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Mukashi Banashi - Part 1

In the summer of 1981, I drove through the Tehachapi Pass from Los Angeles and descended onto the flat, dry floor of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the largest valleys in the world and once the bed of a vast inland sea, stretching approximately 250 miles long and 40 to 65 miles wide, extending from Sacramento in the north to Kern County on the south, and bounded by Mount Diablo Spur on the west and Sierra Nevadas on the east.1

I was headed for Fowler, a small agricultural town in the heart of Fresno County where I had decided to study a community of Japanese Americans whose members had settled in the area since the turn of century. This region of the country had long earned its reputation as one of the most versatile and agriculturally productive in the world, the richness of its soil created by the gradual movement of giant glaciers slicing through mountains and pulverizing rocks that lay in its path, the yearly abundance of water needed for irrigating farmlands provided by the myriads rivers that flow westward from the Sierras, and the early ripening of crops that form the sweet saccharine in fruits, aided by the desiccating heat of the summer sun.

I selected Fowler to learn more about the early development of Japanese American community life because this area was one of the first places in the United States where the Japanese moved into independent farming on a permanent basis. I was particularly intrigued with the lives of the pioneer Issei (first generation immigrant from Japan) women who bravely crossed the Pacific to join their husbands in a strange land 7,000 miles away from home. These women had steadily worked alongside of their husbands, helping to transform the fields from “hay” land to productive, lush green orchards and vineyards, while at the same time, nurturing the growth of a second generation that would eventually reap the benefits of their toil and call this land their home.

Despite the vital role they played in turning this sage covered prairie into one of the nation’s leading shippers of fruit and raisins, little is known about their early experiences. The urgency of collecting their life histories pressed even more heavily as the passage of each year amassed an increasing list of deceased Issei to the memorial calendar, taking with it the rich, buried treasures of their past. But time had been generous with some of Fowler’s Issei women, who, in their eighties, still remained alert and productive, and with the help of many supportive community members, I was welcomed into the homes of seven Issei women who had settled there in the early 1900s. All women have since passed away and only one Issei woman, 102 years old, resides in Fowler today.

Upon my first encounter with the women, they seemed surprised, but pleased, that I wanted to learn more about their early experiences in America. “My stories?” asked Mrs. Abe, a spry, seventy-seven year old Issei. “There aren’t any that are worth a dime,” she laughed. “I don’t have a single good one either,” Mrs. Sato remarked. However, despite their seemingly incredulous response, they were all generous with their time and eager to share their past with me.

Even a cursory look about their homes revealed the major reason behind all their hard work, sacrifice, and struggle: college diplomas and scholastic awards cluttered living room walls, various athletic trophies collected dust on crowded book shelves, toys—Mickey Mouse on a trapeze, Raggedy Ann, Rubik’s cubes—found convenient resting places for their grandchildren’s next visit, and from every corner of the house gazed eyes from framed pictures—of Keiko, the eldest daughter, gowned in yards of white stain, looking shy and nervous on her wedding day; of Raymond, the one year old grandchild, donning a blue cap with a matching terry cloth jumpsuit, displaying a toothless grin; of Oji-chan, grandfather, in his youth, seated stiffly in a cane-backed chair, wearing a starched white shirt, tie slightly askew, and an over-sized topcoat; expressing just the right amount of seriousness to convince a picture bride of his good intentions.

The women, whose ages ranged from seventy-six to eighty-nine (median age eighty-six), were all long-time residents of the area, arriving in Fowler from 1911 to 1923, one year before the Immigration Act of 1924 that barred further Japanese immigration. Those were the years that Fowler had witnessed a burgeoning growth in its Japanese population. Before the 1960’s, seventeen Japanese men and two families lived in the town on a permanent basis, but after the turn of the century, their numbers quickly multiplied, giving Fowler the distinction of becoming the first community in Fresno County where the Issei settled into independent farming.2

The ones who began to purchase land were those who had managed to save enough capital or had made a decision to remain in America like Hoichi Sumida, who in 1901, became the first Japanese in Fresno County to buy a forty acre parcel in the Fowler area;3 Saikichi Kawano followed shortly thereafter with a forty acre purchase in the same town.4 By 1909, Fowler had the largest number of Japanese landowners and tenants, fifty-three, although a vast majority farmed land on a cash and share basis, forty-four, like the other Japanese who farmed in the county.5

After the men established themselves more securely, they made provisions for their wives to join them. Some already had wives before they emigrated; a few, who had the time and resources, returned to Japan to find suitable mates, while others sent for “picture brides.” The practice of “picture bride” marriages drew vociferous cries from the exclusionists who sought to block further labor immigration from Japan. They condemned the practice on moral grounds and claimed that these women increased both the current labor supply and the birth rate of the native-born children. Their vehement protest eventually led the Japanese government to stop issuing passports to picture brides in 1921, closing the marriage options for 42.5 percent (24,423) of the Japanese males who still remained bachelors in a country that had also passed anti-miscegenation laws against them.6

Until 1921, though, this practice made it possible for bride and groom to marry without the physical presence of either. Under Japan’s Meiji law of 1898, marriage was still considered a legal transaction between two families rather than two individuals. Arrangements were facilitated by a go-between who carefully investigated the personal history, character, and general family background of the respective parties. Once the bride’s name was registered in the bridegroom’s family registry, the marriage became legal.

Five of the women whom I interviewed were married in Japan, but two had come as picture brides. On the average, the Issei were eleven years younger than their husbands, which accounted for the fact that all the women were widowed at the time of the interview. Mrs. Hata, one of the picture brides, described her first encounter with her husband: “I was astonished when I first saw him, then I started to cry,” she laughed. “He was thirty-seven years old and I was nineteen. I wanted to turn around, get back on the ship and go home.”

Mrs. Yamaguchi expressed a similar reaction to her husband who was eighteen years older than she. To compensate for the age difference, she tried to make herself look older. “My clothes were all in shades of black, brown, and navy-nothing fancy,” she said, “or else people would think I was his daughter.” One of Mrs. Yamaguchi’s dreams was to become a sewing teacher, and coming to America appeared to be a likely way to accomplish that goal. Her parents had told her, “In America the women don’t work, and in three years, you can learn a lot, go to school.” However, after arriving in America, she found herself strictly confined to the home. Her husband’s sister kept warning him, “Don’t let her go to school. Don’t let her learn how to drive a car! Don’t let her go to town! If you do, she’ll run away.”

According to Mrs. Hata, many of the picture brides were disappointed. While most of them were resigned to the arrangement, a few separated right away. Mrs. Hata remembered one of her friends as, “a beautiful, educated woman, who left her husband because he was a good-for-nothing. I think she became a prostitute, but dobu no naka ni hasu no hana ga saku (in the midst of decaying matter, a beautiful lotus blossom grows).”

Even among those who did not come as picture brides, few actually knew their husbands before their wedding day, for family background, duty and responsibility were the basis for marriage rather than love and romance. Mrs. Abe, who was twenty years old when she got married in her home village, Mita, claimed, “I still didn’t get a good look at him, even on my wedding day.” She nudged my arm and chuckled. “I had my head down all the time—I was so bashful. I kept wondering, which one is my husband?” I spotted this young man standing outside who had just come back from the army, a vibrant chaki-chaki (lad) who sang like a mockingbird. I said to myself, my, how handsome! Is he my husband? But I thought again, “If he was my husband, he wouldn’t be out there singing like that on his wedding day.” She nudged me again, her face breaking into a broad grin. “When I finally saw him, was I surprised! He was an old man (fourteen years older)!”

As the women stepped ashore, colorfully clad in kimonos and straw sandals, they were quickly whisked off to the immigration station where they underwent physical examinations and document approval before meeting their awaiting husbands. The detention at immigration headquarters usually lasted three days, but sometimes took as long as three months or more. Whatever the length of time involved, all the women clearly remembered the grueling process.

Mrs. Abe laughed when she recalled her first night at the immigration headquarters in San Francisco. “In Japan you first wash yourself off before getting into the tub,” she informed me. “Well, that’s what we did. MA-AH! Were they angry at us for making the floor sopping wet!”

While the women were detained, their husbands had to clear special documents—such as bankbooks and proof of identity, occupation, and employment—with the immigration officials. Upon obtaining custody of their wives, the couples lined up for a mass remarriage ceremony conducted either at the immigration station, hotel lobbies, or churches so that their marriages would be legally recognized by the United States government. (This formality continued until 1917.)

Part 2 >>


1. This research was made possible with the support of the Institute of American Cultures, Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles; the California Council for the Humanities; the Central California District Council and the Pacific Southwest District Council of the Japanese American Citizens League, and the members of the Japanese American community in Fowler, California. Special thanks go to the Issei women who allowed me to share their lives.

2. "Japanese Were First a Laboring Class," Fowler Ensign, 3 May, 1972.

3. "Japanese Merchant, Fowler, 1907," Fresno Bee, 14 September, 1980.

4. Dr. Ryo Munekata, Rev. Messssrs. Ryuei Masuoka, Bunyu Fujimura, Hoshin Fujikado, Arthur Takemoto, and Masao Kodani, and Mssssrs. Masaru Okino, Tsukasa Saneto, Yoshio Shibata, and Sei Shohara, contributing members, Buddhist Churches of America, Volume 1, 75 Year History, 1899-1974, (Illinois: Nobart, Inc., 1974), 157.

5. House Immigration Commission, Immigrants in Industries, Part 25: Japanese and Other Immigrant Races in the Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountain States (61st Cong. 2d sess., Senate Document 633, 1911), 626.

6. Yamato Ichihashi, Japanese in the United States (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969).

© 2005 Akemi Kikumura Yano

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