It’s 1920 in Los Angeles, and Japanese immigrants are spending another restive night trying not to die an ignoble death in a foreign country. Ishikawa Sakuzo, a Japanese immigrant lies, begs, and gambles in order to survive his “good-for-nothing” life in Japantown. Osato, a newly arrived Japanese bride, struggles to survive after her gambling-addicted husband Ryosaku runs out on her. She works nights in a bar and eventually owns her own establishment only to find herself remarried to a dying man.
Such are the lives of the two main figures in two lost (that is, overlooked) novels of Shoson Nagahara, which have been translated by Andrew Leong and reissued under the title Lament in the Night. Nagahara’s work focuses on the lives of those attempting to escape poverty, whether through get-quick rich schemes played out in gambling houses or mining camps, or the bone-aching labor exerted in restaurant kitchens, or as house servants. In Nagahara’s work, these bleak lives are not portrayed for sentimental value, but as part of the raw urban reality of 1920s Los Angeles.
In an excellent introduction by David L. Ulin and an afterword by Andrew Leong, the stories in Lament in the Night are placed in cultural context. Ulin considers how Nagahara wrote these gritty, urban stories in Japanese for his Japanese immigrant readers in America, many of whom were the Issei who lived and worked in Los Angeles. Leong speculates on how closely these stories resemble the life of Nagahara because of the descriptions of an immigrant’s struggle not only with the customs of the country but also the daily fight against hunger, poverty, and unemployment. And yet, as both Ulin and Leong suggest, more than documenting Japanese immigrant experiences, the two novels of Lament in the Night meditate on a human compulsion to survive, a low-burning desire that sometimes flares against the relentless tedium of poverty.
In Lament in the Night, Sakuzo slowly walks the alleys of M. N Avenue, constantly hungry. He furtively looks around to see where he might scrounge up food. Eventually he wanders into a Japanese restaurant and orders a plate of pork chops, then feigns that he has “lost his wallet.” In this way, Sakuzo survives another night. But without being able to find a job, he spends most of his days hungry. On one such day, he encounters Shimomura, a friend he lost without “any regret or shame.” Sakuzo is not looking for sympathy or kindness. He “knew he didn’t have much of a future, that his time was running out. Sakuzo knew that in the end, he would be all alone.” In such descriptions, Nagahara captures the mood of men like Sakuzo who live because they choose not to die but are not compelled by ambition, self-worth, or familial duty to live a better life.
Chie, he almost spat out the curse as he moaned. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and started to walk down the street. His fingers slid against the slimy grease of the pork bone he had stashed away the night before. Suddenly overtaken by a wave of disgust, he yanked it out and threw it to the ground. The brown, stained paper napkin flew off and tumbled down the sidewalk, caught by the gentle morning breeze.
No doubt about it. Everything he did ended up a mess.
Similar to the downbeats of Sakuzo’s story, in The Tale of Osato, Nagahara fixes on the struggles of the impoverished Osato who was married and brought to America when she was eighteen. With her husband Ryosaku, Osata attempts to make the best of a poor situation. But her hard work only leads to more hard work, not a promised exit from poverty and hardship. As she tries to continue running her business, the 1920s Prohibition era eventually devastates her finances, which is further compounded when her new husband falls ill.
In these two novels, Nagahara conveys the unrelenting difficulties of surviving in Japantown. Although the narratives falter, at times, with some inconsistencies of time, place, and character development, they offer poignant studies of the 1920s Asian immigrant class that is underrepresented in American fiction of this time period. Sakuza, Osato, and others who lived in California during the years that led to the Great Depression bear witness to a misconception that hard work will result in the elusive American dream. Nagahara might have been influenced by American realist fiction writers such as Frank Norris, whose novel McTeague (1899) was famously adapted into the film Greed (1924) by Erich Von Stroheim. McTeague tells the story of the young man who falls in love with a parsimonious woman who happens to win a lottery ticket, exposing a world in which greed and poverty lead to violence and murder. While neither Sakuza or Osato resort to murder, they are nevertheless forced to endure this harsh, realist American landscape where physical needs trump moral righteousness, and breaking the law seems like the only way to survive one more night in Japantown.
Jee Yoon Lee teaches at the George Washington University and maintains the blog writinglikeanasian.blogspot.com.