• Art Nomura

Chapter 15, 'Kazuichi No More, 1930'

In the spring of 1930, Mizuko’s oldest stepdaughter Chiyoko, her husband Junji Kaneko, and their two daughters came south from Montana to Los Angeles. Chiyoko had convinced Junji to move because she was tired of the isolation and cold weather in Deer Lodge. Junji, dedicated to granting every wish of his pretty young wife, quit his well-paying job on the railroad and moved the family to California. Although he had no promise of an awaiting job, he capitalized on his skills as a experienced mechanic and leased a one-pump gasoline station adjacent to the Wholesale Produce Market. He quickly became a successful entrepreneur.

Although Mizuko already had a house full of people, she generously invited the Kanekos to stay at the Nomura apartment above the Cash and Carry. The congested living conditions and the addition of two more children to the mix created a few unexpected challenges.

Chiyoko’s two girls, Shizuka and Tomiye, ages six and five, made life difficult for their four year-old aunt Ayako by bossing her around mercilessly. Chiyoko, used to being Mizuko’s cohort and ally, assumed an unsolicited authoritarian stance towards her sister Shigeko, and the two older boys, Takuma, and Jiro. The three older children found Chiyoko's methods manipulative rather than clever, and chafed under her control.

Fortunately the level of conflict remained tolerable because the total contingent of twelve people (four Kanekos, and eight Nomuras) was seldom at home together. Eldest Nomura son Takuma worked from seven p.m. to seven a.m., so slept while most of his siblings and nieces were at school. Mizuko's husband Kazuichi, now a professed teetotaler, nonetheless maintained his eccentric behavior by disappearing on the weekends to stay elsewhere. Chiyoko's husband Kaneko-san worked very long hours at his gas station and was seldom home.

In early July, one of the annual highlights in the large Japanese community took place. The Southern California Hiroshima Kenjinkai held their annual summer picnic in Elysian Park, just north of the Los Angeles city center. Immigrants and their families originating from Hiroshima-ken in Japan comprised the biggest percentage of the Japanese population in Southern California. Mizuko was astounded at the size of the crowds at the gathering, all speaking Hiroshima-ben, the Japanese dialect of the Hiroshima region.

At first, Takuma, Jiro, Yoshiko, Kaworu, Ayako, along with Chiyoko’s daughters, stayed close to their parents. The shock at seeing so many Japanese faces at once was unnerving. Soon, however, the children eagerly joined in on the many games that were offered. Three-legged, wheelbarrow, and gunny sack races were contested for the various age groups with cheap toys and sweets as prizes. Football and baseball games vied for the boys’ attention. Both girls and boys flew kites and watched an ongoing talent show.

Unlimited soft drinks and cold watermelon augmented the elaborate obento each family had brought to the event. The aroma of teriyaki chicken cooking on hibachi filled the air. Onigiri, corn on the cob, and zen soba noodles were eaten everywhere.

Kazuichi reveled in the festive atmosphere. Unlike his family, he was acquainted with a great many of the attendees through his dealings at the Wholesale Market and as part of the Japanese gardening crowd. He even participated in the staged singing and dancing, entertaining the crowds on a raised platform with his skilled performances.

The children saw their formidable father in an entirely different light, and marveled at how unlike he was from the man performing on stage. That afternoon, they were offered a glimpse of where their father’s true passions lay.

Kazuichi was especially effective in the singing of shigin, a type of recitative-style singing that used a prescribed series of notes and breathing to perform classical poetry. The words were difficult to understand since they were taken from texts written in archaic Japanese. But the emotions behind his performance felt genuine, and both his children and the general kenjinkai audience applauded loudly when Kazuichi was done.

Throughout the warm, sunny afternoon, Chiyoko and Junji met many other couples with young children. As a result of networking with other immigrant families, they learned of a vacant apartment not far from the Nomura store. They soon moved out of the Cash and Carry, and the Nomura’s apartment went from being jam-packed to merely crowded again.

Life went on routinely until mid-September. On the 18th of the month an incident occurred that would again alter the fortunes of the Nomura family.

Working at his gardening job that day, Kazuichi felt light-headed. It had been a blistering hot and humid day, so he thought he might have a case of heatstroke. When he got home he did not sit down for dinner but uncharacteristically went directly to bed. By nine o’clock he was running a fever that could not be brought down. Mizuko sent Jiro to the wholesale market to fetch Takuma, who drove his father to the old Los Angeles General Hospital on Mission Road a few miles northeast of the store.

Day after day, despite the efforts of the hospital staff, Kazuichi’s health worsened. On Thursday, September 30, 1930, eleven days after he was admitted, Kazuichi died. He was fifty-one years old.

The cause of death was listed as sepsis, blood poisoning. Although it was never confirmed, it was likely a bacterial infection had entered and spread from small cuts on his hands.

Kazuichi was never attentive to his hygiene, and on the day when his illness began he had been scooping fertilizer onto garden plants with his bare hands. Apparently something as seemingly innocuous as a scraped knee or nicked cuticle had allowed the toxic bacteria in the fertilizer entry.

Shortly before Kazuichi died he called his children and wife to his hospital bedside one by one. He merely looked sadly at the girls, Shigeko, Ayako, and Yoshiko, and wordlessly tousled eight year-old Kaworu’s hair. With great effort he managed to utter a few words to the older boys, Takuma and Jiro.

“I am sorry that you had such a difficult time in Japan,” he whispered to fourteen year-old Jiro. You are a smart boy. Study hard and listen to your mother.”

When Takuma, his seventeen year-old eldest son approached the bedside, Kazuichi apologized again. “I am sorry that I beat you. You did not usually deserve it. Take care of your mother and the rest of the family. I’m counting on you to do that.” Takuma waited, but his father said no more. He stepped aside to allow his mother to come close.

“Please forgive me for the hard life I have subjected you to,” he pleaded to Mizuko. “You have been a dedicated wife and mother and you have worked hard to keep everyone fed, clothed, and sheltered. I regret not being a better provider. I am sorry to have been such a selfish individual. You did not deserve the hardships you suffered,” he added.

Mizuko, with baby Yoshito nestled asleep on her shoulder, stared down at her husband of nineteen years with mixed emotions. It had been beyond difficult being Kazuichi’s wife, but she would not and could not let her self dwell on past misdeeds and problems.

“Forget about all that,” she implored. “The past is over and does not matter. Concentrate on getting well, so you can help us continue to survive, then prosper.”

Kazuichi looked at his wife, and fell silent. His premonition of death had come to pass, albeit a year later than he had expected. He regarded his assembled family for a moment, then closed his eyes for the last time. Suddenly his body jerked with tension, his final breath rattled in his throat, and he was gone. Not a tear was shed at his passing. Mizuko, a widow at age thirty-five, was left with six children and a step-daughter, ages one to eighteen, to care for alone.

News of Kazuichi’s passing spread quickly. By the afternoon of the next day a representative of the Southern California Hiroshima kenjinkai arrived at the Cash and Carry store. He told Mizuko that since Kazuichi had been an active member of the group that his funeral expenses would be paid for out of association funds. The representative asked for addresses for Kazuichi’s family in Japan to send them telegrams notifying them of their eldest son and brother’s passing.

Almost immediately Kazuichi’s two sisters in Japan replied with the unexpected news that they would attend the funeral. Mizuko had not seen any evidence that the Nomura family was close-knit, so their willingness to make the difficult and costly transpacific trip to attend the funeral was totally surprising.

Despite not being a regular member of a congregation, Mizuko was able to arrange for a funeral service at a Catholic church nearby with the help of one of her customers. Kazuichi’s body was embalmed, and two weeks after his death, with his recently arrived sisters and their husbands from Japan in attendance, the funeral was held. Even though a Christian church was being used, a Buddhist priest presided. It was clear that the priest was a stranger to Kazuichi when he referred to him as ‘Ichi-ichi’, instead of recognizing the proper pronunciation of his name.

Mizuko and her children did not know most of the mourners in attendance. Kazuichi had steadfastly maintained a life apart from his family that had fostered this odd situation. It felt like the people at the funeral were talking about and mourning a man that was a stranger to his own family. After the ceremony, Kazuichi’s remains were cremated. A ceremonial urn containing his ashes were given to his sister Mitoyo Doi with the charge to inter it in the Nomura family grave in Hiroshima. As the chanon, oldest son of his generation of the Nomura clan, Kazuichi’s remains should have been accorded a place of honor among the family’s dead.

In the days following the funeral, the Nomura household quickly assumed a different rhythm and feeling. No longer held captive by the caprice and dominating behavior of her late husband, Mizuko felt free to make decisions based on her and her children’s needs. Even though money was tight, the first thing she did was to purchase a used clothes washer so she would no longer have to do the laundry by hand as mandated by her late husband. Despite the loss of her late husband’s earning potential, the quality of Mizuko’s life and that of her family improved.

Although Mizuko's step-daughter Shigeko was a willing and reliable worker at the store, her lack of English fluency limited her usefulness to stocking shelves and cleaning. So when she turned twenty years old in March, months before his death, Kazuichi had hired a baishakunin, a go-between, to find a suitable husband for her. With Kazuichi’s approval, she was matched with a thirty year-old issei farm laborer Torataro Oshiba, who had emigrated from Wakayama-ken to America.

For the New Year’s celebration of 1931, Mizuko decided to put together a traditional feast of Japanese food for her relatives, friends, and best customers. Working all night for two days to prepare the holiday foods like maze-gohan, ozoni, and myriad other dishes was tiring, but to Mizuko the New Year’s preparations signaled a fresh start in her life.

Fittingly, her stepdaughter and old ally Chiyoko was there to help prepare the repast. The New Year’s celebration served a dual purpose as it also provided a way to celebrate Shigeko’s long-delayed upcoming nuptials.

Kazuichi’s untimely passing had forced Shigeko and Torataro Oshiba to delay their wedding plans, but on January 5, 1931, they were finally married by a Shinto priest in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter Shigeko moved out of the store to work with her husband on a leased farm in Inglewood, about eleven miles south of downtown Los Angeles.

As a result of the changing dynamics in the family, Takuma, became the de facto man of the house at age seventeen. Last a student at age thirteen, he had worked long hours at whatever jobs were available since leaving school. In assuming part of the financial burden of the household, Takuma had worked as a gardener, swamper, gas station attendant, and truck driver, all with the goal of helping to support his siblings and mother.

However, with a lack of proper parental guidance in his own upbringing, Takuma was ill equipped to act as a surrogate father to his five siblings. With his mercurial temper and brash personality, he was more like his late father than he would ever admit. He ordered his siblings around with impunity, resorting to corporal punishment whenever he felt the urge. Mizuko, seeing the shortcomings of his approach, nonetheless recognized the sacrifices her oldest son was making, and quietly supported his efforts.

Kazuichi, even in death, continued to vex the family. Mizuko discovered soon after his passing that he owed $1,500 to a fellow gardener. When she told her oldest boys of the unmet obligation, they immediately stepped up to make good on it. In addition to their twelve-hour shifts at other jobs, Takuma and Jiro arose early every morning for a year to work off the debt to the gardener who had made the loan.

As the Great Depression continued, the consequences of Mizuko’s generous credit policies came home to roost. As the prices charged by her competitors fell, the Cash and Carry had to follow suit or lose what few customers it had. Profit margins dwindled to nothing. Customers who had been allowed to buy on credit left the neighborhood without paying their bills at the store. Mizuko soon did not have a way to pay her own mounting debts. The economic state of the Cash and Carry became untenable.

One day an ominous looking stranger entered the store. He looked so much like a gangster in his pin-stripped suit, fedora hat, and wingtip shoes, that twelve year-old Yoshiko, who was tending the store at the time, was fully prepared to hand over the scant cash in the till if asked for it. Looking around at the sad condition of the store, the man instead reached into his pocket and handed a nickel to an amazed three year-old Yoshito before walking out.

Gone were the days when little Yoshito could sit in the counter display case and eat the newly delivered candy by the handful. By 1933 the store could no longer afford to buy from its usual vendors. The only merchandize routinely stocked was the produce Takuma and Jiro brought home from the Wholesale Market. In 1934 the store went completely broke. A pile of unpaid customer accounts and a few jars of dried spices were all that remained of the once-thriving enterprise.

Before the store went belly up, Mizuko and the rest of the family did everything they could to sustain themselves. This included re-using, recycling, and working outside jobs whenever possible. White rice, a food staple, was traditionally packed in white muslin sacks. Mizuko used the cotton fabric of the empty sacks to make clothing for her children. Late into the night Mizuko washed and bleached out the company logos printed on the fabric, then sewed underpants and shirts from the processed material.

In late 1933 Mizuko found a job in the downtown garment district sewing formal gowns. She quickly became a favorite of management because she could expertly sew two gowns a day to the average worker’s one. The other workers resented her work ethic, and shunned her. But despite her industriousness, the business eventually folded as the economy worsened.

Surviving the depression also meant accepting the kindness of relative strangers. Emma Englebrach had remained a loyal customer at the Cash and Carry even after Kazuichi’s passing. Out of pity for Mizuko’s situation she hired her twelve year-old daughter Yoshiko as a live-in house girl. After Yoshiko returned from school, her job in the Englebrach house included sweeping the porch, doing laundry, vacuuming, and general housekeeping. Having grown up with only the bare essentials, Yoshiko often felt inadequate to the task.

For instance, before working for the Englebrachs, she had never operated a vacuum cleaner.

Yoshiko’s knowledge of western meal preparation was also very limited. Her attempts at cooking for her employers often ended in disaster. A testament to the Englebrach’s generosity was that they never complained about the food she prepared for them.

Nevertheless, Yoshiko was much relieved when once a week an older African American woman would arrive at the house to cook the Englebrach sisters a proper Sunday supper.

Since the Englebrachs lived in the neighborhood, the rest of the family could stay in contact with Yoshiko on a regular basis. While living with the Englebrach’s she had the luxury of sleeping in her own bed and the assurance of three wholesome meals a day. But after a year of living with the sisters, her brother Jiro picked Yoshiko up and brought her back home.

Not withstanding the Nomura’s obvious poverty he didn’t want his sister to grow up away from her family like he had been forced to do.

Despite Jiro’s concern, Yoshiko was soon asked to be a house girl again by the parish priest who had heard of Mizuko’s dire financial situation. Thomas Workman and his wife, Margaret Kilgariff Workman, devout Catholics, were the son and daughter-in-law of William Workman, the former Mayor of Los Angeles. Margaret was a leader in Progressive politics and women’s rights issues in Southern California. Living at their spacious, well-appointed home was almost like being on a vacation for Yoshiko.

As the eldest daughter of Mizuko’s four youngest children, Yoshiko had served as surrogate mother to her younger siblings since Mizuko had worked long hours at the cannery, the Cash and Carry, and at various part-time jobs. Her time in the Workman household gave her a much-needed respite from the grown-up responsibilities of childcare and guidance. Without Yoshiko around however, Kaworu, Ayako, and Yoshito were often left on their own while Mizuko worked.

For a brief period, Kaworu, tried working as a houseboy for the well-known American actor Claude Rains. Rains, a devout Catholic like Emma Englebrach and the Workmans, was encouraged by the local parish priest to take on eleven-year old ‘Carl’ in 1933. However, Kaworu knew far less than Yoshiko did about caring for a household. Within a week, he was back at the Cash and Carry.

The most radical accommodation to the family’s dwindling resources was in regards to Yoshito, Mizuko’s youngest child. As Mizuko’s income fell to zero, Nagai-san, the Produce Broker, reappeared. Still a bachelor with a thriving business of his own, he offered to take in five-year old Yoshito and raise him as if he were his son. Mizuko, conflicted to the end, knew she couldn’t put enough on the table to feed all of her children adequately. It was with a heavy heart that she finally acquiesced to Nagai-san’s previously unthinkable request and allowed him to take custody of her youngest child.

By May of 1934, the eight members of the Nomura family living together had been reduced to just five: Mizuko, Takuma, Jiro, Kaworu, and Ayako. When they were eventually evicted from the Cash and Carry, Takuma found another store further from the downtown area to rent, but after a short while, it too failed.

In the late summer of 1934, after weeks of hunting for a job, Mizuko secured employment of sorts at the San Fernando Valley farm of her son-in-law Torataro Oshiba, and her stepdaughter Shigeko. Before they left Los Angeles, Jiro fetched his sister Yoshiko from the Workman family. Mizuko, accompanied by five of her six children, left urban Los Angeles to again live and work on a farm.

end of Chapter 15, 'Kazuichi No More - 1930'

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