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Chapter Five—Kuninosuke Masumizu: Lightning in a Bottle

“Kuni, place your bet,” the miner said, first in English and then in his native Portuguese.

Kuninosuke Masumizu, called Kuni in this nighttime gambling den behind a Chinese store, was known for his facility with languages. He spoke Japanese, of course, and had picked up English faster than the other Wakamatsu colonists. His visits to the gambling den came in handy in exposing him to new languages.

Five of them were assembled around a table, a metal square tray in front of them. Each corner was numbered from one to four. The Brazlian miner was the banker; he watched as each player placed coins in one of the corners. Kuni fingered his coin. What was he feeling at that moment? Three called to him and he slapped down his coin on corner three.

“Ah, three,” the Chinese shopkeeper said in Cantonese. “Your lucky number.” The other men laughed. Kuni wasn’t having much luck that evening. His coin was the only one on corner three.

The Brazilian miner called out that all bets were final and then uncovered a small metal bowl that was facedown on a pile of dried beans. Using a small bamboo stick, he expertly separated the beans four at a time. He was finally left with only one bean.

Ichi, kachi!” Kuni’s Japanese companion called out in delight. His coin was on the winning corner one. The Mexican miner, who had bet on corner two, cursed.

As they readied for a new game, a figure appeared at the door. The shopkeeper felt for something on his lap and Kuni knew that it was a six-round revolver. Some Chinese had been killed by Irish miners over a land dispute, so the shopkeeper was always prepared.

“Hello, are you still open for business?”

The shopkeeper narrowed his eyes and then his mouth fell open when the speaker came in full view. Kuni took a second look at the man who entered the back room. He was hakujin and older, about sixty with graying hair and a beard.

“Mista Marshall! Is that you?”

The man nodded and the shopkeeper made the introduction. “This is James Marshall, the man who created this town.”

The Brazilian miner removed his hat and the Mexican miner clutched the visitor’s hand.

Both Kuni and the other Japanese carpenter weren’t sure what was going on.

The shopkeeper pointed at them. “They are from Japan.”

“Japan? I’ve never heard of any people of Japan coming over to America,” Marshall said.

“The first ones in these parts. Maybe in all of America.”

Marshall looked impressed. He held out his hand and the calluses on his palms were very familiar to Kuni, who worked as a carpenter.

“I brought over some of my wine,” he said. “Wondered if we could do a bit of a trade.”

“Sure, Mista Marshall, anything that you want.”

“The wine is in the back of my cart.”

The Mexican and Brazilian miners volunteered to bring it into the store, while the shopkeeper received Marshall’s list of dry goods. He poured him a glass of whiskey. “Please drink,” he said before going to collect the items in a wooden crate.

Erai hito. A respectable person. Kuni still wasn’t quite sure what Marshall had done to create Coloma and asked him directly.

Marshall looked a little embarrassed at first. “I built the sawmill in Sutter’s Creek,” he said.

Kuni knew about Sutter’s Creek. He passed it all the time and the dilapidated sawmill beside it. He had heard all the lore: the California Gold Rush had been started in that water when a man had found a gold nugget in there. He pointed at himself. “I am also carpenter.” His Japanese companion could not speak English at all and looked at them blankly.

Marshall smiled.

“Did you know the man who found gold?”

“I was that man,” Marshall replied.

For a moment, Kuni was speechless. Here, in front of him, was the man who had made a discovery that brought the world to Coloma. He explained to his companion, who sat up straighter and examined Marshall more carefully.

“How did it feel to find gold?” Kuni asked.

“Like nothing I can really describe.” He took a sip of his whiskey. “Do you know what lightning is?”


Marshall pointed his index finger up towards the sky and created a zigzag pattern in the air.

“Ah, raijin, yes, I know. Lightning.”

“Well, there is a saying. Lightning in a—” Marshall reached for a nearby Mason jar. “Bottle.”

Kuni frowned. “How can lightning be in bottle?”

“That’s how it feels. That you’ve done something that feels impossible.”

“I want to do that. Something impossible,” Kuni said. Perhaps this trek to America was part of his personal mission. But the colony was unraveling. “Our business here is in trouble.”

“I’m not one who can give you advice,” Marshall replied, taking another swig of his drink.

The shopkeeper returned with the box filled with burlap bags filled with dry food. “Here you go, Mista Marshall. Are you coming back to Coloma?”

“I’m in Kelsey, about five miles away.”

“You gonna find gold there?” the Mexican miner asked.

“You never know.” Marshall accepted the box of dry goods and nodded to the rest of the men. To Kuni, he had a special message: “You have to have hope, son. And treat people right.”

As he left on his cart led by an old horse, Kuni’s companion looked a bit disgusted. “Nasakenai. He was the one who started the Gold Rush and look at him now. A pitiful old man who can barely afford a bag of beans.”

Kuni, on the other hand, was entranced. He had met the man that had transformed the lives of thousands, no, maybe millions. He did this, yet that was not enough. He was searching for more.

When the men returned for another game of fantan, Kuni told the Brazilian miner, “I am all in.”

Chapter Six >>

(Author’s Note: The nonfiction sources used for this fictional creation included Daniel A. Métraux’s The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm and the Creation of Japanese America, Discover Nikkei articles, and Gary Noy’s Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots, and Rogues.)


© 2020 Naomi Hirahara

california fiction issei naomi hirahara Wakamatsu Colony

Sobre esta serie

Not much is known about the women of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, including Jou Schnell, the Japanese wife of the colony’s founder John Henry Schnell. Silk is a fictional account which imagines what life may have been for these women and men in 1869–1871.

Author’s Note: The nonfiction sources used for this fictional creation included Daniel A. Métraux’s The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm and the Creation of Japanese America, Discover Nikkei articles, and Gary Noy’s Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots, and Rogues.

Read Chapter One >>