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.”
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