Omu-Raisu — Robert H. Kono

What the hell am I doing in this goddamn country?  thought Dick Honda, a Sansei Japanese American.  Japan is a defeated country.  It has nothing.  It’s a war-torn devastated land.  The major cities have been bombed, the people are roaming around in tatters looking for food, everything is practically at a standstill as if stiffened by paralysis. 

            But he knew why.  It was his old man’s doing.  An Issei, his old man had opted to return to Japan from the concentration camp at Crystal City, Texas in 1946, claiming that Japan could not have lost the war.  It was all propaganda.  Unconditional surrender?  Pshaw!  Propaganda!  The Yamato Spirit reigned supreme, so the ex-Japanese Imperial Navy veteran spouted to his like-minded cohorts in the camp, indulging in rhetoric that incensed the younger pro-American Nisei.  He had to come to Japan to see for himself and forced his Nisei wife, who had lost her mind in the camps, and his young teenage son to come with him.  They were American and did not want to come.  But he was the head of the family and his will prevailed. 

            Now as Dick rode the crowded charcoal-burning bus packed solid with the swaying bodies, he was conscious of the scuffling feet impinging themselves rudely on his shoes.  They were secondhand, bought in a store that sold clothes from America.  It was made of genuine leather and did not fall apart.  He kept shifting his position, trying to keep his shoes nice, free of scuff marks.  It was the only pair he had.  Though they did not fit, he wore them anyway.   They painfully pinched his swollen chilblain toes.  The passengers were packed so tightly that he could have folded his legs and still be propped up by the sheer pressure, but he didn’t yield to the temptation and remained upright.  The bus spewing smoke from the burner came to a stop at the Tokyo train station, and the passengers, as though stirred awake, began to face the door.  They filed out one after another, and he stepped out into the cold, turning up the collar of his secondhand coat.  It carried the faint odor of its previous owner.  He must have been a man of medium height and medium build, for it fit perfectly. 

            Dick was a sturdy sixteen-year-old now, still a kid with the growing pains of a young adult.  He had moved up from the boonies in Shikoku and was a sophomore at St. Joseph College, a Marianist high school in Yokohama that taught its classes in English which he had been in danger of losing.  But he maintained his proficiency enough to engage in translating documents from Japanese into English and vice versa, having acquired a smattering of Japanese at the local school, as tenuous as it was, and holding on to his knowledge of English and improving it.  With the money left over from paying the rent, he had come to Shibuya to treat himself to an American movie. The movies were a mainstay in his life.  They taught him how to behave as an American.  Lacking association with other American peers, he followed the speech and mannerisms the silver screen showed.  Much of it was inappropriate for everyday use in Japan, but he didn’t care.  The movies transported him back to America, to the mainstream world where he had his roots.  Japan was just a stopover on his journey.  He just didn’t know how long he was to be stuck in the country.  He wanted to return to America before he lost all moorings.            

            He walked past Shibuya station.  It was early evening in November.  Along the street were lined up the blackmarket wares and items and the white robed amputees wearing their military campaign hats, bowing and begging.  A few passersby dropped coins into their bowls.  The carbide lamps, emitting an acrid odor, lit the mats holding soap, razor blades, toothpaste, machine parts, clothing and shoes, books and magazines, pens and pencils, stationery, foodstuff, powdered milk, medicines, toys, dolls, figurines, carvings, artwork, trinkets and other bric-a-brac.  The vendors, clad in flimsy attire, sat on a cushion by the mats, some with a charcoal brazier to warm their hands at; some of them wore a padded hood, meant for protection from falling debris in the air raids. The entire block-long lane was a blackmarket bazaar and the shouting out of wares was raucous. The people milled about, pausing to inspect an item, sometimes purchasing it but more often just replacing it and moving on to the next vendor.  They were niggardly with their money and spent it only on what they needed.  Soap was at a premium; Palmolive, Lux, Ivory—all PX items—always sold out.  Secondhand bicycles were also favored; there were but a few. 

            With the innumerable carbide lamps lighting up the lane, their combined heat warded off the bitter cold that found its way down Dick’s neck.  He pulled up the collar and scrunched his head deeper into the jacket.  He was hungry.  He could have eaten at home before hopping on the bus to take the forty-minute ride into Tokyo.  But it would be the same fare: barley gruel, a piece of dried fish.  They were lucky to get that much.  His poor mother, ever concerned about her only child, would not eat until he had finished his meal and only then would pick up her chopsticks and consume the leftovers.  His father was irresponsible and indolent: he didn’t even look for work but just whiled his time away, cooking up get-rich-fast schemes that amounted to nothing.  He gave in to bitter abandonment after witnessing Japan’s utter defeat.  It was up to Dick to make both ends meet—and most of the time he couldn’t.  He couldn’t even pay tuition; he depended on the largess of the Marianist school.  But today he told himself, “Devil take the hindmost,” and decided to treat himself to a movie—and a meal out, his first one ever.

            The small theater up the incline of Dogenzaka was crowded, almost as packed as the bus.  There was standing room only and Dick took a position in the rear against the wall so he could lean against it.  He was tall enough to see over the heads of those in front of him. The film was a western and it featured Gary Cooper, his favorite actor—his role model actually.  After seeing the actor in Sergeant York and Beau Geste, he wanted him as his older brother.  He looked like his uncle who was kind to his mother in the concentration camp when she was going downhill, consoling her with his presence in the absence of her husband who had been arrested by the FBI and put in separate detention centers elsewhere. 

            With the bodies packed closely together in the theater, it was warm and he unbuttoned his heavy coat.  He didn’t mind the closeness.  As on the bus, he relaxed.  He practically let the packed passengers hold him up.  It gave him a sense of belonging.  He felt included in the lives of the people, banishing the feeling of being isolated and stranded.  The pressure of the bodies on a packed bus only reminded him that he was part of humanity, that everyone was in the same boat, even he, a lookalike American outsider who could pass as one of the locals. 

            Someone was munching on sembei (rice crackers), for its pungent odor permeated the air.  It was his favorite snack.But he was on a budget and could not splurge and buy a bag.  He was saving up for a night on the town, so to speak.  He was going to treat himself to dinner out—his first restaurant meal.  Nothing fancy, just a meal out.  He had never eaten at a restaurant before.  He wasn’t counting the time he went to a gaishokken shokudo, a cut-rate eatery housed in a lean-to where they served cold leftover food.  He still had a few discount tickets left.  A movie and a dinner, accompanied by a small bottle of beer.  He had never had a beer.  It was about time he tried some—to be an adult.

            But he was still a boy with all the needs of a boy.  Companionship, friends, buddies—fellow Americans.  But there were none his age.  His classmates at St. Joe’s were all foreigners: Russians, Germans, French, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino.  He was the lone American and he learned to get along with everyone, but it was not the same as having American peers, so he befriended the Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, French, German and then Russian, in that order.  It was the order of his personal preference.  But he could not invite anyone to come to his place because of his mother’s unpredictable behavior, a reluctance that went back to the concentration camp where she fell ill.  He wanted to invite his friends to come to his barracks to play but dare not, for fear that his mother’s condition would be known.  So even with the great number of children in the camp, he couldn’t find a buddy, except for Tak, but he had lost contact with him.  Tak and he were classmates in the camp school and played ball together and went fishing in the nearby river; they crawled through the loose loops in the barbed wire fence.  The guards didn’t seem to mind…just a couple of kids going fishing.  They never caught anything.  The small river was barren.  They nevertheless baited the bent pins with bread and dutifully tossed their line into the water.  The summer sun baked them: it was scorching hot during the summers and frigidly cold during the winters.

            They had repatriated to Japan, landed at Uraga, a former Japanese naval base, and traveled down to Shikoku, to his father’s birthplace.  It was a small town in the boondocks of Ehime Prefecture.  Dick went to a Japanese school there and learned the language.  Then they moved to the Tokyo-Yokohama area and he entered St. Joseph College where he improved his English which he was in danger of losing.  He saw a lot of Americans and their dependents, teenagers his age, in the area.  He wondered about them and their lifestyle in Japan where they lived a privileged existence with their big PX’s and western-style housing.  It was just like America in a foreign setting…America was a PX paradise.  He was an outsider in the total sense of the word, an outsider to the Japanese and Americans alike.  For identification, he had to carry his Alien Registration Certificate wherever he went.  And he felt unmoored.  He clung desperately to his tenuous American identity—by singing all the American songs he remembered and seeing as many American movies as he could afford. 

            Japan was still clearing the rubble of war.  Progress was being made, but the people still dressed as they had during the war; the floppy military campaign hats could be seen everywhere and the women wore mompei, floppy pantaloons, and the men, jikatabi, rubberized split toe stocking-shoes.  Their clothing were made of sufu (staple fiber), a poorly woven cloth that fell apart after several washings.  Their diet consisted of a rice-barley mixture, millet, sweet potatoes and vegetables.  Meat was scarce, although the fisheries were improving.  The housing situation was dire: many people were living in shacks made of slats and canvas.  And Dick lived like them, eating the same food and wearing the same clothing, although they managed to rent a cheap room.  That’s what kept the Honda family poor: the rent.  Dick was just barely able to meet the rent payments.  And now he was going to splurge and assuage his sixteen-year-old desires.  A movie and dinner.  And a beer.  That was it.  Nothing fancy.  But it was the world. He figured he had earned it. He wondered about the beer.  Would he get drunk on a single small bottle?  Naw, no way!  How could he get drunk on a single small bottle?  Even if he did, so what?  He was mainly curious. He had never tested his tolerance to alcohol.  He felt he needed to.

            After the movie, he joined the packed crowds going about their business of shopping, returning to their homes and hastening their steps to catch a train and retraced his tracks to enter the long lane of blackmarket vendors loudly hawking their wares on his way to the restaurants up the block.  He stopped at a mat that held soap, soap dishes, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shaving items and whatnot, all illuminated by the smelly carbide lamp and picked out a packet of razor blades.  He had found it necessary to shave just recently and his voice was changing.  He haggled with the vendor, a slight man with dark features, eyes as big as saucers with a bulbous nose and a sharp chin.  On Dick’s part, the haggling was only halfhearted since he knew that the vendor had himself and his family to feed.  They were all in the same boat, he thought.  Everybody had to look out for himself—and try to help out his fellow man.  Japanese were fellow human beings.  Weren’t they?  He had suffered right alongside of them.  True, he did not suffer the bombing raids or the ravages of war.  Not directly.  But they were instrumental in forcing them, the Japanese in America, into concentration camps.  Weren’t they?  Were they not responsible?  He could not, however,  blame the ordinary people.  They only followed what the government told them to do.  Same with him and his people.  It was the government that dumped them into the concentration camps.  Now they were thrown together, struggling to survive as best they could.  And he felt in his heart of hearts that they were all in the same boat regardless of their origins and cast together in a postwar situation that taxed their ability to survive.  They had to start from nothing, such was the devastation of the war-torn land.  Into this mix landed Dick Honda, a Sansei American, a lookalike  teenage outsider and foreigner, a youth who could not get in with his Japanese peers because he was not born a Japanese.  He was merely tolerated—barely.   And yet, though shunned, he kept the faith, in his fellow man and in the greater presence in the beyond.  He didn’t know enough to call the presence God; it was just a huge feeling, a sweeping oceanic impulse that came over him whenever he looked up at the starry heavens and witnessed a sky full of gems, feeling a grand presence in his soul.  He wanted to call the presence Father, in the absence of a real father.

            The wind had stirred up and Dick shivered and pulled the collar of his coat up around his neck.  He crossed the street and entered a section where there were small eateries, bars, shops and fancy restaurants.  He hesitated and tried to decide whether to go to one of the more plebian eateries—which would be less expensive—or a fancy restaurant.  He studied the menu displayed at an eatery and checked the prices.  He winced.  He was going to have to pay someone to fix a meal for him?  He wasn’t stingy, just prudently parsimonious .  He had to pinch every yen piece.  It was a habit.  But he was out to treat himself to a movie and a dinner, a rare occasion stemming from an even rarer urge to treat himself well.  Treating himself well always came as an afterthought.  He didn’t outwardly flagellate himself but in his darker moments, he was always coming down on himself.  He held himself in low esteem.  He was a nothing and a nobody.  A person without any sensible potential.  He was always laughed at by his father who treated him as a stranger.  On top of that, he was an underdog—society’s whipping boy—a goddamn Jap!  He couldn’t shake the feeling.  It was ingrained in him.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his Executive  Order 9066 and the concentration camps branded him—for life.  It was part of his psyche, part of his makeup as a human being, inculcated by four years of incarceration as a boy.  Even though he might outgrow the stigma, one way or another it was going to influence the direction of his life, whether under his control or not.  And he had no hope of ever controlling his life.  The circumstances he was caught up in didn’t allow it.  And the circumstances, in the absence of any beneficent change, would dictate his future.  Where did that leave him?  He could only control his responses to circumstances and try to make sure his responses served him in good stead, which meant he had to teach himself everything in the absence of any mentor or guide.  He was totally cast on his own resources.  The first order of business was to treat himself good as far as that was possible.  And he was going to do just that by treating himself to his first meal out at a restaurant.  He decided on the fancy restaurant with brightly lacquered doors and a dimly lit interior.

            He was seated at a table and given a menu.  Before looking at it, he studied the way the forks, knives and spoons were arranged on the tablecloth and memorized their placement for future reference in case he ever had to get a job as a waiter or butler.  He didn’t know what he wanted to do after graduating from high school, whether to go on to college or just find a job—any kind of job—with the Occupation Forces.  He would have access to the PX’s and get a dollar salary, if that were at all possible.  Although he had reinstated his American citizenship (he couldn’t renounce it in the first place since he was a minor), he had to register with the Japanese government as an alien and would be treated as an indigenous Japanese by the Occupation authorities since he was not a Department of Army Civilian (DAC) qualified for PX privileges.  He really didn’t know where he stood.  He would have to wing it, something he was increasingly good at in the absence of any guide or mentor or expertise.  He was on his own and it was both a scary and exhilarating feeling.  Life was an adventure.  He looked forward to each day waking up in the mornings, in spite of poverty, in spite of circumstances.  He had an attitude toward life that said, “Try me and I’ll show you.” 

            Eventually, he wanted to return to America, the land of his birth.  He was American.  He was caught up in circumstances not of his own making or doing.  He would have to deal with them and they might delay him in his accomplishments.  But that begged the question.  What did he want to do in life?  He had no idea.  What was he good at?  He would have to put himself through the paces and find out.  But where to even begin?  In a way, he depended on the presence to guide him…whatever that presence was.  But what was there for him in America?  He didn’t know.  He balanced hope against persecution, persecution by racism.  He was not blind to the concomitants of the concentration camps nor to the blight of racism and how they would impinge themselves upon him if he returned.  As his own person.  He knew the pitfalls and understood his position as a youth who grew up guiding his own development and discovering his own grounding as a person who had been cast on his own resources.  Japan was but a way station, a stopover on his journey, a learning experience through which to discover himself and his relevance to mankind.  He would have to learn all he needed to know about humanity, how people thought and behaved, how they lived and worked, how they laughed and cried, for humanity was one.  Wasn’t it?  (We are all one.  We are all on the same journey.  We all have the same aspirations.  The only difference is the cultural difference.) 

            Taking up the menu, he check the offerings and was tantalized.  Such an array of different dishes!  But when he checked the prices, he was dismayed.  He had indeed chosen an expensive restaurant.  He had limited cash on hand.  He perused the menu closely and sighed.  It didn’t make any difference what he ordered.  The idea was to treat himself to a restaurant meal.  And the cheapest item was listed as omu-raisu.  What was omu-raisu?  He waved to the waiter.

            “What’s in omu-raisu?” he asked.

            He was told it was rice seasoned with onions, tomatoes and bits of bacon wrapped in an omelet.

            His mouth watered.  It was a western dish.  Shades of America!  He ordered it.

            “Also, bring me a small bottle of beer,” he said.

            “What kind?” the waiter asked.

            Dick hesitated.  “What kind do you have?” he asked, wanting to appear knowledgeable.

            “We have Asahi and Kirin,” came the reply.

            “Only two?”

            “Those are the only ones being bottled,” the waiter said, impatiently.

            “You don’t have imported beers?” Dick asked.

            “I’m afraid not,” the waiter said.

            “Then, bring me a Kirin.”

            When the waiter set the small bottle of beer down on the table, Dick picked it up and filled his glass.  He held the drink up and inspected the clear, yellowish liquid as if to say goodbye to a long established belief, that drinking was a sin.  He had been going off and on to a Sunday youth group called Chapel Teens and listened to them preach about going to movies, drinking and dancing.  But he was no Puritan.  He wanted to embrace life and all that it offered.  He was sixteen and his own person—or fast heading in that direction.  He wasn’t quite there yet but he was straining at the bit, ready to make that headlong dash into adulthood.  He raised the glass to toast the occasion, of treating himself to a night out, his first venture into treating himself to a slice of life.  He didn’t want to grow up straitjacketed.  And the first order of business was to treat himself well.  If not  now, then when?  It was about time he took charge of his life.

            He took a swallow of the beer—and grimaced.  It was so bitter!  How could anyone ever drink the stuff?  But it was called the Nectar of the Gods.  It’s been drunk for millennia. He took another swallow, then another.  He had never taken in alcohol before and his system reacted.  He felt a buzz.  There was a lightening of his mood; he felt as though a load had been lifted off his shoulders.  He took another swallow and by the time he had finished the bottle, he felt positively gay.  No wonder they called it Nectar of the Gods, he thought.  He called the waiter and ordered another bottle.  But as he was consuming the second bottle, the old caution returned as if to say “you are a poor boy on a shoestring budget and you have no business catering to expensive tastes.”  As it was he could barely afford the second bottle of beer; he had to save enough for bus fare back.  Ahh, but for the luxury of being able to afford another bottle of the elixir!  Overcoming the initial shock of taste, he savored the second bottle and became quite drunk. 

            His order arrived.  The plump omu-raisu sat invitingly in the middle of a large plate.  No other vegetables, potatoes or any side dishes at all.  Just the fat mound of an omelet.  He dug in.

            The taste was exquisite.  The rice was seasoned perfectly and the onions were juicy and crunchy and the bacon bits, crispy.  The omelet itself was not dried out but moist and soft.  Killing an impulse to scarf it all down, he savored each mouthful and chewed meditatively.  He thought about his parents having to dine on barley gruel and a hard piece of dried fish, their normal fare, and felt a little guilty eating the delicious  omu-raisu.  But as he consumed the dish, he congratulated himself on being the breadwinner with his translation side business and being able to keep a roof over their heads, although he relied on the generosity of the Brothers and his school for his tuition.  They understood his plight.  And he was a good student, good enough to entertain thoughts of going to college in the United States.  But he had to look after his parents, which would keep him in Japan.  Working for a Japanese company—or the Occupation?  He didn’t know.  He didn’t know which way the wind was blowing.  He could only live each day as it unfolded.  Not much there for a youth of dreams.  But he didn’t bemoan his fate.  Each day brought its own promise.

            He took the last bite of the omu-raisu and masticated it longingly and finally swallowed the mouthful.  He was done and he washed down the food with a satisfied swallow of the beer.  He was lightheaded but euphoric, and he killed an impulse to break out in song.  His belly was full, he had treated himself to a restaurant meal and a night out and he felt the whole universe hummed in harmony.  He had been desperate. All in all, he was glad he had finally taken charge of his life—such as it was—and that it was entirely up to him to point himself in the right direction, if circumstances allowed it.  It was all dependent on external circumstances which were like the wind.  No one knew where the wind comes from, no one knew where it goes.  The wind just is…just like circumstances.  His only hope was that the winds of change would bode well for him—and not ill.  Whichever was the case, his motto was: “Try me and I’ll show you.”

            Along with a crowd of others, he waited at the bus stop.  It had begun to rain.  Umbrellas popped open and the spines bumped against his head.  He tried to scrunch into his collar, to no avail, so he just tolerated being poked.  It was cold and he shivered.  Soon the bus arrived and the people began to file in.  He wasn’t lucky enough to find a seat but just stood in the middle of the aisle as the people packed themselves in.  The air filled with the smell of wet wool.  The shuffling of feet scuffed his shoes and he had to keep shifting his position, envisioning the insulting scuff marks that he would have to remedy with shoe polish.  Tighter and tighter the bodies pressed in so that he could almost withdraw his feet and remain suspended. 

            The bus lurched into motion and they were on their way.  Soon he would be home, returning to the dismal rental where the family moldered away in desuetude.  But for the moment, he was happy.  He had treated himself to a night out.  His belly was full of the delicious omu-raisu and his mind was at peace.  Despite coming down on himself constantly,  he had begun to learn to treat himself well.  If he didn’t, who else would?  Not the world, that was for sure.  But there were exceptions.  Perhaps the exceptions lay in America.  He would have to see.

***
Robert H. Kono was born in 1932 and has been writing for a number of years now.  Many of his works contain references to the concentration camps in America during WWII.  He grew up in them as a boy and repatriated to Japan after the war in 1946, stuck there for thirteen years before he could manage to return to the land of his birth.  While in Japan, he worked for CIA for five years as an interpreter/translator.  His works have been published in magazines and newspapers.  His website, www.rhkohno.com, describes his self-published works including a collection of short stories.  He is widowed and lives in Beaverton, Oregon.