Nine-year old Sachiko Kimura was reluctantly practicing on her o-koto when she heard President Roosevelt break in on the radio with his Day of Infamy speech.
The o-koto is the national instrument of Japan. Introduced to Japan during the Nara period, (710-784), its ancestor is the Chinese zheng. It is made of kin wood and is seventy-one inches long with thirteen strings.
It is with my mother in mind that I wrote the scenes of Sachi and her o-koto. She played the instrument as a child and young woman, and I often wonder if she complained about all of the lessons she took as a child–okoto, dance, singing. My best point of reference was knowing I would grumble (at least internally,) so that’s how I wrote Sachi’s character.
Here is an excerpt from The Red Kimono:
Sachi knelt beside the long wooden harp on the floor of the dance room. Gently plucking its strings, she tried to mimic the music playing on the record album. Her fingers began to throb, but Mama said she needed to toughen them up. But today she didn’t feel like it. She lifted the needle and turned off the phonograph.
Maybe listening to different music would help. She turned on the radio and heard a saxophone blaring In the Mood. She giggled. How would that sound on the o-koto?
As the trombones entered the arrangement, a voice broke in:
We now interrupt our regular programming to repeat in its entirety, the speech made earlier today by President Roosevelt to the Congress.
“December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan . . . ”
The words the boy yelled at recess echoed in her head again. Hey girl! You look like the enemy!
She ran to the mirrors on the wall and forced herself to look at her reflection. She touched her black hair. Stared at her slanted eyes.
I do look like the enemy.
She couldn’t stand to look anymore and ran back to her o-koto.
“ . . . I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”
As her eyes began to burn, she watched the strings of her instrument blur. A tear fell onto the o-koto.
The wood floor in the hall creaked with the flip-flop of Papa’s zoris. He stopped in the doorway. “Sachi-chan, I’ve been thinking. Perhaps we should not go to the park today,” he said softly.
She rose from her knees. “Because the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor?”
Papa looked into her eyes. “Why are you crying?”
“I heard the President . . . on the radio.” She wiped her nose. “Why did we do it, Papa? Now, President Roosevelt says the United States is at war with the Japanese. And what about Taro-nisan? Was he one of the ones who attacked Pearl Harbor?”
Her father’s eyes widened. “What? We did not attack Pearl Harbor.”
“But . . . today a boy told me . . . I look like . . . the enemy. Are we the enemy?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Sachi-chan—”
“You said Mama wants me to remember my Japanese heritage. And the kids at school tease me. Today they called me the enemy.”
He sighed. “Your heritage is Japanese, but you are American. It does not matter who you look like. We did not attack Pearl Harbor, the Japanese did – those who live in Japan. Do you understand the difference?”
All she knew was how different she felt when she was with her Caucasian friends. They had dolls to play with. She did not. She took dance and o-koto lessons. They did not. She prayed at a Buddhist altar. They had no altars in their homes.