A Thousand Stitches
by Constance O'Keefe
Fithian Press, 2014, 263 pages
Shigeo Imamura completed his remarkable memoir entitled
Shig: The True Story of an American
Kamikaze in 1994. He grew up in California until the age of ten, when he
moved with his parents to Matsuyama City in Ehime Prefecture of Japan. In
February 1945, he became the leader of a
Kamikaze Special Attack Corps squadron of twelve planes stationed in Tokyo, but
his squadron never made a suicide attack. After his death in 1998, Constance
O'Keefe worked together with Shigeo's widow Isako, Johnnie Johnson Hafernik, and
Stephanie Vandrick as co-editors to get his memoir published in 2001. O'Keefe
also worked on this novel, A Thousand Stitches, based on Imamura's
memoir. She describes in the Acknowledgements section how she got the idea:
Isako told me about how one of her friends had suggested that the story—Shig's
and hers—needed another version, one that included the romance her
typically-Japanese-style-reticent husband had omitted. I agreed and was
honored when Isako agreed that I could try my hand at turning the memoir
into a novel.
In the novel Shigeo (Shig) Imamura gets renamed Isamu (Sam) Imagawa, and
his wife Isako becomes Akiko. Isamu's mother arranged his first marriage with
Kayoko Katayama from Ishii Village in Ehime Prefecture, but Isamu and Kayoko did not find any happiness in their
relationship. After she dies in childbirth, Isamu leaves for America and
eventually gets married to Akiko, who he had first met while still married and
working as an assistant professor in the English Department at Ehime University
in Matsuyama City.
The author also introduces the fictional character of Michiko Shizuyama, who
Isamu knew from his middle school days in Matsuyama. While serving in the Japanese Navy, Isamu received a
senninbari (thousand stitch belt) from Michiko. They seem to have
feelings for each other based on their school friendship, their letters to each
other after he entered the Navy, and his brief visit
with her when she was working at Kure Arsenal during the war, but they never go
any further in their relationship.
About half of the novel comes almost directly from Imamura's memoir,
but how much of the rest of the novel is factual or fictional cannot be
determined without knowing personally the individuals on whom the characters are
based. The first three chapters take place in 1999 and 2000 after the death of
Isamu Imagawa. The number of characters introduced in these beginning chapters and their uncertain
relationships and history will make it difficult for readers to orient
themselves. Starting in Chapter 4, the next 100 or so pages tell Isamu's life
chronologically in an easy-to-understand narrative. The historical details and
description seem quite accurate and reflect O'Keefe's extensive research and
knowledge of Japanese customs and history. The end of the book has a five-page
glossary of Japanese words and phrases used in the story.
Although A Thousand Stitches is an interesting historical novel,
Shigeo Imamura's actual memoir seems more valuable since it
provides a plot that reads much like a novel and represents what actually happened.
In this fictional work the reader never knows what really took place unless the
episode comes directly from Imamura's memoir.