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 sun warmed Haru and Midori as they tramped down the Osanbashi Pier for the last time. The salty air was invigorating. Gentle winds pushed the fluffy clouds as the two women looked ahead at the black-bottom ship, trimmed at the top with a white railing that was crowded with passengers and loved ones saying their good-byes. The smokestack belched a fog of black coal, signaling the ship was ready to sail.
The 300-foot-long Yamashiro Maru had been built in England in 1884, just as Japan was developing its own shipbuilding capacity. The Yamashiro Maru was scheduled to be retired the following year, although its always freshly painted exterior suggested otherwise.
Haru joked about the bureaucrat’s lecture as they passed through the mid-point office buildings. Midori laughed. A transformation had taken place. After a week of brides’ classes and Midori’s buoyant vision of the future, Haru’s expectations of an exciting married life to a priest in Hawai‘i eclipsed the calamity that had forced her departure.
“Maybe Ko did me a favor,” said Haru.
Midori wasn’t so sure, but was grateful that a forgiving Haru was looking forward to a happy life with her son. “The Buddha works in mysterious ways,” she allowed.
While the picture brides — each carrying a single straw suitcase — boarded at the far gangplank whose entrypoint led to the lower decks, below the waterline, Midori and Haru boarded with the first-class passengers. The mustached Swedish captain welcomed them with a strained smile. A white-uniformed seaman quickly directed them down two decks to the second-class cabins, where Natsu greeted them. Her earlier arrival had allowed her to choose the upper bunk.
Haru and Midori said their dry-eyed good-byes and renewed their promises to write to each other every week. All their tears had been wrung out in the days preceding the departure.
Two hours later, the Yamashiro Maru sailed into the calm-water twilight of the November setting sun. It would be the last day of calm seas until the ship docked in Honolulu. The Yamashiro Maru’s relatively small size made for deeper pitching and yawing in the rough winter seas.
As the ship slipped across the horizon, Midori hurried to the cable office. She re-read Kenji’s telegram, which she had received two days earlier. “Not good time for Haru to come. Will write.”
She was glad Haru had not been there when the telegram was delivered. Now that the ship was at sea, Midori telegrammed Kenji. “Yamashiro Maru left. ETA December 2. Be a good husband to Haru.”
She had raised both these children to do the right thing. She could do no more.
Before sailing, the six brides had agreed to meet on the common deck at 7 o’clock that evening. Only Haru and Kame made the appointment. The wind swirled their hair and salt spray flecked their cheeks. Flying clouds hid the moon.
Haru wore a new kimono — a thick, maroon one that had been a gift from Midori. Kame’s faded kimono evoked memories of her earlier Amakusan poverty. Each had donned sweaters underneath their outer garments. Haru grimaced a woozy smile at her friend.
“Natsu is busy emptying her stomach in a bucket. I wondered if I would be the only one on deck.”
Kame leaned over the railing, spit and wiped her chin with her kimono sleeve. “You can’t believe the terrible smells and the engine noise, Haru! We have 80 people jammed together, including at least two dozen men who are thinking about their prospects when it gets dark.”
By day three, the swells had dropped to a mere 12 feet. Color had returned to the girls’ cheeks. Judith’s students met after dinner — except for Natsu, who strolled on deck only during times reserved for first- and second-class passengers.
Saki wrinkled her nose, a habit that meant she had something to say. “Every meal the same. Rice, pickled turnips, fish soup and red-dyed plums.”
Mayo blurted out, “It is so awful down below, Haru! Especially with nothing to do.”
Kame clapped her hands. “Why don’t you teach us English?”
“Me? I can say only ‘Hello.’”
“No,” insisted Mayo. “You are too modest. You exchanged words with Judith. You know the Roman alphabet. Your something is better than our nothing.”
Haru dropped her shoulders. This is not about me, she thought. This is about people who need help. The last time I thanked Kiyoshi for taking me in, he told me, “Child, the day will come when you can pay me back by helping others.”
“All right. We will meet tomorrow. I will come downstairs after dinner.”
The following evening, Haru descended three flights of stairs. She smelled steerage before she saw it. She slowed her steps, then saw Kame at the bottom and smiled, determined not to let her nausea show.
Kame’s eyes gleamed wickedly. “I notice your breaths are shallow. Don’t worry; you will get used to it.”
All 80 people were sitting on the tatami mat. Haru walked fast to hide her nervous legs. What have I gotten myself into, she thought. She stepped in front of the expectant faces, offered a warm smile and bowed low. In a tight voice, she began.
“Each day, we will write and pronounce five letters of the Roman alphabet and learn 10 words.” She hoped her vocabulary would last the next 12 sailing days.
Saki handed Haru a piece of folded cardboard with a chunk of coal. “This will be your chalkboard . . .” Holding up the coal nugget, she continued, “. . . and here is your chalk!” Haru gave Saki a grateful smile.
As her students responded enthusiastically to her lessons, Haru’s confidence grew. Years later, she would look back on those impromptu English classes as a gift, revealing leadership abilities she never suspected she possessed, nor expected she would ever need.
The routine was interrupted on the ninth day when Saki rushed to her, out-of-breath, before class. “We have a sick girl. I think it’s the lung disease. Everyone is afraid to report it.”
A woman standing next to Saki introduced herself as Tama. “I’m a nurse. It looks like tuberculosis. The woman is coughing up blood.” She shook her head as her eyes locked onto Haru’s. “She must be separated.”
Why are they coming to me? Haru wondered to herself. She looked at the two women with a puzzled look on her face. If the disease spread, the ship must return to Yokohama. There was a British doctor on board whom Haru had seen on deck.
“Wakarimashita. I will be back.”
Grabbing her dictionary, Haru sprinted to the clinic. A sign hung on the doorknob. She quickly thumbed through her dictionary. “In case of emergency, go to Cabin A4.”
Her knock brought the lanky, rummy-eyed man to the door. He scowled at Haru as he cinched his robe. Haru read from her dictionary. “Tubberlockus.”
The doctor’s face turned ashen. “Where?”
Haru knew the word. “Steerage.”
Minutes later, the doctor, having changed into a white smock, emerged from the cabin and followed Haru’s descent to steerage. He put a handkerchief over his face halfway down the final set of stairs. He examined the girl. His eyes then shifted to two men hovering. “Place her in the engine room.” The men looked blank until Haru interrupted. The doctor looked at Haru and put his finger to his lips.”
“Secret,” said Haru. The doctor nodded. “She cannot leave the ship. She must go back to Japan.” Everyone in steerage understood that if word leaked, the ship would have to return to Japan. They worried who would be next.
The next day, steerage passengers enjoyed fruit and meat with their dinner.
Kenji’s heart beat faster as the Yamashiro Maru neared Honolulu Harbor. The winter trade winds slapped against his face as he waited beneath a rustling palm tree. The sun arced high in the sky behind him. An exuberant crowd of greeters waited at the quay. Another expectant group remained out of sight. The sweating husbands of the picture brides were ensconced in the windowless Immigration Processing Hall, cooled only by a single overhead fan. All of the picture brides were required to enter the immigration office together, then proceed to a private room, where they were required strip naked and undergo a medical examination.
Everyone except Haru. Kenji had seen to that. When he checked with the shipping line to verify the Yamashiro Maru’s arrival time and date, which was never certain given the weather conditions, he discovered that Haru was traveling second class and devised a plan. He knew Bishop Imamura was already pressuring immigration officials to halt the naked exams. So, when Kenji approached the chief of immigration and asked, “It would be considered a great favor if my wife and the other woman married to a doctor could clear immigration with all the other passengers,” the chief agreed.
Kenji could then have his planned confrontation with Haru without the other picture brides and their husbands looking on. It would all be over by the time they cleared customs.
As the shipped docked, Kenji walked over to the busy path running parallel to the fence that kept passengers directed toward the immigration office. From there, he could see the passengers disembark. Behind him, the tightly wound-up Kenji hardly noticed Chinese women in their black, shiny trousers manning food stalls, or the portly Hawaiian women chatting among their lei booths.
In a low voice, Kenji rehearsed his marriage-avoidance speech to a palm tree. As an orator, he practiced placing emphasis on the right words and inserting pauses at the right places.
“My parents have made a TRAGIC mistake, Haru-san. As an AMAKUSAN woman . . . you will NEVER be ACCEPTED. Your life here would be one of . . . HUMILIATION, filled with great SORROW. It is best that you . . . RETURN to Japan.” He extracted the boat ticket from his sleeve and presented it to the tree trunk. “IMMEDIATELY.”
He told himself to be cruel now and save both of them a life of shame and unhappiness. Certainly, the shock of rejection would compel Haru to take the ticket and leave quickly. He would still have to face Bishop Imamura, for whom he had concocted a quite different speech. He would explain how devastated he had been when his intended confessed that she regretted leaving Japan and realized she could not live among foreigners. In his agitated state, he dismissed his mother’s reaction as a problem to be handled later.
The first- and second-class passengers began their descent down the gangplank. Kenji held the picture of Haru. He had to admit that the woman in the picture was beautiful. It gave him pause. For a split second, he wondered whether he had made the wrong decision. But the thought did not hold. At the top of the gangplank, he spotted a young Japanese girl holding a parasol. She looked nothing like the picture in his hand. Must be the wife of the doctor. More people descended. Then no one. No Haru. His spirits lifted. Had she changed her mind at the last minute and remained in Yokohama, too ashamed to marry a priest?
Haru’s pulse pumped faster. Diamond Head rose to her right. Compared to Hiroshima and Yokohama, the town in front of her looked more like a village. She hung back while the upper-class disembarked so she could leave with Mayo, Ume, Kame and Saki. A representative from the Japanese Consulate guided them through the steerage exit, almost at ground level, near the front of the ship.
Hawai‘i, thought Haru as her foot touched land. Her face glowing, she prayed she would be a good wife to Kenji.
To be continued . . .