A project of Brooklyn Historical Society
Writings from Racial Realities
Photo by Kristen La Follette. Click to enlarge
Aiko by Kristen La Follette


   The boat that carries Aiko, me and fifty other tourists moves slowly away from the shore and toward the USS Arizona Memorial. Soon, our boat will dock beside a white concave shell and platform that hover just above the remains of the ship. Sunken beneath the lagoon its hull has become a decaying tomb; one which swallowed hundreds of men the day it died. Both men and ship now rust together, entangled below the surface of the water.

   All aboard are silent. Our engine offers the only sound as it churns two ribbons of water in our wake. Though I’m wearing sunglasses, I wince at the reflection of the midday sun. Most others have turned their heads to look off into the harbor, yet I feel as if their thoughts are focused squarely on the two of us. My pulse races, though I don’t move. To me, we’re only inching along, and will never reach our destination; pinned beneath the thoughts of those around us. What will the tourists say to her when we step onto the memorial? I want to grab Aiko, and escape the boat.

   A Japanese student of language on Oahu, Aiko is more at home on the island than I. Yet, how could I be so naive to think it would be a good idea to bring her here? Surrounded by dyed-blondes and gray, Aiko’s hair lays straight and black. Her face, a long oval with delicate porcelain skin stretched thinly like chiffon. Several years earlier we met while undergrads in California. I felt like I towered over her eighty-five pound frame, though only several inches and pounds separated us. Once in a windstorm, she and I clung together. Even with our weight combined, we were blown across the sidewalk. 

   Just the day before we drove our rental car from The Blowhole at the bottom of the island, to Sunset Beach on the North Shore. Matsumoto Shave Ice with adzuki beans, coconut grilled shrimp from a truck, sea turtles sunning themselves on the beach, curried crab for dinner in Chinatown. I’d have the car for one more day, why not visit Pearl Harbor?

   Perhaps I want to explore my connection to this place. December 7, 1941—over 2,000 crew members rouse from their bunks in the early morning not to reveille but to bombs felled on the decks above. Within minutes their bodies sink, strewn among the wreckage of ruptured ships and planes. The water consumes them all into silence. Forty-one years later, December 7, 1982, I’m born.

   I have a tendency to forget that there is no neutral space in the world. Earlier in the day, Aiko and I pass beyond the ticket booth to the grounds of the visitor center. I notice there are no Japanese here. Strange since every other corner of the island brims with tourists from Japan. On street corners in Waikiki men hand out flyers written in both English and Japanese advertising gun ranges, pistols, revolvers and AK-47s. In Japan nearly all guns are off limits. The lure of the ranges in Oahu can be irresistible.

   Before we can board the boat, we are all corralled into a pavilion and forced to watch a documentary on the attack. The visitor center is dated: 1960s brown and gray cement surfaces softened only slightly by dots of red ginger flowers and palm trees. Though there is also an exhibit of war memorabilia, everyone congregates near the entrance to the theater. Small groups of people talk quietly. One man props his foot up against the fountain in the center of the structure. He, like many of the others is grey-haired, balding with a pronounced paunch, Hawaiian shirt, white sneakers laced tightly and khaki shorts to his knees. I see others with stars pinned to their brims of their caps.

   Finally the theater opens and we file inside to find more brown seats and walls. Everyone hushes as the lights dim and the film begins. An old 1940s radio announcer voice reads over a flickering reel. “December 7th, 1941. Pearl Harbor was attacked.” Images of the ship and explosions thunder off the screen and fill the room. Sirens, like those the servicemen heard aboard their ships, blare out at us. Emperor Hirohito orders his people to self-sacrifice as kamikaze pilots or by jumping off Banzai Cliff in the Battle of Saipan. More than 10,000 Japanese die rather than become prisoners of American invaders. Twenty-three minutes of the film tick by. With each second, a tightness wells up in my chest. Higher and higher it coils to settle, finally, around my throat. I am sure now that Aiko is at the epicenter of the tourists’ thoughts. As the only Japanese person in sight, how could they not focus on her? I want to grab her hand and run.

   The film ends with President Truman’s decision to end the War and drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I remember in high school we read Hiroshima. Images come to mind of Japanese soldiers positioned with antiaircraft guns at the ready. The bomb flashes. Their eyeballs melt in rivulets down their faces. Silhouettes of stairways etch into the sides of buildings. On the street, bodies vanish. Their shadows remain, burned into the pavement where each stood moments before.

   As the film ends and the lights raise, everyone remains seated. Perhaps now would be a good time to leave, but neither of us move. No one around us speaks, except for the guide who asks us to file out of the theater and load onto the boat. Two Navy Officers stand aside the plank-ways to lead passengers aboard. Their suits are white, crisp, unmarred. I want to turn to Aiko and whisper, “Let’s go.” Instead we follow the others onto the boat. Once seated I turn to look at her. She returns my gaze briefly, then stares ahead. Her face sullen and blank. Her eyes blank as well.

   It’s warm. The air pierces through my clothing, wicking moisture to every part of me. We arrive at the memorial amid silence, save for the American flag that beats in the wind, its rope clanging against a pole. On the platform I lean over the railing to see the clear water that rises and falls like breath below us. Several leis of plumerias, white, purple and pink, drift up and down over the rusting ship. The floor is glossy; smooth enough to reflect the bones of the white structure above. I walk from one end to the other to stare at the names engraved on the far wall of the memorial. Though my pace is slow, my mind continues to churn. Will someone say something to Aiko? Do they blame her? Where can we go? We’re in the middle of the harbor. What will I do if they approach her? If one person starts to attack her will the others join in?

   What I perceive to be their thoughts begin to rise and overwhelm my own. “Damn Jap.” “How dare you set foot here.” The voices only intensify in the silence. “You did this.” “This is your fault.” Words build and build as if they’re shouted directly into our ears. Spit projects from their lips onto the back of my neck. I cannot concentrate on the names before me.

   Finally, we are called back to the boat to return to shore. The ride back, though still silent, is a relief. No one has said anything to Aiko and I know escape is before us.

   We leave and don’t speak for several miles afterward. I cannot rouse the courage to ask her how she felt. Instead we plan for dinner.

   We never discuss the visit.