Akiko and Nagatomi were genius at school. While Akiko was good in science, Nagatomi excelled in math. They often helped each other and alternately stood first and second in class. Nagatomi was also good at baseball and represented Broadway High School team. Akiko would often stay late after school, just to watch him play. After the match, both would walk home, hand-in-hand. Their parents did not mind their intimacy, as long as they ended up with good grades. It was one such rainy night, when both were walking towards Akiko’s home sharing Akiko’s umbrella.
“Hey, my Papa will see us. Stop it.” Akiko giggled as she pushed Nagatomi’s hand away from her waist.
But Nagatomi was adamant. He took Akiko in his arms, just before the bend towards Jackson Street – Akiko’s neighbourhood, and looked straight into her eyes.
“Akiko, I will never do anything which you don’t approve, ok? This is the last time I will ever bring you so close to me. The next time will be when I propose to you.” Saying this, he released her and took a step back. But he immediately started getting wet.
Akiko stepped forward and brought her umbrella over him. “You love me so much?”
The silence was broken by huge streak of lightning followed by thunder. Nagatomi took her hand. “Let’s hurry. It has begun to pour. Your Papa will be worried.” Akiko silently walked along.
As Akiko climbed up the stairs of her house, Nagatomi stayed by the gate. Akiko turned around and faced him. “Here, take my umbrella. You can return it tomorrow.”
“Thanks. Can I ask for something else?”
“Go to your room, open the window and wave. I will leave after that.”
Akiko blushed as her Papa opened the door and ran upstairs. While her Papa exchanged pleasantries with Nagatomi, Akiko went to her room and opened her window. Her Papa had gone inside and Nagatomi stood by the gate, waiting for her. Both blew kisses at each other and Akiko waited till Nagatomi turned away from Jackson Street. Then she knelt before The Buddha in her room and prayed.
“Oh Lord, please unite us one day.”
“The next day was like All Hell Broke Loose, wasn’t it?” Akiko shook to the present as Nagatomi broke the silence. They were in the bus and moving towards Nihonmachi.
“The next day and also the four years which followed. How can anyone forget those days?” Akiko shook her head.
“As if we helped the Japanese in their attack on Pearl Harbour! Our parents were Nisei, but still…”, and his voice trailed away.
After a while, he turned to face Akiko. “How are your parents? And your little brother?”
Akiko shook her head. “After we were released from Manzanar, Papa took us to Florida where he started his photo studio with whatever he had after settling the mortgage. But Papa is no more. Akayami, my brother, succumbed to chicken-pox in the camp. I take care of the studio with Mamma. It is doing good now.”
“I… I am sorry about your father and Akayami.” Nagatomi stammered.
“But, I never saw you after that night. You did not even come to school the next day. What happened to you?”
Nagatomi chuckled. “You can say I chickened out. That day – the day of the bombing – my mother had gone to the store for provisions. She came back with eggs splattered all over her dress and hair. She told me that eggs fell on her in the store and she had been careless. But later, I overheard her telling the actual events of that day to Papa. Some white men threw eggs at her, calling her all sorts of bad words. They did not let me go out of the house till March, after which we were herded to Tule Lake Camp in California.”
After a moment of silence, he took a gulp of saliva and added, “Papa and mama are no more. I work as an accountant in Downtown Seattle. I live in the same house… alone.”
Akiko placed her palm on Nagatomi’s hand.
“We survived, didn’t we?”
Placing his other hand on hers, he smiled. “That, we did.”
“So how are you in Seattle today?” Nagatomi tried to sound cheerful.
“I got news that there is going to be a pilgrimage to Manzanar from Seattle on 21st December. I got in touch with the Buddha Temple in Nihonmachi and they arranged for my stay tonight. Also…”, and she looked at him.
“I wanted to find you.”
At the same time, the driver made an announcement. “Nihonmachi coming up.”
“Come, I will walk you to the temple. My house is just two blocks away from there.”
It was still drizzling as they climbed down from the bus.
Nagatomi opened his umbrella. “It is big for both of us. Come.”
Akiko looked at the big umbrella, then at Nagatomi, but did not say anything.
As they turned into Jackson Street, she stopped.
“What happened? Oh! Your old house eh? It looks the same. The people are good. I talk to them regularly.”
But Akiko just stood there by the gate, staring at the house. Suddenly, she walked up to the door and rang the bell.
An old lady opened the door. “Yes?”
Nagatomi had not noticed this and had walked down a few steps when she heard Akiko calling out to him from behind. Surprised, he turned back to see Akiko staring out of the window of the first floor. Memories flashed in front of his eyes as he walked back slowly upto the gate.
My Akiko. She is still so beautiful.
After a while, she came down, silently bowed down to the lady and came out of the gate. The lady just smiled and closed the door as the two continued their walk towards the temple.
“We also blew kisses at each other that night, remember?” Nagatomi poked her.
“Ouch! That was twenty-eight years ago, you old man! We are not young anymore. Are we?” Both laughed, but Nagatomi face gave it away.
“What happened? You have suddenly become serious.”
“No, it’s nothing.” Saying so, he continued walking. But Akiko stopped and immediately started getting wet. Nagatomi ran back and brought the umbrella over her head.
“Why did you stop? You will catch a cold this way.”
“Tell me what is bothering you.”
“Akiko, are you married?”
“You didn’t meet anyone?”
“I told you in the bus.”
“You came for me?”
And she wrapped herself around him. The rains splattered around them but the two were completely in another world for a few moments. Akiko, finally, released her grip.
“This is the same umbrella which I gave you that night, isn’t it?”
Nagatomi nodded. “Come, let’s go to the temple. The Reverend must be waiting for you.”
The next day, a group of fifty from Nihonmachi, including Akiko and Nagatomi, led by the Reverend at the Buddha Temple, started their trip to Manzanar – the last standing War Relocation Camp for the Japanese prisoners, maintained by the county of Inyo. Another hundred Japanese American citizens converged on the camp, that day, from different parts of the country. Mass prayers were held in front of the fives marked graves which remained out of the many who had died in the camp. Many recollected the harsh realities during those dark years, which brought tears in everyone’s eyes. Before they dispersed, they took an oath that this tragic chapter in the history of the United States will neither be forgotten nor repeated. They would meet every year and ensure the same.
Two days later, the Reverend recited prayers at The Buddha Temple to bind Akiko and Nagatomi into holy matrimony.
“Lord Buddha has finally heard my prayers.” Akiko sniffed as they drove to Nagatomi’s house.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, there were rumours that many people of Japanese origin, on the West Coast, had aided the attack. In February 1942, President Roosevelt, signed an executive order 9066, by which all people of Japanese descent would be moved out of the West Coast and taken to “War Relocation Camps”. Similar actions were seen by Canada and Mexico, who also sent many Japanese citizens to USA, to be held in these camps. The facilities in these camps were deplorable, to say the least.
Finally, after Japan’s surrender, and with the intervention of the Supreme Court, the camps were closed. Manzanar was the last camp to close on 21st November 1945. The annual pilgrimage, which started in 1968, happens every year in April where many Japanese American citizens meet and recall the days of horror.
- Issei – a person of Japanese origin who settled in USA
- Nisei – a person born to Japanese parents in USA, who is a citizen of USA by birth
- Sansei – a third generation Japanese American.
- Nihonmachi – Name of Japantown in Seattle
Cover photo shows the memorial grave at Manzanar and is taken by Edoardo Frezet. It has been downloaded from unsplash.com website.