By Deyland Somer
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 5th contest was Migration.
Mike crossed the threshold into the Oval Office. Even after all this time, he still felt a sense of reverence towards the place, towards the office of the man who occupied the room. Sometimes towards the man holding the office itself. But always towards the forty-eight star flag that flew behind him.
However, the news he had heard the night before had made him question that for the first time. Had he been a sucker this whole time? Only the President of the United States could tell it to him straight. All throughout the war --- all throughout the internment --- Mike had leveraged his position in the JACL to get counsel with the Commander-in-Chief. He had had a good relationship with the late President Roosevelt, or at least he had felt so. And that understanding had continued on with the new President.
Or so he had thought.
“Mr. May-say-kuh” the President said, butchering his name as so many had. It was one of the reasons he had adopted his American given name. Would he have to adopt an American surname too?
“Mr. President, it's an honor---”
As he reached out to shake the President's hand, the two bodyguards reached for their revolvers.
“Calm down, gentlemen, Mike's a friendly one. He's done a lot of good work for us throughout these difficult times. And we've done a lot of good work for his people. Isn't that true, Mike?”
“Yes it is, Mr. President.”
“Indeed. Now, Mike, what brings you into my office today? My secretary seemed a bit confused. Said you seemed...frantic?”
Frantic was underselling it. Despite his wife's best attempts to comfort him, Mike had hardly slept a wink. And this compounded with the years of stress-induced sleep deprivation made Mike look a man well more advanced than his own thirty years. But he had to soldier on. For his people. For his country.
“First of all, on behalf of the Japanese American Citizens League, I'd like to congratulate you on the tremendous victory over the Japanese Empire last week. Dropping those atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Kokura really did the trick.”
The President nodded. “When I learned about the atomic bomb project, I was horrified. I didn't want to be the President, the man, to unleash these terrible weapons on the world. At the same time, it was necessary. And it probably saved so many American lives. Believe me, I saw the War Department's charts. If we'd tried invading, we probably would have had to go through with your plan to draft the men out of your camps.”
My camps, Mike didn't like that turn of phrase. It was true, technically, he had suggested the idea. He had even approved diagrams. But the camps weren't his, anymore than the bombs were the President's.
“Your family's from Hiroshima, isn't it?”
Mike's heart sank, if only for a second. “Yes, my father's.”
“And do you hold any...resentment towards me for my decision to bomb the city? Surely you still had family members there.”
“I don't hold it against you, no,” Mike said without hesitation. “War is war, and Japan was the enemy. But Mr. President, I did have another concern.”
“Last night....last night I heard that you were planning on depor---I mean repatriating the Issei to Japan. Is that true?”
The President, for the first time, looked a bit apologetic. “Listen, Mike, we've looked into a lot of different options. You know, throughout this whole process we've been straight with you. Done our best to accommodate your people, given the circumstances. And I know first hand that some of your people are very good people. But to average Joe American, you're all just Japs. Do you really think it's safe to try to reintegrate you all into the general population, after all that's happened?”
Mike was shaking. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Based on what it sounded like, all of his worst fears had come to fruition. And then some.
“With all due respect, Mr. President, it is really the safety of my people that you're concerned about?”
“Mr. Atlee, Mr. Stalin, and I have been discussing how best to preserve world peace. The Russians are moving all of the Germans from Eastern Europe back to their homeland. And they're doing the same with the Japanese in Manchuria and Korea. It's only right we do the same with our Japanese population here.”
“You're only talking about the Issei, right? Not us citizens...”
“As I'm sure Mr. Roosevelt outlined, it's not exactly easy to distinguish between citizen and non-citizen Japanese given the circumstances...”
“Given the fact we're Asiatics, you mean?” His voice was raised, he was losing it. The University of Utah debate champion had been reduced to anger and rage. The guards were looking antsy.
“Your people will repatriate easily, Mr. May-say-kuh, and we have great plans for Japan. Your children will have a better life there than they ever would here.”
“My children only speak English. They pledge to the flag every morning at school. Their favorite song is Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. They are as American as you are. With all due respect, you can't deport us. It's unconstitutional! It's un-American!”
“I hope you will continue to cooperate with us as much as you already have.”
“You have to understand, Mr. President. There are limits. I can only sell so much to my people before they'll start to turn on me. To turn on this country. Remember the hunger strikes in Manzanar?”
“Until logistical arrangements for repatriation are made, we will have to continue to maintain the camps. And I would rather you and your family not be stuck in one of them. Don't you?”
“Now this afternoon I'm going to sign two executive orders. One removing citizenship from those of Japanese ancestry living in the mainland United States. And another authorizing their repatriation to Japan once the process of the occupation of the Home Islands is complete. I expect you and the JACL to be fully supportive of these measures.”
He imagined the faces of his wife, his daughter, his son. The fellow Executive Committee members. After everything, it was about to be all over.
“Yes, Mr. President.”
Even as the city of Tokyo leaped into the modern world, its Amerikamachi was stuck in the past. Both technologically --- the televisions, washing machines, and refrigerators so common in the other parts of the metropolis were hard to come by. But also spiritually. The fenced-off slum of close to one-hundred thousand souls was adorned with nearly half as many American flags. Groups of schoolboys threw footballs up and down the dirty alleys. And the steeples of churches dotted nearly every couple blocks.
The Mormons continued their worship as well. Services were bilingual --- English for the older Amerikajin, and Japanese for the younger ones. Though few young people seemed interested in coming to the temple these days. Mike's own son had refused to keep attending services after he had reached the age of majority. His daughter made a continued effort of showing piety, though Mike wondered as to Midori's true level of devotion. Her husband had converted, nominally, though the two of them were nowhere to be seen today.
His own spouse, Etsuko, wasn't present either. Ever since they had arrived here, she attended to the family affairs. Mike found it hard to find work, his name lower than mud amid the tight networks of Tokyo's Amerikamachi. And so he slipped further into his middle years, brooding at the temple and in his family apartment.
A man sat next to Mike. He was tall, far taller than any Japanese, even the Amerikajin. As he removed his fedora, the man's Caucasian features became apparent. He looked too old to be an off-duty soldier or a missionary. White husband of a local girl? It was increasingly common. But another, more obvious possibility struck Mike as the man opened his mouth.
“Mr. Masaoka?” He asked, pronouncing his name in a more authentically Japanese way than Mike himself did.
“You're CIA, aren't you?”
He'd been surviving largely off a stipend of theirs. In the early days, they had maintained routine contact with him. These days, he had suspected that they'd only kept him on the books due to inefficient record-keeping.
“Mr. Masaoka, I'm not here to ask anything of you. You have done enough for us, and we are still grateful for your service.”
“So you're just here to hear the word of Joseph Smith?”
The man smiled. “I'm more of a Presbyterian myself. But no, I wanted to just...talk to you about something.”
“Not here. Meet me here,” Mike scribbled a note on a piece of scrap paper with the pen he kept in his shirt pocket. Japanese addresses were impossible complicated, and it was better just giving him walking instructions to the place.
Tony's was the best Italian restaurant in Amerikamachi. And probably the best in all of Japan, unless Kyoto's Americatown had been lucky enough to get a chef the quality of Tony Watanabe. Mike loved going there. Both because the food was delicious, but also because it was still too exotic for the increasing amount of yakuza and burakumin in the neighborhood to frequent. Just Mike and a few other old-timers that still had a taste for chicken alfredo.
“What's your name? I didn't quite catch it.”
“Okay, Thomas. Welcome to the best Italian restaurant in Japan.”
But Thomas didn't seem much interested in the food. He ordered some breadsticks and shifted in his chair.
“You can relax, it's not a date.”
“Mike....I have researched you. Your history. What you did. What happened to you.”
“You learned I'm a piece of dog feces?”
“I learned...that you are a very patriotic man. Even after you've been stripped of your American citizenship, do you still consider yourself an American?”
Mike stroked his own mustache and thought for a second. “Yes I do.”
“Would you do anything for your country?”
“What are you asking me to do?”
“I'm not asking you to do anything. I just...want to hear your perspective. You're a family man, right? Wife, two kids.”
“The kids are grown up, but yeah, I have a family. An ungrateful one.”
“And would you do anything for them?”
“Of course I would. Everything I've ever done, I did for my country, my family, and my people.”
“Let me tell you, Mike, you and I are not that different. You may not be able to tell, but I myself am a German refugee. Came over to the States as a child. Recently the Stasi got in touch with me. They're offering me a chance to return to Germany and see my family again if I...cooperate with some of their ideas.”
“And why are you telling me this?”
“I figured that you would understand my dilemma. Which would you choose, your family or your country?”
“I don't know,” Mike said, confused and frustrated. “How about I just eat my lasagna and we'll forget we ever had this conversation.”
“My...we thought you were brighter than this, gospodin.” The man looked around the room. “What I'm saying is that we have ways of getting you and your family back to America. Think on it, and call this number if you want to talk more.”
The man handed Mike a business card. Mike shoved it back at the man. “If you're telling me you're a Russian, I'm going to have to kindly tell you to get lost. I'm no red. I'm an American!”
The man shrugged and smiled before getting up.
“I guess, we kind of figured that it wouldn't be inconceivable that you'd betray your people. You'd already done it once before, after all.”
“I DID THE RIGHT THING, GODDAMIT! I DID THE RIGHT THING!”
The Russian smiled as he exited the restaurant.
“Tony, I did the right thing, didn't I? All of this, all of this....it isn't my fault, right? It isn't my fault? Tony?!”
The chef stood by, wiping down a cup. Even as he consoled Mike with a pat on the shoulder, he couldn't look him in the eye.