After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Government encouraged all eligible young men to enlist immediately in the fight against its enemies overseas—all eligible young men, except Japanese-Americans. Nisei is the story of Hideo “Bobby” Takahashi, a Hawaiian-born Japanese-American who must overcome prejudice, internment, and the policies of his own government to prove his loyalty to his country. Narrated by Bobby Takahashi and read by his son, Robert, forty-six years after Bobby’s death, the story details the young Nisei’s determination to fight honorably for his country and return to the young love he was forced to leave—a girl he cannot have because she is White.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Nisei by JJ White, Robert Takahashi discovers a journal written by his father in the attic of his family home in Hawaii, just before the home is sold out from under him. Robert, who is planning to kill himself, sets his plans aside long enough to read his father’s journal, learning some dark family secrets that could possibly change Robert’s life. His father, Bobby Takahashi, a Japanese-American, was arrested as a spy when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, and he and his parents, along with Bobby’s arranged bride-to-be, are sent to and internment camp in California. Bobby’s life-long dream was to join the navy and fight for his country, but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has destroyed those plans. Bobby is finally allowed to join the military, but only the army, where he excels and receives a number of awards. The journal details Bobby’s life from 1941 until his death, in 1953.
The book is not only well written but thought provoking and enlightening. I learned a great deal that I never knew or even suspected about American history. This book is a must-read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Nisei by JJ White is the story of a Japanese-American Nisei, which is a Japanese son or daughter, born and educated in the US, whose parents immigrated from Japan. So I guess they would be first-generation Japanese-Americans. Our hero, Bobby Takahashi, describes his life and experiences from the time he was a young man in Hawaii in 1941 just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, most of the Japanese living in Hawaii and other parts of the country were rounded up and sent to internment camps. Bobby, who is falsely accused of being a spy, is sent with his family and his arranged-marriage fiancée Chiyoko, to an internment camp on the mainland. This signals the end of Bobby’s life-long dreams, which were to join the US Navy and to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mary. But the navy won’t take any Japanese-Americans, and Mary’s family won’t allow them to marry because Mary is white and Bobby is not. Once in the internment camp, Bobby is forced by his father to marry Chiyoko and, although he is finally allowed to join the military, they will only let him join the army, not the navy.
Nisei is a poignant, thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and heart-warming story that give us a glimpse into a part of our history that most Americans have never stopped to consider and know little about—a book that everyone should read.
January 2000, Pearl City, Oahu, Hawaii:
Robert Takahashi stared over the fat head of the realtor and counted the ships in the east loch of the harbor to relieve his boredom. It somehow seemed funny he could be bored, knowing that in a day or two he’d be dead.
He finally paid attention when Ms. Mahelona read the figure off the contract. Three hundred thousand dollars.
“That’s it? Three hundred thousand for a four bedroom? Can’t be right.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Takahashi. That’s the highest price offered, so far. I think if you wait a year to sell, maybe another hundred thousand, but in today’s market it’s the best we can do.”
She was probably buying it herself through a friend to sell later at a profit. Maybe she was so used to dealing with tourists, she forgot her roots. He should have known she’d do a piss- poor job of selling the house when he saw her name on the fax she sent to him in Las Vegas: Lelani Mahelona. Another fat Polynesian realtor. What was it with these local wahines? They were the most beautiful women in the world until they turned twenty and then, like some Hawaiian airbag, they inflated to the size of a walrus.
“It’s not enough,” he said.
“I’m sorry, but–”
“No. You don’t understand. I have a brother. That’s only sixty thousand apiece after we pay the second mortgage we took out for the nursing home.”
“You can wait and sell next–”
“No. I need the money now, not a year from now. I’ll be lucky to clear forty thousand, and with the divorce, maybe half of that.” He grabbed her shoulders. “I need to clear a hundred thousand, Lelani.”
The realtor bent down to escape Robert’s grip. “Mr. Takahashi, sixty thousand each is a good profit for a sale in Pearl City. Besides, it’s money you didn’t have yesterday. It’s not my fault. Your mother’s house is old. Built with wood only. Please.”
Robert backed away. At six-foot-four, three hundred pounds, he could have accidentally broken her bones. His temper was like a tick dug deep in the skin, impossible to shed. “Yeah, wow. Sorry, Lelani. I’m–I’m under a lot of pressure. Of course, you’re right. Let me go to the car for a pen.”
“I have a pen.”
“No. I have a favorite. Be right back.” Robert walked behind the rental car and unlocked the trunk. He peeked around to make sure Lelani wasn’t looking and reached in for the bottle of Jack Daniels. He took two quick drinks, screwed the cap on, and slid the bottle back into the trunk.
He couldn’t tell her why he needed more money. It was too embarrassing to admit failures. Fifty-six-years-old, nearly divorced, out of work, an embarrassment to his daughters, and up to his ass in gambling debts. Wouldn’t Lelani be surprised if he told her that? Well, maybe not. Maybe nothing surprised her. Nothing he did surprised himself anymore. The suicide would resolve everything, if he could just pull it off.
In some ways, the Japanese had gotten it right. In Japan, one could commit suicide legally and the family would still receive the insurance money. Enough money for the girls to finish college. Enough money for Marie to retire.
His father would be ashamed if he were alive, or perhaps not. Who understood how the Nisei thought? Maybe he’d be proud of his Sansei, taking the honorable route of death by suicide, though Robert had no intention of disemboweling himself in a hari kiri ritual. A simple accidental crash into a bridge abutment on H1 without a seatbelt would be honorable enough for him.
He walked back to Lelani, pen in hand, and burped. The stale smell of undigested whiskey floated on the sea breeze. If he smelled it, so did Lelani. “Where do I sign?”
She pointed to the bottom of the page. Robert signed three sheets and initialed five others. He felt guilty, expecting his dead mother to run down the driveway and beat him with that damn hibiscus branch. He could almost feel the slap, slap, slap, of the blows, and then the ever-present berating, first in pidgin then Japanese. He understood little of one and less of the other, but both made the sting worse. He could just hear her, “Yeah, wow, you sell, no. Kid no good–wow, sell house no good–no good–no good.”
Well, fuck her. He’d see her in hell in a few days and she could lash to her heart’s content. Always him–never his brother. She’d hated him. But why? It would be his first question.
“Would you like the check sent to your house in Las Vegas?” Lelani asked.
Lelani nodded and wrote some notes. “I’ll send your brother his share tomorrow, also. If there’s any problem, just call me at the office.”
“Thanks for your help, Lelani.” Robert’s hand devoured hers. She raised her thin eyebrows. Lelani had probably never felt such a huge hand from someone of Asian descent. Hawaiian maybe, but not Asian. “Can I keep the key for a while? I’d like to look around, see if we forgot anything of my mother’s.”
Lelani was hesitant, but handed it to him. “Drop off later, okay?”
“Sure.” Robert walked to his car as Lelani drove away in her mini-van. Her vehicle leaned significantly on the driver’s side. Too much two-p.m. poi. He retrieved the whiskey bottle from the trunk and then tried to hide it in a small paper bag when he saw Mrs. Brennan drive up the road and stop in front of the house. She exited from the car slowly and waved.
“Robbie?” She leaned unsteadily against the car. He had been friends with her son Paul for as long as he could remember. He walked over to greet her. The Hawaiian sun had weathered her face, but the wrinkles couldn’t hide her beauty. His first crush, though she never knew. A little heavier, some gray, but the eyes alive and blue as Hanauma Bay.
“How you, Mrs. Brennan?”
“That’s what I was going to ask you, Robbie.” She gazed at the paper bag. Robert covered the exposed neck of the bottle and forced a smile.
“Robbie. No one’s called me that in long time. Only you, Paul, and Pop called me Robbie.” He sighed loudly. “Not so good, Mrs. Brennan. Things are tough, right now.” His eyes welled with tears. It was stupid to pretend. She practically raised him since he was over at her house so much. “How’s Paul?” he said, hoping to change the subject.
“Wonderful. He and Grace are on Maui, relaxing now that he retired early. He talks about you a lot, Robbie. I told him you were coming. He’d like to see you, maybe go surf again.”
“No, don’t think so. I’m going to look around and see if she left anything. Don’t want to see Paul like–”
Mrs. Brennan stepped close and touched his arm.
“Robbie, there’s something–” She hesitated. “–something I want to tell you about.”
She sighed deeply. “Nothing, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m keeping you from the house. Please, dear, call Paul before you leave.”
“I’ll try.” He held her hand for a moment and then walked over to the “good-and-bad” house, as he called it. It was good until his father died, and then it was bad. His mother did everything to destroy him after his pop died. She finally succeeded.
The inside of the house still smelled of furniture oil. Once a week his mother worked the oil into tables, chairs, shelves, and even koa-wood lamps, the palm of her right hand tinted brown from years of use.
All gone, sold off or thrown away, unwanted by the next family.
He walked through each room and closet and, except for pencil marks on the wall chronicling his brother’s height over the years, there was nothing to tie his family to the house.
In the attic, he scanned the emptiness. He was about to close the door when something in the far corner caught his eye. Under a narrow eave were two items: his Joe DiMaggio Louisville slugger, and a dusty, wooden box, about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage.
He crawled to the middle of the attic and set the box down on a sheet of plywood nailed over some joists. The baseball bat was darker than he had remembered. He hadn’t picked it up since the day his father died.
Robert crouched and swung at a Warren Spahn fastball. Pow! Right into the leftfield seats, grand slam. He grabbed his right shoulder. If he wasn’t going to die soon, he might have worried about being out of shape. Could be he just pulled a muscle.
It had been forty-six years since his pop died. He remembered little about him. Robert took a swig of the whiskey and set the bottle next to the mysterious box. It was too heavy to be empty.
It took some effort to slide the cover open. Inside were hundreds of college-ruled papers. Someone’s manuscript? The cover sheet was upside down but had only a name written on it in large letters. Robbie. It was meant for him. His cell phone rang. He flipped it open. Marie.
“Where are you?”
“I’m at the house. The realtor sold it. I signed the papers. Don’t worry, you’ll get your money.”
“That’s not why I called, Robert. I was worried about you.” There was a long pause. “Perhaps you should see someone.”
“Who’s going to pay for that, Marie? The Tooth Fairy? I owe a hundred and forty thousand. What you want me to do?”
“I want you to come home.”
“I gotta go, Marie.”
“Come home, Robbie.”
“Gotta go.” Robert shut the power off and flipped the phone closed. He grabbed the whiskey and dragged the box of papers over to a small window for more light. The cover page had the edges eaten off by bugs. The rest had been untouched. Maybe it was the ink that fended off the parasites. The first few pages were written in barely legible handwriting. The rest of the manuscript was in a delicate, fluid penmanship, like Marie’s. He took another swig and tried not to think of his family. The girls wouldn’t take his death as well as Marie.
He pulled the papers out of the box and placed them on the plywood, then removed a few off the top of the pile to read. Maybe a lost novel. He read the heading of the first page, “To my son, Robbie.” There was a date: 10/5/1953. Three months before Pop died.
Was it purposely left there for him to find or did the realtor’s people just miss it when they emptied the house? Why hadn’t his mother told him about the box? She must have known it was there.
A glint of something shiny poked out of an old rag lying on the bottom of the box. Inside were several Army medals. Pop’s, he guessed, though his father never mentioned earning any medals in the war. For that matter, he hardly ever spoke of his service during World War II at all. Whenever Robert brought up the subject his father would say, “Talk about something else,” and that would end the discussion.
He knew his pop had been wounded in the war. It was hard to hide six bullet holes in your back while swimming at the beach. Just another taboo subject children didn’t need to hear about. His mother, Chiyoko, refused to speak English, so he never asked her much of anything about anything.
Robert laid the ten medals along the narrow edge of a joist. He recognized the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross, but he didn’t know what the others were. He did remember a teacher mentioning that the Distinguished Service Cross was the second highest medal a soldier could receive, behind only the Medal of Honor.
There was a note taped to the fabric:
Presented to Captain Hideo “Bobby” Takahashi, for extraordinary bravery and sacrifice during the evacuation of the First Battalion of the 141st Regiment of the Thirty-sixth Infantry Division by the 442nd Regimental Combat Team on October 30, 1944.
Robert’s initial feeling of pride changed to an overwhelming sense of guilt as he wondered how much money he could get for the medals. If he just had an extra ten thousand, he knew he could win back all of his losses from the casinos. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve, swallowed some more whiskey, rolled the cloth back over the medals, and placed them back in the box.
He turned on his cell phone to check the time–2:05. Plenty of time to read before the fateful drive on the H1. No hurry. Maybe he’d wait until Sunday. There were six messages on the phone. He shut off the power and read the first page.
© 2016 by JJ White