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Daughters tell stories of ‘war brides’ despised back home and in the U.S.

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Hiroko Furukawa was working as a sales assistant at the PX U.S. military supply store in Ginza in 1950 when she met a GI named Samuel Tolbert. Shortly afterwards, Hiroko and Samuel found themselves married and on a train to meet his parents in upstate New York. Hiroko, who came from an upper-class Tokyo family, changed into her best kimono for the occasion, to the horror of her husband, whose family were rural chicken farmers.

“When they arrived at the farm, Samuel’s family stared at Hiroko as if she came from Mars,” explains journalist Lucy Craft. “They made it clear to her that she’d better get into Western clothes. So she did, and she began her life as the wife of a chicken farmer.”

According to Craft, herself the daughter of a Japanese “war bride,” this is one of countless examples of the struggles endured by a despised and largely hidden immigrant group. Craft believes that about 50,000 Japanese women moved to America with their GI husbands after World War II — at that time, the largest-ever migration of Asian women to America.

The 1945 War Brides Act allowed American servicemen who had married abroad to bring their wives to the United States, on top of existing immigration quotas. The trickle of new arrivals became a flood with the passing of the landmark Immigration Act of 1952 that lifted race-based barriers on entering the country.

“Hostility to Japan as a nation meant that Japanese women were the last foreign wives to be allowed to move to the U.S.,” says Craft. “This was a time when interracial marriage was prohibited in many states.”

In occupied Tokyo, women who fraternized with U.S. soldiers were vilified as “ill-bred, uneducated prostitutes of the lowest social class,” says Craft. This view was shared by Japanese-Americans already living in the U.S. “Japanese-Americans had been interned in prison camps during the war, and when they came out they were so anxious to prove themselves to be true Americans that they did not want to be associated with any hint of something amiss.”

So, Japanese war brides were typically condemned as prostitutes by their own communities and shunned as enemy aliens by their new neighbors in America. Scattered across the country, and often in difficult marriages, they never formed a cohesive community or support network, and today, with the women now in their 80s, their stories are at risk of being lost.

Craft, 57, and two fellow war-bride daughters, Karen Kasmauski, 61, a National Geographic photographer, and Kathryn Tolbert (Hiroko’s daughter), 62, an editor at The Washington Post, have embarked on a labor of love to record these women’s experiences. Last month, they launched a fund-raising campaign to pay for the production of a short documentary film, “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides,” that they aim to release next year, on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. In an indication of strong public interest, the campaign reached its $24,000 target in 10 days. The fund-raising campaign continues till Oct. 16, with shooting to begin next month.

“The more we raise, the better we can make it,” says Craft, who hopes to follow up with a feature-length documentary that will explore the subject in greater historical depth.

One of Craft’s key objectives is “to combat the notion that these women were unworthy of our respect,” she says.

Prejudice against war brides has been passed down through the generations. Craft relates a story of her mother, Atsuko, going alone to a Japanese festival in Washington, D.C., 20 years after the war. “Someone came up to her and said, ‘You don’t belong here.’ ”

Recently, a request for donations toward the film from the Japanese-American community was turned down.

“One person said that ‘My mother always told me these women are fallen women,’ ” says Craft. “Even to this day, the word ‘war bride’ is a badge of shame.”

Fundraising site and movie trailer: kck.st/1tYs0VE. Do you know about a citizens’ group or any other helpful resources? Your comments and questions: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp

  • Ron NJ

    Craft relates a story of her mother, Atsuko, going alone to a Japanese
    festival in Washington, D.C., 20 years after the war. “Someone came up
    to her and said, ‘You don’t belong here.’ ”

    Funny, I heard the exact same thing while going to Oktoberfest in Fukuoka, 68 years after the war.

    • At Times Mistaken

      Whaddya mean? (Who said it and why?)

      • hudsonstewart

        Ignore Ron NJ. He has a persecution complex and uses every chance he gets to tell the world how racist the Japanese are. I wish he could focus on the hardships these women went through rather than shift the focus to himself.

    • thirtyeyes

      Someone in Japan in 2013 said a foreigner didn’t belong at a foreign drinking festival? I am assuming you are not talking about a 90 year old war bride but yourself?

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Wasn’t just Japanese war brides. German and even British war brides did not have a positive image in the US when I was a child. Even today some Brits will mention “American kickers – one Yank and they’re down” in the context of British war brides.

    • Paul Johnny Lynn

      I think you probably meant “knickers” there Earl?

      • Earl Kinmonth

        Indeed. Thanks for the correction.

    • Meow Mixte

      Shut up with your “But what about white people?” derailment. Their stories are not mutually exclusive.

      • Earl Kinmonth

        That’s what I said. Their stories are not mutually exclusive. They are similar. And, just in case you have not noticed, Brits and Yanks are not necessarily white.

      • Meow Mixte

        They are similar, but this article is highlighting the experiences of Japanese American women, whose histories and stories are still invisible in the United States.

      • Earl Kinmonth

        Do a Google search on Japanese war brides. You will find that there have been a number of books and articles on the subject, even a Hollywood movie.

      • Meow Mixte

        Just because there are articles online and a Hollywood movie doesn’t mean that the plight of Japanese War brides is well-known or documented, as evidenced by this very article you are commenting on.

        Stop reaching.

      • Earl Kinmonth

        And, this as yet unmade movie is going to make them well known on a budget of $24,000? As an historian, I am quite happy to see any untold story told and already told stories retold, but I think there are dubious assertions and some exaggeration in this article. For example “Japanese war brides were typically condemned as prostitutes by their own
        communities and shunned as enemy aliens by their new neighbors in
        America.” It is highly probable that this was the case for some but how do we know that this was typical? The only way to know what was typical would be through some sort of survey. Further, it is quite probable that some had indeed been prostitutes. Economic conditions during the occupation period encouraged prostitution and even today with vastly higher standards of living in Japan, GIs stationed in this country are far more likely to meet Japanese women who are working in bars and clubs around military bases and possibly turning tricks than they are Japanese women studying at top universities. Projects like this will, moreover, invariably focus more on women who had problems than those who did not have problems. For example, I have met Japanese women who had married American GIs who went on to become academics and other professionals. They would appear to meet the definition of “war bride” used by the people making this film but the experience of a woman married to an American academic and living in an American college town is probably not the experience of one married to a chicken farmer and living in the boondocks. Similarly, a Japanese women from a lower class background married to a GI might well have had a very different reaction from her “community” than one further up the social scale. Again, I personally know cases of marriages between Japanese and American GIs where the up market Japanese family opposed the marriage on the grounds that they did not want their daughter marrying American riff raff. The picture of “war brides” presented in this article is far too simplistic and one sided for my tastes. If you like it, that is your privilege.

      • Meow Mixte

        White. Mansplaining. Look it up.

      • Earl Kinmonth

        Thank you for adding to my stock of American slang but I do not think it applies here. (1) I don’t know your gender. (2) I do not write posts with a single person in mind. I always assume that there are probably a number of people with the same view and it is the opinion I am adressing not usually the individual unless that is specifically stated. (3) The definition of “mansplaining” says “inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of
        rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because
        he is the man in this conversation.” Show me where there is any of this in my comments to you.The only “rock solid confidence” I have is that war brides probably had a range of experiences depending on their social class, the social class of the man they married, where they ended up living, and a whole host of other factors. Moreover, unless someone identifies themselves as female, I tend to assume they are male because most people who post in this venue have clearly male names or pseudonyms. Further, if you look at my other posts, I do not think you will be able to find that I write differently in addressing clearly identified males. I may be pedantic, but I am gender blind when it comes to being pedantic.

      • Meow Mixte

        “Moreover, unless someone identifies themselves as female, I tend to assume they are male because most people who post in this venue have clearly male names or pseudonyms. ”

        Enough said.

  • At Times Mistaken

    Fascinating story.

  • ron

    Good to know there are women like them who are strong-willed to share these stories to the rest of the world.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Depends on where they were. Anti-Asian, especially anti-Japanese feelings were strongest on the West coast. Minimal in Hawaii, weak in Midwestern and East Coast major cities. I have taught courses dealing with this subject and have lived in Illinois, Wisconsin, New York and California so I have some sense how regional attitudes varied. Further, with war brides from any country, the issue of social class for both husband and wife is always mixed with the nationality and the race issue (if applicable).

  • MarkD

    I remember my grandfather’s sister taking me aside when I showed up with my wife back in the mid 70s. “I don’t like orientals. Pretty girl though.” I think if it were put to a vote, my family would keep her and dump me. I know several girls who married Americans. Half worked on base, the rest of us met in English classes, but the stereotypes persist.