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“I thought if there was a way to walk across the ocean (back) to Japan, I would have done so.” This is how Haruno Tazawa remembers her early experience as a “picture bride” — the name for the more than 20,000 women who, during the period of restricted immigration between 1908 and 1924, left Japan to marry Japanese men mainly in Hawaii after only seeing them in photographs.

Picture Bride Stories, by Barbara F. Kawakami.
298 pages
LATITUDE 20, Nonfiction.

In “Picture Bride Stories,” Barbara F. Kawakami interviews 16 of these women who sailed to Hawaii, including Tazawa. A rich tapestry of immigrant lives, the book is narrated with generous sweep and great anthropological detail. A recurring theme is the hardships many of the women endured on the sugar plantations where they worked. Often lacking any English skills, many brides traded their family homes for makeshift shacks and their full lifestyles for social isolation. On top of chores and child rearing, most women joined their husbands in the cane fields, learning that cutting cane in tropical heat was different from farm work in rural Japan.

Kawakami lets her subjects speak for themselves, using transcripts and period photos. The stories reveal heartbreak — about brides unclaimed after arrival, exploitation in business and the lifelong separation from parents — but also gratitude, pride and resilience. More than anything, the book is a paean to the strength of family and gaman, the Japanese spirit of perseverance. Were the sacrifices worth it? One of the picture brides in the book speaks for most of them when she says: “Hawaii yokatta desu” (“I’m glad I came to Hawaii”).

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