The Diplomat's Daughter

By: Karin Tanabe





Emi Kato had always liked boats. She’d been sailing on them since she could hold her head up, and had grown to feel like they were the most authentic place for her to be—floating on water between countries.

At twenty-one, she’d embraced her status as a wanderer, though her parents encouraged her to call it journeying. They often reminded Emi that the family was perpetually heading abroad not for curiosity’s sake, but for her father’s important career. Norio Kato was a Japanese diplomat, and Emi, his beloved only child. Her circumstance, always wedged right between her elegant parents, meant she’d been packed up like a suitcase since she was small, transported to countries so different from hers that they felt inverted. Over time, she learned that they’d slowly rotate, eventually becoming an extension of her home.

But in the fall of 1943, Emi’s world had rotated the wrong way. After four years in America, she found herself standing on a boat quite unlike the luxury ocean liners of her childhood. Crowded in like a matchstick, she was being forced to sail back to Japan and into the uncertainty of war.

For two hours, Emi had been moving restlessly around the massive Swedish ocean liner, bracing herself in the cold as she tried to get as close to the bow as possible. Finally, unable to remain polite any longer, she jostled a young couple that had stood as firm as figureheads for the last thirty minutes, and thrust her thin frame past them and into the railing, ignoring their protests. She hoped that if she stared straight ahead, she might experience even a fleeting sense of freedom, a feeling she’d been desperate for since 1941, when she was corralled away from her home in Washington, D.C.

Emi looked out at the line where the ocean met the sky and was mesmerized by the perfect, threadlike offing. In a few moments, just past dusk, as the massive white boat floated through the warm waters of the Southern Hemisphere, the water and the evening sky would blur the line and blend into a pigmented squid-ink blue. She watched the world in front of her, the horizon line now impossible to discern, and thought that even when men were trying their best to become monsters, nature refused to give in. What was beyond her couldn’t be easily altered by human stupidity.

Emi turned around on the illuminated boat deck and looked down at her dirty black loafers, the toes almost worn through. Before she left America, her father had written and said that all the women in Japan, even the ones of a certain ilk, were wearing monpe, the baggy cotton pants donned by farmers, and not to bother with anything but her shabbiest clothes. Practicality and warmth was all she need be concerned about in Japan. Since the boat was so dirty, Emi had started dressing for war already, though she would have to wait until she was home to buy what he’d recommended. She frowned at the thought of herself in the shapeless baggy trousers. What a long way it was from her old life of tailored dresses and starched school uniforms.

“Where are we?” her mother asked quietly. She’d come up behind her daughter and placed her hands on Emi’s slight shoulders, interrupting her worries. Where Emi was tall and confident, her mother, Keiko, was delicate and quiet, with a ghostly pale face and nearly black eyes. An expert at floating through life effortlessly, she always seemed to materialize out of nowhere. “We’ve been on this boat for so long it’s starting to feel like they’re taking us the wrong way around the world.”

Emi turned around and watched her mother rub her temples with her thin, papery hands. They looked dry and tight—surely from all the time they’d spent in the sun—as if they might creak like a door hinge when she folded them. Her fragile fingers reminded Emi of the part of the world they just left. She hoped to never see it again. “We are enclosed in barbed wire,” Keiko had written to her best friend when they’d arrived in the American Southwest. Emi had leaned over her shoulder and told her not to bother complaining. That the censors would black out all the important words anyway, especially the grievances.

“I think we’re near Africa,” said Emi, turning back around and leaning closer against the railing. They weren’t supposed to get so close to the edges of the ship, her mother reminded her. The crew was afraid a wave might bump the thin Japanese women right off the boat. Or that they’d pitch themselves overboard in a fit of anxiety.

“Africa?” said Keiko, trying to move her daughter back a few inches. She grabbed the sleeve of her gabardine coat, which had been in the bottom of a suitcase since the spring of 1942. “You know better than to say something so ill-informed. Where in Africa?”

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