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.
PART II – IMMIGRANT
Honolulu Harbor, December 1, 1909
With shoulders back, a buoyed Kenji hustled to the immigration building and trotted up the outdoor concrete steps, avoiding the wobbly handrail, which presented more peril than protection. He barged into the NYK ship agent’s office and strode over to a floppy-haired young Caucasian — always referred to in Hawai‘i as a haole — who was fingering the manifest. Kenji leaned over the clerk’s desk.
“Takayama, Haru,” he snapped.
The man made a show of struggling to read the handwritten names as the side of his thumb slowly edged down the manifest.
Reading upside down, Kenji found what he did not want to see. He jammed his forefinger on his wife’s name, crushing any hope for an easy escape from his mother’s blunder.
Perplexed, he strode down the stairs and into the sunlight. There, he noticed the Japanese woman he had seen earlier engaged in conversation with a Japanese doctor he knew, although not very well.
“Ah, Takayama-san. You must meet my bride, Natsu. She shared a cabin with your Haru.”
Then, where was she? Kenji thought, greeting Natsu. “Hajimemashite . . .”
After bowing, Natsu tilted her head. “Your Haru is the queen of steerage. She must be with them.” Her emphasis on the word “them” left little doubt that Haru’s choice of friends was suspect.
Kenji slowed his walk to the immigration hall, like a man mounting the gallows.
Inside the reception area, his eyes roved over the anxious faces of the grooms, most of them dressed in ill-fitting Western clothes. Some recognized Kenji immediately and greeted him with deep bows. Soon, the room buzzed with the men identifying the “celebrity” from Honolulu’s largest Buddhist mission. Masking his strained joviality, Kenji agonized: How am I going to extricate myself from my mother’s foolishness?
The sea-scented wind brushed Haru’s tightly bound hair as she strolled aside the Japanese Consulate officer leading the picture-clutching hopefuls into the immigration holding facilities. In single file, the anxious brides passed the phalanx of dour-faced public health officials on guard for an uncertain gait, a cough, runny eyes or any other “out of sort” appearance.
Kame was worried. Upon awaking that morning, her eye itched. Quickly looking into the mirror, she spotted a reddish hue in the left corner of her eye. Kame shuddered, trying to convince herself that if she hadn’t been looking for a stain, she wouldn’t have found one.
As the line moved along, her heartbeat betrayed the self-deception. Walking next to Ume, she chatted aimlessly and looked straight ahead, as if trying to read a sign at the end of the hall.
An inspector approached her. Kame kept up her nervous patter. The stern-faced man tapped her on the arm. “Follow me.” She was escorted into an anteroom. The consulate officer stood next to a Caucasian man wearing a white smock. A stethoscope hung from his neck.
The inspector pointed to Kame’s left eye.
A tremble crept through Kame’s body. The doctor peered intently into her eye and then nodded to the consulate officer. Kame bit her tongue. She envisioned herself slopping pigs for her neighbor, whose leering eyes forecast an imminent claim on his private sow.
The consulate officer’s kind eyes and soothing voice delivered the verdict. “Gomen nasai. You have the eye disease.”
Usually a passenger diagnosed with trachoma would respond, “Wakarimashita,” and, accepting her fate, withdraw from the room to be escorted back to the ship. Kame, however, stood there like a figurine.
“You can come again when . . .” The consulate officer never got to finish his sentence.
Kame let out a piercing shriek, followed by another, and another — the pitch growing ever higher. Then she collapsed.
Kame’s shrieking pierced the immigration hall. An angry murmur arose. The second Japanese consul rushed to the door separating the two holding rooms. The waiting grooms gathered around the frantic officer flapping his arms to calm the crowd.
The grooms, some of whom had only recently returned to work after the summer sugar strike, wavered as if waiting for a spark that would ignite them to break through the door. The immigration officers leaped from their tables to form a human barricade at the door with the besieged Japanese consul.
The consul squeaked, “Daijoubu. Daijoubu. It’s okay.” He tried to raise his voice. “No one is hurt. A bride has the eye disease.”
The grooms, sweating in their starched white shirts and black woolen suits, retreated. They had been briefed on the medical exam. All but one of them hoped the distressed woman belonged to someone else.
An immigration officer opened the door just wide enough to call over to the consulate officer. He nodded and faced the crowd.
The room grew silent. All eyes belonging to anyone not named “Aoki” swept the room. One man directed his vacant gaze toward the doorway. He wore a bowler hat that was a size too small, a gimmick that made his lanky frame seem taller. His suit fitted reasonably well, suggesting it had been tailored. His white-knuckled hands held a sepia-tinted picture. In a pitiful voice, one that would not have been heard had the room not remained funeral-parlor quiet, he uttered, “Aoki desu.”
The consulate officer’s voice softened. “I am so sorry, Aoki-san. Your wife has pinkeye.”
The man removed his hat and dropped his head like someone long out of work, begging for a day-labor job. “But the doctors in Yokohama always check. There must be a mistake.”
“Yes. She must have picked it up just before leaving Japan. It takes five to 12 days from the time of exposure until the disease shows itself. Trachoma is very contagious and can lead to blindness.”
The crowd parted, giving Aoki a wide berth, as if he were a leper. Small rivulets of tears rolled down the leathery wrinkles of his face — the face of a man who knew hard work.
Minutes later, another man’s name was called out. He was told that his wife refused to leave the ship. “Shikata ga nai,” he whispered. Accepting his wife’s apparent homesickness, he shuffled out of the room. He would find out months later that this was the woman who had tuberculosis. She would never be allowed to leave Japan.
A side door banged open. A haole with a red, bulbous-nose led four khaki-attired officers across the room to what looked like ordinary pine kitchen tables. At a nod from Red Nose, the consulate officer organized the queues. Each table’s officer would check one piece of the required documents: an identification issued by the Japanese Consulate, a bank deposit book mandated to prove the groom could support a wife, and proof of employment or a business license for the self-employed. Because the Japanese Consulate had previously screened all the documents, the process went quickly.
Kenji’s practiced smile masked his inner turmoil. As he thought of the irony of joining a crowd, including grooms who had attended his “How to Greet Your Bride” class, one of them with cuffed trousers too short, approached. “Reverend, you are so busy you didn’t have time to buy a lei.” He handed one of his two plumeria flower necklaces to Kenji. “I bought two.” Kenji was sure the man’s classmates had drawn straws to see who would give up his lei.
“If only everyone attended your class, maybe this room wouldn’t smell like an outhouse,” said the happy groom.
“Arigato,” said Kenji, thanking the groom while inhaling the blossom’s sweet scent.
You win, Mother.
The crowd stirred as a middle-aged priest dressed in black robes and a Roman collar with a confident smile on his face sauntered into the room. The Reverend Gennosuke Motokawa, pastor of the First Japanese Methodist Church, had gained fame as the “Kekkon Bözu” — the wedding priest, specializing in picture bride marriages.
Christianity among the Japanese immigrants grew enormously in 1885 when the Reverend Kanichi Miyama converted the Consul General of Japan, Taro Ando. Blaming the demon sake for the Japanese laborers’ descent into paganism, Ando set not only a personal example by forsaking liquor, but also organized a chapter of the Temperance Society among the Issei — the first-generation immigrants. Reverend Miyama found it easy to win baptisms, but most workers ignored Christianity after taking the sacrament. They were too wedded to the profligate nature of their plantation kinship and their ingrained Buddhist customs. It would take the civilizing influence of the picture brides to turn the men to religion.
Kenji strode over to greet his compatriot in the taming of Japan’s rowdy labor force. He shook hands instead of bowing.
“Let’s visit our immigration friends together,” said Motokawa. “I need to verify the final number of marriages.” The haole officer rose from his chair as the two men approached. He gave a nod of recognition and airily dismissed Kenji’s offer to show his documents. “More convenient to have your bride with the group. You and she can join in the wedding ceremony.”
Kenji was about to remind the officer that he was excused from the regulation that all brides must be married as part of the immigration process. This requirement had slowed the practice of picture brides running away from their intended. Before Kenji could respond, however, an authoritative knock resounded from the door, which then swung open.
Kenji watched as 42 picture brides adorned in their best kimono, hair piled as high as her neighbor could arrange and each clutching a picture, entered the hall. He thought about how often he had counseled grooms for this moment. “Dress well. Smile. Take your bride shopping. Stay at a nice hotel the first night. Treat her kindly, for there are few women for many men.” With a meaningful look, he would add, “We have all seen those fancy dressers prowling like hyenas for unhappy brides, sweet-talking them into living the gay life.”
The brides and grooms milled about, searching for the face that matched the picture they held in their hands. Most of the men were 10 to 15 years older than their brides. Some couples had not only exchanged pictures — they had also described how to spot the other: a particular kimono pattern for the bride, or a certain color tie for the groom. One groom promised to put a feather in his hat. His bride shrieked with delight when she spotted a bowler hat adorned with ostrich feathers brushing the ceiling. Murmurs of “Are you Tanaka?” “Would you be Saki?” “Excuse me, are you . . .” filled the room like the hum of cicadas fills the night air.
The river of hope continued to flow through the door to a new life as the first arrivals bowed to their intended, saying softly, “I will try my best to be a good wife.”
Kenji began to wonder whether he had missed her.
Haru entered last. She spotted Kenji immediately — not just from his saffron Buddhist priest robes. Haru had grown up with his picture staring out from the reception room wall at home. Her face glowed. She walked toward Kenji at a measured but confident pace. The buzz in the room softened. An aisle parted for her as she advanced. The eyes of her shipboard students focused on her as if she were royalty. The men found themselves caught up in the drama, their eyes searching the other grooms, trying to guess who would claim this prize, for no woman in the room equaled Haru’s beauty, her quiet dignity and her natural poise.
Kenji’s eyes widened. He recognized Haru, but this was not the girl in the school uniform whose picture he had received with last New Year’s Oshögatsu greeting card.
Ume stepped into the gap beside Haru and gently touched her arm.
Ume’s radiant face picked out a dumbfounded Kenji near the edge of the crowd. “We recognize your picture, Takayama-sama. You are most fortunate to marry Haru-Sensei. She has been our English teacher. She has a kind heart.” With that, Ume bowed and retreated back to the edge of the human corridor. The misty-eyed brides bowed in his direction. Then the grooms. The lazy overhead whirl of the fan was the only sound in the room.
“Welcome to Hawai‘i, Okasan,” said Kenji, remembering his advice to smile. He walked slowly to his bride and placed the lei over Haru as she rose from a low and prolonged bow.
“I will try my best to be a good wife.”
The room broke into applause and tears.
“Takayama-san . . .” called out Motokawa. Kenji had not seen the priest amble over.
“Your parents have chosen a woman so gentle of manner. May I ask a favor? Would you say a few words in the Buddhist tradition at the wedding?”
“It would be a great honor,” Kenji replied.
To be continued . . .