“LET’S TALK ABOUT the meaning of family.” Edwin canvassed the table. “Jii-chan, tell everybody how it feels to suddenly realize you have two nephews and their families to celebrate your birthday? Good feeling, yah?”
There were polite murmurings from everyone.
“I got a whole lot of family history to teach you guys.” Edwin seemed to be pointing his chopstick directly at me. “Things that happened here to us-to this family-you need to know!”
I sat numbly as Edwin narrated the story I’d gleaned from internet news sites: that in the 1930s Harue Shimura owned a small house on one and a half acres of land near Barbers Point, the old naval station. Harue had lived there after she’d retired from work on the plantation, around the time Yosh was starting his first job with the post office in Honolulu. Then, after Pearl Harbor was bombed and Yoshitsune was sent to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans in Idaho, Harue died of a stroke. When Yoshitsune returned in late 1946, the land and cottage had been taken over.
I interrupted, because Uncle Edwin had casually dropped in some information I hadn’t heard before. “Uncle Yosh, you were interned in a camp for Japanese-Americans?”
Yoshitsune only nodded, and I looked expectantly at him, wanting more. This was a stunning bit of family history, because very few Japanese born in Hawaii had been interned. The plantation owners had convinced the US government that their workers were loyal, and that the sugar industry would collapse if Japanese in Hawaii were taken away.
“I heard some first generation and nisei Japanese from Hawaii were sent to the camps on the mainland, but they were rare cases, weren’t they?” I said, choosing my words carefully. “How unlucky that you were among the few taken away.”
“Jii-chan worked at the post office.” Courtney spoke up, surprising me. “The boss thought he was trying to look into military mail.”
“Yes, a complete set-up, if you ask me. They just wanted him to be gone.” Edwin sounded bitter. “And we had the waterfront property, which they thought would allow him or my grandmother to send signals to the enemy.”
My father, Tom and Uncle Hiroshi had grown as still and quiet as Yoshitsune. I imagined our group was contemplating our own family history: how Harue Shimura’s older brother became a right-wing historian who’d tutored the emperor, and the other brother had been an officer in the Imperial Army. We were the enemy, as far as anyone outside of Japan was concerned.
“Please, will you tell us about the internment? If it’s not too difficult,” my father said after a pause.
“It was called Minidoka, in Idaho. A small place, with barbed-wire fence and around that, mountains,” Uncle Yoshitsune answered in a flat voice. “We had no idea how long we’d be there. I felt I had to escape.”
“Jii-chan was smart. He found the way,” Courtney said. I smiled at my young cousin, thinking that her interest in family history reminded me of my own, when I was her age.
“One day some army officers came to visit,” Yoshitsune said, interrupting my thoughts. “They were recruiting guys who could speak and read Japanese to work in intelligence. I volunteered. I did interrogations for the American and British military.”
“It’s a great story, Dad. You some hero!” Edwin’s words were quick; clearly, he wanted to return to his agenda.
Yoshitsune seemed to shrink into himself then. While I longed to keep the conversation going about intelligence, I knew it was probably better to do it later, when fewer people were around.
Edwin took over again. “You heard the terrible thing that happened to my Dad? Think of how it was for him, when he came home, a free man who served this country in the war. He find his mama gone forever, and all of a sudden Chinese people living on the land who say the Pierces leased it to them.”
“Ah, yes, Rei told us about that already,” my father said, nodding.
“Internet search engines are useful, aren’t they?” I said, in response to Edwin’s injured look.
“The papers don’t tell the real story. My father tried to ask Mrs. Pierce what happened to our house, because the old man was dead. She said there was never a fee-simple sale to my mother-always just leasehold, and that had expired. That Pierce woman said the land couldn’t remain idle, so she rented it to Winston Liang and his wife.”
“Well, since you don’t have a deed of sale, do you think it’s possible that your mother might have actually had a lease?” I turned to Yoshitsune, because I wanted to hear the story from him directly.
“I once saw a letter,” Yoshitsune said in a low voice. “I found it sometime, must have been the mid-thirties, in her bedroom dresser. The letter said that Harue Shimura was granted this land in exchange for faithful service. It was signed by Josiah Pierce.”
“A paper,” I repeated, thinking that it didn’t sound anything like an official, legal deed at all-but who knew how things operated in prewar Hawaii?
“The paper’s gone,” Yoshitsune said, dashing my hopes. “Everything was gone when I came back from the mainland.”
As if to put an exclamation mark on the disappointment, there was a bang at the front door, and after a moment, a teenage boy stuck his head around the corner of the dining room. He had the same attractively tilted dark brown eyes as his sister, but wore his black hair shaved close to his head. A Hawaiian skinhead, I thought, taking in the ripped T-shirt with its Quiksilver logo and way-too-long board shorts.
“Braden, you get your sorry self in here!” Edwin roared. “Where you been so long?”
“Nowhere you need to know about.” Braden scraped his chair loudly as he sat down with a plate containing nothing but pork.
“Braden, please. It’s Jii-chan’s belated birthday celebration,” Margaret said. “Your cousins have been waiting to meet you!”
The boy glanced at each of us as his mother made the introductions. Tom and Hiroshi made slight bows from their positions at the table, but I didn’t bother. I had a feeling that Braden would mock anything Japanese about us. His sister was watching him too, as if she expected something to happen.
Edwin picked up the conversation we’d been having before the sullen teenager’s arrival. “Now, like I was saying, this land, it was very nice because it’s waterfront. Even on the Leeward Side of Oahu, waterfront property is worth a lot of money. The Japanese developer who built Kainani wants to buy twenty acres, of which our land is a small part-but probably worth five or six million.”
“Are you talking about the developer called Mitsuo Kikuchi?” I asked, glad for something to distract me from Braden. He was chewing with his mouth slightly open, a disgusting sight.
“Yes indeed,” Edwin answered me. “Mitsuo Kikuchi wants to buy all that land from the Pierces to make a restaurant development.”
“That’s a tough situation for you, isn’t it?” My father said. “If you want to get the land back, for nostalgic and emotional reasons.”
Edwin looked as if he thought my father was deranged. “Of course I want to sell to him. I want to get the property, and then sell it. I mean, that’s what my fadduh wants to do. Right?” He shot a look at Uncle Yoshitsune, who only raised his white eyebrows.
“It would be good for your whole family, economically,” Uncle Hiroshi pronounced. Money was the one thing he understood.
“Uncle Edwin, how will it be possible to sell the land if your father doesn’t have a title?”
“We can prove it other ways. The evidence is all around.” Edwin waved his hand around as if the proof was floating somewhere above the dining table. “You see that I’m a simple working man. I never had the funds to hire a lawyer. A good lawyer would have won the case.” Edwin looked at me again. “Your ex-fianc?, he went and helped complete strangers for free! He could still help us. “
“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” I said tightly, and noticed both my father and Aunt Margaret look at me with concern.
“We must bring out the truth, quick as possible. And I’m willing to make it worth everyone’s while,” Edwin rasped. “Since Hugh apparently isn’t an option, we’ll have to hire a real-estate lawyer from one of the good Queen Street firms. Somebody better than the last guy, Bobby Yamaguchi. I’ll need you guys to help me with the retainer; they charge you thousands, just to get started. Whaddya think, Hiroshi? You a money guy, right?”
Uncle Hiroshi nodded, and after looking at him, I saw my own father and Tom nod as well. The family wouldn’t let each other down, even if it was heading straight for disaster.
Taking a deep breath, I spoke. “Uncle Edwin, I’m deeply sympathetic, but I’m concerned that this might actually be a personal matter handled better by you and your father.”
“I give you this promise.” Edwin was looking at the men in my family, as if I hadn’t even spoken. “You get me the legal help to fix this situation and then I’ll flip that land to Mitsuo Kikuchi for a price even more than it’s worth-you know me, I can be persuasive. And we’ll split the proceeds three ways-my family, yours-’ he nodded at my father-‘And yours.” A final nod to Hiroshi and Tom.
“This could be a lot of effort and expenditure for…” I cut myself off, not wanting to be rude enough to say ‘nothing’. Instead I continued, “How do you know the property’s value?”
“I ordered a commercial appraisal earlier this year. You can see the paperwork, if you like.”
“Yes, please,” Tom and Uncle Hiroshi said, almost in unison. Margaret jumped up and hurried into another room, coming back with a small sheaf of papers. After Tom and Uncle Hiroshi studied it, they passed it to my father, and then it was mine.
I scanned the appraisal. 1 Kalama Street was a ratty-looking shack in the midst of weeds, and a line of type below listed it as a rental property owned by Pierce Holdings. The appraised value was five million dollars, which the appraiser had calculated based on the prospect of selling the cottage as a teardown property.
“You can go out there, see it yourself. Me, I got a court order to stay away from the place, so I can’t go there anymore.” Edwin turned to look directly at the men at the table. “So how about it? Do you want to help us? If I’m being too pushy, let me know. We’re family.”
To my surprise my father said, “I think we’d like to think about this…challenge you have presented. May we give you our answer in a few days?”
“Of course!” Edwin sounded aggressively jovial. “I didn’t mean to surprise you with too much news at one time, but you are just here for just a month. We got to use our time well.
No, I thought to myself. It’s not about using our time well. It’s about using us, period.