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 began 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.
After a late breakfast, Haru and Kame strolled the short distance from the hotel to the Fort Street Hongwanji to join the reception for the picture brides. At the entrance, Haru looked up at the white-painted temple set on 2 acres of land. Under a canopy of umbrella-shaped monkey pod trees, jacaranda and coconut-bearing palm trees, the mid-morning sun filtered down upon the trampled grass of the courtyard, filled with hopeful brides and their grateful grooms.
From the top of the temple steps, Kenji had anxiously been looking out for Haru. Spotting her and Kame, he ran down to meet them, greeted Haru casually, as if nothing was amiss between them. “Come with me, Okasan,” he said.
Kame excused herself. “I’m going to take a look inside the temple.”
Haru followed Kenji into a large office. There, with a wide grin on his face, Bishop Imamura greeted her with a question. “What do you think of your new assignment?”
“It will be like coming home, Imamura-san.” Haru replied, enjoying the bishop’s puzzled looks. “I was born near Mount Unzen. My husband tells me we will be living in the shadow of Hawai‘i’s highest volcano.”
So focused was she on her pitter-patter with the bishop that Haru did not notice Kenji’s expression go from excited to stoic. Despite his self-incrimination over his behavior, the idea that Haru would so casually refer to her Amakusan origins shocked him.
“Yes, yes. Mauna Kea. Almost twice as high as Mount Unzen, and many times more violent.” The bishop noticed Kenji’s discomfort. He recalled Kenji’s earlier lack of enthusiasm when told his mother was sending Haru. He surmised that his priest worried too much about what people thought.
“You’re quite a remarkable young woman, Haru-san. Kame told me how your bravery in fleeing Amakusa made you a hero among your shipmates.” He turned to Kenji and laughed. “And you have the challenge of a determined woman. Such women are needed in our missions.”
Kenji’s demeanor brightened. He was marrying a real hero. The thought flickered. How foolish I have been imagining a loss of face over her notorious birthplace.
“My mother has indeed nurtured a great gift, Your Excellency.”
“What about Kame?” asked Haru, blushing from the compliments.
“We are working on finding a husband for her in Waimea,” said Kenji, relieved to switch to practical matters. “We’ll be leaving at midnight on the cattle boat owned by Parker Ranch, Hawai‘i’s largest ranch.”
Haru almost leaped out of her chair in excitement.
“America’s largest ranch,” corrected the bishop, holding the Wellington Carter letter in his hand. “The ranch manager has asked us for pictures brides. If Kame were to leave with you tonight, I am sure your husband’s first project would be to help your friend.”
Haru’s face changed from excitement to furrowed worry. “What about that horrible man who said he paid for her?”
“You remember that reporter claiming I had half the haole community fooled?”
Haru nodded her head.
“I have nobody fooled, but I have friends among the police who have noticed the sharp decrease in crime among Japanese workers since we started bringing in wives. I will make a call to a senior police officer this morning. I’m sure that evil man will sign off on his claim on Kame in exchange for the police not pressing assault charges.”
Haru nodded her head.
Moving forward to the edge of her chair, Haru asked, “Can I go tell her the good news?”
“Go ahead. I need to talk to your husband about some boring administrative details.”
Haru rose to her feet and bowed, then turned and rushed out the door. In that instant, she bumped into a man who was just about to enter the bishop’s office. She was startled momentarily, not only by their collision, but also by his strange hat.
After the necessary “Gomen nasai” apology, Haru took a longer look at him. His leather-brown face stretched taut over the hills and gullies of his chin, nose and cheekbones. A cowboy, she guessed, although nothing like the cowboys in her favorite movie, “The Great Train Robbery.” This cowboy wore a sombrero instead of the 10-gallon hat of the American West. His faded blue shirt fit tight and his black belt, displaying a saucer-sized buckle with the image of man on a horse, held up his trousers, which were baggy at the hips and thighs, but worn tight from the knee down and tucked into scuffed boots riding halfway up his calves.
The cowboy bowed deferentially. “Are you Haru-Sensei, the English teacher and wife of the priest starting a mission in Waimea?”
Haru returned the bow. She liked him at once — his clear eyes suggested intelligence, his soft-spoken greeting was polite and his creviced face told of someone who knew hard work.
“I am Haru.”
“I’m Sam Akiyama, a foreman at Parker Ranch. I’m escorting you and your husband on our cattle ship. If you would like, I can tell you about Waimea. There is a tea shop across the street favored by many from the temple.”
“Arigato. Do you mind if I bring two of my friends who are waiting for me?”
Sam paused, which made Haru wonder why this simple request would make him hesitate.
Sam cleared his throat, smiled and nodded. “Of course . . .”
Haru rushed off to find Mayo and Kame. The words, “You are going with me to Waimea and Kenji will find you a husband,” were hardly out of Haru’s mouth when Kame jumped up and screeched.
The three animated girls traipsed behind Sam, crossing the gravel street to the bamboo teahouse. They looked askance at his awkward gait and bowed legs, but held back their laughter.
Sam placed his sombrero on an empty wicker chair. The indent of a hat with a deep brim circled his rich black hair. He ordered green tea. He clasped his hands on the table and rotated his thumbs.
“The history of Waimea and Parker Ranch go hand-in-hand. In 1788, the British explorer George Vancouver gifted King Kamehameha with five cows. The king let them roam and declared them kapu, off-limits. A hundred years ago, John Parker jumped a whaling ship in Honolulu. He made friends with the King, who gave him the royal franchise to wrangle the cattle, which had now grown to thousands. No horses in those days. You had to catch the cattle by running after them,” Sam laughed. “But that humble beginning led to Parker Ranch and Waimea.” Sam took a sip of tea. The twirling of the cup replaced the rotation of his thumbs.
The ladies waited for Sam to continue. After a moment of studying the sloshing tea like a Greek priest contemplating an oracle, he lifted his head and stared at Kame’s face. She blushed and turned her head aside.
“You are the woman with a bad husband?”
“He’s not my husband,” Kame bristled. “We didn’t marry.”
“I’m sorry,” Sam said. “You see, the news of your situation has come to my ears and . . .” Sam’s deep-set eyes turned to Haru.
“She is the reason I . . . I wanted to talk to you,” he stammered.
Haru understood now and leaned forward. “Whoever marries this wonderful person will be the luckiest man in the world.”
“Before you say anything more,” said Sam, earnestly, “I must tell you about myself, for my story is well known in Waimea, and it is better to hear it from me.”
Haru refilled their teacups and signaled the waitress for a fresh pot.
“I was born Fumio Tanaka. At age 12, both my parents died within days of each other from the lung disease. I survived, often working just for food and shelter. A few months swabbing a fish market. A season planting rice. During the China war, I cleaned horse stables for a Hiroshima army base. When the war ended, a recruiter from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i visited the base. Free passage to paradise. My own bed, free food and a salary. Me, without a job. What was there to think over? I signed a seven-year contract.
“It didn’t take me long to figure out why my plantation near Hilo recruited someone so young, sight unseen. My luna . . .” Sam stopped when he saw Haru’s puzzled face.
“‘Luna’ is the Hawaiian word for the boss man, usually a Portuguese overseer who rides his horse with a whip in his hand.” Sam took a deep breath then blew it out in resignation. “Our luna feasted on the pain of others. He stole half our salaries by levying fines over the smallest infractions. Us cane cutters were jammed eight in a small room. We all thought of running away. One tried. The dogs caught up with him trying to escape over Mauna Kea. The judge sentenced him to five months of hard labor. When he returned to work off his contract, the luna beat him so badly that he lost his sight in one eye. The beating was meant to kill the dream of freedom in the rest of us, but it only made me more determined to escape.”
Sam waved over the waitress and ordered bean cake pastry.
“I didn’t gamble, and I didn’t have anyone to send money to in Japan. So even with the luna cheating me, I managed to save some money. On Sundays, I would go to Hilo and make friends with the fishermen. For $20, one dropped me around the other side of the island, at Kawaihae, a coastal village near Waimea where . . .” Sam’s voice quickened. “I hadn’t walked 10 yards down the beach when this giant Hawaiian, holding a string of grouper, came over and said something to me in English. I only understood the words ‘you’ and ‘runner.’ I’m sure all the blood drained from my face. Then he laughed and pointed to a group of cowboys — Japanese cowboys!”
Sam’s face relaxed. Kame picked up a bean cake and bit into it greedily. “Oishii, desu ne!” Sam paused while everyone took a bite — everyone agreeing that the bean cake was delicious.
“The cowboys welcomed me. Many had luna stories of their own. I introduced myself as Sam Akiyama and exaggerated my experience with horses when I learned that the ranch was closing down its cane fields and expanding its herds. That’s why there were so many Japanese cowboys. A foreman hired me to clean stables. Three meals. Meat every day.”
Sam and Haru each took another bite of their bean cake.
“Parker Ranch was like a fairy tale. The workers liked their bosses. I found I had a way with horses. Soon, the cowboys were teaching me how to ride and how to use a lasso to catch cows. So, I became a paniolo, the Hawaiian word for cowboys that Parker brought in from California, which was part of Mexico in those days.”
Sam sat back. Tiny sweat beads bubbled on his forehead, hovering over a hopeful smile. “Now I am a foreman — but a lonely foreman who dreams of having a family.”
Kame’s eyes sparkled; warmth enveloped her smile.
“Let me tell you more about Kame.” Haru emphasized Kame’s hardworking virtues and joked about how her blunt talk had made her popular.
“Cowboys are no strangers to blunt talk,” said Sam. The two of them exchanged glances and smiled.
“But,” said Kame, “look at my face. I can’t be wed today in front of all those people. I can’t bear the shame.”
Sam took this reservation as a “yes” to his proposal. “Let’s visit the Puerto Rican bridal shop. I’m sure we can find a dress with what they call a mantilla.” Kame nodded her head excitedly. Sam stood up and strutted to the counter to pay the bill.
“Thank you for giving me a life,” Kame told Haru. “For the second time in 24 hours, I was thinking of jumping off a cliff. Now I am talking to my husband about horses and cattle.”
“I’m lucky, too, Kame,” said Haru, taking her friend’s hands in her own. “With you, Waimea won’t be lonely.”
As she watched Sam and Kame walk toward town, Haru remembered her father Kiyoshi’s admonishment: return his kindness by helping others. As one of the few high school graduates among these immigrants, she understood the power an educated person had in a land where few of her own people were so privileged. She realized that Sam’s deferential treatment was a consequence of her being the wife of a priest — the wife of a priest who had the power to arrange marriages. Haru vowed never to waste those advantages.
To be continued . . .