Early Nikkei realism, with a twist





By Shoson Nagahara, translated by Andrew Leong (Los Angeles: Kaya Press, 2012, 380 pp., $19.95, paperback)

One unique new entry in the catalogue of the independent Asian American publisher Kaya Press is Andrew Way Leong’s edited and translated edition of Shoson Nagahara’s “Lament in the Night.” The volume, which won Leong the 2014 literature award of the Association for Asian American Studies, contains two novellas by Nagahara, an Issei writer active in Los Angeles in the 1920s.

“Lament in the Night,” which was originally published in a limited Japanese-language edition in 1925, tells the story of Ishikawa Sazuko, a shiftless and impoverished day laborer, who struggles to survive in Little Tokyo. “The Tale of Osato,” which appeared serially in the Los Angeles daily Rafu Shimpo soon after, tells the story of an Issei woman and her difficult life. Abandoned by her brutal gambler husband, she struggles to make her way as a single mother by working as a waitress — and ultimately runs a successful speakeasy in prohibition-era Los Angeles! 

The two texts are accompanied by copious notes and accompanying essays by editor Leong, who has worked to ferret out the sparse biographical details on Nagahara. (Nagahara disappeared from view soon after the publication of his novellas, possibly to return to Japan, and his later fate is unknown).

As literature, the twin novellas offer an interesting twist on the work of the realist school. The editor cites the influence on the author of Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsen, whose works Nagahara translated into Japanese. There also are echoes of American writers such as Frank Norrise and Theodore Dreiser — whose masterpiece “An American Tragedy” appeared the same year as “Lament in the Night.” The characters speak in a slangy, staccato idiom, and spend their lives in pursuit of elemental pleasures such as food and sex. Cut off from Japan, they are stranded in an American society where they are marginal and excluded on racial grounds:  There is no model minority here of upwardly mobile immigrants! 

For the historian of Japanese Americans, Nagahara’s twin texts offer numerous features of interest. First, he highlights the endemic problem of gambling addiction among Issei men. After working themselves to exhaustion at manual labor, his characters go to Chinese-owned gambling houses and swiftly lose all their hard-earned money.  As Bill Hosokawa noted in his book  “Nisei: The Quiet Americans,” his problem was discussed in numerous consular reports during the period. However, it has seldom been examined by scholars in recent decades. Another important contribution of his writing is the sympathetic portrait the author paints of Issei women, and their search for physical and emotional fulfillment. Locked into loveless marriages with brutal and exploitative men, they faced real difficulties, with little recourse. Of course, Nagahara dramatizes the situation in broad strokes — in real life most such women did not take up with lovers. Still, his work was presented and billed as realism, which leads us to conclude that enough women did have affairs (or considered it) that his portrayal was at least plausible.

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