Internment (Novel Excerpt)
By Brenton Weyi
On Christmas Eve in San Francisco, Ramona was jarred awake by the sound of banging at her apartment door.
“Ramona!! Ramona!! Come quick!”
“What is it Helen?” Ramona was groggy as she greeted the morning.
“It’s Hideki! They took Hideki!”
Ramona jolted out of bed and ran to the door. “Who?? Who took him, what are you talking about?”
“Soldiers. You know how we haven’t heard from him in weeks?! Soldiers came and took him away.”
“What? Why? Why would they do that? Hideki is a kind soul, what could he have possibly done to some soldiers?” she asked in a logical, nervous tone.
“They’ve been locking away anyone and everyone who is Japanese after the Pearl Harbor attack.”
“What?! That’s ridiculous! Hideki has nothing to do with the Japanese Army.” Ramona ran back inside and started scrambling together a blue skirt, a white blouse and some black flats. “We’re going down there right now.”
“Okay. We can walk there; it’s not too far from here.”
Ramona lived in a small flat in a small alley called Dolores Terrace. Her apartment was number 11 in a brown Spanish style townhome, squished next to other similar apartment buildings. Her studio apartment had a double mattress, a small gray love seat, a bookshelf stocked with her favorite magazines, a small kitchenette, and a white table sitting below a quaint chandelier that played witness to many shared secrets below it.
“Let’s go” Ramona fumed.
Helen had become Ramona’s best friend in San Francisco. She was the leader of a couple of youth brain trusts in the bay area and was one of the first people Ramona met when she moved out. She had long flowing blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and a keen sense for form fitting dresses. Her friends often jokingly called her ‘Helen of Troy.’
The two women waltzed about the streets of San Francisco – they were caught in a daze as the entire area was covered in a sea of red. Ramona and Helen stood mesmerized; the air was still as they heard the soft whir of cars passing by them.
No Japs Allowed… I Am American… Japs Keep Moving…
These signs were among some of the crimson messages written on building walls and shop windows.
“C’mon, let’s just keep going” Ramona snagged a piece of her clothing and kept walking.
As they continued for about 15 more minutes, they came upon a long dirt road that led to a military camp. At the end of the road were a long metal fence and two wooden watch towers behind it that were inhabited by armed soldiers. Behind the gate, they could make out some buildings and the movement of a huge mass of people. Ramona forged ahead toward the gate and Helen trailed closely behind.
As she approached, one of the guards came down from a watchtower, “Stop ma’am! This is military property. What business do you have here?”
“You people are despicable! Locking up all of these innocent people who have just as much right to live in this city as you or me!” Ramona barked.
“Ma’am we’re just following orders. And orders are we have to keep everyone here. Now, I’ll ask you again, do you have any business here?”
“Yes, I am. Its name is Hideki Yakamura and he’s one of the animals you’ve caged up.” Ramona uttered in a low growl.
“I’m sorry ma’am, civilians are not allowed past these gates. I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do for you.”
“Pretty please?” Helen chimed in as she winked at the guard and swayed her hips back and forth. “We’ve walked all of this way to see our friend and it would be so wonderful if you would let us in for just a little while. What are two harmless little girls gonna do anyway?”
The guard fell victim and sighed; not even an army soldier could resist Helen’s charms. “Fine, ma’am. You can come in and look for your friend, but you’ll have to be escorted by one of our soldiers. And make sure you follow all of his instructions, these Japs can be dangerous.”
“You moth–” Helen threw a hand over Ramona’s mouth before she could finish and marched her past the gate. “Thank you so much!”
“Don’t you dare think this is over!” Ramona yelled through Helen’s hand as a soldier accompanied them into the camp.
As she went into the camp, all Ramona could see were fences – tilted barbed-wire fences obscuring the faces of suffering. Their length seemed endless; all she could take in were the rise and fall of faces – the rise and fall of hollow eyes.
Ramona ran up and down the lines of barbed-wire, scanning the empty eyes, desperate to find a single familiar face. “Where are you?? Hideki! Can you hear me?! It’s me, Ramona!” She kept running; she kept looking; she kept hoping. But she found nothing. Maybe he’s not here. Or maybe…
“Ramona!” Helen yelled from across the camp. “Come here quick!”
Nervousness swelled up into Ramona’s chest as she ran toward Helen’s frantic voice. Ramona saw Helen crouching near a man who was slumped against the other side of the fence. His face was cut up and he looked extremely weak.
Ramona crouched next to the fence – the man smirked. “I guess…they got me, Mona!” His chaff was supplemented by a cough.
“Stop joking, this isn’t funny! You’re such an idiot!” she shouted.
It was a beautiful 1941 San Francisco day, and Ramona and Helen were reading Time Magazine in Dolores Park.
They were busy jotting notes in their journals as they discussed the moral implications of a figure like Hitler starting such a large-scale war.
There was a man with short black hair in a navy blue vest and brown slacks sauntering about the park. He saw two women in dresses gesturing and writing in notebooks as they studied the same magazine. The man ambled in their general area while still managing to take in his surroundings. He was listening to the soft sounds of birds chirping and watching the leaves on the trees swaying back and forth as they played catch and release with the sunlight that shone on his face.
He continued his promenade in the direction of the women and looked over at the brown-haired girl with green eyes…looking off into space. He took this opportunity to peek at what she had been working so hard on. After he looked at the journal, he smirked and said, “You misspelled incontrovertible.”
Ramona turned her head and looked upon a handsome man. “Oh, I guess I did” she answered.
“Hey! If you want to criticize our spelling why don’t you share some of this worldly wisdom that must accompany that smug attitude of yours?” Helen barked.
He snickered. “Don’t get me wrong, I actually really like what you guys are working on here.”
“Really? Yea, we take our world issues very seriously” Ramona drawled as she erased the sentence from her journal.
“You’re such a genius Ramona” Helen sassed.
The man laughed. “Well, my name is Yakamura Hideki; I just moved here from Japan.”
“Very nice to meet you Yakamura” Ramona uttered with a shining smile.
“Pleasure” Helen mumbled.
“Actually, you can just call me Hideki, that’s my first name. In Japan, your family name always comes first. Can be kinda confusing for Americans” he laughed.
“Wow. I absolutely love learning about new cultures. I’ve only ever read about Asia in magazines.”
Hideki wore an assuming grin on his face. “Well…don’t believe everything the magazines tell you! They prey on impressionable girls like you. I would know, I’m a journalist myself.”
“Very funny” Helen said as she rolled her eyes.
“Ramona, I was really liking some of the ideas that you were jotting down about the war.”
“Oh really? Well, would you like to have a seat and join us?”
“Ramona!” Helen hissed.
“I would love to…” Hideki cocked his head into an innocent simper.
Ramona and Hideki conversed about Japan, the war, and the economy as Helen sat off to the side and quietly fumed about the presumptuous stranger. The minutes turned to hours as Ramona and Hideki remained fascinated with one another.
“I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.”
“Heh, well, that’s good I suppose; it’s better than boring you!”
“Yea, I suppose it is… Well, I was wondering, there’s this really cool amusement park by the dock, and well…Helen and I were thinking about going…and um, it looks really fun! I guess if you wanted to, you, uh..”
Hideki laughed. “I would love to accompany you Ramona. I’ll see you later tonight.” Hideki smiled again as he rose and softly sauntered into the distance.
Later that night, Ramona reunited with Hideki once more at Roger’s Amusement Park. Helen found herself unable to join due to a sudden nondescript sickness. There was cracking, ringing, snapping, and every other imaginable sound as the carefree bustling crowds enjoyed rides and played carnival games.
“Social harmony? That’s really interesting.”
“Heh, I guess you could say so. I mean, Japan is a very dense place, and if everyone didn’t try to work together to keep the peace, who knows what would happen!”
“You guys have religions that help with that too, right? Shinto and Buddhism?”
“Haha, someone has been doing their homework. Yes we do, we feel a very strong connection to the land that we come from and to each other. But it’s not really unlike any other place in the world.”
“I don’t know about that! Sometimes I feel like Americans only care about themselves. All we do is take. We take from nature, we take from other countries, we even take from each other. It’s sad really.”
“I don’t think it’s so bad sometimes. I’ve met some really great people so far.”
“That actually reminds me Hideki, I never did ask you why you decided to move out here in the first place.”
“That is a great question. I ask myself that question sometimes too” Hideki laughed.
“Well, why did you do it?”
“Hmm, well, a long time ago my grandfather came to the United States. He was the first in my family to ever do it. He was an economist and he was part of this thing called the Iwakura Mission. Basically the emperor of Japan just sent out our best and brightest to go all around the world and do research about how other cultures did things. And when they were done, they would report anything useful back to the government.”
“And your grandpa was part of this ‘best and brightest’? Hideki, that’s amazing!
“Heh, it’s no big deal. I know that a lot Japanese don’t particularly like Americans, or their presence in our country, but my grandfather said that they weren’t so bad. He told me that there were a lot of great people here. So, I wanted to follow in his footsteps. After I became a journalist, I wanted cross the sea and give this place a chance.”
“That’s wonderful.” Ramona smiled as she took in every detail of his swirling irises.
“Haha, it’s a bit selfish. I just like meeting great people. And I have met a lot of great people…and you Ramona Worthington, are most certainly one of them. Now, I do believe a Ferris wheel ride is in order.”
Ramona and Hideki walked down the dimly illuminated carnival street toward a brightly lit white Ferris wheel. They got on the ride and slowly rotated up to the top; they could see the entire bay area as fireworks flashed and banged and sprinkled heavenly rays into the San Francisco night sky. The two fell into a deep trance. Worlds opened. They gazed into each other’s eyes and merged into one for a moment. They nestled together, and the ride descended from heaven.
The next few months retained their magic. Ramona and Hideki would go on many long walks near Fisherman’s Wharf and discuss world issues. They often expressed their hopes that one day there would be harmony between Japan and the United States.
On December 7th, 1941, Hideki became distant.
“It’s ok, Hideki. This has nothing to do with you, and it has nothing to do with me. I know everything will turn out all right. No matter what happens, we still have each other…”
Ramona found herself at the internment camp. A tear came here face as she looked upon the poor state of the man.
He was barely able to get out, “Mona….I…really…have…to tell you…”
“Shh…tell me later. It doesn’t matter right now. All that matters is you staying well enough to get out of this place.” Ramona grasped Hideki’s hand through the fence and stroked his hair.
Hideki was silent as he sat next to her and melted away into quiet serenity.
“Ma’am, your time is up” a soldier said.
“Fine.” Ramona gave Hideki a final tight squeeze. “I’m going to be back for you, okay? That’s a promise. And hey, there are only Japanese in here, so there should be some camp harmony, right?”
“Hah, I…sure…hope so. Mona, I –”
“I know.” Ramona smiled.
“Don’t say that, Yakamura Hideki. It’s never goodbye unless it’s for the last time. I’ll see you soon.”
“Take care of yourself Hideki. I’m not even close to done with you yet” Helen added.
Ramona felt a desperate confidence as she and Helen left the camp. On their way back to Ramona’s apartment, Ramona passed by a sign taped up to lamppost:
Instructions To All Persons of
Pursuant to the acts that have been recently passed by the California State Government and the San Francisco Bay, all persons of Japanese descent, alien or citizen, shall hereby be evacuated from the San Francisco Area…
“They are heartless!” Ramona screamed as she ripped down the sign and crumpled it in a trembling fist.
“Ramona, let’s get you home. I’ll make you some hot chocolate when we get there.” She put her arm around Ramona and wiped away a tear.
As the two got back and sat down for hot chocolate at Ramona’s small white round table, Helen continued to console her, “We’ll get him out Ramona. We’ll get him out because we have to.”
“I know we will” Ramona sniffed. “But we can’t stop there. We have to help all of those people. Did you see their faces, Helen? Those were looks I’ll never forget.”
“I know. I know…” She paused, and then said, “Let’s get you to bed. I’ll keep you company tonight; I don’t think you should be alone.”
The two ladies climbed into bed and Ramona faded off into an unrestful, determined sleep.
It was Christmas Day, 1941. Hideki could still feel Ramona’s warmth softly working its way through his body – replenishing his strength. He was sitting in the makeshift wooden bungalows that the United States Army had provided for the Japanese. He was wearing tattered trousers and a tattered jacket that some dejected soldiers had provided him. He was about to eat a lukewarm bowl of porridge that the army had provided.
“Hey! Yakamura!” Hideki heard as he was about to find solace in his bowl of porridge. The man was Brian Yusoda, a stocky Japanese man with buzz-cut hair who grew up in the slums of Niigata, Japan. Every day since Hideki had entered the camp, he had witness Yusoda bully dozens of people into giving him extra food for himself and his band of thugs in exchange for protection from any violence that should occur in the camp; or rather, any violence potential dissenters would incur on themselves.
“Yakamura! My men are pretty hungry.”
“I don’t know, you boys sort of look like you’ve had your fill” Hideki retorted.
“I beg to differ, Yakamura. And it’s Christmas, a time of giving, right? I’m sure you understand” he said as he brandished a knife down by his side. Since arriving at the internment camp, Hideki had donated half of the bowls that would have warmly sat in his stomach to Yusoda and his men. He mildly assured by the fact that he was helping other human beings, but far more disturbed at Yusoda’s voracious greed.
As Hideki handed over his bowl to Yusoda, he looked around as a squad of bullies took food from starving and miserable people. How can they do this to their own people? It’s not right. He fixated on a frightened elderly couple with little flesh on their bones due to extreme malnutrition. Hideki balled up his hand into an airtight fist and defiantly stood up.
As Yusoda walked away, Hideki charged at him and speared him to the ground. The knife that he once held plopped in the dirt. Hideki started wildly punching the back of his head into the dirt. After a series of punches, Hideki turned him over punched his face. He punched his eyes, nose and mouth for a solid minute until Yusoda was bleeding from every orifice of his face. Suddenly, Hideki felt a sharp pain in his left side. As he brought his left hand down to source of the stinging, he felt a viscous liquid begin to replace his hand. He looked at his hand and all he could see was red. He was dizzy. Before he could think another thought, he collapsed into a red dream.
It was May of 1928 in Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan.
Hideki Yakamura was sitting in Hyakka Park, watching the wild scattering of cherry blossoms in the wind as they masked the sky. It was in that moment that a strange sadness overcame Hideki; he came to understand the transient beauty of life. He was sitting at the base of the mountain looking out at the sea as he read As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. His long black hair that was usually down at his eyes was blowing about, wanting to be as free as the wind that stirred it. Hideki was wearing his school uniform of a white button-down shirt, gray slacks and black dress shoes.
“Hey! Yakamura!” he heard coming from a distance. Three boys who were wearing middle school uniforms that matched Hideki’s were descending upon him. Hideki knew that his moments of fleeting tranquility had passed.
“Yakamura, what are you doing sitting out here all by yourself?” The chubby boy asked as they encroached on Hideki’s reading spot.
“I think it’s nice to spend some quality time alone every once in a while” he answered.
“You’re so weird. What are you even reading?”
“Oh, this? It’s a book just like any other. They are a good way to pass the time…you should try it sometime!”
“Very funny; I think we get enough books at school. It’s funny Yakamura…there have been a bunch of rumors going around that you like to read books from the West.”
“And so what if I do?” Hideki kept his head buried in his book.
“Do you not have any pride, Yakamura? My dad says that all people in the West ever do is sit around thinking that they’re better than us! And then they come over here and try to use our country for their own benefit! And you’re going to let those kinds of people influence you? You’re gonna let yourself look up to them?”
“You guys wouldn’t understand this stuff” Hideki replied in a dismissive tone.
“Are you looking down on us, Yakamura?” One of the skinnier boys asked as he grabbed Hideki’s shirt. The chubby boy then grabbed Hideki’s book with his plump fingers. “Fine Yakamura, since you don’t seem to understand, I guess we’ll have to make you understand.” The boy grabbed a clump of pages by their edges and avulsed them from the book.
As Hideki watched one of his favorite books get torn asunder, he became enraged. He sprang up from the ground and pounced on the chubby boy. But before he could think of landing a punch, the other two boys quickly pulled him off. They then held down his arms as the chubby boy rolled off of the ground and plopped himself on Hideki’s stomach. For the next two minutes, all Hideki could feel was the clashing of bones of his face. All he could hear was the clashing of bones. All he could see was clashing.
Hideki stumbled back to his grandfather’s manor – holding his own head up became the greatest of burdens. His grandfather owned a large traditional Japanese manor, with a torii gate in front of a spacious courtyard. The courtyard lied before a large wooden house with sh?ji paper doors. The roof was made of cypress bark that swooped off of every corner of the structure, making the house look like a blooming flower. The house stood in front of a magnificent garden with a pond full of koi fish. As Hideki came into the house, he saw that his grandfather was hosting yet another American soldier for dinner. Hideki slowly crept past the meal to avoid any embarrassing explanations, went straight to his room without looking back and shut the screen door.
Hideki was lying on the straw mat on his floor with a cold, damp rag on his face when his grandfather entered the room. Yakamura Souken had all of the graces of old age with all of the vivacity of youth. He was a small man with a bald head and refined wrinkles on his face. He always carried an even temperament and kind demeanor. He was wearing the black kimono that he only donned on special occasions.
“I saw you run in out the corner of my eye. You can’t quite sneak around me, yet; I’m not that old. Care to share what happened?”
“Grandfather, is it wrong to read western books or invite Americans over for dinner?”
“Ah. Is that what this is about, Hideki?”
“A bunch of the kids from school said that I was betraying my Japanese pride reading western literature. And then well…I guess you can see the rest.”
Yakamura Souken sat down next to Hideki. “Hideki. Let me ask you a question. Do you hate Chinese people?”
“…of course not, grandfather. I have no reason to!”
“Do you hate Korean people?”
“Do you suppose that because the Japanese government has attacked China and Korea, or vice versa, all Japanese people must hate China and Korea?”
“I guess not…”
“Hideki, the actions of one’s government don’t necessarily reflect the volitions of the individual. It is in interest of every government to make itself as powerful as it can; this is how a country sustains itself and protects its people. As such, conflicts with other groups of people, for one reason or another, are often inevitable. However, you must understand the nature of hate, Hideki – it can only be derived from the darkest of places. Countries often say they hate each other to make it easier to attack one another and exploit one another’s people or resources, or because at one point they were attacked or exploited. But this sort of animosity can dissipate given the right circumstances. But true hate – true hate often only lies in the hearts of a handful of corrupted souls.”
“And how do you know if you’ve found one of these people, grandfather?”
“It’s hard to say; but what I can say is that it is of these individuals…that you must truly beware.”
“So I can keep reading my books, then?”
“Ho-ho, of course you can” he laughed. “But you must know this, Hideki. If you choose to walk this path, it will be a difficult one. People will question you; they may ridicule you, even. It’s not that most of them harbor any true hate toward westerners, but it’s just how they have been conditioned to think for most of their lives. And ignorance can be just as damaging as hate.”
“I understand, grandfather. And I guess that means I should learn how to fight better too…so I don’t have repeat days like today.”
“Hmm. It is indeed important for a man to learn how to defend himself. But do not forget to keep kindness in your heart, Hideki; fighting is survival, but kindness is living. And beware of those who are fighting for their own survival; there’s nothing more dangerous than a man who is who has been pushed into the realm of primal survival, for in that realm – all reason has been lost.”
“I understand, grandfather. I’ll try to remember that. And I’m sorry I missed dinner. Who was that man you had over?”
“Don’t worry, I saved you some food. You can eat whenever you’re ready. And that was Colonel Johnson from the United States Army; he is a very good man. Perhaps he’ll return one day so you can meet him.”
“I’d like that. Um…grandfather…what are people in the United States like?”
“Hmm. Just like anywhere, there are people of all types there. But I met many individuals who I found to be exceedingly kind. But if you want to know more, you should keep that curiosity and venture there yourself one day…”
Hideki slowly opened his eyes and the red dream slipped away. His eyes shifted back and forth to scan the room. He saw blurry outlines of cots and bodies moving around. He looked up and saw a man at his bedside, ready to greet him.
“Where am I?”
“You’re in the infirmary. You lost a lot of blood, but the doctors said you’ll be fine after a few days of rest.” The man was Charlie Toyama, the 25-year old baseball star and Hideki’s best friend in San Francisco. He was always looking past his long, black matted hair.
“I don’t even really remember what happened after I tackled Yusoda. It was all such a blur.”
“Well, Yusoda’s goons stabbed you multiple times, that’s what happened. I got some of the baseball boys to help me wrestle them off you before things really got out of control” Charlie said as he gestured with his tan, muscular arms.
“Hah, thanks, I owe you one. What happened to Yusoda?”
“The bastard is in the tent next door. The soldiers didn’t want you two in the same tent possibly stirring up trouble again.”
“Heh, well, I can safely say it wouldn’t be coming from my end. How’s he doing?”
“I think Yusoda has definitely seen better days. You beat him up pretty good, Hideki; it’s looking like he’ll be out of commission for a while.”
“Damn. I didn’t mean to hurt him so badly. They were just being so selfish…taking from elderly people and children, it’s shameful.”
“You did the right thing, Hideki. Besides, the boss may be out of commission, but I think his men are still going to be running around trying to disturb the peace. Are you going to try to get revenge on them, Hideki?”
“No, there’s no reason to. What Yusoda and his men are doing is wrong, and it does need to stop, but I bear no personal grudge against them.”
“Hideki, they nearly killed you! You have every right.”
“Well, it was my fault for attacking them. I guess I should’ve come up with a better plan, heh.”
“Hideki, that’s ridiculous. Yusoda and his men are rotten to the core. I would stab them myself if I got the chance.”
“My grandfather used to always say, ‘Sometimes when searching for the true monster, we must look within.’”
“Don’t give me that mountain hermit crap, Yakamura. Do you think all people are good? Don’t be so delusional, Hideki!”
“You’re right, I wouldn’t say all. But I certainly would say most. No one is born harboring ill-will towards others. It is the circumstances of the world, the challenges and deficiencies of life, that make them that way. I think I’m going to try to talk to Yusoda’s men. Maybe I’ll bring you and the baseball guys just to make sure nothing goes wrong. But for now…I need…rest…” Hideki said as he faded off into another deep sleep.
“Idiot…you’re so naïve Yakamura.”