• Art Nomura

Chapter 18, segment 1 of 3, 'Confined'

In the early morning before sunrise, on Tuesday, May 2, 1942, Mizuko woke with a start. Disoriented in the dim half-light, it took her a moment to recall that the dusty, stark room surrounding her was the family's new home. An eerie brightness flooded through the west windows of the room highlighting the sleeping forms of her family.

Silhouetted by the moon, the massive, craggy peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range appeared close enough to touch. Knowing that finding sleep again would be futile, Mizuko quietly slipped out of bed, dressed, and stepped outside.

Thankfully the battering dust storm of the previous day had left a calm clearness in its wake. Surrounding the bright lunar nimbus, the sudsy glow of countless stars filled the sky. She stood for a moment in the pre-dawn stillness, than walked to the opposite end of the barracks where her oldest daughter Yoshiko and her family had been assigned to live.

Yoshiko, four months pregnant, had had a tough time with her pregnancy before the ordeal of relocation. After yesterday’s long bus ride she had looked on the verge of collapse. True to her quiet nature, she had not uttered a word of complaint. But Mizuko knew she suffered deeply.

The quiet of the morning magnified the slightest sound. Mizuko stepped up to the thin wooden door of Yoshiko’s room and put her ear to its surface. The sounds of gentle snoring and steady breathing calmed her concerns. Assured that her exhausted daughter was resting quietly, Mizuko made her way across the moonlit median to the women’s latrine, fifty feet away.

nside the wood frame structure a sole bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling dimly illuminated the rough interior. Mizuko was surprised to see someone standing by one of the sinks. A woman turned to her in the midst of washing her hands. She bowed slightly.

Ohayo gozaimasu, good morning,” she said in a loud whisper. “There’s dirt everywhere, isn’t there?” she said as she meticulously scoured her fingernails with a small stiff brush.

Mizuko nodded and stepped past her into the next room where the toilets were located.

In the lavatory, five toilets stood side-by-side fronting a dingy half wall. On the other side of the wall sat five more toilets. Lamentably, no partitions separated the individual toilets.

Mizuko winced at the thought of a ‘full house’ in the facilities.

Sumimasen, don’t mind me,” called out the woman at the sink.

“It’s a little embarrassing, ne. I guess they don’t want us to have any secrets,” she continued.

Mizuko examined the toilet installations then lowered her pants and sat down.

“It could be worse,” she remarked. “At least they are flush toilets.”

When Mizuko approached the sinks to wash her hands, the other woman introduced herself.

“Wakanabe, Keiko. I’ve been assigned to 15-10,“ she said pointing with her chin back over her shoulder.

“Did you come in yesterday with all the others? What a madhouse! I thought that the windstorm was going to blow us all the way back to Los Angeles! We came in from Sawtelle, over in West Los Angeles. I came with my son, his wife, and their little girl. How about you?” she asked.

Mizuko started to answer, but before she could elaborate, the woman proceeded to offer her a detailed personal history and recount how the preparations to depart for Manzanar had affected her.

“We ended up selling everything in my son’s store for pennies on the dollar. Can you believe it? I tried to bring some of the nicer things with us, but we could only carry so much.

Komatta ne, what a bother!”

As the woman continued her litany of complaints, it dawned on Mizuko that for the first time since being a child in Japan she did not have a clue as to what she would be doing for the rest of the day. What a strange feeling not to have an endless series of tasks to attend to; she actually had the time to stand and gossip with a stranger if that was what she chose to do.

Mizuko tuned back into what Keiko was saying. It was something about the breakfast schedule.

“My son told me that breakfast starts at 6:45 am. Why so early? I hear the food’s isn’t very good, but that you can get seconds if you want them.”

When Mizuko didn’t respond, Watanabe-san continued. “Where will you be sitting Nomura-san?”

Shitsurei shimasu, please excuse me, I need to see if the family is getting up. “It’s been so good to meet you. I’m sure we’ll see each other soon,” Mizuko said as she bowed and sidled her way back outside.

Soh ne, we must talk some more soon,” Watanabe-san said as she reached for her towel.

So much to say, Mizuko thought. I hope she meets some others who like to talk as much as she does.

In the eastern sky, the stars were fading against the glow of the oncoming dawn. With time remaining before breakfast Mizuko decided to walk the perimeter of block 15 before returning to the room.

Stepping around the corner of the barracks she came upon several rabbits with white puffs for tails gnawing on the sparse grass at the side of the building. Acclimated to the presence of humans after months of frenzied construction work, they looked up briefly then resumed their nibbling.

In the distance she could hear the eerie yipping of coyotes. Suddenly she senses more than saw a large silent form gliding past her. nThere was a brief scrabbling in the brush followed by a truncated shriek. A large barn owl flew off, a limp body in its talons. In this wild isolation, the cycle of life and death continued as always.

Mizuko allowed herself a moment of reflection. Is this where my life has been leading me? Dismissing the thought as inappropriate, she drew herself up with the mantras that had helped her throughout her difficult life: shikataganai, it can’t be helped, and gaman, one must endure despite the challenges one encounters no matter the circumstances.

The chill of dawn and her renewed resolve prompted Mizuko to turn up the collar of her jacket as she resumed her walk. As she looked up at the shrouded peaks to the west, memories of her life in Montana came flooding back. Even though the mountain valleys of Deer Lodge had been bordered with evergreen forests, instead of high desert flora, the desolation of Manzanar felt very similar. She recalled those seven challenging years in the Rocky Mountains where she had endured a harsh, dramatic, environment that had mirrored the hostility of her current surroundings.

But at first glance her life in Montana had been more difficult than her current situation. She clearly remembered the thin-walled, lice-infested railroad boxcar she and her family lived in during the spring, summer, and fall, and the cave-like subterranean dugout with a dirt floor they called home during the sub-zero winters. Even the rudimentary housing at the Oshiba’s farm in Southern California and that of many of the farms she had worked on in Washington State made her current accommodations seem more than just passable.

By the time the sun had crested the bare hills to the east, Mizuko had completed her tour of block 15. Each barracks in the block was identical to the next, long rectangular boxes built of green lumber raised off the ground on short wooden piers. In addition to the mess hall and what appeared to be a meeting room of some kind, she had counted a total of fourteen residential barracks. Judging from the dim lights and moving shadows within them, it appeared that most were occupied. Mizuko calculated that with an average of twenty-four people per barracks that the entire block could house upward of three hundred people.

Turning to view her surroundings before re-entering her unit, the vista of blocks and blocks of barracks stretching out in every direction was hard to believe. Why are we here? she wondered.

When she re-entered her unit, everyone was already up and about including Yoshito (Jimmy), her youngest, and typically the last to arise. Jiro, his wet hair slicked back from a recent shower, asked with his characteristic concern. “Mama, daijobu desu ka? Is everything OK?” “Daijobu, daijobu,” Mizuko replied.

“I was thinking,” she continued at seeing her daughter-in-law Mikako self-consciously brushing her hair while facing the wall. “Do you think it would be possible to divide the space up so everyone has a little more privacy.”

“I’ve heard that some people are using their extra blankets as partitions,” Jiro replied. “ I think I know where to dig up some twine to hang them on. But right now, we should head over to the mess hall. It’s best to get there early if you don’t want to spend the morning standing in line.”

Breakfast was rudimentary: scrambled eggs, toast and coffee. Pretty tasteless, thought Mizuko, but there seems to be enough to go around and I didn’t have to pay for it, or prepare, or even serve it. Yoshiko, Sam, and Sam’s father, Kinzaburo Hasegawa joined them at the picnic style wooden table.

“Is this the best they can do?” grimaced Mr. Hasegawa as he poked at his eggs congealing in a pool of oil on his aluminum plate.

“They’re always looking for good cooks,” Jiro volunteered. Sam gave Jiro a bemused look knowing what was coming next.

“Is that right?” Mr. Hasegawa replied, “How much do they pay?”

“Nothing yet, but I heard them say that anyone that works will be paid a monthly wage,” Jiro replied.

“Where do I sign up? I can cook better than this in my sleep,” Kinzaburo said, pointing to the half-eaten food on the plates around the table. Before anyone could respond he stood up decisively and headed for the kitchen.

Ojisan,” Jiro called out. “Let him go,” said Yoshiko quietly, “When he gets that tone in his voice, its better just to stand aside and let the chips fall where they may.”

“I’m going back for seconds!” Jimmy announced, oblivious to what had just transpired. He unfolded his gangly body from the table and ambled back to the serving line.

“It’s better now than when I first got here,” said Jiro to the others, “Most of the cooks had never cooked for more than their own families before.”

“It’s a big, big difference cooking for a lot of people,” Mizuko observed.

“Mama, maybe you should apply. You have the experience and knowhow,” urged Jiro. “You used to cook for over a hundred people at a time back in Montana, didn’t you?”

Ii-e, no thanks,” replied Mizuko. “If I have a choice, I’d rather not take on the responsibility of running a kitchen again. But I’d be willing to help out if they need me.”

Mr. Hasegawa came sauntering back with a pleased look on his face. “I told one of the cooks that I could cook better than him any day of the week. He took off his apron, threw it at me and told me the job was mine. He walked out before I could even thank him.”

Sam chuckled and Yoshiko looked distressed. “Papa, do you think that this is a good idea?” she said softly.

Mr. Hasegawa glared at her. “ I said I can do the job and I will,” he said sharply. “Shitsurei shimasu, excuse me,” he said bowing slightly to Mizuko. “I got to get that kitchen in shape for lunch.” Then he turned and walked away.

Yoshiko gave Mizuko an exasperated look.

Daijobu-yo, don’t worry. I’ll see if I can help out,” said Mizuko as she got up and followed Mr. Hasegawa.

Within a week, inmates from other blocks were lining up to eat at mess hall 15. Since the improvements coincided with Mr. Hasegawa’s addition to the kitchen staff, he readily accepted the many compliments over the improved quality of the food. Mr. Shigemori, the head chef knew otherwise. While Mizuko, the real reason for the improvements, toiled quietly in the kitchen, Mr. Hasegawa was spending most of his time berating the rest of the cook staff for the smallest infraction, and fussing over delivery issues.

Mizuko, on the other hand, helped the head chef and the rest of the kitchen staff in making the best of the foodstuffs available to them. With meat and fresh vegetables in short supply, it was critical that the food be properly prepared. This included carefully monitoring cooking temperatures and times, applying subtle seasoning, and cooking the ingredients in the proper order. While other mess halls habitually overcooked, over-salted, and made little effort to distinguish one meal from the next, Mizuko used her previous cooking expertise to help create wholesome, tasty meals that became the talk of the camp. This state of affairs continued until June when an urgent call for workers to staff the newly constructed camouflage net factory was announced in the camp newspaper.

Mizuko decided to apply for a job at the ‘camo’ factory, which caused great consternation among the mess hall staff. They knew that Mizuko, not Kinzaburo, was the largely responsible for their culinary success.

However, Mizuko was adamant about wanting to contribute directly to the U.S. war effort. When she told the rest of the family, they accepted her decision, mostly because they knew that once Mizuko had made a choice, she seldom changed her mind. However, Kaworu, her nineteen year old third son, vehemently opposed her plan.

“How can you even think of supporting the U.S. when they’ve got us locked up behind barbed wire? Where’s the sense in that?” he demanded.

Jiro, again assuming the role of peacemaker, tried to intervene. “I know it’s an unfair situation, but complaining won’t help.”

“I’m trying to make a point,” Kaworu persisted. “Besides, mama is the only one in the family who isn’t a U.S. citizen, why should she have to do anything for America after all she’s been through?”

Mizuko looked at Kaworu thoughtfully before she spoke, “If we want to get out of here,” she began, “ the war has to end. vIf we help the U.S. maybe it will end sooner. vJapan looks strong now, but they were wrong to start the war. I believe that in time the United States will prevail.”

Kaworu listened to his mother but would not back down. “If the U.S. government wanted us to help, why did they lock us up? I can’t believe they’ve jailed us, when we haven’t done anything to deserve it, except look like the enemy.”

Mizuko considered what her strapping nineteen-year old was saying and shook her head. “I have been a guest of America for over thirty years. Even though I’m not a citizen, I can still do something to show my gratitude for being able to live here.“

Taken aback by this unexpected declaration, Kaworu bit back an angry retort and glared at the rest of the family. “You all can do what you want, but I gotta get out of here.”

end of Chapter 18, segment 1 of 3, 'Confined'

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