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The Nihongo Papers

Chapter 1

“There’s another one,” said Bob Shishido, almost in whisper.

“No.” Greg went to the desk on the other side of the bungalow and looked over his father’s shoulder at the computer screen.

It was a link to a Los Angeles Times story. Another death due to strawberries. This was the third case. All in Ontario, Canada.

The Shishido Farm strawberries weren’t shipped to Canada. But that didn’t matter. Strawberries weren’t like packaged cookies or aspirin. People couldn’t tell the difference between brands and varieties. Consumers didn’t know the difference between strawberries grown in Watsonville, California, and Oxnard, California, where the Shishidos had their farm.

A strawberry was a strawberry was a strawberry. And all the public knew now was that strawberries were killing people.

Bob put his face in his hands. He had dirt underneath every fingernail, and his tanned beat-up fingers looked more like a seventy-year-old’s rather than of a baby boomer in his fifties. Greg was proud that his father wasn’t one of these drive-by farmers who just hired a staff to do the dirty work. He actually got into the soil, ran the tractors, checked on the irrigation system. Greg’s hands were still soft from the four years he spent at USC studying business and marketing and the two additional years at a video game company. Bob wanted his son’s hands to stay that way, but Greg found corporate life to be too confining. You could have the best idea but if you didn’t kiss up to the right executive, your genius would remain ignored. Not to say that implementing changes on the family farm were that much easier, but at least you were dealing with men who didn’t bother to hide or mask their feelings. If they didn’t like you, they let you know it. If they thought your ideas were weak, they let you know it, too. With strawberries, you were outdoors, dealing with the greatest risk in the world—Mother Nature. Rain, freeze, hot weather—who could predict? The gamble caused Bob to have a bottle of Pepto-Bismol next to a giant tub of Tums on his desk. Greg, on the other hand, felt the ups and downs of the business to be exhilarating.

But the strawberry deaths were not anything to celebrate about. Food poisoning could destroy an industry for at least a season if not more. And the Shishidos couldn’t survive another bad year.

The door to their prefab bungalow opened and a large Latino man wearing a baseball cap walked in, his workboots heavy with chocolate-colored mud. “Boss, I think that you should come out here,” he said. His first name was Xavier, but everyone called him Zip.

“What now?” Bob muttered, shaking out a couple of pastel Tums and washing it down with the Pepto-Bismol.

The three of them got into Zip’s SUV.

“Well?” Bob asked.

“Can’t explain it. You gotta see it.”

Zip drove to the far west end of the farm, past a line of cars owned by their farm workers. In the distance Greg could see the men and women bent over rows of strawberries, their faces covered with bandanas to shield their noses and mouths from the dust.

Zip finally parked his car and Bob and Greg followed him into the third row of strawberry plants. “What the—” Greg said. He thought that maybe he was seeing things. He blinked hard, but it was still there.

Where the pristine rows should have continued, there was instead a large circular dirt mound with thirteen strawberry plants arranged around it like red stars around a planet.

Bob ran his hand through his graying hair. “Not again,” he said.


Sayuri Shishido took out the postcard that she had purchased from the Oxnard pharmacy. It showed rows of strawberry plants with farm workers hard at work. “California” was printed on the bottom in red ink alongside a drawing of a plump strawberry.

Her mother had said that it was a big mistake for her to get married to a Japanese American, much less a hapa. “Americans love to divorce,” she said in Japanese. “And him being half-hakujin, it’s a good chance that you will.”

“Stop saying ‘him,’” she told her mother over the phone. “He has a name. Greg.”

They met when Sayuri was in Los Angeles studying English at Pasadena City College. She went to a party with another classmate who was friends with some students at USC. She was sitting by herself on a worn-out couch by the billiard table when a thin, hapa man asked her if she wanted to play. She shook her head. “Never played before.”

“Well, is that going to stop you?” The young man’s grin seemed even wider than his face. It was then Sayuri noticed that his bottom teeth were slightly crooked, unusual for an American. Americans seemed obsessed with how white and straight their teeth were. To find one who seemed oblivious that his smile was less than picture-perfect intrigued Sayuri.

They married a year after Greg got his job with the video game company. He was making good money, good enough so that Sayuri could pursue her bachelor’s in Asian American Studies at UCLA. But she noticed that Greg was growing more and more irritable. He didn’t smile like he used to. He seemed to slouch more. His skin started to take on a sallow tone.

One day Sayuri couldn’t take it anymore. “Are you sorry that we got married?”

“What?” Greg’s face then immediately brightened, a fat smile taking over again.
“That’s the only thing that I’m happy about.”

It was his job. He couldn’t stand his job. So, with Sayuri’s blessing, he quit. That meant no more school for her, but she told herself that she would go back someday. The bigger adjustment was that they would be moving back to Greg’s hometown, Oxnard. The only thing Sayuri stipulated was that they live on their own and not in his parents’ large farmhouse.

“It’s going to be a small apartment, then,” he told her.

“I don’t care. As long as it’s ours.”

So they moved into that one-bedroom apartment. Each room—even the kitchen—had stacks of her old textbooks lining the walls. (Greg moved most of his to his bungalow office.) She went ahead and ordered more books, too—this time those about her new life as the wife of an American farmer. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. A Little House on the Prairie series. Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski. Although she was happy for Greg, she didn’t have the courage to tell her mother in Tokyo yet. She did say that they were moving to Oxnard, but because of a job transfer. It was a small lie—what did they say in English, a white lie. But a lie, uso, nonetheless.

She thought about sending Strawberry Road, a memoir by Yoshimi Ishikawa, to her mother. Ishikawa was a famous writer in Japan and his brother had been a nanmin, a refugee from Kagoshima in the 1950s who grew strawberries in America. Maybe the Ishikawa memoir might promote the case for farming. But Sayuri didn’t have the courage to go that far. This strawberry postcard would have to be her first step.

She started writing in Japanese: “The weather here in Oxnard has been cool with the morning fog rolling in.” That took up most of the postcard. No room for, “By the way, Greg’s a farmer now.”

The front door opened.

“You didn’t call,” Sayuri said, dropping her pen. Usually Greg gave her a warning when he was on his way home. She went to the kitchen to get some tamales out of the freezer. Greg sat down at the kitchen table. Silent.

“What’s wrong?”

“Bad day. Really bad day.”

Sayuri put the tamales in the microwave and waited.

“There was another incident. Another death due to strawberries.”

“But it wasn’t your strawberries.”

“Doesn’t matter, Yuri. Nobody knows how one strawberry is different than another.”

The fan on the microwave began to hum.

“And that’s not all. Some vandals did something strange to the fields.”

“What do you mean?”

“They rearranged some plants in a weird pattern. It’s hard to explain. My father said that it has happened before.”

Sayuri frowned. She wasn’t superstitious, but believed that bad things many times came in threes. What would be the third?

She began to clear the unfinished postcard, the pen, and a stack of books from the table.

“You bought more books?”

“These are from your mother,” Sayuri said, still sensitive from their “talk” the other night about cutting back on nonessentials. But books are essential to me, she argued. “Your cousins were going to throw them away. There are some old Nihongo books from your great-aunt.”

“But you know Japanese already.”

“It’s interesting to see how they taught Japanese.”

Greg leafed through one of them.

“Hey, are your hands dirty?”

“Okay, okay,” Greg got up and headed over to the kitchen sink. The title page of the book remained open on the table. “Amerika Nihongo Dokuhonzen,” it was written in old-time Japanese. All America Japanese-Language Reader. On the same page was a large red circle with thirteen stars around it. Sayuri just sighed, closed the book, and placed it on a stack on top of the kitchen bookshelf. The microwave then chimed, like the bell of a Buddhist priest.


Haru Shishido woke up with a bad headache. She had been studying on her bed, the mattress practically flat as a pancake. But the last sharecropping job Papa had was even worse—the mattress was all moldy and made her sneeze all night.

She reopened her Japanese textbook and tried to study. It was bad enough that she had math and English homework. Why did she have to learn Japanese, too? She felt like throwing the book against the wall. But she knew that her parents had paid good money for that book. Money was so tight some years that they couldn’t even afford to buy paper. She opened to the title page, a circle with thirteen stars. That design always mystified her—thirteen? For the thirteen American colonies, perhaps. But tonight was different. Tonight the stars seemed to revolve around the red sun.

“Papa, Papa,” she called out, “ugoita.” Papa, it moved.

Nani.” What? Papa came to the door, his clothing still stained with dirt and sweat. They had dirt floors so they didn’t bother to take off their shoes.

“These stars moved around the circle.”

“Haru, you’re tired,” he said in Japanese. “You must have been dreaming.” Papa was majime, serious, but Haru knew that there was a playful side to him, too. A side that could make up stories and imagine different worlds. He was always experimenting with the strawberries. They even had a special strawberry patch cordoned off with twine and sticks for their experiments. He would mix one variety with another. He kept all the information in the margins of one of Haru’s old textbooks.

Mama then came to the door. Her stomach was swollen so large that her housedress was stretched to the limit. “The furo is ready,” she said to Haru. “Time for your bath. Hurry and go in before Papa makes the water all dirty.”

Haru dutifully got up from the bed to get her bath bowl and hand towel. Mama’s belly had been big before, yet no baby resulted. Haru wanted a baby brother or sister, so she tried to be extra good these days.

As Haru got ready for her bath, Papa picked up her textbook from the bed. A lot of empty margins, he thought. After she was through with this book, he could use it to document another new strawberry variety, one that would be unlike anything ever tasted before in America.


The old man leaned back in his wheelchair and closed his eyes as he listened to the radio podcast from his laptop computer. He was practically blind now, but his ears were as good as when he was a youngster in the 1920s.

Another one dead. He laughed. Their experiment was working. But they had to move on from the local strawberry farm in Paraguay. They had to travel north now. Back to Estados Unidos. Back home.

He had a map of California out on the table next to a heavy magnifying glass. His grandson had ordered this one over the Internet.

He wheeled himself over to the table and took out a large felt-tip pen. With shaking hands, he circled their target. When he was done, he examined his handiwork with his magnifying glass. There it was, just north of Los Angeles and south of Santa Barbara. Oxnard, California.

“Here we come,” he murmured.

Chapter 2 >>

* “The Nihongo Papers” is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

© 2007 Naomi Hirahara

california farming fiction mystery naomi hirahara Oxnard serialized story strawberry the nihongo papers

About this series

Award-winning author Naomi Hirahara presents a bioterrorism thriller that involves characters that span generations and continents, strawberries, and a mystery that unfolds to reveal dark family secrets.

Read Chapter One