“Picture Bride” — A Family Saga

“Picture Bride” — A Family Saga

Historical Fiction by Michael G. Malaghan

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.

48.

Haru had debated whether to follow her usual custom of wearing a Japanese kimono or debut herself in Western dress. A Mary Pickford fan, she noted that the wardrobe of America’s favorite actress was always appropriate for her part. So, given that today’s subject was the Americanization of Japanese children, she had bought a pattern and three yards of fabric at the Parker Ranch Trading Store and sewn a calf-length, olive-hued dress with a scoop neck. She had also practiced wearing high heels on the porch every day for a week. Kenji planned his day so that Haru could use the Model-T, which she had learned to drive the previous year. She knew Mrs. Roberts was one of few women, haole or Asian, who drove in Waimea. Give the ladies a bit to prattle on that wasn’t school-related, Haru thought, as she made a final check of her appearance in front of the bedroom’s half-length mirror. She grew angry at herself for the uptick in her heartbeats. After all, she was no longer an 18-year-old bride. She managed a preschool, and women in Kenji’s congregation consulted her when they had marriage problems. And, her garden supplied vegetables to the Oda Trading Post. Despite all their talk about women’s suffrage, what had any of these haole ladies actually accomplished other than go to meetings? Still, perspiration ringed her forehead. No matter what she did, in Hawai‘i, she was not equal to the haole.

Haru’s mood brightened as she walked steadily down the porch steps toward the car. Rich plumeria scents hung in the air. Alternating ribbons of marigolds and violets circled the porch. At the car, she stopped and gazed at the Takayama compound, which had grown by three buildings and a thriving garden since her arrival.

The temple, to the left of their home, resembled a small-town Protestant church, a design instigated by Imamura to persuade the haoles that “Our beliefs are like yours.” The warm amber paint of both buildings infused a sense of harmony.

After the birth of their second child, Kenji surprised Haru by building a cottage behind the main family house, telling Ualani, “This will give you a little privacy.” Haru caught Kenji’s quick wink as Ualani bowed in appreciation. Haru had never complained about their increasingly crowded quarters, especially since their home was a palace compared to the cramped plantation housing. She treasured Kenji’s thoughtfulness.

On the other side of the house, Haru had built a daycare nursery to look after the babies of the picture brides she and Kame had recruited through their letter-writing campaigns.

Except for the tangerine trees she planted between the house and the nursery, Haru’s home setting could have passed for early summer in rural New England.

She glanced for a minute at her groomed rows of ripe tomato plants held straight by split bamboo supports and the lime-green corn shoots looking over stubby, leafy canopies hiding radish bulbs and eggplant. Her face glowed as she recalled how, two years ago, Kenji had arrived home before lunch one day with surprising news. “Mr. Carter has offered to sell us our homestead at a very generous price.”

Haru had stared at him, too astonished to speak.

“He wants to tidy up all the temporary land grants Parker Ranch has issued over the years.” Kenji had walked toward the large window that looked out over the porch. “We can own all this.”

She remembered her response as if it had taken place that morning: “Accept the offer and tell Carter we would also like to buy the lot on either side of us at market price.” Like most Japanese wives, Haru controlled the family finances. “We have enough money to pay half in cash. I am sure Mr. Carter would finance the rest over 10 years.”

“But . . . what would we do with all that land?”

Haru had two dreams, but thought one big idea at a time was all Kenji would consider. “I need more space to grow vegetables, Otosan. Oda-san told me that if I could grow more, her store would buy them.”

Haru had a second vision, a secret vision. Next to her home — but not too close — would stand a hotel where Japanese travelers, such as the medicine man from Hiroshima, or the food wholesalers from Honolulu, would find comfortable lodging.

Breaking her reverie was the squawk of a nene, whose ancestors had been Canadian geese, but were now indigenous. Haru looked up and watched the ebony-crowned bird roost on one of the silk oak trees lording over her jungle. A good omen, she thought.

As she opened the door of the Model-T, her eyes drifted to the cherry trees that she and Ualani had planted in front of the outhouse just days after the night of the Inari. Their pink blossoms each March reminded her of that event and its lessons in courage.

She would need some of that courage today.

The moment Haru drove up Mrs. Roberts’ driveway, she knew the ladies had had a “pre-meeting.” Seven women seated around two tables covered with burgundy tablecloths looked up from the right länai overlooking squat bougainvillea vines blooming in purple, red and orange rows. Haru’s thoughts raced back to another grand entrance — the night she had walked through a torch-lit crowd of her own people and faced a man on stage who was determined to crush her.

Today’s group was different. They were afraid of this group of people who were not at all like them in race or culture — and who outnumbered them. In a generation, when my children are of age, their children will be minority voters, they thought to themselves. Haru knew that people demonstrated their fears in different ways: anger, hate, suspicion. She had no illusions of changing anyone’s mind today. She would settle for just a few of those gawking women understanding the purpose of the language schools well enough to let fear ebb over a period of time. This was a talking point with their husbands. If she could not break down the wall of suspicion, perhaps she could leave behind a ladder to climb over it.

Haru’s heart raced as she opened the car door. Everyone had stopped talking, as if the earth had shook in the first second of an earthquake Whatever the women expected, thought Haru, it was not a Japanese lady dressed in the latest fashion, stepping out of a car she had driven herself.

Haru smiled, recognizing the young lady in a lace-fringed uniform carrying a teapot and entering the lanai. The Japanese maid, Yumi, attended her English classes. The girl smiled at her and gave a hint of a bow. Haru had listened to haole ladies discussing their maids, almost always Japanese, with admiration. She wondered if they ever made the connection between honest and fastidious domestic help with the likely good citizenship of their children.

Mrs. Roberts, wearing a yellow dress with a collared neck and only a hint of a sleeve at the shoulders, greeted Haru from the top step of the länai. Haru’s seamstress eye approved the double-stitched hem just below the calf. Having met the other women, still seated, at various community events, Haru intoned “Nice to see you again” salutations. She detected a new look in their eyes. Another type of fear. Haru was the youngest among them, and the only woman with hair hanging below the nape of the neck. Her face was unblemished and wrinkle-free. Despite Haru’s pod of children, the ladies saw a girl’s hourglass figure, previously hidden under a kimono, now revealed in Western dress. Haru knew the rumors of haole husbands and their maids were occasionally based on fact. She made a mental note for the brides to continue wearing their Japanese attire at events with their husbands.

Mrs. Kinder, Takeshi’s third grade teacher, started the conversation by asking Haru about her other two children. Haru knew that this ploy would deflect the conversation to the children of the other mothers. She did so in her usual limited vocabulary.

Haru was relieved when Mrs. Roberts turned the conversation to today’s topic. In a soothing voice, she asked, “Mrs. Takayama, can we afford to have future American citizens brought up with the belief that the ruler of a foreign land is superior to the government of this country?”

“And that’s not all,” said Mrs. Adams, the wife of the Presbyterian minister, who never smiled. “The use of their plantation pidgin on the playground is spreading to white children attending public schools!” she added in her squeaky New England pitch.

Another woman interposed in slow prim English. “Let me say this in simpler words.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Thompson,” Haru interrupted. “I understand.” Like a good politician, Haru chose not to argue about Pidgin English, an amalgam of the five island languages. Hawaiian, Portuguese and Chinese children all added to the plantation jargon, but given that half the students in grammar school were Japanese, it was easy to pin the blame on this group. Haru addressed her audience in perfect but softly accented English. “You are fortunate. You are at home when your children return from school. Our women must work to make ends meet. Should children be allowed to run free without supervision?”

Haru smiled demurely at the women’s startled reaction. She had long thought of the right moment to reveal that she could understand and speak proper English. In the short silence, she imagined the women inventorying all their past conversations in her presence, trying to remember what they had said that they now wished they had not. The pause allowed Haru to make her case.

“The primary purpose of our schools is to emphasize the Japanese values of obeying one’s parents and respecting teachers. Our parents want their children to be taught the hierarchy of the five personal obligations: Fu-shi: between father and child, Fu-fu: between husband and wife, Cho-ya: between elder and junior, Shi-tei: between teacher and student and Ken-shin: between emperor and his subject. Of course, here in Hawai‘i, the last admonishment also emphasizes respect for the American president. While our children revere the emperor as a symbol of our culture, our schools and parents teach loyalty to America.”

“A clever syrup masquerading heathen words and heathen ideas,” snapped Mrs. Adams. “Your pagan festivals tell us where your loyalty lies.”

Over the years, Haru had noticed that the haole ladies kept their distance from the reverend’s wife, who lived by the dictates of her joyless interpretation of the Bible. Attired in a gingham dress tight at the neck and long at the arms and legs, she gloried in the coming passage of the 18th Amendment. Haru was not about to say anything that would garner sympathy for this woman, who was so unlike her tolerant husband.

“Those proverbs come from a man born around the time of Moses. But our fu-shi sounds like the Fourth Commandment he brought down from the mountain: ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ I believe Mrs. Kinder appreciates our language schools advocating Shi-tei, respect for teachers.

Haru looked at Takeshi’s teacher. “Mrs. Kinder, which group of students has the highest homework completion rate, fewest discipline problems and knows their American history the best?” The red-faced reaction of everyone else in the room answered her questions. Haru didn’t wait for a response. “I understand certain . . . people have asked you to stop encouraging your Japanese students to apply to the University of Hawai‘i.” Haru knew that two of the women in the room, Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Bilkerton, wife of the planter, had made remarks about “Jap children going beyond their station.”

“Everyone expects the children of plantation workers to cut cane. But their parents dedicate their long, working lives so their children can have a better life.” Her eyes swept her small audience. “I believe you would call that . . . ‘the American dream.’ We are inspired that a man born in a one-room log cabin and whose farmer-father could not write, rose to become president of the United States.”

Haru wondered just how far she could go with this track. Noting the silence, she lowered her voice as though revealing a secret to a best friend. “I love America, and if your government treated me like they do German and Italian immigrants, I would be a citizen of this country by now. I am proud my children are Americans. Could any other country in the world have something called the Statue of Liberty greeting its visitors and immigrants? Imagine the men and women huddled on ships approaching New York Harbor. No one has to tell them what the lady with the torch means. You stare at it, even at a picture, and you understand that whatever you hope for, in America, you have a chance of finding it. All of the children attending my husband’s classes believe in the American dream.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Takayama,” said Mrs. Roberts after a long silence. “But can you answer our main concern? Most of the Japanese are never going back home. So why do these schools keep teaching their children how to become good Japanese using Japanese textbooks and non-English speaking Japanese educators recruited from Tökyö?”

“Our school is now using textbooks published in Honolulu. We still . . .”

Mrs. Adams clanged her teacup down on the saucer. “We have heard this story before. You people promised to change the textbooks before we entered the war. And all you changed were a few words and to have them published in Honolulu instead of sent directly to the schools from Japan.”

“You are right, Mrs. Adams. Those textbooks need further changes. But we can’t change them by ourselves.” Haru switched her gaze. “Mrs. Roberts, you and women like you all over America are winning the war for the right to vote. I wonder if us ladies could quietly work together on helping our schools take another step toward Americanization.”

Mrs. Roberts stared back warily, then stood up. “Ladies, I believe we can retire to the dining room for lunch. Perhaps Haru would be kind enough to tell us how she makes her home look like a botanical garden.” She flicked an eye to Mrs. Adams to make sure she understood that the discussion on schools was over.

Haru relaxed. She had been heard. She had not convinced anyone, including herself. Her defense of the language schools confirmed in her own mind how necessary it was to Americanize them.

She rose and smiled at Mrs. Roberts. “I’d love to tell you about my garden, but first promise me you will give me some cuttings from your bougainvillea.”

Tonight, thought Haru. Tonight, I will convince Kenji that the only way to save our schools is to change them.

Haru always remembered her lunch with Mrs. Roberts’ group for another reason. Halfway through the meal, the telephone rang. Seconds later, Yumi ran into the dining room. “It’s Mr. Roberts.” Mrs. Roberts frowned. “Tell him I am having lunch.”

“He said you might say that,” said Yumi. “The war is over.”

Mrs. Roberts bolted from her chair to take the phone call.

To be continued . . .

As a new retiree who was free to dream, Michael G. Malaghan attended a Maui Writers Conference presentation on historical novels. It left him with a deep desire to meld his interests in history and writing. After attending the premiere of historian Tom Coffman’s 2007 documentary, “The First Battle,” which detailed how Hawai‘i’s Japanese community avoided mass internment by preparing for that expected consequence three years before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Mike decided to tell the entire Japanese immigrant experience in historical novel form. His trilogy will take readers from turn-of-the-20th-century-Japan to Hawai‘i in the picture bride era; the Islands during the World War II, highlighted by the exploits of the Nisei soldiers; and beyond. Mike was born in the Midwest and raised in Florida. He graduated from the University of Florida and volunteered for the Peace Corps after college. In his business life he was president of a Walt Disney licensee, marketing English language learning materials in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea. Mike and his wife Tomoko, a native of Tochigi Prefecture, are worldwide travelers and adventurers. They split their time between homes in Waikiki and Winter Park, Fla., and also spend nearly a month every year visiting with Tomoko’s parents in Japan, where Mike also conducts workshops for his former company.

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