• Art Nomura

Chapter 7, Segment 2 of 2, 'Leaving, Summer 1911'

Mizuko took in the sleeping platforms around her and noted that half of the other Japanese passengers were female, some as young as she. A petite young woman with a pretty, heart-shaped face, who looked to be Mizuko’s age struggled to lift a battered suitcase onto the next platform.

“Here, let me help you,” Mizuko offered.

The girl looked up in surprise as Mizuko easily lifted the heavy luggage onto the platform.

Domo arigato, thank you,” she said with downcast eyes.

“Why are you taking rocks to America?” Mizuko asked.

Alarmed, the girl looked up in protest, then realizing the joke, reddened self-consciously.

“I could only carry two bags, and there were so many things I wanted to bring, so I…..”

“I understand." Mizuko smiled. "It was hard to know what was necessary for the trip. I had the same problem,” Mizuko reassured the eagerly nodding girl.

“My name is Yukiye. I am going to meet my new husband in Victoria which is in Canada,” the girl said brightly. “Where are you going?” she asked.

Tacoma, Washington.” Mizuko replied. “It’s a town near Seattle. My husband has a farm there.”

Once the ice was broken, Yukiye’s questions, speculations, concerns tumbled out. Over the next three days she continued a virtual monologue during their waking hours. On the fourth day however, Yukiye’s chatter abruptly stopped and she began to weep. It was as if she had finally realized the finality of her family’s decision to have her marry a complete stranger and leave Japan. Mizuko tried to comfort her, but it took a long time for Yukiye’s crying to pass.

With a gentle pat on her shoulder, Mizuko took her leave and climbed up the stairs from the steerage deck.

Upwind of the continuous stream of black smoke and vapor pouring out of the Mexico Maru's smokestack, the sea air was fresh and crisp. She ignored the press of the other passengers seeking a respite from the fetid conditions below and marveled at the enormous blue-green ocean swells that seemed to be hurrying the freighter to the east.

She had listened far longer than was healthy to Yukiye’s fears, ambitions, and dreams, but she could not ignore the fact that they mirrored many of her own. Where would she live? Who was this strange man she called her husband? Would she be accepted in her new community? Would she be able to continue her education? Would they prosper? These and other thoughts rose and fell like the sea beneath the ship. When the dinner bell rang, she turned from the deck rail.

At least, she reflected, I have someone to talk to who is in the same boat! She laughed to herself over the pun as she passed through the narrow hallway that led to the lower deck.

The days and nights passed by slowly. Mizuko, unaccustomed to inactivity, tried to keep herself busy. When the sea was too rough to go on deck, she re-packed and re-folded her belongings, and mended any defects in the clothing she had brought. Reading and studying in the dim light of the steerage bay tired her eyes quickly, so she found herself unaccustomedly interacting with her fellow Japanese. They too were people raised on work, so the social interaction between them at times felt forced as if too much pointless conversation was wasteful. The women were either housewives returning to their husbands or picture brides like Yukiye who were on their ways to meet their new mates. Most were the daughters of farmers, looking for a way out of poverty as much as seeking a husband. The men kept largely to themselves and were a predictable collection of farmers, small shopkeepers, and a few fishermen.

Yukiye, after her bout of depression, bounced back to her effusive persona. Through her Mizuko got to meet many of the other women in their compartment, including those bound for Tacoma. Tomoji, Kume, and Matsuno were picture brides,while Take and Yone were already married to Japanese men in the states and were returning after visits to their families in Japan. Mizuko was the youngest of them all, so she respectfully mostly listened to their stories of difficulties in Japan and their hopes for a new start in America. Only two were from Hiroshima-ken.

Mizuko found the others interesting as much for their regional dialects as for the stories they told. Although concerned for their futures, they all shared a sense of adventure about the lives they would lead in America.

Kazuichi interacted with the other shipboard men on a superficial level, but was often gone from the Japanese quarters for hours at a time. On several occasions he stayed away all night. Later, Mizuko discovered that he spent that time in the Chinese steerage, playing poker, dice, and various Chinese gambling games like baahk gap piu, fools cards or shikko, or fan-tan.

Upon his return to the Japanese quarters, his gambling success or failure was easy to discern. Amiable and eager for intimacy on nights he won, he was predictably curt and sometimes abusive when he didn’t. Toward the end of the voyage, his mood remained unflinchingly dark, signaling a lasting turn for the worse in his gambling fortunes.

A week into the voyage, the evening monotony was broken by the low, melodic singing of a fellow passenger. After a long day of being pummeled by storm-driven squalls, the twilight greeted a calm, moonlit sea. Mizuko remembered the tune as one sung by some of the emigrants while they awaited medical clearance in Kobe. The song was about a prospective bride lamenting the less-than-handsome visage of her imminent husband. Yone, the singer and a married women, was gently poking fun at the young brides-to-be and one of their many unspoken worries.

Mizuko was more than surprised to see Kazuichi sit up from his usual early evening nap and nod approvingly at the singer.n She nearly fell off their platform when he joined in, confidently singing along in a clear tenor voice! mAt the sound of the duet the rest of the steerage patrons came alive. The group members either sat up or stood expectantly by their platforms.

An older man, smiling broadly, started clapping to the beat of the song. cAnother cried out, “Soya! at the end of a stanza. As the singers continued, most in the room were clapping and calling out. The energy was infectious. Mizuko found herself standing and smiling and clapping with everyone, including Yukiye and the other brides-in-waiting.

When they were finished, everyone, including Mizuko, applauded loudly. Who is this man? Mizuko wondered yet again.

The nightly performances went on for several more nights until a spell of heavy seas sent everyone to their platforms battling seasickness and nausea. However the camaraderie created by the communal entertainment lingered, and Mizuko came to see many of her traveling companions as more than mere acquaintances.

The call of “land ho” awakened Mizuko in the very early morning of July 26th, 1911.

Hurriedly, she dressed and climbed up to the deck. It had been nearly three weeks since she’d last seen land.

The rosy light of the rising sun to the east silhouetted a dim sliver of land just above the horizon. As they neared the picturesque dock at Victoria, British Columbia, a small boat came alongside, and two uniformed men clambered up a rope ladder thrown over the side of the Mexico Maru. The men quickly inspected all the passengers and their papers in both steerage rooms and then ushered a small group of the Chinese passengers over to the far end of the room.

At 5:20 a.m., as the sun rose, the Mexico Maru docked at Victoria, their first contact with the continent of North America. There, within an hour, all one hundred and fourteen Chinese passengers, including a dozen men detained for health and documentation issues, disembarked along with one German and the sixteen Japanese bound for Canada. Mizuko stood at the rail and waved and shouted out her goodbyes to her steerage mates including the diminutive Yukiye, struggling gamely down the gangplank with her heavy bags.

After unloading their Canada-bound passengers and cargo, the ship cast off for an overnight run down Puget Sound to Tacoma. The coastline was not unlike that of Japan, full of forested inlets, and hilly terrain. The air was warm but vastly more comfortable than the stifling humidity and heat of Hiroshima-ken in late July.

Beyond the clanking of the steam engine pistons, the steerage deck was nearly silent in contrast to the chatter and bustle of the previous days and nights.

Mizuko unpacked her best kimono for her arrival to Tacoma. The silken fabric was musty but still held a faint scent of the cedar chest that it had been stored in back home. Home, she thought wistfully as she smoothed the wrinkles out of the garment. Suddenly there was a shout from the stairway.

“Quick, come see!” shouted a woman beckoning her excitedly.

Mizuko folded her kimono in half, placed it in her luggage, and rushed to the stairway. On the deck she joined the small contingent of her fellow passengers who were pointing and exclaiming at the sight of a snow-capped mountain. In the distance stood Mt. Rainier, every bit as spectacular as their beloved Fuji-san. As Mizuko stood at the railing she was suddenly filled with a hope that America would be the place where her true destiny could be realized.

end of Chapter 7, segment 2 of 2, 'Leaving, Summer 1911'

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