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Japanese Picture Brides Recall Hardships of American Life

May 11, 1995|SHARON YAMATO DANLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They came to America almost a century ago to marry men they only knew in photographs.

Hisano Akagi, now 97, desperately wanted to return home, but this was an arranged marriage. There would be no turning back.

Setsu Kusumoto, now 99, came of her own volition, enticed by the promise of good fortune in America, only to discover that her groom was 11 years older and hardly resembled the man in the photograph.

Shizuko Tamaki, 84, the daughter of a "picture bride," was in Japan when her mother in America sent her husband-to-be to get her. He treated her terribly, she says, but they were married 50 years.

Their husbands now deceased, all three women live at the Keiro Nursing Home, a tidy, cheery place populated largely by Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) on a small, secluded hill above Lincoln Heights.

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Last week, they appeared as special guests at the premiere of "Picture Bride," a fictional story of a young Japanese picture bride in Hawaii. The film is now showing at the Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion and the Beverly Center Cineplex Odeon.

At the premiere, in the Director's Guild Assn. Theater on Sunset Boulevard, the film's director, Kayo Hatta, said the trio is among only a handful of picture brides remaining. Akagi said: "I must have lived a long life."

Akagi, Tamaki and Kusumoto are among more than 20,000 women who, from 1908 to 1924, trekked from Japan to America to become brides after their families, in the Japanese tradition of omiai, or arranged marriages, chose their mates.

The picture bride era came at a time of growing anti-Japanese sentiment and restrictions on Japanese immigration. The picture bride movement, which allowed men to marry by proxy, became the only way members of the predominantly male Japanese population in the United States could find wives and start families.

According to some historians, the majority of Japanese born in the United States can trace their ancestry to a picture bride.

When asked to remember the hardest part about leaving her family to come to America about 75 years ago as the bride of a man she knew only by photograph, Akagi says in broken but emphatic English, "Everything taihen" (a Japanese word that means terrible and innumerable .)

The youngest daughter in a family of five, Akagi never questioned why her family chose her for a shashin kekkon , literally photograph marriage. She wanted to return to her native Japan, but never considered defying her parents.

Kusumoto came here by her own choice to marry--only to discover a man, 11 years her senior, who looked nothing like his picture. Blaming herself, Kusumoto proclaims herself warui ( bad ) for wanting to come to America. She had been enticed by descriptions of this country as a bountiful place, only to find herself living the strenuous life of a field laborer and kitchen hand. "Shikata ga nai" ( "It can't be helped" ), she said.

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Tamaki, the daughter of a picture bride, went to Japan at the age of 3 to live with her obachan ( grandmother ). Not until she was 20 did her mother send for her, and after landing at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay in 1931, Tamaki traveled south to what was then row after row of farmland in Venice, where she picked celery alongside the stranger who was her husband.

Because she was American-born, Tamaki had been able to re-enter the United States after 1924, when the United States implemented a ban on all Japanese immigration, including picture brides. Her mother insisted that the husband, chosen for her by an aunt, travel to Japan to get her, apparently to protect her daughter from the uncertainty she had experienced as a picture bride.

Even so, Tamaki says, her husband turned out to be hidoi ( dreadful ). Regardless, they remained married 50 years.

Picture brides faced grueling work and meager wages as laundresses, field workers, or housekeepers, toiling hard to save enough money to hopefully some day return to Japan. But few Issei women would return, except for brief visits.

Akagi shyly says she doesn't remember how she felt when she first met her husband, but she describes her life with him with typical Japanese gaman (patience and perseverance) as "more happy than not."

Still, she recounts how--because her husband was Japanese--children would throw eggs and tomatoes at him as he rode to work in the streetcar, and how her 22-year-old son died of scarlet fever while in a World War II internment camp.

As she speaks, it is hard to imagine that this tiny-framed body could have endured so much. But there is a resoluteness evident in Akagi and other picture brides.

Asked if she would have considered leaving her husband and finding another man, Akagi, who turns 98 on Monday, smiles and says, "A person who thinks that way, her heart is a little crooked."

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