Karleen Chinen
Vol. 7, No. 3, Feb. 7, 1986

As Barbara Kawakami listened to the experiences of the Japanese and Okinawan picture brides who came to Hawaii between 1908 and 1924, memories of her own life flashed before her like a mirror. In late 1984, she and the project’s principal humanities scholar, Dr. Alice Yun Chai, of the University of Hawaii Women’s Studies Program, began work on an ambitious project to document the life stories of the women who came to Hawaii from Japan, Okinawa and Korea as “picture brides.” The project was funded by the Hawaii Committee for the Humanities. “Amazing,” is how Kawakami, the project’s director, described the women. “They were so spry. Their memories were so sharp.”

In order to get a good cross-section of experiences, Kawakami traveled to Kauai, where she interviewed picture brides who had originally made their home on Hawaii’s various plantations. Her own experiences as a child growing up on the plantation in Waipahu helped her develop an immediate rapport with them. “It was as if I was talking to my mother or a neighbor woman whom I knew on the plantation.”

The Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 opened the door for picture brides to enter Hawaii. When it became apparent that the single men who had come here to labor on the plantation would not be able to return to Japan as quickly as they had hoped, the Hawaiian government reluctantly allowed women to come as picture brides. They knew the women could provide a stable family life for the single men.

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