"Is the American flag a reason for me to kill the woman I love?"
***A femme fatale tale of love, loss, and betrayal. An emotional story of two souls torn by a conflict of loyalties on the Pacific front.
Like any other American man, Tom Sakai wants nothing but a good life and a decent job. But in 1941, his country is not a friendly place for a Nisei. Being a son of Japanese immigrants, he's never American enough. As Japan and the United States edge to the brink of war, the truth is all too clear. America has no place for someone like him. In search of his place in the world, he leaves his hometown of Seattle and sets out to sea.
In Manila, he meets Fumiko, a Nisei from Los Angeles with a heartbreaking past who captures his heart. His soulmate who tread the same path of prejudice he walked at home. Together, they begin a new life in this burgeoning city under American colonial rule where they are no longer shunned.
The Pearl Harbor attack destroys their dreams. Their dual identity now forces them to take a side. Their survival hinges on whether they stand with the land of the rising sun or the land of the free.
Stranded in occupied territory, Tom must decide where his loyalty lies. Should he swear his allegiance to Imperial Japan, the instigator of war and violence? Or America, the country that deserted him when the world's darkest hour begins?
What happens if his choice diverges from his one true love?
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From the author of the WWII historical fiction series Rose of Anzio and Shanghai Stories, comes another unforgettable tale of WWII rarely told before.
Release date: January 22, 2021
Publisher: Lakewood Press
Print pages: 436
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Last Night with Tokyo Rose: A WWII novel
What does the American flag mean to you?
If you know me, you would know I’m not someone who asks this kind of deep questions. But as I sit here in this dim living room, in my apartment in Manila with the Stars and Stripes in my lap, its fabric soiled with dried stains and its edges burned, I have to ask myself: Can I swear my absolute allegiance to America, the country I once called my own? How far would I go for the country of my birth, when it is also a country that denied me, a country that abandoned me and shattered everything I ever believed it to be? Am I now to put aside America’s betrayal, and risk my life to help it win its war against the country of my forefathers, Japan?
What if it does win? Will it then betray me again and charge me with treason? If not, will it continue to deny my birthright as a citizen, and never truly embrace me as its native son?
I ask myself these questions again and again. It is important that I come to the right answer, one that I can live with until the end. That is, if I can make it to the end.
Do I want to see the American flag, with all the values it stands for and all the ugliness and inequities it still inflicts today, fly high once again?
Is the American flag a reason for me to kill the woman I love?
Sitting here now with the flag, I’ve tried to think things through for hours. I still don’t have the answer.
I recline and rest my head on the back of the rattan couch. The humid air and summer heat pushing in through the awning windows make it so hard for me to think. I stare at the ceiling fan, wishing it could bring a breeze. I can’t remember the last time I turned it on. Three years after the Japanese arrived to occupy Manila, electricity has become scarce.
The flag starts to slip and I grab it before it falls onto the mahogany floor. Clutching the fabric, I think of home. My memories take me back to when I was six, when the sight of the Stars and Stripes on red, white, and blue made its first vivid impression on me.
It was a jubilant day in Seattle on July 4th, 1925. The Pacific Northwest summer sun had just begun to spread its clear, bright light. Its warm rays shone on Puget Sound, and on all the lakes within the city from five at dawn until nine at dusk. Yes, summer in Seattle was always gorgeous, even though people spoke of it as a place where the rain never stopped.
On that Saturday, July 4, shimmering sunlight danced above Elliott Bay as American flags, big and small, waved in the hands of the crowd and fluttered in the cool breeze on the boats. I watched it all in awe. My eyes soon fell to the man in an apron handing out spun wands of pink cotton candy from his little booth. I wanted to break free of Mother’s hand and run ahead toward him, but Mother pulled me back.
“Later, Tomio,” she said in Japanese and tightened her grip on my hand. Her voice remained ever patient and tender. “We need to find a spot to sit down first.”
Grudgingly, I followed. Still, I kept my head turned back at the cotton candy man. My mouth began to water.
Three steps ahead of us, Katsuo, my older brother by two years, walked dutifully behind Father. I remember thinking how out of place Katsuo looked in his black silk haori hakama. He had to wear it for the parade, which would take place later. A float made by the Japanese community would join the parade this year. Father, a board member of the local Japanese Chamber of Commerce at the time, was one of the float organizers. He said it was a great honor to be invited by the city to participate, and he had asked us if we wanted to take part.
At first, I jumped up and cheered. I wanted to sit on the highest spot on the float so I could wave and shout to all the spectators gathered on the side. But then Father told us the children would not be sitting on the float. They’d be marching behind it, from Elliott Bay Park down Second Avenue. What would be the fun in that? Instantly, I lost interest. And when Father told us we would have to wear our haori hakama too, nothing in the world would have convinced me to say yes.
Still, Mother had wanted to put one on me this morning. I would not have it. I sat down hard on the floor and bawled until Mother gave up. We were going to a park. I wanted the freedom my shirt and shorts would give me, not the long layers of hakama hindering my every move. As I watched Katsuo trudge on the park’s uneven field in his hakama with matching bamboo setta on his feet, I sure felt glad it wasn’t me. Then I saw the odd, curious looks the hakujin—white people—were throwing at him. Instinctively, I slowed my pace, forcing Mother to slow down as well. She tugged on my hand slightly to try to speed up our pace.
Perhaps the hakujin weren’t looking only at Katsuo. My parents weren’t dressed for a picnic either. Father was in his best suit, and Mother wore her pretty formal dark green dress with strap pump shoes. Under the stares of the people around us, I hunched my shoulders and wanted to shrink.
“How about right there?” Father pointed at an empty spot.
Mother pulled me along and caught up to where he and Katsuo had stopped. She smiled and released my hand, then proceeded to spread the picnic blanket over the grass. By the time she laid out the food from the picnic basket, I had forgotten all about the cotton candy man. I grabbed a ham and cheese sandwich and washed it down with a bottle of ramune soda, a fizzy Japanese lemon-flavored drink. Mother had brought chicken wings and potato salad too, but Father reached for the rice ball wrapped in seaweed and filled with plums. Katsuo did the same.
When I finished eating, I began playing with a little blond boy with the family picnicking next to us. He had a ball and I wanted to play, so I walked up to him. Soon, we were throwing the ball at each other, running around trying to catch it. Being little kids, we had no sense of time. We kept playing until his mother called him over to her. I still wanted to play, so I followed him. His mother said “Hi” to me so I guessed it was okay for me to be there.
“What’s your name?” She smiled at me and glanced at her husband sitting beside her.
“Tomio,” I answered.
I nodded, not daring to correct her, as she was an adult. From that moment on, the name Tommy stuck. I started first grade that following September and all the teachers and students called me Tommy. Today, I call myself Tom. Tom Sakai.
I learned as I grew up that my name embodied my parents’ ambitions for their children. Katsuo’s name means hero, victory. Mine means wealth, riches. Katsuo lived up to their expectations, all right. Me? . . . Best to skip that subject.
“Nice to meet you, Tommy,” the boy’s mother said to me. “Thanks for playing with Nicky.” She stroked his hair and looked over at my mother. They exchanged a smile and Mother bowed her head.
“Would you like some cake, Tommy?” Nicky’s father asked as he handed his son a plate of yellow cake iced with white, red, and blue frosting.
I sure did. I came closer and he handed me a piece. I looked over at Mother. Her mouth fell agape. She grinned at Nicky’s parents in alarm and bowed her head several more times. Nicky’s parents nodded back and smiled.
Having gotten my mother’s permission, I eagerly accepted the cake. “Thank you, Mr. . . .”
“Thank you, Mr. Foster.”
Nicky had now sat down, so I sat down, too, next to him. He looked up and licked the bit of icing on his lip. “Papa said this is a birthday cake,”
“Is it his birthday?” I put a big bite of cake into my mouth.
Mr. Foster overheard us and cheered, “It’s America’s birthday!” He held up his finger. “Remember, boys. July 4th is the founding of America. It’s not just about food, games, and fireworks. It’s the day our country became independent.”
“What is ‘independent’?” Nicky asked.
“‘Independent’ means we, Americans, are free people. The American colonists were once ruled by a British king. The king was all-powerful. He could tell everyone what to do, even if he was wrong, and everyone had to obey him. The colonists didn’t like that, so they fought a war against the king and won. They became independent, free of the British king. And on this day, July 4th, they declared we would never have a king again. We’ll always be free people. We’re Americans.” He put his hand on Nicky’s shoulder and gave it a light squeeze.
I didn’t know anything about history at that age. It was the first time I had ever heard about the origin of Independence Day. Being six years old, I didn’t really understand what Mr. Foster told us about being free either. Nevertheless, the gleam in his eyes and the proud tone of his voice told me that whatever it meant to be free and not ruled by a king, being an American must be a good thing. I wanted to be one too.
I finished my cake and ran back to my family. Father and Katsuo were nowhere to be found. Mother noticed my confusion and patted my back. “The parade is starting soon. Your father took Katsuo to our group to get ready.”
Her reassurance wiped away my worries. Then I remembered my other pressing question. “Am I American?” I asked, reverting back to speaking in Japanese.
Mother paused. The right corner of her lips lifted as though my question, coming from a little child, amused her. She looked at me with the same proud gleam in her eyes as Mr. Foster’s. “Yes. You’re American. You were born here so you’re an American citizen.”
Satisfied, I picked up my unfinished bottle of ramune and drank the last sips. What I didn’t know then was that although Katsuo and I were citizens of the country by birth, my parents were not Americans and could never be. In 1922, three years after I was born, the Supreme Court ruled that first-generation Japanese immigrants—the Issei, were aliens. They could never be eligible for citizenship.
“We have to go,” Mother said as she put our unfinished food back into the picnic basket. “Help me clean up. We’ll go closer to the street to meet up with your father.”
I gathered the used napkins and food wrappings into a small bag. From somewhere far off, trumpets blared and drums boomed. People around us rose up, stretching their necks to see the marching band. Mother quickly finished putting away our belongings and grabbed my hand. Before we left, she brought me over to the Fosters, who were also picking up their blanket and basket, and ready to leave.
“Thank you, thank you,” Mother said two of the few words she knew in English and bowed.
The Fosters watched Mother, then mimicked her and bowed their heads in return. The marching band’s music swelled to roars and Mr. Foster handed me a small American flag. “Goodbye!” He and Mrs. Foster waved as they led Nicky away. Mother gasped. She ran after them while digging into our picnic basket. “Excuse me, excuse me!”
The Fosters stopped. From our picnic basket, Mother pulled out several Sasa Dango, little rice cakes filled with red bean paste wrapped in bamboo leaves, and gave them to Mrs. Foster, then pointed to Nicky.
A puzzled look came to Mrs. Foster’s eyes as she held the Sasa Dango in her hand. Nonetheless, she smiled. “Thank you.”
Mother nodded in relief. Everyone was moving toward the streets to watch the parade. We waved goodbye to Nicky and his parents a second time and followed.
I never saw the Fosters again. Mr. Foster would never know that his one-minute history lesson, given to a little Nisei boy, would plant a seed of identity in the boy’s head. Nor would Mr. Foster know how many struggles the little Nisei boy would suffer through down the road when he had to alternately claim and deny that identity.
Weaving through the crowd, Mother led me to a spot under a tree where Father was already waiting. With a wide grin on his face, he called us over. He had staked out a spot at the edge of the pavement where we could get a good view of the parade.
“Otōsan!” I ran toward him. At that time, I still called him Otōsan, and our family still conversed entirely in Japanese. He picked me up so I could see what was happening. My eyes widened at the giant floats coming behind the marching band. The float carrying the pretty Miss Washington passed by and I could’ve sworn she smiled at me.
Along with the swarm of people watching the parade, I waved the small flag the Fosters gave me, as a fidgety six-year-old would naturally do when you put something in his hand.
“Look!” Mother shouted. “The Japanese float!” I gazed toward the direction where she was pointing. Coming toward us was a float covered with paper cherry blossoms. Like a magical pink cloud, it moved closer and closer, carrying a torii—a traditional Japanese gate, at its front. Behind the torii, five Japanese women in colorful kimonos stood on a red garden bridge. They spun their wagasa—the bamboo parasols, and waved at the spectators. A group of Japanese boys in hakama and Japanese girls in kimono followed on foot.
“There’s Katsuo!” Mother clapped. “He’s walking in the front.”
“Ah! Yes.” Father stretched up his body. There was Katsuo, proudly marching with his peers as the older kids in the group passed out sensu, Japanese paper folding fans, to other children watching on the sidelines. All the hakujin children who received fans squealed in delight. Katsuo spotted us and waved. When he passed us, he tapped the elbow of the girl walking near him to give me a fan too.
I opened the fan, revealing a painting of pink floral blossoms. Mother gasped. “Oh, look at that. It’s the Washington State flower.”
“State flower?” I tipped my head to the side. “Are they cherry blossoms?” They sure looked like it to me, with their delicate pinkish petals and long filaments.
“They’re not cherry blossoms,” Father said. “They’re coast rhododendron.” He then repeated the name of the flower to me in English.
Coast rhododendron. I puckered my lips. No way I could pronounce such a big word.
The Japanese float moved on, but the pride on my parents’ faces remained. I now wished I had joined the march. Unlike me, Katsuo always knew what to do to make our parents proud.
I pull my thoughts back from the past and pick up the soiled American flag before me. My fingers tighten as the image of my father’s disappointed face appears in my mind. What would he think of me if he could see me now? Is he even alive? I grimace and squeeze the flag.
My parents. Katsuo. Where are they now? If by some miracle they have survived the internment camps, and I make it back to Seattle and find them, will I ever be able to raise my head and look them in the eye? Will I be able to explain to them why I have done what I’ve done?
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