Yuki Nakahara is an American.
But it’s the start of World War II, and America doesn’t see it that way. Like many other Japanese Americans, Yuki and his family have been forced into an internment camp in the Utah desert. But Yuki isn’t willing to sit back and accept this injustice—it’s his country too, and he’s going to prove it by enlisting in the army to fight for the Allies.
When Yuki and his friend Shig ship out, they aren’t prepared for the experiences they’ll encounter as members of the “Four-Four-Two,” a segregated regiment made up entirely of Japanese-American soldiers. Before Yuki returns home—if he returns home—he’ll come face to face with persistent prejudices, grueling combat he never imagined, and friendships deeper than he knew possible.
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Yuki Nakahara was stacking wooden boxes according to size in a musty storage shed. As he walked past the open door, he saw a car driving up the dirt road toward the farm. It was traveling too fast, jolting, dust billowing up behind it. Yuki stopped and watched. He could see that the car was a new ’41 Ford—a fancier car than he usually saw this far away from Berkeley—and Yuki was almost sure he knew what that meant. He felt himself tighten, his chest suddenly rigid, but he had no idea what he should do.
The black car stopped between the storage shed and the house. Two men got out, both of them wearing dark suits and hats. They each turned and looked around, clearly checking out the farm, the buildings. One of the men noticed Yuki, so Yuki stepped from the shed and tried to look calm. He walked toward the tall man on the driver’s side. The man removed his hat and asked, “Is your father home, young man?”
Yuki didn’t like the look of the guy. His dark hair was combed back slick, and his shirt collar was stiff and bright white—like he was someone official. His voice had sounded polite, but the look in his narrowed eyes was menacing.
“Are you produce buyers, or—”
“We need to talk to your father.” The man’s tone was suddenly curt, but then he brought it under control as he said, “Would you please take us to him?”
Yuki thought of running to his father, telling him to hide. But he knew he couldn’t do that. “I saw him walk into the house a few minutes ago,” Yuki said. “I’ll see if he’s still there.” He walked past the man and headed toward the house.
Both men followed, walking fast enough to keep up. The second man—a smaller fellow with a brown suit, black hair, dark eyes—caught up to Yuki at the front door, where Yuki stopped to remove his boots. “Leave your shoes on,” the man said. “We’ll go in with you. Just tell your father someone wants to see him—nothing else.” He had a low, hard voice and some kind of accent, maybe New York. Yuki nodded, but he shoved the door open and stepped hard on the hardwood floor inside. He wanted to make as much noise as possible. The two men separated inside the little living room and stood on either side of him. Yuki thought of shouting to his father, telling him to run out the back door, but Father would never do that. He would be respectful. It was the way he dealt with white people, always.
When Yuki took a step toward the kitchen, the bigger man reached out and grabbed his shoulder, held him back. And then he announced, “Mr. Nakahara, we need to speak to you. We’re agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Yuki’s mother stepped into the living room from the kitchen. She was wearing a white apron over her housedress. Her hair was pulled back tight against her head. She was tiny, but now she took a breath and raised her shoulders. She looked directly at the men—one and then the other. “I’m Mrs. Nakahara. What may I do for you?” she asked.
The man removed his hat. “Is Mr. Nakahara at home?” he asked.
“Is there anything I can—”
“My name is Agent Carson. This is Agent Aldo. As I said, we’re from the FBI. We need to speak to your husband.” Now there was more force in his voice.
Father had appeared by then, behind Mother. He was wearing his work clothes, a bulky wool jacket over overalls. He had taken off his boots, and in his stocking feet, he seemed to shrink before the men.
“Are you Mr. Nakahara?”
Father nodded, or maybe bowed just slightly.
“Do you publish a Japanese-language newspaper?”
He nodded again.
“We understand you keep close ties to people in Japan. Is that right?”
Mother said, “He doesn’t speak much English, Mr. Carson. He has relatives in Japan, and he writes letters to them now and then, but his ties are all to this country now. He has lived here for more than thirty years.”
“Well, that’s what you say,” Agent Aldo said. “But he’s on our list. Tell him we’re arresting him.”
Yuki’s breath stopped.
Father spoke better English than Mother was letting on, and he had surely understood the word “arrest,” but he didn’t move, didn’t show any reaction.
Mother’s hands had jumped, as though of their own accord, but then she grasped them together. Yuki saw her blink, knew she was fighting tears, but her voice was strong when she said, “I don’t understand. What are the charges against my husband?”
“I told you, he’s on a list. Tell him he’s got to come with us.”
“But you can’t arrest him for no reason. He hasn’t done anything wrong.” She took a step sideways, placing herself in front of her husband.
“If that’s the case, he has nothing to worry about,” Agent Carson said. “But for right now, he has to come with us.”
“Where will you take him?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, it’s not our job to explain everything to you. We’ve been sent to bring him in. I guess you’ll hear from others who can tell you the details.”
“Must he go with you right now? Can’t he—”
“I’m afraid we’re going to take him now. We do need to search your house, however. I want you and your son to sit right here in the living room while we put your husband in our car. Then one of us will come back and do the search.”
“Search for what?”
“Look, lady,” Aldo said, “you don’t ask the questions. We do. Sit down, you and your son. Do you have other children?”
“Yes. Two daughters and another son.”
“Where are they?”
“Not home from school yet. They come on a bus.”
“And what about you?” He looked at Yuki. “Don’t you go to school?”
“I get out earlier, so I help my father on the farm. We work hard. We’re Americans. We—”
“Stop right there. I don’t want to hear all that,” Aldo said.
Carson put up his hand, as if to say “That’s enough” to his partner. “We’re going to ask you to go with us now, Mr. Nakahara,” he said.
“I must change clothes,” Father said.
“No, sir, you don’t need to do that. They’ll have clothes for you where you’re going. Were those your shoes on the porch?”
“Just grab them as we go out. That’s all you’ll need.”
Agent Aldo stepped forward and took hold of Mr. Nakahara’s arm. “Come with us now,” he said. He pulled on Father’s elbow and Father stumbled forward, then caught his balance and looked at Mother. “Where am I going?” he asked in Japanese. Yuki had attended Japanese language school when he was younger. He didn’t speak Japanese fluently, but he understood most things his parents said.
Mother didn’t answer her husband. She stepped toward Carson. “You can’t do this. This is America. You must tell us what he is charged with.”
“You speak English very well,” Carson said in an almost friendly tone. “How long have you lived in our country?”
“Most of my life. It’s my country too.”
“You’re an enemy alien, ma’am. Not a citizen.”
“My children are citizens. How can you take their father from them?”
“We don’t get into all that. We just—”
“I learned about American laws in school. You must tell my husband which law he’s broken. You cannot take him away without doing that.”
“Actually, in time of war, in a war zone, under direction of our government, we can arrest those who may be a danger to others. This area has been designated a war zone by the government, and your husband has been listed as a probable spy. We don’t have to tell you all that, but now we have. Please get out of our way and let us do our job.” He took hold of Father’s other arm, at the elbow, and the two men led him toward the door, Father not resisting.
“You must not do this,” Mother was saying, her voice now desperate. She rushed ahead, got between the men and the front door. “My husband is not a danger to anyone. Can’t you see that?”
Aldo turned suddenly and stepped close to Mother. “That’s enough, lady. Your husband’s a sneaky little slant-eyed Jap. That’s all we need to know.” He glared into her eyes, as if to see how she might react, but Mrs. Nakahara’s face only hardened. “On Sunday a bunch of sneaky slant-eyed Japs—just like him—bombed our country. His crime is, he’s on their side, not ours. And we’re not going to let him make contact with his buddies who are waging a war against us. Now, get out of our way or I’ll take you in with him.” He used his forearm to sweep her aside.
Yuki had watched all this, not knowing what to do or say, but he finally reacted. As the men took Father out the door, he followed, and then he hurried in front of Agent Carson and stood his ground. “Listen, sir, we run a business here. We grow fruits and vegetables and sell them at a stand down on the highway. I think you’ve gotten the wrong idea about us somehow. Is there someone we could talk to? I think this could all be straightened out in a few minutes. My father has a little newspaper that he sends out to the old-timers from Japan around here, but that’s all it is. He doesn’t bother anyone at all. He’s no troublemaker.”
It was Aldo who answered. “Oh, I see. I’m glad you cleared that up for us. But you know what? You’re a sneaky little slant-eyed Jap yourself, and I don’t trust you any more than your traitor of a dad. Now, shut your mouth and go back in the house.”
“But there’s no need for this, sir. Isn’t there someone I can talk to?”
“Yeah. Talk to Mr. Hirohito, the emperor of Japan. See what he can do for you. Now, get out of my way.”
Yuki’s anger suddenly fired. “You can’t treat us like this!” he yelled into Aldo’s face.
Aldo slammed both hands into Yuki’s chest, sent him stumbling backward. In his rage, Yuki was about to charge the man, but he heard his father’s voice, not loud, but firm. “No!”
Yuki stopped at the command, but mostly because he knew that he was only making things worse.
“Shikata ga nai,” Father said.
Yuki hated that idea, “it can’t be helped.” It was something his father believed and often said. It was the Japanese way of thinking—the old way. Yuki was too American for such acceptance. And yet, there really was nothing he could do. He stepped aside.
Carson grabbed Father’s boots, and the two men pushed past Yuki, then opened the car door and forced Father into the backseat. Aldo stayed outside by the car, apparently to make sure that Father didn’t try to make a run for it. Carson returned to the house, and he systematically worked his way through the five rooms while Yuki sat with his mother, his arm around her shoulders. All that strength she had tried to show was gone now and she was weeping, her hands over her face.
“I knew this was coming,” Yuki said. “All Father thinks about is Japan. I told him to burn all the Japanese stuff he has around the house, but he wouldn’t do it.”
“How could he do that?”
“The same way a lot of people have been doing.”
Yuki had talked to his friend Shigeo Omura about the things happening in California these last few days, since Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor and war had been declared. At lunch on Tuesday, Shig had whispered to him, “They’re rounding up anyone who’s considered a community leader. Your dad’s known—because of his newspaper. He’s got to throw out that Buddhist shrine he keeps in your house. My parents have gotten rid of everything in our house that looks Japanese.”
Yuki had told his father what he needed to do, but Father had said nothing, done nothing. It was always his way. A son didn’t tell a father what to do.
“My father’s not like yours,” Yuki had told Shig. But he decided not to explain what he meant by that. Instead, he asked, “How are kids treating you?”
Yuki and Shig had carried their lunches to school in paper bags. When Yuki was younger, his mother had prepared him a Japanese bento box, with rice and fish, but kids had turned up their noses at the smell. In high school, he and Shig had switched to bologna sandwiches and apples, like everyone else. But this week, since the attack on Pearl Harbor, they had sat in a corner of the lunchroom, at the end of a table, away from others.
“They stare at me,” Shig said. “No one’s ever paid any attention to me before, and they’re not saying anything to me now, but all week, I’ve seen them looking at me—like I’m not the guy I was before.”
Yuki nodded. “It’s been the same for me,” he said. “Some boy I don’t even know said I should ‘go back to Japan’—like I’ve ever been there. But he didn’t say it to my face. He whispered it behind me in the hallway and then he slipped into the crowd so he didn’t have to look me in the eye.”
Two girls approached the table with their lunches, but they stopped short and turned away, leaving the table mostly empty in the crowded lunchroom. Yuki thought of welcoming them, but he knew that although it would have been all right the week before, it wasn’t now.
“People like you, Yuki,” Shig said. “You’re popular. They’ll get over the shock before long, and they’ll know you haven’t changed. But me, I’m just the little shrimp I’ve always been. The war only makes things worse.”
“Hey, you’re the best second baseman this school’s ever had. The guys who play with us know that.”
“That doesn’t matter anymore.”
Yuki and Shig had played baseball together for many years. Yuki had always played shortstop and Shig second base, and they had become a great double-play combination. It was true that Shig was really small—only about five feet tall—and he was quiet, so maybe that was why people didn’t notice him around the school. The ballplayers had always teased him about having no strike zone and about wearing glasses. But Shig was smart, and when he let loose a little, he was funny. He let Yuki get all the attention and do most of the talking, but when Yuki was struggling, especially with his stern father, Shig would always listen.
What Yuki also knew was that he was going to need Shig more than ever now that the white kids were turning away from them. He had always considered himself friends with people of all races. He had played sports, gone to dances, hung out at soda fountains, and girls had liked to dance with him because he did the jitterbug so well. He had bought himself an old jalopy of a car and had taken girlfriends to the movies, worn the latest styles, been a regular guy. Now—overnight—he was “the enemy.”
The lunchroom was full of noise, the same as ever. Maybe a war had started, but kids were talking and laughing the way they always had. But now Yuki could see three Japanese American girls he knew headed for the table where he and Shig were sitting. This was becoming an island for the Japanese students, and yet, that was the last thing any of them wanted.
“Will you stick with me, Yuki?” Shig asked.
Yuki was taking a drink from his Coke bottle. He put it down. “What do you mean, Shig? Of course I’ll—”
“It’s going to be tougher now. This war might last a long time. If people are going to stare at me all day, every day, I’m going to go crazy. I need someone I can be ‘normal’ around.”
“Hey, I need the same thing. We’ll look out for each other.”
But now, at home, with the arrest of Yuki’s father, things had taken a new turn. It struck Yuki that he was going to have to provide for his family. Maybe he would have to drop out of school. He glanced at his mother, saw how devastated she was. “Don’t worry,” he told her. “We’ll be all right. I’ll keep the farm going.” But Yuki knew the truth: Everything had changed, and nothing was going to be easy.
Agent Carson carried out a lot of stuff: copies of the newspaper Father published, a ceremonial sword that Father had brought with him from Japan, some paper lanterns, a set of binoculars and a flashlight, some letters written in Japanese, and even the Buddha statue from Father’s shrine. Then, for some reason, Carson came back and got the tabletop radio that sat on a kitchen shelf. “Why take our radio?” Mother asked, but Carson didn’t answer.
“I didn’t find any guns. Are there any on your property? Maybe out in that shed?”
“We don’t own guns,” Mrs. Nakahara said. “We have no need for them.”
“I’ll just say this: You better not be lying. If you’re caught with weapons at any time, your husband won’t be the only one locked up.” He touched the brim of his hat. “We’ll be going now. Be sure to follow the new curfew laws—don’t go out after eight o’clock in the evening. I’m sure you’ll hear from your husband at some point. Thank you for your cooperation.” With the radio under his arm, he walked out to the car.
Yuki got up and watched. He could see his father hunched in the backseat, staring ahead. The agents drove away, the car once again raising a plume of dust. Mother stood up, came to Yuki. He took her in his arms and she sobbed against his shoulder. “There must be someone I can talk to,” Yuki said. “We have to get this straightened out.”
“No one will listen to us, Yuki. You know that.”
But Yuki didn’t want to believe it. He was an American, a citizen, and his family was loyal to the United States. They were farmers, churchgoers; they operated a produce business and paid their taxes. Father may have kept his shrine and he may have retained his love for Japan, but he was grateful for all he had been able to achieve here. And Mother was a “church lady,” a Methodist, who spoke English more correctly than most, with no Japanese accent at all. What more could people expect of them?