This is the first of three conversations I will have with the protagonists of my novel, The Red Kimono. The book follows the lives of nine-year old Japanese American, Sachiko Kimura, her seventeen-year old brother, Nobu, and his African-American friend, Terrence Harris, from 1941 to 1945.
Jan: There are certain events that have happened in our lives that we will never forget. We will always remember where we were and what we were doing. For me, it’s the explosion of the Challenger and 9/11. Where were you, and what were you thinking when you first heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked?
Sachi: Well, I hate to admit that I was snooping in my parents’ closet, trying to find where Mama had hidden my Christmas present. As I searched, I heard a voice on the radio in the kitchen. The man was talking about Pearl Harbor being attacked. The first thing I thought of was my brother, Taro, who was in Hawaii. Mama and Papa had wanted him to stay in California to attend college, but one of his friends told him there was good money cutting sugar cane in Hawaii, so he decided to go. I didn’t hear the whole story about what happened in Pearl Harbor until later, so I didn’t realize it was Japanese airplanes that had attacked. After I learned it was the Japanese, I was not only frightened for Taro, but for myself, for my family. I was already being teased me for being Japanese. Kids at school called me names, and I knew they would be even meaner now. I tried to pretend I was sick the next day, because I didn’t want to go to school. But Mama saw right through me, and sent me anyway.
Jan: So, how were you treated after Pearl Harbor?
Sachi: The next day, dozens of kids called me Jap — even more than before. But does the tenth time you’re called a name hurt more than the first time? I don’t think so. It hurt my feelings the same every time someone said it. Every time they whispered as I walked down the hallway. But it was harder on my brother, Nobu. I remember when he came home that day we’d first heard the news. He slammed the front door so hard the windows rattled all over the house. Then, he started yelling at Mama and Papa about how his friend’s father had come outside when they were shooting baskets in the driveway. He told Nobu to go home, to never come back, all because he was Japanese. After Nobu finished yelling at my parents, he stomped up the stairs and slammed his bedroom door so hard a picture fell off the wall.
Jan: You and your family were sent to an internment camp in Arkansas. They were very dark times for your family. Were there any bright moments that brought you through the darkness?
Sachi: Yes, but not for awhile. After Papa was killed by those boys, the ones Nobu thought were his friends, I didn’t think I could be any sadder. Then, we found out we had to leave our homes. I had to leave most of my belongings behind. When we arrived at Santa Anita, a racetrack they had converted to temporary housing, the smell was awful and we even had to share bathrooms. But, you know, there were parts about being there that I liked. All the people were Japanese. I no longer felt different from everyone else. Nobody called me names anymore. Then, some of our friends were sent to assembly center camps in California, some to Utah. But we were sent to Arkansas. Arkansas! I’d never been so far away before. There, the air was so hot and sticky, even fanning myself didn’t make me feel cooler. But, it was also there that the most wonderful thing happened. I met Jubie Lee Franklin. Funny, fearless, downright naughty at times, and she became my very best friend. And though her skin was black, she wanted to be blood sisters with me — me, a Japanese girl. I can still hear her words, can still see her with her hand over her heart. “It don’t matter what we look like. Auntie Bess always tell me ever thing that’s important sets right here in my heart.”
Jan: If you could tell the world something about yourself that we don’t know, what would it be?
Sachi: I wish I could be more brave. That might sound strange, coming from a young Japanese girl. But I have grown up learning the Japanese way of “saving face.” Many Caucasians don’t know what that means, so I’ll try to explain. It means never doing anything that might bring shame, either to me or my family. One must behave, not speak out of turn, be respectful. Imagine the fearful thoughts that go through my head when I want to speak up, or try a new adventure. Will it anger someone? Bring shame? So, rather than take the chance, I refrain. I wonder what chances I have missed at discovering something new about someone or something else, or even about myself. Maybe that is one reason Jubie Lee was brought into my life. I don’t need to worry about saving face with her. No, she wants to see every kind of face I have, whether it’s a smile, a scowl, a tear or a frown. She wants — no, demands — to see every part of me, not just the honorable ones.