All I Asking for Is My Body Summary

Milton Murayama

All I Asking for Is My Body

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All I Asking for Is My Body Summary

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In 1975, Milton Murayama self-published his now classic novel, All I Asking for Is My Body. The story is narrated by Kiyoshi Oyama, a young boy growing up in 1930s Hawaii, as did Murayama himself. Divided into three parts, the book recounts Kiyoshi’s development as a second-generation Japanese immigrant, or Nisei, into an individual independent from the traditional Japanese values of his parents, the Issei, and triumphant over the oppressive Hawaiian plantation system.

Part 1 of the novel, “I’ll Crack Your Head, Kotsun,” begins with fourth grader Kiyoshi’s observation, “There was something funny about Makot.” Kiyoshi lives in Pepelau, a Hawaiian coastal town, with his older brother, Toshio, his younger siblings, and his parents. During the summer, Kiyoshi’s family, along with the rest of the town, spends their days at the beach. One afternoon, Makot Sasaki, an older boy, tells Kiyoshi and his two friends he will take them to a matinee movie. This is a luxury that impresses the younger boys, as their families are too poor to afford such indulgences.

After that day, Kiyoshi says, “Makot became our gang leader.” Kiyoshi and his friends follow Makot wherever he goes at the beach, even across the dangerous breakers. At lunchtime, Makot invites them to his house to eat. While all the other Japanese immigrant families, including Kiyoshi’s, live in the Japanese camp, Makot’s family lives with the disparaged Filipinos in their camp. Makot’s father doesn’t seem to have a job, but nevertheless drives a “brand-new Ford Model T.” When the boys arrive at Makot’s house, his parents are away, and Makot cooks them “canned corned beef and onions.” As Kiyoshi’s father is a fisherman, and they always eat fish, lunchtime at Makot’s becomes a welcome routine.

After several days, Kiyoshi’s mother tells him he can no longer eat at Makot’s house because people will notice and call him a “hoitobo,” or beggar. When Kiyoshi objects, his mother reminds him he’s “a good filial boy” who listens to his parents, but he returns to Makot’s for lunch again the next day. This insubordination provokes the anger of Kiyoshi’s father, who tells him he will “crack” Kiyoshi’s head if he continues to associate with Makot. Kiyoshi reluctantly agrees to end his friendship with Makot and goes to the Sasaki house to tell Makot. He arrives to find Mrs. Sasaki wearing bright lipstick and entertaining some Filipino men. The unstated suggestion is that she is a prostitute. She appears at the door, and Makot pushes her aside, shocking Kiyoshi with such disrespect for his mother.

Part 2, titled “The Substitute,” begins in 1934, when the Oyama’s family fortunes are in further decline. Kiyoshi’s father goes on long fishing trips but doesn’t gain much profit for his efforts, so the family depends on the income Kiyoshi’s mother earns by sewing. The whole family has bad teeth, but Kiyoshi’s mother’s are the worst. Over-worked and in failing health, Mrs. Oyama collapses. She is admitted to the hospital for several days and has her teeth removed.

She returns home, although she is still very sick, and Kiyoshi sits with her. She tells him they “have a very large debt,” itemizing the many outstanding bills the family has with various creditors. Kiyoshi urges her to rest, but she continues, relating the bad luck that swamped the family finances years ago.

In 1915, she arrived in Hawaii from Japan to marry Kiyoshi’s father, whose own father was saddled with debt. As Kiyoshi’s father was the “number-one” son of Grandfather Oyama, his filial duty obliged him to help pay off his father’s debt. Kiyoshi’s parents worked hard, and finally, Kiyoshi’s grandfather had enough money to clear his debts in Japan. Grandfather Oyama returned to Tokyo and opened a shop, but the next year it was destroyed in an earthquake. The Oyama family thus lost all their money and gained an insurmountable $6,000 debt.

Kiyoshi’s mother is very superstitious, believing that death “happens in cycles of fours.” Because her mother, father, and brother have all died in the previous six months, she is convinced her own death will complete the cycle. Moreover, she “believes she’s being punished as somebody else’s substitute.” As she explains to Kiyoshi, the punishment for wrongdoing can be levied on a close relative of the guilty party. The unfortunate relative thus becomes “the substitute.”

When Kiyoshi’s mother wonders why Obaban has not visited her, Kiyoshi summons her. Obaban, Grandfather Oyama’s older sister, has been a source of wisdom and comfort for Kiyoshi’s family, especially his mother. Obaban arrives, goes into Mrs. Oyama’s sickroom, and shuts the door. Kiyoshi hears chanting and prayers. As Obaban re-emerges from the room, Mrs. Oyama expresses thanks to the older woman.

Shortly after this visit, Obaban has a stroke and dies. Kiyoshi’s mother recovers from her illness, and Kiyoshi understands that Obaban served as her substitute.

At the beginning of Part 3, the Oyama family has grown, as has their debt, and they must relocate to a sugar plantation in Kahana to make ends meet. They move into “the last house on Pig Pen Avenue,” alongside which runs the plantation camp sewage ditch. Kiyoshi, Toshia, and their parents work long hours in the fields, but only earn $25 each month.

Mr. Snook, Kiyoshi’s radical schoolteacher, tells his students that the exploitative plantation system in Hawaii is “the last surviving vestige of feudalism in the United States.” Because of the crushing debt they’ve inherited from Grandfather Oyama, however, Kiyoshi’s family must endure this exploitation even as it thwarts any hope for financial solvency.

Kiyoshi’s parents spar with Toshio, their number-one son, over his filial obligation to assume responsibility for the family debt. The “Issei” parents expect their “Nisei” son to respect Japanese tradition, but Toshio has his own dreams. He wants to pursue a boxing career and protests, “[A]ll I asking for is my body. I doan wanna die on the plantation like those other dumb dodoes.”

In the end, however, Toshio marries and complies with his parents’ expectations. Kiyoshi, the heretofore obedient son, defies tradition after the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. He joins the US army and wins enough money in a crap game to free his family from debt.

When publishers rejected All I Asking for Is My Body, deeming its subject matter too limited in appeal and its inclusion of Hawaiian pidgin dialogue too off-putting, Murayama and his wife established Supa Press to issue it themselves. With its first printing of 10,000 copies, the book quickly became “an underground classic.” In 1980, it received the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award.