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Still Searching for Acceptance

When Japanese women came here as war brides, they faced rejection by their families back home and their new American neighbors. Now in the mainstream, many continue to struggle with the pain of that time.

May 01, 2000|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Miwako Cleave awakens early each day and works at a black Singer sewing machine in the spare bedroom. She sews for a couple hours, then tends the vegetable garden that grows alongside the house.

Four times a week, she goes to English class, and by late afternoon, sometimes well into evening, she returns to the Singer. It is old, she says, but sturdy. She focuses on the soft, light fabric beneath her fingers as she feeds it through the machine's whirring bite. Her thoughts do not wander. She will not let them, and that is the source of her incredible strength.

If she allows her concentration to lose grip, the depth of her fall is immeasurable, back in time to screams and flames, the stench and terror of war--the frigid wind of fear and winter. So she must focus on the present, on tomatoes soon to grow in the garden and pajamas nearly done for a grandson in Tennessee.

The 69-year-old North Hills woman is among the 30,000 Japanese military brides who married American soldiers and moved to the United States during the 1940s and 1950s after immigration laws were changed to allow their entrance. Many were disowned by families when they left Japan, and many have spent their lives searching for acceptance in the United States.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday May 8, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong spelling--In a May 1 story about Japanese military brides, the last name of Miwako and Robert Cleve was misspelled.

They were universally cast as opportunists, even prostitutes, marrying good, red-blooded American soldiers to escape the ruins of a defeated nation. Once they left, they found themselves caught between countries, unwanted in Japan and unwelcome by many in America.

It was a time when blacks and whites drank from different fountains, sat on opposite ends of the bus. The women wondered, as they arrived, which fountain they should drink from, where on the bus should they sit. Even many Japanese Americans did not embrace them. So where in America did they fit in?

A 1952 article in the Saturday Evening Post stated ". . . the effect of these mixed marriages on American life at home is still to come--the arrival of thousands of dark-eyed brides in Mississippi cotton hamlets and New Jersey factory cities, on Oregon ranches or in Kansas country towns. The thousands are on the way, and their bright-eyed children soon will be knocking on school doors in most of the 48 states. The great question of how they will fit in and whether they generally will be welcomed or shunned remains to be answered."

Almost half a century later, little has been said of the women, members of the nation's first large wave of interracial couples, says Regina Lark, who is coordinating an Aug. 26 panel discussion titled "Japanese International Brides: Heritage, Identity, Community and Legacy" at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.

Most have lived quiet lives struggling to escape the shadow of stereotypes and haunting memories of World War II. The confluence of their disparate lives is manifested in their children and grandchildren, who serve as legacies but who also have inherited complex issues of race.

"I have come to understand these women as absolutely strong and courageous," said Lark, who researched the topic for her doctoral dissertation and now teaches history at Pasadena City College, Glendale Community College and USC. "You could probably call a lot of them feminists, even though they wouldn't use that term to describe themselves. They have sought social, political and cultural inclusion into the mainstream. They have sought to challenge their children's teachers to make sure their children are being taught properly. They have challenged their husbands' families to include them into the fold."

Ten years ago, Kazuko Umezu Stout founded the Nikkei International Marriage Society to bring the women together, address stereotypes and help heal deep wounds left by Japanese media, among those who criticized the women when they left Japan.

"It has haunted me for many years," she said. "I felt we couldn't die in peace leaving the image the media had created."

In February 1952, Life magazine ran a James Michener story about a woman named Sachiko Pfeiffer, newly arrived in the United States with her husband, Frank Pfeiffer, describing the discrimination the couple faced in Chicago. Neighbors called Sachiko a "dirty Jap" and left threatening notes. The Pfeiffers moved and found a small home in Melrose Park, Ill., where they were welcomed by neighbors. As a means of introduction, Sachiko sewed dresses for little girls in the neighborhood and delivered them door to door.

The story ended with a quote reflecting a commitment to her new country.

"I gonna die in America," she said. "This is my home forever."

And she was right. Sachiko died in September 1994. She was living in the same house in Melrose Park.

Because of the War, She Knew Hardship Early On

More than 50 years later, Miwako Cleave still cannot believe. Her faith, like her childhood, were taken by war.

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