Sometimes a work is not important solely for its artistic merit but because it opens a door. Shōson Nagahara is one of a kind that went missing from history: first-generation Japanese immigrants to the United States, issei, who created for their fellow Japanese, and who are all but forgotten now even amongst Japanese-Americans. He wrote the novella Lament In The Night and the serialized novel The Tale Of Osato, collected together in English for the first time anywhere in this volume, along with a smattering of other works in the 1920s. Then he apparently returned to Japan, leaving only his written works in Japanese as his legacy; not even the date of his death is known. But what we do have thanks to him is a glimpse of a time and a place and a population — the Japanese-American world of Los Angeles, before and during Prohibition — that has for too long existed mostly as statistics and mute figures in photos.
In and out the gutter
Of the two works in the volume, Lament is the more artistically successful, a short novel about several weeks and months in the life of one Sakuzō Ishikawa, day laborer and perennial outsider. He lives day-to-day, sometimes moment-to-moment. In the opening scene of the book, he orders pork chops in a restaurant run by fellow Japanese, knowing full well he can't pay, and successfully bluffs them into thinking his wallet's been swiped. He doesn't care; he just needed something, anything to fill his stomach, when the last thing he had was a watermelon rind rescued from the ground. The parallels between his character and the (literally) starving artist of Knut Hamsun's Hunger become clearer when you learn Nagahara not only read Hamsun but translated his work into Japanese.
Little happens to Ishikawa, but the emotional overtones of everything that happens to him grow until they suffuse the pages. He works where he can, when he can, which isn't often. He starves. He has a sort-of friend, Shimomura, a painter with a semi-respectable day job, but the bond once forged between them by shared labor has vanished. He has a dalliance with a waitress, a married woman, knowing full well it can't lead to anything. By the time something vaguely resembling happiness comes his way, he's too much a slave of his old habits to resist temptation, and the concluding paragraphs have him stealing his friend's watch and slinking off into the night.
Lament works for two reasons: it doesn't overstay its welcome, and it's lacquered on every page with grim, specific details of street-level life. The second is about more than just noir accents; it helps make the time and place Nagahara knew about come alive for those of us worlds and now centuries away from it. Aside from Hamsun, I was reminded of another author, a fellow Japanese who came after Nagahara and also wrote about the compulsively down-and-out life — Osamu Dazai. That said, Nagahara is the slightly more sentimental of the two; Dazai's faithlessness in both himself and fellow men would be a hard act for anyone to follow, even a Japanese-American witnessing the daily humiliation of his brothers and sisters.
This woman's broken heart
With the second work, though, the sentimentality wins out. Tale Of Osato is a much longer work serialized over the course of several months for the Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese-language daily paper. But the main problem isn't the form factor; it's the soap-operaish treatment of the tragic material.
On its face, it is an affecting story: Osato, the young woman of the title, not even twenty at the outset, who emigrates with her older husband to the United States and struggles to find work and dignity. Her husband, Ryōsaku, degenerates almost immediately into a good-for-nothing who spends every dime in gambling dens and then crawls into a bottle to sleep off his misery. He resents Osato for becoming pregnant, and eventually leaves her for points unknown. Her struggle leads her from one household to another, one bar-maid job to another, until she finally ends up marrying a man who makes her happy but succumbs almost immediately to poor health. The elegiac conclusion has Osato boarding a boat back to Japan — something she had hoped to do with money to help support the rest of her family, but which she now does with empty pockets.
The uneven pacing of the story doesn't help. It has the lolloping, ragged, first-draft flavor of a serialized work, where some things are lingered on and other things rushed over. (Apparently Nagahara wanted to tidy it up and streamline it, perhaps as an actual book, but never did.) At one point late in the action Nagahara shifts into an epistolary mode to speed things up — he even apologizes to the reader for having to do so! — but that just leaves us feeling how much more elegantly the story could have been deployed. It also has little in the way of plot, just one hard time for Osato atop another, so there's little sense of dramatic momentum. This isn't impossible to create for characters who have dead-end lives — Hubert Selby, Jr. comes to mind — but it's difficult to do well, and in the end Nagahara has to settle for simply detailing the heartbreaks and the dinginess.
And yet, that is still worth doing, I think. These heartbreaks, and this specific dinginess, were set down for the audience Nagahara knew would find it keenly familiar. We talk these days about having "our" stories told, whoever "we" may be, and Nagahara was doing just that. He was recording details of all those who were displaced, or displaced themselves, in the hopes that a better life could come of it. Sometimes it did, but it's to Nagahara's credit that he wanted to talk about something other than the success stories. Now, almost a hundred years later, a great many more of us get to hear about them.