By Michael G. Malaghan
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: We continue Michael G. Malaghan’s serialized historical novel, “Picture Bride,” based on the Japanese immigrant experience. Malaghan’s trilogy takes readers from turn-of-the-20th-century-Japan to Hawai‘i in the picture bride era; the Islands during World War II, highlighted by the exploits of the Nisei soldiers; and beyond.
The novel begins with 12-year-old Haru-chan, fleeing her home in Amakusa, Kyüshü, for Hiroshima, where she becomes the picture bride of a Buddhist priest in Hawai‘i.
Mike Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Florida and Japan.
The morning sun had warmed the frosty air by the time the Takayama family reached the Hiroshima train station. At this time just 24 hours earlier, Haru and Ko, whom she thought was her best friend, were strolling hand-in-hand up the temple path, giggling, anticipating a secret-sharing séance — never imagining the horrors lurking there.
Leave Japan? Never, Haru had vowed. Yet, a spark of curiosity had been ignited. Over the past years, she had come to eagerly anticipate Kenji’s chatty letters to his parents. He wrote not just about Hawai‘i’s endless summers, its salty ocean breezes and the warmth of the Hawaiian people, but about the lonely men who saved too little and had to pass their final days in squalid dormitories; of women giving birth in dusty cane fields; of harassed plantation workers, enduring the misfortune of working for mean lunas, or overseers. For a girl who tended to wounded animals, the idea of helping a priest minister to his parishioners sang invitingly.
Kiyoshi broke the girl’s reverie. “Let’s find your seats.”
After boarding, Kiyoshi lifted their luggage onto the steel, grated shelf above their seats. Earlier, he had supervised the loading of their wicker chests. Then, turning to Midori who was still standing, he dug into the sleeve of his robe and pulled out a red envelope.
Midori’s questioning eyes beheld Kiyoshi.
“It’s a surprise.” A small smile played on his thin lips. “Open it in Köbe.” He handed her a folded sheet. “I have a friend at the Enmei-in Temple who offers “picture bride” courses. Most likely you can stay in the temple guesthouse until Haru leaves. The sea trunks will be shipped directly from there.”
He presented another red envelope to Haru. He swallowed hard and his Adam’s apple hurt. “Have a safe trip. Write often.”
Haru bowed low in gratitude. “Arigato, Otosan.”
The train whistle shrieked.
Haru watched Kiyoshi trudge down the aisle and turn to the exit. She finger-nailed the envelope and pulled out a photograph. She gazed at her latest Susano, perched on her favorite stone. She snapped down the train window, poked her head out and watched her father step down from the carriage steps, onto the platform.
“I will write every week, Otosan.” Her eyes glistened.
The train jerked forward.
As she watched her father standing alongside the carriage, Haru could tell that his stoic demeanor veiled his true emotions, as always. She wondered if his son would hide his emotions, as well.
Midori joined Haru and, together, they waved through the open window.
Kiyoshi bowed low and held the position.
Haru and Midori slept most of the way to Kyöto, where they switched trains to the Tokaido-sen line that ran parallel to the Tokaido Road. Fifty-tree shukuba (post stations) offered lodging and entertainment at one-day walking intervals. Haru knew that Amakusan courtesans, possible her former playmates, could be found among the stations’ “floating worlds,” catering to life’s transient pleasures. She said a silent prayer of thanks to Odaishi-sama.
She wondered what her life with Kenji would be like. For years, Haru had heard about Kenji and his work in Hawai‘i. And yet, she didn’t really know him.
She turned to Midori. “Tell me about Kenji.” She flushed slightly and gently tapped her heart. “What kind of person is he here . . . inside?”
Midori had been deep in her own thoughts about her son. Had she been rash in overlooking Kenji’s underlined request for “a Hiroshima bride?” Should she tell Haru about the dilemma?
Midori smiled motherly. “He will love you, Haru-chan, even though he may never tell you so. Such is the way of men. He may start off uncertain. You might even worry that he is rejecting you. Do not be discouraged. My son will recognize the good wife you will become, the loving wife who will bear him many children.”
Midori paused, wondering how to approach the most delicate subject. Haru anticipated the conversation’s needed progression. “How do you satisfy the needs of men?”
Relieved at Haru’s opening, Midori widened her smile. “That’s our secret weapon. An enjoyable one, too, once you train your husband.” She leaned over. “I hope Kenji is a quicker learner than Kiyoshi.” Midori finished the intimate conversation with a sly grin. “Don’t worry about what to do on your wedding night. After your bath, walk into the bedroom and drop your yukata. I trust my son’s confidence will rise in more ways than one with your offering.”
The sun had sunk deep into the horizon when the Tokaido train pulled into the pride of Japan’s railroad system. No less a personage than the Meiji Emperor had made the first round trip between Tökyö’s Shinbashi Station and Yokohama in 1872. Midori slid open the window and enjoyed the cool November air. She suddenly remembered the red envelope. She was to open it at Köbe. A jolt of fear shot through her. What was she supposed to have done in Köbe?
She tore open the envelope and read Kiyoshi’s note, penned in elegant calligraphy. “A special treat for a lasting memory.” The note was pinned to a telegram confirming two nights at the famed Grand Hotel in Yokohama, along with a bank draft made out to the hotel.
Midori leaned out the window and called for the green-uniformed porters adorned with a twisted red bandana. A porter hopped into the carriage and collected their luggage. Haru shivered and quickly donned her haori, a wide-sleeved cotton jacket extending to her waist. The porter strapped the three pieces of luggage together with twine that hung from his waist cinch, hoisted them upon his head and adjusted his cushioned head covering. “Follow me.”
Excited vendors walked alongside, hawking gloves, handkerchiefs and umbrellas, even though it wasn’t raining. Touts promising “best prices” jammed photos of hotels in front of their faces. Rickshaw drivers lined the exit.
“Which hotel?” the porter asked, then called over a rickshaw driver. Midori’s sharp eye caught the rickshaw driver handing the porter a coin.
The spindle-legged rickshaw driver’s gold front teeth glinted in the late afternoon sun. His leathery face was lined with wrinkles and his twinkling eyes peered out from between the folds. “The gods have surely blessed your arrival,” he said with a polite bow. “Three days of rain stopped this morning. I can take you directly to the Grand Hotel, or we can watch the sunset overlooking the harbor.”
“Straight to the hotel, driver-san,” ordered an exhausted Midori.
The grizzled rickshaw driver picked up the bamboo handles and began a trot that would rival a sulky. He crossed the Oebashi Bridge, turned right, crossed another bridge, stopped and pointed. “The red-brick buildings are mostly silk trading companies.”
Hearing the word “silk” struck Haru like a slap. For months, she hadn’t even thought about her older sisters working in the Niigata silk factories. It had been a year since they had exchanged letters. In all the turmoil, she hadn’t thought of never seeing them again.
The driver paused. “My father was a Yokohama fisherman when Perry’s Black Ships arrived. The Shogun chose our tiny village as the foreigner’s port; he didn’t want gaijin close to the capital. He designated the Kannai district as their exclusive living quarters, like Dejima near Nagasaki. I remember that as a child I could not enter this area; even the big-nosed gaijin had to pass a checkpoint to get in or out.”
The driver maintained a tour guide’s pitter-patter until he reached the hotel. While porters reached for the ladies’ luggage, Midori handed the driver a 5-yen coin. The driver bowed profusely. “Dömo arigato,” he repeated as he pedaled off.
Kiyoshi’s long reach exhibited itself again as they checked in. As Haru dazzled at the sturdy examples of huge Western-style furniture — the arched marble reception desk and the lobby’s soaring ceiling — Midori opened the large beige envelope that the tuxedo-clad receptionist had handed her. Inside she found a pamphlet, “The New Hawai‘i,” with a note attached with a seamstress’ pin. “Haru-chan, this is for your bride’s class.” It was signed “Judith Hamilton,” written in katakana, the Japanese-designed phonetic alphabet used exclusively for foreign names.
The next morning Midori directed a rickshaw driver to take them to the customs house near the Osanbashi Pier, where they were directed to the NYK shipping office. Entering, they found a middle-aged man with a receding hairline reading the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun in a small office, nearly empty. The man glanced up from his newspaper, appraised the women’s clothing and managed a weak smile.
Midori was glad she had prepared for the typical petty bureaucrat’s attitude toward women. She wore a sky-blue silk kimono with a green obi, or sash, tied decoratively in the back and had made sure that Haru looked her demure best in a darker blue kimono cut from a more modest cotton cloth, with a matching obi. Both women had their hair pinned and styled high, thanks to the hotel’s beauty salon. Midori choose her words carefully and pronounced them without her regional dialect as she explained her need to book passage to Hawai‘i for her daughter.
The agent sucked his teeth, tilted his head askew and looked at a passenger list. “Your choices are few. Most of our ships ply the China trade at this time of the year. Passengers to Hawai‘i avoid the rough seas of winter. The only ship sailing in November, the Yamashiro Maru, leaves in a week, but it’s fully booked. There is another ship with plenty of space in maybe . . .”
Midori cut him off. “Haru is a picture bride.” She placed Haru’s passport and marriage certificate on the table and held his gaze.
The agent straightened up. She could see that he was calculating whether to comply with the regulation that picture brides be given first preference and suffer the confusion of moving an already-paid passenger to the next ship. This “brides-first” policy addressed the Japanese Consulate’s report of too many men and not enough wives, which had resulted in scandalous incidents, embarrassing the empire. The agent sucked his teeth again. “Muzukashii . . . very difficult,” he said.
“Haru is traveling second-class,” said Midori.
The booking agent’s shoulders eased. “You should have told me that at first. Steerage is fully booked, but we have another picture bride traveling second-class. They can be roommates.” Unsaid was the fact that shipping lines did not book Westerners and Japanese in the same cabin. After paying for the booking, mother and daughter proceeded to the post office where Midori sent Kenji a telegram announcing Haru’s estimated arrival date.
To be continued . . .