Michael G. Malaghan
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: We continue Michael G. Malaghan’s serialized historical novel, “Picture Bride —A Family Saga,” 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.
Author Michael Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Florida and Japan.
The proprietor of the Golden Dragon greeted Judith like an old friend and led her troop to a table overlooking the Nakamura River. Passenger ferries, coal barges and fishing sampans floated by. The setting sun, broken clouds and industrial haze mixed, creating a Monet moment of reds and purples. A Victor Talking Machine’s phonograph played a scratchy Chinese string instrumental. Sweetbread smells wafted from the kitchen.
Judith ordered oolong tea and biscuits for everyone. “Why don’t we tell each other about ourselves? Haru, perhaps you can go first.”
Haru’s chest tightened. She had not considered the problem of introductions. Saying, “I was born in Amakusa,” was as good as blurting out, “I’m from the island of the karayuki — the prostitutes.” Her first impulse was to state she was from Hiroshima, but her lingering accent would betray her.
Judith put her hand on Haru’s arm as would a mother. The gesture drained the fear from Haru’s body.
“I was born in Amakusa.”
The four other girls sat up a little straighter.
Judith gave Haru’s arm a gentle squeeze. Raised by a missionary family in Köbe, she knew about Amakusa’s infamy.
Haru spoke so softly that her new friends leaned forward. “My parents died when I was young. The wife of our village’s Buddhist priest found me a home in Hiroshima with her sister, who also was married to a priest.” She finished her introduction with a brief history of her life in a Hiroshima temple, wondering what part of their lives her new classmates would also be keeping to themselves.
“Do you have a picture of your husband?” asked Judith.
The four girls offered a chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs” when Haru pulled out a picture of Kenji and revealed that he was a Buddhist priest. Haru’s humble demeanor won over her audience, whose rough speech and poorer dress evoked memories of her childhood.
Judith turned to the short, plump girl whose smallpox-scarred face was as brown and round as the bottom of a copper pan. She had added lipstick and eye shadow with all the sophistication of a farm girl. She spoke a country dialect difficult for people outside of Kyüshü to understand, raising her voice to compensate.
“I’m Kame. My daddy owned a bakery shop. He made lots of money during the war. But he likes gambling as much as I like pastry. He lost his business.” She paused, savoring her moment onstage. “When the matchmaker visited our village, my father could not run fast enough to offer me to whoever was willing.”
Kame pulled out a picture of a weak-faced man standing in front of a poster of poorly painted palm trees. “His letter promises we can make a lot of money working in the cane fields and come back to Krume to buy a farm.” Kame glanced at Judith and hesitated. Judith gave an encouraging nod.
“I had to tell the matchmaker I missed my period. She asked who knew and did I love the boy.” Kame checked the faces of her audience. Satisfied with the attention level, she continued. “When I said, ‘Nobody knows, and it wasn’t a boy, but my father’s best friend,’ she gave me some medicine.”
“Thank you, Kame,” said Judith in a tone that said that was enough. She nodded to the girl sitting next to Kame.
The bride’s eyes did not match — one looked steady, the other floated. Her protruding cheekbones and jutting jaw accentuated a too-long face. She rarely smiled, afraid to bare her crooked teeth. At 22, she was past the marrying age.
“I’m Mayo from Nagasaki. When I approached the matchmaker, she looked at me as hopeless. You can see . . . I am no beauty. I cannot bear being a burden on my family.” She took out her picture. The man was older, his hair was cut close and his kindly face revealed the bronze ridges of a man who worked in the sun.
Judith glanced at the girl sitting to the right of Haru. She was as short as Kame, but so slender that her friends teased that she should carry a brick on a windy day to keep from blowing away. Her ears stuck out like mouse ears. Her eyes featured slits so narrow one might wonder if she were awake. Her smile rivaled Haru’s, with the addition of a dimple that shone at her happiest, which was often. Her hair fell to her shoulders like Western women.
“I’m Ume. I have always dreamed of going to Hawai‘i or some foreign land. My father and I would sit on the hillside overlooking Köbe Harbor and watch the ships. I imagined leaving for Singapore, Brazil, Peru, California — some wonderful and strange place.” She showed the picture of her husband. “He has satisfied his five-year cane laborer’s contract. Now he is growing coffee on his own land in a place called Kona.”
Judith shifted her weight and smiled at the girl to the left of Haru. She tended to hunch over to compensate for her five-foot-six height that left her looking down on both Japanese men and women. Her skin glowed a silky alabaster. If she had been born in better circumstances, she would have been taught to carry her height regally, and a matchmaker could have commanded a generous bride price for a face with such a light complexion. At 16, she was the youngest and the most scared.
“I am Saki, a farm girl from Okayama. I am the second-youngest of 11 children. “I don’t want to leave Japan, but . . .” The luminous eyes sought the ground. “What can I do? I must obey my father.” She showed the girls a picture of a young man in a Western suit with hair pointing in all directions. “His letter to the matchmaker said he is a landscape artist for important people in Honolulu. I can’t read or write so well. The matchmaker had to write my husband letters telling him about me. I am a simple girl, but I can work hard.” Her large, almond-shaped eyes darted about the group, looking for reassurance.
What a strange group, thought Haru. Kame, the tough girl from Krume; the not-so-beautiful Mayo, who would offer her kindness in compensation; Ume, the dreamer, who actually wanted to live among gaijin; and this poor girl, a child really, who should be in school, not shipped off to a place that frightens her far from her home and family.
The moon hung low without a hint of dawn as Judith’s students scurried from the temple, hoping to create some body warmth on this chilly morning. They complained about how the low-hanging fog was ruining their hair. Before the appointed hour of 7, they had marched past rude stevedores along the Osanbashi Pier on their way to the same building that housed the ship’s ticket office. Today, they would be joining a larger group of departing picture brides for what they would always refer to as “the lecture.”
The attic assembly hall was as cold as the government official who greeted them. The bureaucrat, dressed in an ill-fitting Western-style suit with trouser cuffs that dragged behind his heels, looked disapprovingly at his 27 charges filing into the hall.
Haru took a seat with her new friends on the front-row bench.
The official began by handing out three booklets to each girl, assuring the new brides that they were personal gifts from the Emperor — although his tone suggested that the Emperor could have spent the money more wisely. With the enthusiasm of a stuffed animal, he spent the morning reviewing the three booklets: “How to Succeed in America,” “Guide Book to Different Occupations in America” and “The New Hawaii.”
After lunch, he opened a ministry manual conspicuously stamped “Not for Distribution.” He stood and paused, eyeing each woman.
Haru twitched and sat straighter.
In his same monotone voice, but at a higher pitch, he read, “‘You women are the ambassadors of the Empire, the representatives of the Emperor, and you must conduct yourselves accordingly. Even though you are leaving the authority of the Emperor, it is your duty to practice ryösai kenbo. The path to happiness is absolute subservience to your husbands. You are traveling to a strange land to establish the foundation of a new family. Some flowers of our womanhood destroy the harmony of the family by insisting on equal and respectful treatment from their husbands. Never neglect your Japanese female virtues to pursue individual freedom. Selfish and vain mimicry of Western ways leads to misery.’”
The intimidated audience sang out, “Hai,” at the appropriate pauses to assure the Emperor’s representative that every point was understood and would be obeyed unerringly and without question.
At length, the bureaucrat snapped the manual shut. “Now for your health check . . .”
The doctor greeted the women with a brief nod, his demeanor just as serious. Only Japan prescreened its citizens for tuberculosis, pinkeye or trachoma before they left for America to avoid the shame of their being rejected for medical reasons, which happened to a fifth of the immigrants who disembarked at Ellis Island.
After the health inspection, a relieved Natsu stepped out of character and offered to treat her classmates to a new drink — coffee. The six young women walked to bustling Noge Street. Neither of them would have patronized such a notorious entertainment zone if they were still in their hometown. Haru decided she would skip the name of the street when telling Midori of her outing. All the girls — except Kame, who insisted on ordering a second cup — agreed that such a bitter drink would never catch on with “us Japanese.”
For the rest of the week, Judith prepared her brides for the American way of life: eating with knives and forks; using a Western-style, sit-down toilet and wearing high-heeled shoes. The girls found wearing such uncomfortable shoes as barbaric as the Chinese custom of binding women’s feet. More shocking were the sit-down toilets in which everyone’s bottom touched the same cover, compared to the Japanese sanitary method of squatting and touching nothing. And, though it went against the girls’ upbringing, they claimed they would walk next to their husbands and not behind them, a custom Judith said, “. . . we Westerners consider demeaning to women.”
Judith drilled the brides in English-language greetings, numbers and basic food. Although Haru, Natsu and Ume had taken English classes in high school, only Haru had learned the Roman alphabet well enough to sound out words. She improved her speaking skills by reading out loud from a child’s edition of “Huckleberry Finn, which Judith had given her on the second day, once she recognized Haru’s affinity for language acquisition.
Judith invited her charges to her mansion home on the Yamate Bluffs for lunch and their last class. She presented each bride with a scarf embroidered with her name in römaji, the Roman alphabet they had struggled with all week. As her husband’s driver arrived to take the girls back to the temple in one of only three Cadillacs in all of Japan, Judith passed Haru a note. “Open this when you get to your room,” she said.
Haru opened the note with Midori. She translated the English. “Your friends look up to you. Take care of them.” It was Midori who gave way to tears.
To be continued . . .