• Art Nomura

Chapter 12, 'The Railroad, Part 2'

On April 1, 1922, in a boxcar next to the Milwaukee Road train yard in Deer Lodge, Mizuko gave birth to her 4th child, Saburo.

As the spring thaw began Mizuko and her family had made the move from their winter subterranean residence in the Japantown section of the rail yard. The boxcar would be their home for most of the spring, summer, and fall.

Kazuichi was again absent at the birth, but Mizuko’s prior experiences and Chiyoko’s help made the delivery easier than in the past. Not surprisingly, after just a day of rest, Mizuko was back at work cooking for the rail workers.

Although the work was hard and the hours long, Mizuko’s life was far better working for the railroad then it had ever been in Washington. Being a cook was challenging but steady work, and left her with enough time to even earn extra money.

Noting that the workmen were always clamoring for Japanese food, Chiyoko urged Mizuko to start a tofu-ya using the stove in their own boxcar to cook the soy beans. Although dried items like squid, sea slugs, seaweed, rice, and pickled items like radishes and plums could be ordered from Japanese wholesalers in Tacoma and Seattle, fresh tofu was nearly impossible to get in rural Montana.

Mizuko was able to buy her own soybeans from the importers and boil them in a five-gallon pot on her stove to make fresh tofu. She also devised a system to make natto by hanging containers of the boiled beans to ferment in a nearby tree. Ironically, the putrid odor of the fermenting beans acted to attract potential customers. Soon Sunday mornings became profitable as a long line of Japanese workers formed to purchase fresh tofu and natto from Mizuko’s makeshift boxcar stand.

Although Kazuichi continued to gamble when he could, the opportunities to do so were limited by the scant number of naïve gamblers or ‘marks’ available and the isolated location of Deer Lodge itself. To protect their extra earnings from Kazuichi’s marauding ways, Mizuko, with Chiyoko’s clever assistance, was able to hide the ‘tofu’ money they earned. Their goal was to help pay for her sons’ care in Japan, and to acquaire a few personal items.

Mizuko’s personal expenses were minimal. Her main need was writing supplies, postage, and books. She tried to maintained a regular correspondence with her relatives in Japan, including her father, sister Tomoye, and Kazuichi’s sisters in Hiroshima. She also bought used books in Japanese whenever she could find them and continued writing kanji so she would not forget them.

Despite her best efforts, Kazuichi eventually found the money Mizuko had been saving. When she explained what it was for, Kazuichi promised that he would send it to Tomoye Hayashi in Onorimura to pay for their sons’ expenses. Not surprisingly, he never honored that promise, but spent the money on his own amusement.

As Mizuko’s stepdaughter Chiyoko blossomed from adolescence into young womanhood, she was inundated by proposals of marriage. The Japanese population in Deer Lodge was overwhelmingly male and the opportunity to request ‘picture brides’ from Japan had all but ceased with the ever more restrictive immigration laws against Japanese aliens. Many of the men, resigned to permanent alien residency in America, were desperate to marry a Japanese woman and start a family.

Petite and lively, Chiyoko was graceful and pretty. She seemed to have an innate sense of what men appreciated, which added to her appeal. At the height of the proposal frenzy she agreed to marry Junji Kaneko, a quiet, kind, and industrious man eighteen years her senior.

As a yard mechanic he also made double the wages of a common rail worker. On August 2, 1923 they married in Deer Lodge, Montana. Their union quickly bore two daughters, Shizuka (1924) and Tomiye (1925).

In the fall of 1925 Mizuko decided that her five year-old daughter Yoshiko should attend school. Although Mizuko’s family traveled with her on the work train during the warmer months, whenever Yosh was in Deer Lodge she attended a one-room school nearby. She could have attended the makeshift school set up in Japantown next to the Deer Lodge roundhouse, but Mizuko decided that attending an ‘American’ school that taught in English would be better for her daughter's future.

Understandably, when Yoshiko started school she couldn’t speak a word of English. But because she was the only Japanese student in the school, her American teacher offered her special English language training. Mrs. Irion was a kind and patient woman. She took Yoshiko under her wing and taught her English by demonstrating actions accompanied by the spoken phrase, like ‘close the door’ and ‘open the book’.

With no means of birth control, Mizuko continued to conceive and give birth. On June 26, 1926, Mizuko gave birth to her fifth child and second daughter in their Deer Lodge boxcar home. Although she was caring for own two small children, Chiyoko assisted in the birth in lieu of the chronically absent Kazuichi. Mizuko could often be seen thereafter cooking in the railway kitchens with her newest baby strapped to her back. The baby was named Ayako after Mizuko’s oldest sister Ayano.

Life continued routinely until late that year. As winter approached, the Nomura family: Kazuichi, Mizuko, Yoshiko, Kaworu, and Ayako, made their annual return to their semi-underground dwelling in the railyard’s Japantown. While Mizuko continued her daily cooking for the pared-down winter work crews, Kazuichi was laid off his job until the spring.

With a lot of spare time on his hands, Kazuichi initially engaged his son-in-law and fellow rail worker Junji Kaneko to play cards with him in the evenings, but after realizing that they were only exchanging money with each other they soon quit.

Mizuko watched as Kazuichi’s dissipation grew during the long winter. More and more of his time was spent brooding alone and drinking home brewed sake rice wine. With little to distinguish his life aside from the eight children he had fathered, Kazuichi began spending his days in a drunken stupor.

One night after a week of steady wine consumption, he stumbled back down into their chilly dwelling following a trip to the outhouse. Sitting down heavily on a rickety chair, he grabbed the table to keep his balance. An empty sake bottle toppled over on the table and rolled directly to him, ending up in his lap.

For Kazuichi, an uneducated, superstitious man, with a lifelong belief in the power of luck, this was a fearsome omen. In his past someone had told him that if an empty bottle rolled to you it signified that you would die within the next three years. His cry of anguish startled Mizuko.

She looked up from mending a worn shirt, with baby Ayako asleep over one of her shoulders.

“What is it?” she asked.

“The rolling bottle means death,” Kazuichi slurred.

“Whose death?” replied Mizuko, used to his strange mutterings.

Kazuichi blurted out. “It is said that if a bottle rolls to you on its own, you will surely die in three years.”

“I think that drinking so much sake is very likely to kill anyone,” observed Mizuko tying off her sewing with a knot.

“No, that’s not it!” insisted Kazuichi. “No matter what I do I will die within three years. I am doomed,” he moaned.

Mizuko carried Ayako over to the family bed and gently tucked her in. “Shikataganai ne, we are all doomed,” she said while crossing to the stove to stir a bubbling pot of soybeans.

“It’s how we live our lives that matters,” she added.

Uncharacteristically, Kazuichi seemed to mull over his wife’s words and sat quietly for such a long time that Mizuko thought he had fallen asleep.

Finally, he looked at his wife, and said “So-ka, that is so.” With that, he got up from the table, changed into his nightgown and got into bed.

Puzzled by his reaction, Mizuko continued the process for making tofu until she too finally retired for the night. The next morning she was surprised to find her husband sober, already dressed, and sitting at the table.

“I have decided,” he solemnly intoned. After a dramatic pause he said, “I have decided to stop drinking… and gambling.”

Mizuko sat down abruptly, shocked mute by this unexpected proclamation.

“And I’ve decided that since my days are numbered, I need to reunite the family for my remaining years,” he added.

“I will begin the arrangements today.”

Without waiting for Mizuko’s response, Kazuichi put on a heavy coat and climbed the steps out of their underground home.

Remarkably, over time, Kazuichi did change. The drinking ended immediately, and with it came an upsurge of renewed energy and focus. The gambling however, was more slowly abandoned. Going out with a winning hand, one of the final bets he won was a share in a small poultry farm nearby. With his connection to the head cook, Kazuichi was able to provide the railroad with chicken and eggs and contribute regularly to the family savings.

It took the rest of the winter and most of the following spring to secure the documents and funding to enable the retrieval of Shigeko, Takuma, and Jiro from far-off Hiroshima. But true to his word, on May 19, 1927, Kazuichi landed in Seattle, Washington aboard the Empress of Russia steamship accompanied by his three, long-absent children.

Chiyoko’s younger sister Shigeko had become a capable young woman raised on hard work. Even though she had been born in America, for all intents and purposes, she was Japanese through and through. After spending sixteen of her seventeen years in Japan, she re-entered America more like a yobiyose than a returning citizen.

Similarly, the returning brothers, fourteen year-old Takuma, and eleven year-old Jiro, were virtual strangers to America, having lived with their poor Japanese relatives in Hiroshima for over seven years.

At Deer Lodge, they were united with their mother and nuclear family, In their shabby boxcar home, Shigeko, Takuma, and Jiro exclaimed over their sister Yoshiko, now a thoughtful seven year-old. She had no memory of them, having been an infant the last time they had been together. Five year-old Kaworu (renamed from Saboru) was elated to finally meet his older siblings, especially his newly acquired big brothers.

Chiyoko with her two young daughters in tow, and Mizuko, carrying baby Ayako, put together a welcome dinner that was enthusiastically and totally consumed.

The next day, Kazuichi put the new family members to work. Shigeko and Takuma replaced hired hands on Kazuichi's poultry farm, while Jiro was sent out to be a part-time shepherd at a nearby sheep ranch. After just a week had passed, Mizuko began to feel as if her reconstituted family could enjoy a decent life together in Montana.

Finally, Mizuko thought as she and her children gathered together at the day’s end, we can now move forward together as a family. But before she could put her thoughts into words, an animated Kazuichi climbed up into the boxcar and made a momentous announcement.

“We are moving to California.”

end of Chapter 12, 'The Railroad, Part 2'

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