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The Four Novels of Milton Murayama

April 13, 2014 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Maui’s Nikkei population is barely 8% of the current 160,000 residents, but before the Pacific War, more than one in four Maui residents were Nikkei.

To a recent Maui resident from Tacoma or Portland, driving along streets named in ‘olelo Hawai’i “Pu’unene” or “West Ka’ahumanu” and ending up at the “Soichi Sakamoto” Maui County swimming pool or the “Ichiro ‘Iron’ Maehara” baseball stadium or passing the Wailuku Hongwanji Temple or having their children eat rice during school lunches – must be disconcerting, since the large plantation camps with thousands of Nikkei families, the Japanese shops of Wailuku and Pa’ia, the large Japanese wedding and funerals have disappeared and only old black-and-white photographs and memories remain of a different Maui, a harsh environment that was a daily struggle physically and mentally, far less idyllic than today.

But for anybody interested in insights to this “lost world” of Japanese Maui, there are four novels published by a Maui-born and –raised writer named Milton Murayama, who could not get 1940s – 50s Maui out of his mind, even when he left Maui and never returned to live on Maui.

His “Maui” was the sugar plantation camp at Pu'ukoli'i*. Six months after he graduated from Lahainaluna High School the Pearl Harbor attack occurred. He later studied at the University of Hawaii and later went to graduate school at Columbia University.

All through the 1950s he worked on chapters that would eventually become “All I Asking for Is My Body” (1975**) – and through the title the reader is drawn into the sheer physical labor world of the sugar plantations. The book would languish until the University of Hawai?i re-issued it in 1988, and the short novel became the best and most significant work of fiction about the Nikkei plantation experience, with extensive use of local “pidgin” English. Of "American immigrant experience" novels, perhaps the best analogy is Henry Roth's "Call It Sleep" (1934), about a child growing up in New York City with revolutionary use of dialect and Yiddish.

The first-born son Toshio is the most frustrated, the most violently-reacting character in “All I Asking For Is My Body”, and resents his parents for forcing him out of high school to work in the sugar fields because of a huge debt incurred by his father, a failed fisherman. Toshio’s younger brother Kiyoshi narrates the story and is calmer in a family with screaming matches and beatings. A reader would also see how a Maui Toshio character, in superb physical shape after plantation labor, would find hiking the northern Italian hillside a breeze in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team – in other words, German riflemen and artillery seemed an easy diversion from sugar field labor, and the reader could see that a return to the plantation system was impossible.

“All I Asking for is My Body” is divided into three parts. The first section, which was published independently as a short story, "I'll Crack Your Head Kotsun", Kiyo (short for "Kiyoshi"), the younger brother, “befriends an older boy whose mother is a prostitute for the camps; Kiyo is confused by his parents' resistance to their friendship” – perhaps the most focused short story on the plantation experience.

In the third and longest section Kiyo's oldest brother, Tosh, “clashes with their parents when they expect him to fulfill his "filial duty" to repay the family's debt and when they refuse to allow Tosh and Kiyo to enroll in high school. Tosh claims that the money was stolen by the grandfather and that therefore it is not up to him to repay it; moreover, he argues that filial duty must be earned and that the parents haven't earned it. Still, Tosh goes along, giving the parents a combination of his and his wife's earnings. Kiyo, observing these problems, realizes he must resist being subservient; he eventually joins the Army, both to get away from home and to help his family with his salary. The novel ends with Kiyo winning enough money in a barracks' gambling match to help Tosh pay off the debt . . .”

(In some ways, a reader can compare Murayama’s Maui world to the books by Armine von Tempski, daughter of an Up-Country Haleakala ranch manager, to see an enormous chasm between the lives at the Pu’ukoli’i sugar camp and a huge ranch house with maids and music-playing paniolo friends. Von Tempski published over ten books; her “Born in Paradise” was a national best-seller and we forget the great impact that her writing had on pre-World War II American readers, and the beginnings of the “Maui brand”.)

In 1994 Murayama published the pre-quel “Five Years on a Rock”, like Coppola’s “Godfather II” movie where Don Corleone’s childhood in Sicily is depicted and his immigration to New York; the second novel goes back to the years 1914 to 1935, just before his first novel begins. His Oyama family protagnists Isao and his wife Sawa (her female picture-bride point-of-view comes first in the novel) arrive in Maui from Japan, and have two sons born on Maui: Toshio and Kiyoshi (his Nisei voice resonates later).

Third novel “Plantation Boy” is about the Nisei male military experience during World War II. Older brother Tosh – now the narrator who has to fight a series of battles, consistently with his family and railing against the system, whether plantation or anything else -- had a punctured eardrum (from being hit as a child by his father) and was rejected by the US Army, but Kiyo volunteers for the U.S. Army. The fourth and last novel, “Dying in a Strange Land”, was published by the University of Hawai’i Press in 2008.

This last book ties together all the characters in the previous four novels – and takes the reader into a fast-paced post-plantation world to the 1980s. The Issei mother Sawa takes the children to Honolulu and Mainland (similar to the Nikkei Maui diaspora after the Pacific War when Maui's population would not return to its pre-War high until the late 1970s). The older brother Tosh, now an architect, is quick to blame his problems on his family. The younger Kiyo becomes a novelist (in an autobiographical twist).

Interestingly in a postscript, the character Toshio in the four novels is based largely on Milton Murayama's late brother, Edwin Murayama, who was a real-life boxer and architect, and a "fighter" throughout his life. Edwin Murayama was a three-time Maui amateur flyweight champion and the island's No. 1 bantamweight in 1941. He had 90 fights, 10 as a pro. For a high school dropout, he passed the architectural test (perhaps the first and only who never attended college to do so) and later designed several landmark buildings, including the Lahaina Civic Center, Ka’anapali Alii condo, and Ka’ahamanu Hale (Circuit Court) in downtown Honolulu. In an example of “life imitating art”, he was also a Las Vegas jackpot winner.

*Daniel K. Inouye’s mother was born and raised in Pu’ukoli’i.

**That next year I met Milton Murayama at a literary conference in Seattle, and the following year I published an essay on regional literature about Hawai'i in the now-defunct Hawai'i Observer magazine.


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