Narratives connect 16 Hawaii picture brides
A picture was worth a lifetime for 20,000 picture brides who came to Hawaii from Japan and Korea during the plantation era.
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A picture was worth a lifetime for the 20,000 picture brides who came to Hawaii mostly from Japan, during the long immigration period of sugar plantation laborers. Barbara Kawakami’s “Picture Bride Stories” brings together 30 years of research in an unforgettable collection of first-person narratives from 16 women who left their homes in Japan and Okinawa to marry strangers they knew only through photographs exchanged between them or their families.
From the late 1800s to 1924, more than 200,000 Japanese laborers, most of them single men, came to Hawaii to work, and many sent for picture brides to join them. By letting her subjects, all issei (first-generation immigrant) women, tell their stories in their own words, taken from 250 hours of interviews she recorded with them, Kawakami gives voice to the silence-riddled history of picture brides in Hawaii and the reader feels an instant connection to them.
The author of “Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawaii, 1885-1941,” Kawakami holds a master’s degree in Asian studies from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her thorough knowledge of Japanese immigration, marriage customs, plantation history and labor practices, as well as her own experiences growing up on the Waipahu Sugar Plantation, provide context and atmosphere for these women’s stories.
Each of these 16 extraordinary women has her own chapter in the book.
“I was so lonely at first, I had come with high hopes and dreams of a life of luxury, but when I arrived ahhh … I was shocked!” says Kaku Kumasaka, who came in 1922. “Because my husband had been a bachelor for a long time, living in a konpan (or company)camp, everything was so neglected.”
As a child, Kumasaka worked on a silkworm farm, but stripping cane leaves and clearing irrigation ditches under the hot sun was grueling labor for little pay, and after 10-hour days she would go home, cook for her husband and children, and sew all night to make extra money.
Although work conditions improved during World War II, she recalls that “the attitudes of other ethnic groups changed toward us. While working, if we sang Japanese songs, we got scolded, ‘Japanese talking. No talking.’”
Kikuyo Fujimoto, whose husband was a steward at Washington Place, had a very different experience at first, recalling Queen Liliuokalani as “a very gentle and kind person. She used to tell my husband, ‘I’ll teach you Hawaiian, so you teach me Japanese.’”
After the queen’s death, Kikuyo and her family had no home and no employment. They moved to Waikiki and eventually started their own laundry business.
Despite their anonymous beginnings, many of these marriages were loving and lasting. “Picture Bride Stories” is a scrapbook of memory and a treasure of local Japanese history. Along with their voices, the legacies of these women endure in these pages. It’s a book that stays with you.