“What Is Pearl Harbor?”
On that first weekend in December there must have been twenty or twenty-five boats getting ready to leave. I had just turned seven. I remember it was Sunday because I was out of school, which meant I could go down to the wharf and watch. In those days — 1941 — there was no smog around Long Beach. The water was clean, the sky a sharp Sunday blue, with all the engines of that white sardine fleet puttering up into it, and a lot of yelling, especially around Papa’s boat. Papa loved to give orders. He had attended military school in Japan until the age of seventeen, and part of him never got over that. My oldest brothers, Bill and Woody, were his crew. They would have to check the nets again, and check the fuel tanks again, and run back to the grocery store for some more cigarettes, and then somehow everything had been done, and they were easing away from the wharf, joining the line of boats heading out past the lighthouse, into the harbor.
Papa’s boat was called The Nereid — long, white low-slung, with a foredeck wheel cabin. He had another smaller boat, called The Waka (a short version of our name), which he kept in Santa Monica, where we lived. But The Nereid was his pride. It was worth about $25,000 before the war, and the way he stood in the cabin steering toward open water you would think the whole fleet was under his command. Papa had a mustache then. He wore knee-high rubber boots, a rust-colored turtleneck Mama had knitted him, and a black skipper’s hat. He liked to hear himself called “Skipper.”
Through one of the big canneries he had made a deal to pay for The Nereid with percentages of each catch, and he was anxious to get it paid off. He didn’t much like working for someone else if he could help it. A lot of fishermen around San Pedro Harbor had similar contracts with the canneries. In typical Japanese fashion, they all wanted to be independent commercial fisherman, yet they almost always fished together. They would take off from Terminal Island, help each other find the schools of sardine, share nets and radio equipment — competing and cooperating at the same time.
You never knew how long they’d be gone, a couple of days, sometimes a week, sometimes a month, depending on the fish. From the wharf we waved good-bye — my mother, Bill’s wife, Woody’s wife, Chizu, and me. We yelled at them to have a good trip, and after they were out of earshot and the sea had swallowed their engine noises, we kept waving. Then we just stood there with the other women, watching. It was a kind of duty, perhaps a way of adding a little good luck to the voyage, or warding off the bad. It was also marvelously warm, almost summery, the way December days can be sometimes in southern California. When the boats came back, the women who lived on Terminal Island would be rushing to the canneries. But for the moment there wasn’t much else to do. We watched until the boats became a row of tiny white gulls on the horizon. Our vigil would end when they slipped over the edge and disappeared. You had to squint against the glare to keep them sighted, and with every blink you expected the last white speck to be gone.
But this time they didn’t disappear. They kept floating out there, suspended, as if the horizon had finally become what it always seemed to be from the shore: the sea’s limit, beyond which no man could sail. They floated awhile, then they began to grow, tiny gulls becoming boats again, a white armada cruising toward us.
“They’re coming back,” my mother said.
“Why would they be coming back?” Chizu said.
“Something with the engine.”
“Maybe somebody got hurt.”
“But they wouldn’t all come back,” Mama said, bewildered.
Another woman said, “Maybe there’s a storm coming.”
They all glanced at the sky, scanning the unmarred horizon. Mama shook her head. There was no explanation. No one had ever seen anything like this before. We watched and waited, and when the boats were still about half a mile off the lighthouse a fellow from the cannery came running down to the wharf shouting that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.
Chizu said to Mama, “What does he mean? What is Pearl Harbor?”
Mama yelled at him, “What is Pearl Harbor?”
But he was running along the docks, like Paul Revere, bringing the news, and didn’t have time to explain.
That night Papa burned the flag he had brought with him from Hiroshima thirty-five years earlier. It was such a beautiful piece of material, I couldn’t believe he was doing that. He burned a lot of papers too, documents, anything that might suggest he still had some connection with Japan. These precautions didn’t do him much good. He was not only an alien; he held a commercial fishing license, and in the early days of the war the FBI was picking up all such men, for fear they were somehow making contact with enemy ships off the coast. Papa himself knew it would only be a matter of time.
They got him to weeks later, when we were staying overnight at Woody’s place, on Terminal Island. Five hundred Japanese families lived there then, and FBI deputies had been questioning everyone, ransacking houses for anything that could conceivably be used for signaling planes or ships or that indicated loyalty to the Emperor. Most of the houses had radios with a short-wave band and a high aerial on the roof so that wives could make contact with the fishing boats during these long cruises. To the FBI every radio owner was a potential saboteur. The confiscators were often deputies sworn in hastily during the turbulent days right after Pearl Harbor, and these men seemed to be acting out the general panic, seeing sinister possibilities in the most ordinary household items: flashlights, kitchen knives, cameras, lanterns, toy swords.
If Papa were trying to avoid arrest, he wouldn’t have gone near that island. But I think he knew it was futile to hide out or resist. The next morning two FBI men in fedora hats and trench coats — like out of a thirties movie — knocked on Woody’s door, and when they left, Papa was between them. He didn’t struggle. There was no point to it. He had become a man without a country. The land of his birth was at war with America; yet after thirty-five years here he was still prevented by law from becoming an American citizen. He was suddenly a man with no rights who looked exactly like the enemy.
About all he had left at this point was his tremendous dignity. He was tall for a Japanese man, nearly six feet, lean and hard and healthy-skinned from the sea. He was over fifty. Ten children and a lot of hard luck had worn him down, had worn away most of the arrogance he came to this country with. But he still had dignity, and he would not let those deputies push him out the door. He led them.
Mama knew they were taking all the alien men first to an interrogation center right there on the island. Some were simply being questioned and released. In the beginning she wasn’t too worried; at least she wouldn’t let herself be. But it grew dark and he wasn’t back. Another day went by and we still had heard nothing. Then word came that he had been taken in to custody and shipped out. Where to, or for how long? No one knew. All my brothers’ attempts to find out were fruitless.
What had they charged him with? We didn’t know that either, until an article appeared the next day in the Santa Monica paper, saying he had been arrested for delivering oil to Japanese submarines offshore.
My mother began to weep. It seems now that she wept for days. She was a small, plump woman who laughed easily and cried easily, but I had never seen her cry like this. I couldn’t understand it. I remember clinging to her legs, wondering why everyone was crying. This was the beginning of a terrible, frantic time for all my family. But I myself didn’t cry about Papa, or have any inkling of what was wrenching Mama’s heart, until the next time I saw him, almost a year later.