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, which is now available as a printed softcover book, opens 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.
As Bishop Imamura drove the Takayama family up Bishop Street toward the Fort Street Hongwanji, they did not notice a thin, bat-eared man strutting up a set of fire stairs on the side of the two-story granite Bishop National Bank building. The Rev. Takie Okumura was the formidable 56-year-old descendant of a long line of samurai warriors who had converted to Christianity during his activist days in Tökyö in the 1880s. Hitting each steel step with purpose, Okumura wasn’t looking at the passing cars and missed his chance to see his new adversaries.
Okumura’s baptism had led him to the ministry. Imbued with the zeal of a convert, he chose Hawai‘i for his missionary work and arrived in Honolulu in 1894 to eradicate Buddhism in Hawai‘i with the same zeal as the Boston missionaries who were determined to stamp out Hawaiian paganism a century earlier.
Despite anti-Asian immigration laws dating back to 1790, Okumura never wavered in his promise to Japanese immigrants that America’s prejudice would be swept aside if only they would abandon Buddhism and Shintoism and embrace Christ, stop sending their children to the Japanese language schools and quit labor agitating. Never mind that sugar barons like John Waterhouse and Walter Dillingham, who encouraged Okumura’s Christian advocacy and were grateful for his anti-strike and anti-school stances, had never granted an Asian — Christian or otherwise — membership in the Pacific Club.
After 25 years of Okumura’s proselytizing, most Japanese remained Buddhist. Okumura blamed the poor conversion rate, at least in part, on “the two great betrayals” — Imamura and labor agitator Fred Makino.
Okumura started Honolulu’s first Japanese language school with 30 students in 1896. It was modeled after the terakoya, or temple school, of Japan’s pre-1868 Tokugawa Era. However, Okumura eschewed mixing religion with his teaching of Japanese writing and reading. To assure the mostly Buddhist parents of the secular nature of the school, he conducted classes at the Nikkei Community Center instead of on the church grounds. The Japanese Ministry of Education supplied his textbooks, the same ones used throughout Japan. Classes began with a pledge of loyalty to the emperor.
In the late 1890s, Okumura and Imamura had joined forces in their efforts to stamp out Japanese prostitution and gambling. According to Okumura, this collaboration led to an agreement to keep any schools established by either of them as secular. Since most Japanese were Buddhists, Okumura feared that given a choice between a Christian-oriented and a Buddhist-run school, parents would flock to their own kind. When Okumura’s school registration reached 200, the Fort Street Hongwanji started a Japanese language school on its temple grounds. Attendance at Okumura’s school plummeted to 70 students.
A decade later, strike leader Fred Makino was sentenced to a jail term after the 1909 strike for “conspiring to hinder plantation operations.” Okumura used his considerable influence with the haole leadership to obtain pardons for him and three other imprisoned strike leaders after having served only four months. How did Makino appreciate this Christian gesture? He established a newspaper attacking the white ruling structure, agitated for another sugar strike and defended the Buddhist language schools, which Okumura insisted must be abolished for Japanese assimilation into America.
* * *
On this sultry early August evening, Okumura entered the building’s second floor fire escape door, walked down the hall to the second office on the right and knuckle-rapped the door. Without waiting for a response, he entered, offered a perfunctory “Good Evening,” and sat down next to Andy Pafko on a matching straight-back chair across the desk from a slimmed-down Joshua Bilkerton in his cramped legislative office. A snappy breeze swept in from the harbor and shot though the open shutters, bringing welcome relief to the stuffy confines.
Receding grey hair cropped military-style topped Okumura’s narrow, intense face. He was dressed like a Henry Ford Model T: black jacket, trousers, shoes and socks. His one exception was a bleached white shirt — never an aloha shirt like Pafko, who wore a pineapple printed shirt, and Bilkerton, whose aloha shirt was decorated with palm trees.
Observing Bilkerton now, Okumura had to admit that since Bilkerton’s night raiders had killed the mother and child, the plantation owner had changed. Perhaps he had heard the call of Christ. More likely, however, he felt the disdain of Honolulu’s Big Five planters. Another consideration was Bilkerton’s teetotaler claim, which had given him clear eyes and weight loss, lent credibility to his assertion.
“The fed’s education report has given us the gift we asked of them,” said Bilkerton. “The question now is how far do we go with this opening.”
“The Buddhist indoctrination schools must be abolished,” Okumura insisted. “Trying to regulate them will only lead to endless ploys to avoid regulations. We must remove the children from the daily influence of those wily priests.”
Note-taker Pafko could not resist a barb. “This is quite a change from your early days, Reverend.”
“You know quite well, Mr. Pafko, that a generation ago, my curriculum was designed to help children fit back into Japan when their parents’ contract ended,” said Okumura, skipping over his school’s more damaging avocation of chukun aikoku, or loyalty to the emperor.
“Gentlemen,” said Bilkerton, irritation showing in his voice, “let’s focus on the issue at hand. The attorney general warned me that we might have constitutional issues if we ban the schools while . . .” — he put his fingers in the air mimicking quotation marks — “regulating them will strangle the schools out of existence in a few years.”
“Why did you petition the federal government to conduct a survey of Hawai‘i’s education only to ignore its key recommendation?” Okumura railed. “No matter how we follow up on the fed’s report, Makino and his gang will attack you, attack us. This is a war for the soul of Hawai‘i. There can be no half-measures. Abolish the schools now!”
Bilkerton nodded. “I take your point, Reverend. Still, if we overreach, we might get nothing. Makino has threatened to go to the federal courts and argue that the First Amendment protects these schools. Who knows how the courts will rule?”
Okumura bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment. “If the courts rule against us, we can always go back to regulation. But regulation is a weak first hand. You must understand: These schools cannot be reformed.”
“What about parents who want their children to speak and write Japanese?” asked Bilkerton.
“Include in your bill the hiring of Japanese language teachers for the public schools. Do that, and you abolish the Buddhist priests’ claims that their schools are the only choice to learn Japanese.”
“Sounds good, Reverend, but it’s not the real reason for these so-called language schools, is it?” challenged Pafko.
“No, it is not. Emperor-worship underlies everything they teach and is why we need to be rid of them.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear, Reverend,” said Bilkerton. “We need your support so that this legislation is not just a haole punishment for striking.”
To be continued . . .