When Otsui Kono first arrived at the camp with her daughter and four sons, barbed-wire fences still separated them from the desert world beyond—the pale and dappled green of the sagebrush, the hard-packed sand, the giant forks of saguaro cacti, the buttes rising like tiny volcanic eruptions frozen in time on the flat, expansive surface of glittering sand and gravel.
The camp was divided into more than 30 blocks separated by streets or firebreaks; each block consisted of 14 barracks, a shower house and latrine, a laundry room, and a mess hall. The Kono family, among the last to arrive, found themselves in Block 72, which bordered the desert.
As summer moved into fall that first year, Otsui was still trying to get her bearings in this completely unfamiliar landscape. Her children had settled into new habits while she had been in the hospital, and she often found herself alone in the early mornings when it was still cool enough to be indoors in their cramped 20-by-20-foot room. By mid-morning, the desert would already be shimmering with heat, and the stifling air inside their small cell would force Otsui outside. She would sit in the sliver of shade afforded by the barracks, breathing in its oily stench and gazing out at the desert landscape, which melted into a blur of greens, browns, and grays until it was nothing but a broad mix of colors that seemed to waver in the lazily shifting air. Even the soldiers patrolling the perimeter of the camp with rifles and bayonets seemed like creatures of the desert that slid and scuttled about in the vast wilderness.
After a while, Otsui stopped seeing the desert at all as her thoughts turned inward. She felt like a widow. Only the spirits knew where her husband Seiji might be. He could well be looking down on her at that very moment from the spirit world as she sat sipping lukewarm tea she'd made in a tin can scavenged from the mess hall.
At home in Hacienda, Otsui had led an active life, puttering around the house with Masako-san, tending her flower garden, modestly showing off her flower arrangements to friends who'd been invited for tea, and doing community work with the Japanese Women's Association. Then the war had come, destroying everything she and Seiji had built over a period of three decades.
From where Otsui liked to sit, she could see the corner of the mess hall. A large iron slab hung from the roof like a yellowtail tuna drying and hardening in the heat. At mealtimes, a cook would come out to beat it with a steel rod. Beyond the mess hall, she could see a narrow section of the fence that ran between the barracks. Time was measured by the sentry who came and went in and out of her span of vision, walking mechanically in regular steps, holding the butt of his shouldered rifle with one hand and swinging the other by his side like a pendulum.
The barracks themselves had been completed the week of their arrival, but debris from the construction still lay strewn about, and water and sewer lines remained uncovered in their trenches. People seemed afraid to move for fear of stirring the dust that lay baking on the ground and on the floors and windowsills. The dust was everywhere—outside, in the barracks, in the very air. Its musty odor, mixed with the heavy smell of tarpaper, was always in her nostrils.
It should not have been a surprise that the FBI arrested her husband on the first night of the war. Seiji was the leader of the community, and he had a position to uphold. Kifu, it was always kifu—for the Japanese school, for the Buddhist church, for the annual community picnic, the kabuki association. "Kifu, kifu, kifu, it's going to be my ruin," he used to grumble. He might have been right. Not only was he the biggest contributor to the Japanese war relief fund, he was chairman of the drive. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Seiji said he was proud. He and his friends had gathered at the farmers' association where they had drunk sake and shouted "Banzai!" to the Emperor. They had done so to show each other their spirit. That's how men were. It was a foolish, reckless, heedless thing to do, but they couldn't help themselves.
And now Seiji was gone. People were saying that the men who'd been taken away would be executed, shot as spies. It would be just like Seiji to get himself shot out of pride. That was fine for him; he didn't have to deal with the sheriff or the man from the bank who'd wanted the loan paid or the awful men who came to the house to cheat them of their belongings. Otsui didn't know how she'd survived those months, all the worrying, getting their finances in order, paying the bills, packing. A week after she arrived at camp, she had collapsed.
By the time she was discharged from the camp hospital, her face had shrunk, and the skin along her jaw and under her chin had drooped and withered. Her eyes, shadowed by weariness and care, had lost their light. Only a few months before, her hair had been black. Now, at forty-nine, she was turning gray. She used to collect rainwater to wash her hair and to give it luster; she would carefully pull out any white strand that appeared. Now there were too many. And what did it matter anyway? She was amazed that she and her children were still alive. Why had the American government brought them to this desolate wilderness, hidden and out of sight, if not to be rid of them?
It was Mr. Nakashima who started Otsui thinking about survival. He said he had brought a short-wave radio into camp with him. He wouldn't show it to anyone because he feared it would be confiscated, but he reported regularly about what he heard on the Japanese newscasts. Japan, he said, was winning victory after victory in the Pacific. As for the American fleet, what had survived the Pearl Harbor attack was already at the bottom of the sea. Japanese forces were preparing to mount a major invasion of the American mainland.
"When that happens, Kono-san," Mr. Nakashima told Otsui, "that will be our time of greatest danger. The Americans will be running for their lives. They will abandon us here in the middle of the desert. Food shipments will stop. Until the arrival of the Japanese troops, we will have difficulty surviving."
That was when Otsui hit upon the idea of bread crumbs.
She decided she would eat only the two slices of toast she got at breakfast, and save all the other bread she was served at other meals. It would have been difficult to not eat the breakfast toast; sometimes there was nothing else to eat, and she feared she would be refused even that small portion if they saw her saving what she'd been given.
The kitchens in the camp were self-run by the Japanese, who were very careful with food. They gave women smaller servings than men and large people more than skinnier ones—at least so it seemed to Otsui. But everyone got two slices of bread and the same amount of sugar at every meal. The girl who doled out the sugar would scrape the top of the serving spoon with a knife to make sure each portion was level.
Otsui liked her coffee sweet, so she asked for only a half a cup of coffee to go with the single teaspoon of sugar. When the girl scraped out half the sugar from the spoon, Otsui tried to explain, but the girl was young and her understanding of Japanese was poor.
"One cup coffee, one spoon sugar; half cup, half spoon, Oba-san," the girl said in childlike Japanese. Otsui didn't argue. Thereafter she drank a whole cup of half-sweetened coffee for breakfast. But the stupidity of it nearly made her weep.
Every day, Otsui would stash the two slices of bread she got at the midday and evening meals in her blouse. After returning to the barracks, she would toast the bread on a hot plate or on the oil heater and crumble it into empty flour sacks. Her children thought she was being silly.
"Nakashima-san does not have a short-wave radio," Yukio said. "Everybody knows that. He's just making all that up."
"How can you say such a thing, Yukio, you of all my children? You were educated in Japan. You know about the Japanese spirit."
"The Japanese spirit is one thing," Yukio said. "Nakashima-san is another. He's a disillusioned Marxist. He's just angry because the FBI didn't arrest him when the war started. He says he was the real danger to America, not capitalist bourgeoisie like Father and his friends. Now he's hoping for Japan to win the war because he thinks it will hasten the downfall of American imperialism."
Mickey was even harsher. "Mother, you have to stop listening to Nakashima-san. He's crazy. Japan is losing the war. It has no chance against the United States. They already lost half their ships at Coral Sea and at Midway. They're losing, Mother. You have to be prepared for that. Japan is going to lose the war."
For Sachi, the sacks of bread crumbs that lined the walls of their barracks were an embarrassment. She wanted to cover them up with blankets because she didn't want her friends to see them, but Otsui wouldn't let her. The crumbs needed to be aired lest they got moldy.
Only Hiroshi showed any interest in his mother's bread crumbs. He said they would make good desert food and could be used to catch mice. When she asked why he would want to catch mice, he said one could eat them, or use them to trap larger animals.
"Hirano Oji-san caught a wildcat in his trap," Hiroshi said. "He cooked it on his stove."
Otsui laughed. "Hiroshi, you're making that up."
"No, Mother. It's true. He gave us some. It was good. And we ate rattlesnake, too. We killed it ourselves. A big one." He stretched his arms out wide. "We cooked it in the desert with potatoes."
"How did you cook it?" Otsui asked with a broad smile.
Hiroshi was becoming angry. "We did! We did!" he shouted. "We packed the meat and potatoes in mud, and we put it in a fire. It was good. It tasted like chicken."
Otsui was taken aback by her son's ferocity.
"Hiroshi, I don't want you to go hunting snakes. It's very dangerous," she said.
"It's not dangerous. We know how to do it. Hirano Oji-san showed us."
Mr. Hirano was a savage-looking man with little red pig eyes, disheveled hair, and several days' stubble on his face. His children were just as unkempt and wild looking as he. They probably did eat wildcat. Otsui wished that Hiroshi wouldn't play with them as often as he did, but how could she stop him?
*She had been alone and abandoned once before, when she was fourteen, after her father died — honorably. A low-ranking samurai, her father had always felt that his greatest failure was not having died in the great rebellion of 1877 with Saigo Takamori. Instead, he'd lived on even after the death of his wife. Clinging to the tattered remains of impecunious gentility, he taught for many years at a school and sold off his family heirlooms one at a time. In the end, he died drunk and consumptive, but nobly, by his own hand, much as Saigo and his followers had done more than twenty years before.
Before her father died, he had arranged for Otsui to live in the home of Goto, the village wine merchant. Otsui was never told what he had paid Mr. Goto, but she suspected it was the proceeds from the sale of a sword that had been in the family for 12 generations, an object of value that her father had managed to retain through years of poverty and hardship. Even so, she'd been treated no better than a maid in the Goto household. She'd slept in an alcove next to the kitchen and was always the first to get up in the morning to start the fire for the morning tea.
One year, at the annual kabuki festival on the grounds of the Shinto shrine, Mr. Kono, the fish merchant, came over to chat with the Gotos. As he sat with them on the straw matting, he seemed to be studying her intently.
"What is your name, child?" he asked.
"It is Otsui."
"Otsui," Kono mused. "I observed you watching the earlier performance. You appear to understand the play very well, its nuances and complexities. How old are you, child?"
"I am seventeen years old."
"Never sick a day in her life," Mrs. Goto chimed in, "and strong as an ox. As for being clever, you know what children are like nowadays, Kono-san, but this one, I must say, is a big help."
Otsui was astounded. She had never before heard such fulsome praise from Mrs. Goto. She attributed it to the sips of sake Mrs. Goto had been taking from her husband's gourd.
The following month, Mr. Yamasaki, the owner of the noodle shop, came to visit, bringing with him a photograph. He explained that Mr. Kono, the fish merchant, was hoping to arrange a marriage between Otsui and his son in America. Seiji Kono was 26 years old, had been in America for seven years, and was a highly successful farmer.
The photograph was handed to Mr. Goto, then to Mrs. Goto, and finally to Otsui.
Mr. Kono's son looked exotic, not so much because of his Western clothes, but rather because of the way he stood with his legs crossed, his left arm bent at the elbow and resting on the back of an ornately carved, upholstered chair. The pose struck Otsui as too casual, unserious. His hair, which was unusually long, was parted on one side in the western fashion.
"The groom is prepared to bear all the expenses," Mr. Yamasaki said, "including a proper wardrobe for the bride and all items necessary for the passage to America. She will travel first class."
"Maaa," Mrs. Goto said. "He must have done marvelously well in America."
"He is an established farmer and a respected leader of his community," Yamasaki said. "And all at the age of 26! But when I say farmer, don't imagine that he mucks around in a miserable rice paddy. Why, in America, you could put this whole village on a single farm."
"Hooooo," the Gotos gushed in amazement. "How can one man work such a large farm?"
Yamasaki laughed heartily.
"Goto-san, you don't understand. In America, the farmer does no work whatsoever. He is like a lord. He has work crews of fifty, a hundred men. And horses. Seiji Kono wrote his father saying that he owns eleven horses."
After a pause to allow the Gotos to take in all they had heard, Mr. Yamasaki said, "But of course you will want time to consider the offer."
"Time?" Mrs. Goto said. "Why should we need more time? Of course, Otsui will accept."
And, of course, Otsui accepted.
Otsui sat in the rear of the car with the luggage while her new husband Seiji sat in the seat in front of her. They had come upon Hacienda without warning after a six-hour train ride through the heartland of California. Having been dazzled by San Francisco's massive buildings, streetcars, and horse-drawn carriages, Otsui was underwhelmed by the appearance of the town in which she was to live. There seemed no obvious reason for establishing a settlement there in the middle of what appeared to be a flat, unending wasteland.
A horse and buggy driven by a Japanese man named Taneda took them through Hacienda's Main Street. Otsui was appalled at the shabbiness of what looked like makeshift buildings on both sides of a packed dirt road. Though they appeared to be places of business, they swayed and creaked with every gust of wind.
The town itself was full of people, both dark and white skinned. The Chinese were recognizable because of their queues, but the Japanese looked strange in their western clothes and close-cut hair. Most of the dark-skinned people, Seiji said, were Mexicans, the original inhabitants of the land.
At the edge of town, the horse made a right turn and proceeded down a narrow dirt track. Now Otsui could see that the land was indeed being cultivated, though farmers in Japan would never have allowed such slovenly fields. The rotting residue of the harvest was scattered as far one could see—perhaps even as far as the mountains, whose dim outlines were only barely perceptible as night fell.
As the horse plodded on, she wondered where her new home might be. She had seen pictures of western cities and towns in Japan, and the houses in San Francisco had been tall with gabled roofs and ornate porches supported by decoratively carved pillars. Anything like that was sure to stand out in this flat landscape, but all she could see was bare land.
"We will be there soon, Oku-san," Taneda said, addressing her as an honored lady of the house. "The camp is right around that stand of trees there."
When they arrived, Otsui saw that what Taneda had called "the camp" was made up of several buildings, all made of rough, unpainted pine boards that had been burnt to a reddish hue by the sun. Next to the main building, Taneda pointed out structures that he described as the mess hall, kitchen, and bathhouse. The outhouses and stables were set slightly apart from the rest of the camp; next to them, overlooking the entire complex, were a windmill and a water tower.
"Is the house nearby?" Otsui asked.
"The house? It's over there," Seiji said, pointing toward the main barracks. "My quarters are on the far end. I've had it partitioned into two rooms and a kitchen. The kitchen has running water," he said proudly.
After the luggage was unloaded, Seiji said he would take care of the horse and buggy himself while Taneda helped Otsui settle in. "You will soon be looking after the horse yourself," Seiji said to Otsui. "This horse and buggy is yours. You will need them to go into town for supplies."
Otsui looked at the huge red beast that snorted and rattled its harness. She swallowed hard and said nothing.
After Seiji was out of earshot, she asked Taneda, "Does he really have eleven horses?"
"Oh, more than that. He has ten horses here and ten more at another farm he just leased."
"And does he really have a hundred people working for him?"
"Sometimes more than that," Taneda said. "Right now, there's nobody here but me, but at the height of the season, there will be at least fifty workers living here."
"In such a small building?"
"Oh, you know, we're all bachelors. We don't need much space."
So what Mr. Yamasaki had said was true. He hadn't lied. Still, it would be many more years before Otsui's vision of life in America came close to what she had imagined it would be.
After the third month of internment, Otsui got a job as a dishwasher. This occupied her time and paid sixteen dollars a month. Plus, the mess hall was where one could hear about everything that was going on in the camp, from what official from Washington was visiting to what Mrs. Okubo's hakujin lover had sent her that month. It was through her job there that Otsui first heard about the Loyalty League's efforts to get Nisei into the American Army. She quailed at the thought. Mickey was involved; he had to be.
One evening, as she left the mess hall, she noticed that the door to the storage shed had been left open. She started to go close it, but stopped short when she saw a boy running out with a potato in each hand. Two others followed, also carrying potatoes. One of them was Hiroshi. She thought of shouting at him, but kept silent. In her blouse, after all, were six slices of bread that the cook had allowed her to take.
By winter, Otsui had two flour sacks full of bread crumbs. It was about that time that she experienced her first desert storm. Otsui was visiting her friend Mrs. Okamoto some blocks away. For December, the day was unusually warm, and the atmosphere oppressive, but they didn't expect rain. The suddenness and fury of the storm stunned them. The sky darkened and the temperature dropped as if a huge hand had grasped the sun. Lightning ripped the air with frightful crackling and tearing sounds followed by explosions of thunder. Rain crashed down as if the sky had suddenly split, and wind lashed the walls of the barracks. Before Otsui and Mrs. Okamoto could close the windows, rivulets of water were streaming across the floor.
Otsui paled. She apologized, saying she had to leave, and ran out into the downpour despite her friend's urging that she wait out the storm. Nearly blinded by the heavy rain, she struggled across a firebreak, her head down, her eyes on her feet. She was midway across the open field when she saw to her amazement and horror that the swirling water was rising above her shoes. Looking up, she could scarcely believe what she saw: the firebreak had been transformed into a rippling, muddy lake. The entire camp was standing in a sea of roiling water.
Not a soul could be seen anywhere. The barracks looked strangely deserted, as if its occupants had been swept into the desert by the raging flood. Otsui continued on, but her progress was slow. The water now reached above her ankles, and in some places, came almost to her knees. Lightning flashed in the distance, followed by low rumbles of thunder. Rain pelted her face and heavy gusts of wind threatened to knock her into the choppy water.
Otsui finally managed get to where the road should have been. Hoping to reach higher ground, she forged ahead. Suddenly, the ground beneath her dropped away and she found herself submerged entirely in cold, murky water; she had forgotten about the drainage ditch at the side of the road. Though the water wasn't more than waist high, she couldn't get to her feet in the swift current and was carried to the crossroad, where she caught hold of a sluice gate at one end of the culvert. She hung there for some moments catching her breath. By the time she was able to clamber up to the road, the full fury of the storm had abated, but the rain continued to blow in her face as she stumbled, exhausted, back to her barracks.
When she got to there, she found the room empty. The others had made no attempt to return. As she had feared, the windows had been left open, and the floor was awash. The bread crumbs were drenched. She fell to her knees and wept. She didn't care if anyone heard. In tight, choking barks like those of a wounded fox, she screeched out her anger against the steady, dense rattling of the rain and the low moaning of the wind. How could she have been so stupid, so careless?
That night, she tried to dry the crumbs over the oil heater, but they were ruined and already beginning to smell of mold. The flour sacks were still salvageable, though. She would have to start over again.
Near the end of the second year of camp, Father was allowed to rejoin the family once more. When he saw the sacks of bread crumbs hanging from the rafters, he asked about them, and Otsui told him what they were for. He didn't laugh as he might have in the past. Instead, he smiled and said, "Unh, that was a good idea. You don't know this—you never had to deal with him as we did—but Nakashima is a radical; you can't trust him. But it was a good thing what you did. It was a brave thing."
Otsui was filled with warmth towards her husband; she felt close to him in a way she'd never experienced before. A week later, to make room, she began throwing out the bread crumbs. By the end of the month, they were gone.