Chapter 17, segment 1 of 3, 'BEFORE THE STORM, 1937-1942'
Mizuko stood at the kitchen sink rinsing the last of the dinner dishes. The warm glow from the kitchen window rapidly diminished into the outside gloom. Barely visible in the pelting rain were the outlines of the four Nomura Brothers produce trucks and Takuma’s car sitting in the muddy yard.
The deluge was unusual for Southern California. For Mizuko it triggered memories of the winter rain in Washington State during her first year in America. The amount of rainfall was reaching historic levels, nearing thirty inches for the year, with the rest of April, May, and June yet to come. With the field crops sodden and muddy, the only thing that Mizuko knew about the freakish weather was that there would be no work for her tomorrow, and little produce for Henry and Jiro to haul and market.
Awake since dawn, a pleasantly tired Mizuko wiped off the kitchen counter and neatly hung the dishtowel on a rack to dry. She stepped back to appreciate the cleanliness and order of her modern kitchen. In times past, off days like this would have prompted anxiety over unpaid bills and diminishing food stores. But now, with Henry and Jiro’s business prospering at the Wholesale Produce Market, Mizuko and the rest of her family no longer had to stress over what they would have to eat at their next meal.
The Nomuras were comfortably ensconced in a house with running water, electricity, a modern Maytag Washing Machine, and even a Philco radio. For the first time since her early childhood, Mizuko felt almost worry-free.
Mizuko smiled at the sound of laughter she heard coming from the living room. Takuma, Jiro, Kaworu, Ayako, and Yoshito were listening to one of their favorite radio shows, the Aldrich Family. Twenty-eight year-old Takuma, her oldest, had become a big fan of Henry Aldrich, the hapless teenage star of the program, so much so that he had adopted the western name of Henry for himself.
Around the family he still answered to his Japanese name, Takuma, but throughout the rough and tumble world of the Produce Market, he had become known by the American names of either Henry or Hank. Changing his name seemed to have added to his success.
Since 1939, when Takuma had first adopted the name of Henry, the Nomura Brothers Produce Brokerage had greatly increased its business. Brokering fresh produce from several Japanese-run local farms, the Nomura Brothers Produce stall was supplying vegetables to many independent grocery stores throughout Los Angeles County. They were even making some headway into doing business with the big grocery chains like Safeway Markets. In addition to selling the produce, they were making money hauling produce to the market from the farms with their trucks.
Twenty-five year-old Jiro, who did the accounting for their partnership, insisted that most of the growth of their business was the result of Henry’s personality and salesmanship. He observed that most of the produce buyers would rather banter and trade with the voluble Henry than pay fifty cents less per crate at competing produce stalls.
Despite Jiro’s contention, Henry, as superstitious as his late father Kazuichi, attributed much of their business success to the switch of his first name. Working seventeen hours a day, six days a week also obviously contributed to their success.
Mizuko was thankful to have most of her children together with her for the evening. She missed Yoshiko, her eldest daughter, who had moved out at the end of March to work on a nearby farm with her brand-new husband Isamu (Sam) Hasegawa. They made a handsome if unlikely couple. Yosh, as introverted and quiet as she was tall and pretty, coupled with Sam, the extroverted and charismatic former All-City football running back from Los Angeles.
What they did have in common was that they were both the children of farmers, used to working hard and long hours.
Henry turned up the radio as the volume of the drumming rain increased on the rooftop. Thank goodness for this sturdy house, thought Mizuko. Just a few years ago a storm like this would have meant putting out pots and cans to catch water from the leaking roof in their Oshiba farm quarters. Mizuko went into the bedroom she shared with her youngest daughter Ayako, and turned on the reading lamp next to the bed. It had been a while since she had written to her younger sister Tomoye in Onori-mura. She laid out her fountain pen and ink on the bedside table and sat down to write.
April 15, 1941
Please forgive me for not writing to you sooner. I really have no excuse for not doing so, since life has been calm and predictable since we’ve moved to the house on Sherman Way in North Hollywood, California. Takuma and Jiro have continued to enjoy great success in their produce business. You would be proud to see what they have been able to accomplish through their own hard work.
They have generously rented this house for me and the rest of the family, and continue to pay for even the utility bills. I’m still hiring myself out to do farm work for some of the Japanese farmers living nearby. Young Yoshito and Ayako are going to school and doing well. They are both tall for their age, just like me, and our brother, Katsumi. Kaworu is attending Los Angeles City College and is also driving a truck for Henry and Jiro. Like his father Kazuichi, he seems to have a gift with numbers. I hope he continues with his studies so he can make the most of it.
I want to thank you again for looking after father. I am so grateful that he has remained healthy for all this time. Were you able to celebrate his eightieth birthday last year?
The big news here is that Yoshiko has married and moved with her husband Isamu Hasegawa into a house of their own nearby. They’ve been able to lease some good farmland and should do well. Our house feels empty without her around. But life is all about change, right? I think Takuma was very impressed that Yoshiko actually got married. He’s already twenty-eight years old, but he’s been too busy to even think about a wife for himself.
Yoshiko’s marriage seems to have inspired him. He’s actually been talking about hiring a baishakunin to help him find a wife. We’ll see what happens with that.
My health is still good although in this wet weather my joints can ache a bit. Yoshiko said it is probably arthritis, but isn’t that something you get when you’re old? A hot ofuro and an aspirin can usually set me right.
I heard that the Japanese army is sending more and more men to China. It’s hard to know what’s really going on. Is everything OK in Onori-mura?
Give my best to Otoosan, your family, and everyone else. Please write when you can.
Affectionately, your sister,
As Mizuko put away her writing materials she reflected on the changes in her life since she had left the Oshiba farm four years ago. Who would have believed that everything would turn out so well?
Unbidden, her thoughts returned to her quiet first daughter. It was so hard to believe that Yoshiko was a married woman living with her own husband! Mizuko had barely welcomed Yoshiko back from her stint as a schoolgirl helper with the Workman family in Los Angeles, when Sam started coming by.
Over the next month the rain gradually abated. Mizuko’s farm work increased as the fields dried out and the crops matured. By late May, Mizuko was working six days a week on the nearby Adachi farm. In the meantime, Henry did hire a go-between to help him find a wife. After being presented with several potential mates that he described as, ‘way too short and chubby’, he was introduced to a tall, demure nisei woman from Long Beach.
In August of 1941, Henry and Mikako Nakadegawa were married at a Presbyterian church in Long Beach. The ceremony, financed by an exuberant Henry, lavishly featured three bridesmaids and a white wedding gown designed and sewn by the bride. Following the ceremony the couple lived for a short time with Mizuko until they moved to their own place closer to downtown Los Angeles. As Henry’s base of operation shifted from the San Fernando Valley to central Los Angeles, there was no longer the need for the large property on Sherman Way.
Mizuko, along with Kaworu, Ayako and Yoshito moved to a house on a smaller lot located on Laurel Canyon Boulevard about a mile from their former home.
As Mizuko was preparing lunch for the family on Sunday, December 7, 1941 the unimaginable happened. Regular radio programming was interrupted by the unbelievable announcement that Japanese warplanes had attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Fifteen year-old Ayako and twelve year-old Yoshito peppered their mother with questions over what was happening. Mizuko could do little else but wring her hands in dismay.
“This can’t be true!” she repeated over and over.
Mizuko’s mind raced as she tried to make sense of what was happening. What were the Japanese thinking? This is madness. What happens to us now? What will happen to my family in Japan?
The food preparation abandoned, Mizuko walked numbly to the kitchen table and sat down. Kaworu joined his mother and siblings as they silently listened to the horrifying reports pouring from the radio.
After a sleepless night of worry, Mizuko headed off for another day of fieldwork. The fields still needed to be planted and winter crops tended to, war or no war. Kaworu drove to Los Angeles City College (LACC), giving young Yoshito a lift to his elementary school on the way. For them life continued, seemingly unchanged. But for Ayako, a sophomore at Van Nuys High School, there was a dramatic transformation.
As she walked to the bus pickup stop that morning, Ayako soon realized that she was walking alone. On Friday, before the weekend, she had walked with a crowd of students from the area to the neighborhood pickup point.
Today, everyone was clearly avoiding her.
On the bus, all seats were “taken” and she ended up sitting in the back row, isolated from the others. The students nearest to her were uncharacteristically silent, stealing resentful glances back at Ayako, a girl they had included in their conversations just a few days earlier.
At school, the ostracism continued. A week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the principal of the school came to Ayako’s classroom.
“I have an important announcement to make,” she said officiously. “It has come to my attention that one of your classmates is related to the official from Japan who told the United States government that it had nothing to fear from Japan. I would advise you all to steer clear of the niece of Ambassador Nomura,” she concluded, looking directly at Ayako.
Ayako sat back in shock at the principal’s statement. What she had told the class was a complete lie. Ayako tried to think of a way to explain to the class that she was in no way related to the Ambassador, and that the surname Nomura was common in Japan.
However, the blatant falseness of the principal’s statement left her speechless. And she was astounded at how all her fellow students had accepted the principal’s statement without question. From that moment on, Ayako became a pariah to all her classmates and teachers.
end of Chapter 17, segment 1 of 3, 'Before The Storm, 1937 - 1942'