JULY 28, 2018
Editor’s note: Naomi Hirahara has been a pillar of the mystery community since she published her first Mas Arai novel in 2004. To commemorate her final Mas novel, I asked Mike Sonksen, a.k.a. Mike the Poet, bard and historian of contemporary Los Angeles, to go on a walk with Naomi and write a profile that would do her justice. It was a huge task, but I believe he succeeded.
NAOMI HIRAHARA IS one of the most prolific Los Angeles writers of the last few decades. Best known for her Edgar Award–winning seven-book Mas Arai crime novel series, she has also authored several nonfiction titles on Southern California Japanese-American history. Her newest Mas Arai mystery title and the final one of the series, Hiroshima Boy, was just published by Prospect Park Books in March 2018, and in April her latest nonfiction title, Life After Manzanar, was published by Heyday.
On a cold March day just after the rain, Hirahara took me on a walking and driving tour of Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights spotlighting seven sites featured in her Mas Arai books. What’s more is that she read specific passages from her work pertaining directly to every site we visited. This essay looks back at the entire Mas Arai series and highlights how her many nonfiction projects inform her fiction.
Hirahara is in many ways a one-woman Japanese-American history project. Her nonfiction books have tackled seminal Japanese-American history topics like Terminal Island, the flower industry, Japanese-American gardeners, the Japanese-American concentration camps, and survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “I need to do both fiction and nonfiction,” Hirahara says. “They feed each other.”
In many ways, Hirahara’s process is like that of Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and several other novels. In his book of essays, Stranger Than Fiction, he describes the nonfiction he writes between novels. “In my own cycle,” he writes, “it goes: Fact. Fiction. Fact. Fiction.” Hirahara’s bibliography shows a similar trajectory, alternating publications of fiction and nonfiction. Her historical projects have given her hundreds of pages of material for her fiction. She pulls the nonfiction narrative out and reconstructs it into fiction because “it is not my story to tell with real names.” Furthermore, she says, “in fiction you have more freedom to tell secrets.” Her combined fiction and nonfiction illuminate the Japanese-American experience not only in Southern California but in the United States at large.
The Pasadena-born Japanese-American poet Amy Uyematsu has known Hirahara for over two decades. Uyematsu says:
Naomi Hirahara is one of our most gifted and passionate Japanese American writers — whether she’s telling the stories of Issei and Nisei on Terminal Island or documenting the histories of the Japanese-American gardeners, farmers, and nurserymen of Southern California. In her Mas Arai mystery series, I love how skillfully she weaves Japanese-American culture and community into her plots; by the end of the novel, the reader finds out “who-done-it” along with an insider’s view of everything from baseball to strawberry farmers, spam musubi, a snakeskin shamisen, and more.
Uyematsu also notes that Hiroshima Boy “will be especially poignant because Naomi’s own father was a Hiroshima survivor.” This makes sense because her protagonist Mas Arai is partially based on her father. Masao Arai, better known as Mas for short, is a lovable curmudgeon, a Japanese-American gardener who was born in the United States on the eve of the Depression, grew up in Japan, survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and then moved back to America in 1947. Mas is not a carbon copy of her father, but there are several similarities. “The personal history is the same,” she says, “although my father was much more in tune with his emotions. He was emotionally very intelligent; I learned a lot from him.”
Little Tokyo’s Laureate
This essay will focus primarily on Hirahara’s Mas Arai mystery series, but excerpts from all her titles, both fiction and nonfiction, go a long way toward breaking down history, geography, and culture for Japanese Americans, Angelenos, Californians, and beyond. The Pasadena-born Japanese-American scribe began as a reporter in the 1980s at the Little Tokyo newspaper the Rafu Shimpo and was later promoted to head editor of the paper for six years in the 1990s.
Her training as a journalist exposed her to many incredible stories that began to fuel her interest in writing fiction. Hirahara not only weaves Japanese-American history into her novels, but she also interjects ample Los Angeles neighborhood history and culture.
Like earlier storied Angeleno fiction writers such as Raymond Chandler and Chester Himes and, more recently, Walter Mosley, Gary Phillips, and Nina Revoyr, Hirahara maps the social relationships of each neighborhood the protagonist passes through. Essentially every time Mas Arai travels to a different neighborhood, a few historical facts and elements about the area will be woven within the text. For example, in Sayonara Slam, Hirahara writes: “Montebello used to be a flower town; it even had a generic flower featured on banners drooping from light poles on its main streets.”
The wide-ranging insight dropped by Hirahara demonstrates what an expert she is on Southern California’s geography, history, and culture. Another example, from Sayonara Slam exclaims:
Mas was in a sense a Valley man, but his valley was the San Gabriel one, the valley held in by purple-tipped mountains. Old money — grand estates and libraries — had first attracted Japanese gardeners, domestics, and laundries to this valley, but now the area was a magnet for new Asian immigrants, not from Japan but from China, Taiwan, and Korea.
While most of the books are about somewhere around Los Angeles, like Pasadena, the South Bay, San Gabriel Valley, West Los Angeles, or the Crenshaw District, there are sections of a few of the books in Hiroshima, New York City, San Diego, and Watsonville.
Hirahara is so prolific that she does not even know how many books she’s written. According to the list, near the front of her latest book, the number is somewhere around 15, 10 fiction and five nonfiction. A graduate of South Pasadena High School and then Stanford, she’s been freelancing since 1997. Many of the nonfiction titles she has completed are history projects for organizations like the Japanese American National Museum, the Southern California Gardeners’ Federation, and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC), among others. She is so steeped in the culture, that her process feeds itself and sustains her creativity. Like many writers, she is a perfectionist. Her first novel and the first book of the Mas Arai series, Summer of the Big Bachi, was published in 2004. “It took me 15 years to write the first one,” she says.
A week after our all-day city excursion, I went to Hirahara’s book launch for Hiroshima Boy at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. The performance area of the bookstore was packed, standing-room only, with well over 100 people in attendance. She read excerpts from the new book and reflected on the seven-book series. The audience included a core group of fans that were devoted followers of Hirahara and Mas Arai. Some of the questions during the Q-and-A session demonstrated her readers’ intimate knowledge of the series and their fervor for her work.
Walking around Little Tokyo with Hirahara means stopping every half block or so to talk with other pedestrians because she is constantly running into old friends and local associates. We started the walk at the JACCC along San Pedro between 2nd and 3rd.
James Irvine Garden
Immediately after meeting up we walked down a set of stairs to the James Irvine Garden on the eastern edge of the JACCC site. The hidden Japanese garden with a koi pond and exquisite landscaping is a location most Angelenos are unaware of; even many who visit Little Tokyo frequently are not aware that a world-class Japanese garden exists within the dense blocks of concrete.
Featured as a wedding location in Blood Hina, the fourth book in the series, Hirahara read the following passage while we were there:
The wedding rehearsal was a disaster from the very start. Spoon showed up forty-five minutes late, saying her youngest daughter had taken her car without telling her, so she had to wait for another daughter to pick her up. All the grandchildren, meanwhile, had arrived, pulling at mondo grasses, terrorizing the koi, running through the bamboo, and hopping on the worn bridge.
Looking around at the bamboo and the calm koi pond after Hirahara read that scene, it was easy to laugh because the garden’s tranquil setting epitomizes a Zen spirit in complete opposition to the chaos she described in the passage. Hirahara also told me the garden’s three-part watercourse represents three generations of Japanese-American gardeners and the three generations of Japanese Americans that have called Southern California home.
The next few sentences following the above quote led to the next location Hirahara walked us over to. “Mas could just imagine,” Hirahara writes,
the reaction of his fellow gardeners who tended the Japanese garden in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo for close to nothing. The Gardeners’ Federation was big on “volunteer” — but Mas didn’t believe in it, because you usually ended up losing more than you put in. And for what? A pat on the back and maybe a photo in the federation’s newsletter. Mas preferred that his charity be less visible, if visible at all.
Southern California Gardeners’ Federation
Mas’s stoic and laconic nature is more about action than words. Before talking about the Southern California Gardeners’ Federation, it’s important to address Mas’s disposition. Gasa-Gasa Girl, the second book of the Mas Arai series, explains that he is a “Kibei — ‘ki’ meaning ‘return,’ ‘bei’ referring to America.” Kibei, she writes, is “a word made up by Japanese Americans to explain their limbo. So, while America was actually home for the Kibei, many of them weren’t quite comfortable with English; on the other hand, they weren’t that comfortable speaking Japanese, either.” The stoic essence of Mas Arai provides a perfect lens to view Japanese-American Los Angeles and the social changes occurring in the city during the early 21st century.
The second stop on our walking tour with Hirahara was the Southern California Gardeners’ Federation because they have been an important institution in the Japanese-American community, and because the federation has been mentioned in a few books of the Mas Arai series. The federation is a small building located a block and a half south of JACCC on San Pedro on the southwest edge of Little Tokyo. It is housed in the liminal area between the Toy District and Little Tokyo, and some have called this block “Skid Rowkyo.” On our approach to their tucked away office we sidestepped several tents and an encampment of homeless on the sidewalk along the west side of San Pedro Street.
Originally founded in 1955, the Southern California Gardeners’ Federation has been a critical organization for the Japanese-American community. Once inside their building, Hirahara showed me a book she edited for their 45th anniversary in 2000 titled Green Makers: Japanese American Gardeners in Southern California. After seeing the exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum a decade ago about the historic role of Japanese-American gardeners in the development of Southern California’s landscape, this book caught my eye. I ended up purchasing it on the spot. The fascinating book includes text printed in both English and Japanese side by side.
The book’s introduction, authored by the Publication Committee, asks:
Why did so many Japanese Americans — reportedly up to 8,000 in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s — enter the field of gardening? Why did some college graduates choose this grueling work, especially during the 100-plus degree summers, before and after World War II? Who are these men and women? And how were they able to make a desert green for the next generation?
The same introduction also states:
But there is more to the story: these same individuals were also the economic backbone of a whole ethnic community. They created community-based credit unions, cultural centers, and Japanese-language schools. Through their efforts, their children were able to gain college degrees and pursue professional careers.
The essays, photographs, timelines, glossary, and excerpts of poetry in Green Makers spotlights the three generations of Japanese-American gardeners along with profiling the early gardening districts: Hollywood, Sawtelle (West Los Angeles), and Uptown (where Koreatown is now).
Uptown is where Mas’s second wife Genesse lives when he meets her in the second half of the series. Hirahara references St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, a well-known house of worship just north of Olympic Boulevard on Mariposa. St. Mary’s has been an iconic church for the Japanese-American community that lived in the Uptown area for over three generations. A passage in Green Makers quotes an oral history interview with the deceased Father John Yamazaki explaining the intricate stained-glass window at St. Mary’s that paid tribute to local Japanese Americans.
The excerpt states:
[T]he flowers in the lower left-hand panel commemorates those who worked in the flower market. The fish marks the achievement of fishermen, specifically those of Tottori Prefecture in Japan. The horn of plenty represents the produce market, where many Japanese American labored. Finally, in the lower right-hand panel we have a push mower, symbolizing the work of Japanese immigrant gardeners. The stained-glass window is believed to be the only one on the United States to feature a lawnmower.
I went by St. Mary’s recently and though the congregation is no longer Japanese-American, the stained-glass window with the lawnmower, flower, and fish remains intact and the Los Angeles Zen Center is a block north. A few of the old craftsmen bungalows in the surrounding streets still have Banzai trees and emanate a Japanese influence.
Looking at her work as a whole, it’s obvious how Hirahara’s years of historical research feed her fiction. She uses historical data to create compelling narratives and educate her readers. Mas Arai’s occupation as a gardener is a big part of his genius, and it makes him an iconic protagonist. In Summer of the Big Bachi, Hirahara writes:
The thing about gardening was that you had plenty of time to think. Mas figured that’s why so many gardeners turned out to be gamblers, philosophers, or just plain crazy. The younger ones who dropped out said that the work was just too darn hard on their bodies, but Mas knew better. They didn’t know how to fill their heads.
Mas is an occasional gambler and humble philosopher. He does not brag or show off with his words, but he is always quietly surveying the situation and mindfully assessing what’s really going on. He is a street philosopher who knows his own strengths and weaknesses. His garage is his sanctuary. “It was musty with the smells of grease, oil, and rusty metal,” Hirahara writes in Summer of the Big Bachi. “While surgeons had their operating tables, Mas had his own version, crowded with glass jars of nails, screws, and even fishhooks.” After so many years as a gardener, father, and husband, Mas has his perspective and belief system firmly in place.
In the next paragraph, Hirahara reveals that the garage is where he
prayed for the first and last time, when Chizuko had had another relapse of stomach cancer, There, in between his broken-down lawn mower and his oily pliers, he had prayed: “God, Kamisama, I know that I’m a good-for nutin’. But save my wife. Not for me. She needsu to enjoy. Enjoy life. Neva gotsu the chance.” But God didn’t answer his prayers. And from that point on, Mas swore that he would never make a fool of himself again. His heart would be closed to both religion and doctors.
And though this quote addresses his lack of faith, there is an inherent Zen spirituality in Mas’s straightforward honesty and dependability. This simplicity and reliability is another reason Mas is such a lovable character.
The Koyasan Buddhist Temple
After visiting the Japanese Gardeners’ Federation, Hirahara walked us north up San Pedro two blocks to First Street. Walking east a half block on First, Hirahara walked us past the Miyako Hotel where the character Yuki Kimura stayed in Sayonara Slam. Kimura is a Japanese reporter from the Nippon Series and he works closely with Arai in two of the books. Just a few feet beyond the hotel, Hirahara walked us down a small alley to a small Buddhist Temple that is easy to miss if you don’t know where to go. The Koyasan Buddhist Temple is a small temple tucked between First and Second Street and only accessible from the alley on the side south of First Street. Koyasan is one of the best-known Buddhist temples in Southern California, a place with a long, storied history.
Originally established in Los Angeles in 1912, the current location is their third site and was built in 1940, just before the start of World War II. In 1989, then–Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley brought over the Hiroshima Peace Flame from Japan to Koyasan. Hirahara told me that it is an eternal flame and Koyasan was chosen as the keeper of the Hiroshima Peace Flame for their long and deep connection to the Japanese community in Los Angeles. Within the narrative of Sayonara Slam, Mas and Yuki Kimura enter the temple after leaving Kimura’s adjacent hotel room and along the way, Mas tells Kimura that the Hiroshima Peace Flame is inside.
Yuki put his hands together and bowed toward the light. This moment of reverence both touched and surprised Mas. The boy then stepped back and waited, as if he expected Mas to do the same. But Mas had experienced the flames of the Bomb firsthand. He felt no need to bow to it now.
The Daimaru Hotel
Next, we crossed over to the north side of First Street to go up into the Daimaru Hotel. This small hotel is another location that could be easily missed if you are not looking closely. Lodged between the 10-plus eateries along North First Street between San Pedro and Central, you enter the hotel from a small staircase off the street. After climbing up to the second floor, you find an office and small rooms stretching down the halls and up the next three floors. It is similar to one of the old residential hotels, like a Single Room Occupancy from the era of John Fante and Charles Bukowski. There are two other similar small hotels on the same block above other eateries.
The Daimaru Hotel holds 50 small rooms in the three floors. Along First Street, there is a timeline in front of each address from Central to San Pedro that tells what each site was over the years. This timeline is better known as “Omoide Sho-Tokyo,” which translates into “Memories of Little Tokyo.” Created as a public art project by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Sonya Ishii in 1996, the entire block is a national historic landmark. This timeline according to Yosuke Kitazawa at KCET, “traces the history and memories of the neighborhood with a timeline of landmark events and businesses embedded on the sidewalk. Juxtaposed with the historic yet still-thriving surroundings, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the past, while planted firmly in the present.” Commemorating events like the Japanese internments camps and Little Tokyo’s temporary status as an African-American neighborhood called “Bronzeville,” the Omoide Timeline is a fitting tribute to one of the most historic blocks in all Southern California.
In front of the Daimaru, the timeline reads “Union Hotel, 1914.” In Summer of the Big Bachi, Hirahara called this space the Empress Hotel and one of the characters, an elderly Japanese woman, stayed in a room there. “There was nothing imperial about the Empress Hotel,” Hirahara writes. “In fact, they should have called it Hole Hotel or Dirty Inn. Even Mas himself felt apprehensive about entering a place that rented rooms by the week.” The hotel has recently been lightly renovated to have a fancier front door and a few subtle touches, but it is essentially still the same as it’s always been. On the way down from the hotel back onto First Street, Hirahara pointed out where the Far East Café Restaurant was for many years.
The Far East Café
Though the sign still reads Far East Café, this space is now the popular Far Bar. Far East Café closed after the Northridge earthquake in 1994. She explained further that the site was “repaired and reopened in 2006 as Chop Suey Cafe and Lounge. Closed in 2008 and then became Far Bar.”
In any event, Hirahara had eaten at the Far East Café hundreds of times with her family for over four decades. In the same passage where she describes the hotel, she notes that Mas “parked the Honda at the meter in front of the boarded-up chop suey restaurant. How many times had he, Chizuko, and Mari eaten off their thick ceramic plates? The entrance to the Empress Hotel was on the side, up a narrow flight of stairs.”
Earlier in the same book, Hirahara describes Mas Arai and his family’s connection to the now-gone eatery:
When Mari was growing up, they went to only one restaurant: Entoro in Little Tokyo. Entoro was also known as Far East Café, a chop suey house, the old kind before the new Chinese came to town. There, you got greasy homyu, looking like day-old Cream of Wheat in a tiny bowl; almond duck, slippery, fat, and buttery, with a crunch of fried skin and nuts; and real sweet and sour pork, bright, stinking orange like the best high-grade motor oil.
The passage continues that everyone in the Japanese-American community always went here no matter the occasion. “Someone married, go to Far East,” she writes. “Someone dead, go to Far East. It was simple and predictable.”
This section is also an ideal example of the many moments through the series where Mas Arai’s internal dialogue is revealed. In the same above quoted excerpt from Summer of the Big Bachi, Mas pontificates further about contemporary new hip eateries:
Mas hated to eat out, especially now. He didn’t like to talk to strangers. He didn’t like to look at a long list of food items with foreign, fancy names. He didn’t like multiple pieces of silverware, two forks, two spoons. All you needed were a pair of chopsticks and a pair of hands to wrap around a hamburger or a carne asada taco.
Mas Arai’s diction is a patois of colloquial English and select specific Japanese words. The occasional italicized Japanese words sprinkled throughout the text add layers of meaning and character to the narrative. In addition to Mas’s great dialogue throughout the series, his cynical interior monologue and way of thinking make him an endearing character despite his moodiness and reticence. Here’s a great excerpt from Hiroshima Boy demonstrating his thoughts: “Waiting in the line was a hakujin, a white man with unruly hair, a smelly backpack at his side. This could have been his own son-in-law, Lloyd, maybe twenty-five years ago.”
After walking through the hotel and discussing the Far East Café, we then walked east down First Street to head toward the Rafu Shimpo, the Little Tokyo–based newspaper where Hirahara served as an editor. The paper is located at Third and Alameda. While walking south along Central, Hirahara pointed out another example of public art in the neighborhood.
Poets in Little Tokyo
On the southeast corner of Second and Central, there is a gray marble rectangular sculpture surrounded by foliage that could be easily missed. This sculpture is about five feet tall and seven feet wide and it has a poem inscribed on it in both Japanese and English from Bun’ichi Kagawa, a pioneering Japanese poet, essayist, and critic that lived from 1904 to 1981. The poem, “The Sea Shines,” laments Kagawa’s journey to the United States.
Writer Rio Imamura reports in an essay published at DiscoverNikkei.org that Kagawa studied at Stanford in the 1920s and started concentration camp magazines in the Japanese language during World War II. After seeing this sculpture, I discovered that Kagawa was even published widely in venues like Harriet Monroe’s Chicago-based magazine Poetry in the 1930s.
One more fascinating detail revealed on the sculpture is that Kagawa’s poem was translated into English by someone named Masayuki Arai. The translator’s name could be abbreviated as Mas Arai. This specific, unexpected coincidence further cemented the synchronicity of the day. This was the first I had ever heard of Kagawa and the first time I had seen the sculpture, though I have been at that intersection hundreds of times. Hirahara hadn’t noticed this other Mas Arai before.
After seeing the Kagawa sculpture, we also talked about the pioneering Japanese poet Yone Noguchi, father of the famous artist, sculptor, and designer Isamu Noguchi. The younger Noguchi is more internationally known, but his father was the first Japanese poet to be ever published in English in the late 19th century. Isamu Noguchi is famous for furniture design, and he also created the stone sculpture in the courtyard of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center where we started the tour.
The Rafu Shimpo
Founded in 1903, the Rafu Shimpo is an English-Japanese-language newspaper. This publication is mentioned in almost all the Mas Arai books, but the office is specifically cited in Snakeskin Shamisen. Hirahara began her writing career here in the 1980s after graduating from Stanford. After a few years as a reporter, she became the editor of this Los Angeles institution from 1990 to 1996. The day we visited their office, Hirahara introduced me to their longtime photographer Mario Reyes. Reyes has worked at the paper for over 25 years, and he has also been in two of the books.
In Snakeskin Shamisen, Reyes appears a few times, most prominently taking a group photo in a location soon to be the scene of the book’s first murder. Reyes is described as wearing “a safari vest and red-framed glasses.” In the following paragraph, Hirahara states, “Mas narrowed his eyes. Didn’t look Japanese, but then who said he had to be? Mas remembered that the photographer’s byline in The Rafu Shimpo had a Latino name. They were all touched by Latinos in California and the rest of the Southwest.” Reyes is an award-winning photographer and has taken thousands of published photos over the last three decades, including many in critical Los Angeles moments like the 1992 Rodney King Uprisings and other equally iconic times.
Our final two sites on the tour required we get in the car and drive to Boyle Heights. Hirahara drove us east on First Street. First is a thoroughfare connecting several important Los Angeles microcosms in just a few miles from Historic Filipinotown, Bunker Hill, the Disney Concert Hall, City Hall, Little Tokyo, the Arts District, the Los Angeles River, and Boyle Heights. Before we crossed the river, she pointed out the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple on the northside of First in the area some call the Arts District. This temple is one of the best-known Buddhist houses of worship in Southern California.
In Gasa-Gasa Girl, a sculpture at Nishi Hongwanji is mentioned. Construction on First, east of Alameda, prevented us from visiting the temple, but as we drove past the temple, Hirahara explained how Little Tokyo originally stretched east all the way to the Los Angeles River and west past San Pedro Street and even to the edge of Los Angeles Street. When the Parker Center LAPD headquarters was built in the 1960s, close to 1,000 Little Tokyo Residents were evicted from a few buildings that were demolished for the then-new police building. The rise of the northern section of the Arts District in the last three decades has also been the erasure of the eastern edge of Little Tokyo.
After we crossed the Los Angeles River and the First Street Bridge, we continued east on First, passing Mariachi Plaza and headed toward the Evergreen Cemetery. For many years, dating back to the mid-19th century, Evergreen was one of the only places people of color could be buried in Los Angeles County. Located between First Street and Avenida Cesar Chavez and Evergreen Street and Lorena Avenue, there are over 300,000 bodies buried in Evergreen, including thousands of Japanese Americans. Evergreen is also just a few streets west of the boundary of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, which is along Indiana Avenue.
Boyle Heights is a district in the City of Los Angeles, and the area called East Los Angeles is actually a section of Unincorporated Los Angeles County, just east of Boyle Heights. As much as everyone conflates Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, they are not the same thing. There is a similar misunderstanding like this around Watts and Inglewood in South Los Angeles. Only dyed-in-the-wool, old-school Angelenos like Hirahara know these specific designations. Most recently, Evergreen has become known for a paved path around its perimeter where thousands of Eastside Angelenos jog and walk around it.
When we got to Evergreen, we parked and then walked over to the northwest corner of the cemetery where a large monument pays tribute to the Japanese-American soldiers from the 442nd Infantry Regiment in the United States Military who fought in World War II. Hirahara describes this location in Summer of Big Bachi: “A tall monument stood in the back next to a patch of grass. It was skinny and pointed; at the top was a concrete man, helmet on his head, hands at his sides, and a rifle hanging from his shoulder.” There is a plaque with a verse from Dwight Eisenhower.
In the following few paragraphs, Mas Arai is looking for his wife’s tombstone, and he searches for almost 10 minutes to find her grave. Eventually he sees “[a] headstone, short and squat, shaped much like his late wife herself. The letters were filled with dirt, and Mas felt a pang of shame. He should have come earlier, he thought, trying to scrape the letters clean with the edge of a matchbook.”
Hirahara’s description of Evergreen captures the cemetery perfectly. “Beyond the soldiers,” she writes,
were more graves of mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, all Japanese. Beyond that were black families, even a good number dating back more than a hundred years. Some tombstones had oval photos of older black women wearing corsages, and black men in felt hats. There were cement angels looking over the graves of babies, born and dead within the same year. The markers weren’t lined up straight and perfect, like at some of the high-tone cemeteries in the hills. Instead, the ground had shifted, causing some to rise like crooked teeth.
The dry grass is no longer evergreen, either.
By the time we left Evergreen, the sun was setting through the clouds. The mood was solemn, and the verisimilitude of her description was uncanny. Most of the grass was dry and brown, and many of the old tombstones were chipped and did indeed look like crooked teeth. When we got back in her car and drove toward the exit, the front gate was closed. We laughed for a moment before one of the employees came and let us go.
On the drive back to Little Tokyo, Hirahara spoke more about how so much of her research, life experience, and nonfiction work fueled the Mas Arai series and her other fiction. Whether it be mentioning restaurants that she’s eaten at hundreds of times like the Far East Café or her final Mas Arai book taking place in Hiroshima, where her father was on that fateful day in 1945, Hirahara’s fiction is rooted in believability and that stems from her deep knowledge of her subject matter.
After reading all seven of the Mas Arai books, I still cannot pinpoint one being better than the rest. They are all equally compelling with plot twists, unexpected surprises and reversals, and lucid dialogue. At the same time, you can read any one out of the series on its own and it still stands up. She has a way of filling in the details without being repetitive or excessive. One interesting detail she did tell me is that although the entire series is murder mystery or crime fiction, she made each of the seven a different subgenre as a way of keeping it interesting for her as the writer.
The first book of the series, Summer of the Big Bachi, was a crossover of mystery with a literary bent. The second title, Gasa-Gasa Girl, is a smaller world, and the third, Snakeskin Shamisen, is political. Blood Hina is about drug espionage, and Sayonara Slam is international and about baseball. The fifth book, Strawberry Yellow, is a bio-thriller, and the final book of the series, Hiroshima Boy, is an island mystery.
I ended up reading all seven because the series is a true tour de force and Mas Arai is an incredible protagonist. Award-winning L.A. author Nina Revoyr says, “Mas Arai is a wholly original sleuth — reluctant, curmudgeonly, and irresistible.” Like Revoyr and Hirahara’s legion of fans, I found myself not only getting attached to Mas as a character, but even feeling a sadness about the series ending. Some consolation can be provided in that Hirahara will be writing some Mas Arai short stories. She’s not sure chronologically where they will be set in the 15 years of his life she has already composed, but she does plan to write some one-off stories with Mas.
Life after Manzanar
Before finishing this retrospective on Hirahara, a quick word needs to be said about her other new book, Life after Manzanar. Co-authored with Heather C. Lindquist, this nonfiction work examines the “resettlement” of the Japanese Americans who had been detained in the Manzanar concentration camp during World War II. The book mixes both archived oral history and new testimonies to create an illuminating narrative about their lives after the internment camps that is both tragic and triumphant. Multiple generations of voices are included in the text.
One of those voices is poet and activist traci kato-kiriyama. Hirahara published a poem by traci in the book titled “No Redress.” Both of kato-kiriyama’s parents were in the concentration camps in their youth. Her mom, Iku Kato-Kiriyama, became the senior class president at North Torrance High in 1957 and later went on to become an educator in LAUSD for almost 40 years. traci’s father was also in the internment camps as a child and he went on to become a longtime local educator and a member of the district’s school board. Together, her parents co-founded the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California.
traci grew up making annual pilgrimages to Manzanar with her parents. She tells Hirahara in the book that:
It was on the way to Manzanar, that I vividly remember my parents instructing me to pay attention to the places they were taking me as a form of education. As the years passed and I stepped onto the grounds of Manzanar each year during pilgrimage, I also came to understand the connections we had to other communities — from the indigenous/Native American peoples […] to […] immigrants and migrant workers from Mexico and Central and South America, to the institutional racism and oppression of black folks for the duration of this country.
traci’s poem in the book further explicates her connection to Manzanar, her family’s history with it, and how it connects to the contemporary United States.
kato-kiriyama first met Hirahara in the early 1990s while she was in college. Hirahara published kato-kiriyama’s first poems and essays in the Rafu Shimpo when she served as the editor. After kato-kiriyama graduated from school, she started Tuesday Night Café in 1998, a poetry open mic in Little Tokyo. Two decades later, the event is still going and kato-kiriyama has become a seminal figure in both Little Tokyo and literary Los Angeles.
traci credits Hirahara for being an early mentor:
I wonder if Naomi realizes the kind of impact she has had on community as well as countless writers. She was the editor of the Rafu Shimpo when I was first starting to write, and she gave so many of us a platform to process our ideas and create intergenerational conversation through the publication. She’s like a big sister for whom I carry a lot of gratitude.
Most recently, in late April, the pair appeared together at the Torrance Library for a reading celebrating the book.
Life after Manzanar also covers the journey of many former Manzanar internees, including Jeanne Wakatsuki, who went on to write the 1973 book Farewell to Manzanar, and dozens of others who were there, like Shigetoshi Tateishi, Shinjo Nagatomi, Sangoro Mayeda, Jack Takayanagi, Paul Bannai, and his grandson Sean Miura. There is even coverage of the ongoing court cases that eventually led to surviving internees receiving redress and reparations in 1989. The stories of their lives after Manzanar are equally inspiring and tragic. Moreover, these stories are especially relevant in this moment where immigrant children are being detained in cages at the United States southern border.
It is easy to see how nonfiction projects like Life after Manzanar feed Hirahara’s fiction. In recent years, she has also been selected to curate several Japanese-American historical exhibits in museum sites for the National Park Service, the Manzanar History Association, and, most recently, for the Maritime Museum about the Japanese-American fishing community that was in Terminal Island near San Pedro. These exhibits must be visually engaging, so they feature rare photos and artifacts rather than being too text heavy.
Hirahara is truly prolific. She’s even started another mystery series in 2014 with a female protagonist, Ellie Rush. Two titles have already been published in this series, Grave on Grand Avenue and Murder on Bamboo Lane. Ellie Rush is a young LAPD bicycle cop and aspiring homicide detective. Though Rush is an entirely different character from Mas Arai, she also navigates Los Angeles with the same veracity. The history and geography of Los Angeles are an endless reservoir for Hirahara in both her fiction and nonfiction. Her extensive bibliography covering Southern California puts her in the upper echelon with the best of the best in the pantheon of L.A. letters.