Society

FROM JAPAN, TO MEET A NEW HUSBAND

‘Picture brides’ came to Canada to build a life with men they had never met

SUE FERGUSON October 28 2002
Society

FROM JAPAN, TO MEET A NEW HUSBAND

‘Picture brides’ came to Canada to build a life with men they had never met

SUE FERGUSON October 28 2002

FROM JAPAN, TO MEET A NEW HUSBAND

Society

SUE FERGUSON

‘Picture brides’ came to Canada to build a life with men they had never met

IN 1942, Canadian authorities rounded up more than 20,000 people of Japanese descent, took away their homes and businesses, and carted them off mosdy to detention camps or Prairie farms. Their tragic saga has gained a foothold in the country’s consciousness—in large part due to the official apology then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney issued in 1988. Less familiar is the story of how many of those wartime internees arrived on Canada’s shores. Theirs was not the typical journey of the 20th-century immigrant.

Take Asayo Murakami. In 1924, the 26year-old stepped off an ocean liner in Vancouver with only a few personal possessions, including a violin she had learned to play as a child and some treasured photographs—two of which she would keep hidden from family and friends for the

next 75 years. Another picture was of the man she had recently married in a Japanese civil ceremony, although the bride and groom had yet to meet. Her husband, a Japanese fisherman living in British Columbia, stood on the docks anticipating her arrival. “As soon as I saw his face,” recalls Murakami in a recent documentary, Obaachan’s Garden, directed by her granddaughter, Vancouver filmmaker Linda Ohama, “I knew he was not my type. I didn’t like him at all—he was very short, so small.” Murakami immediately broke her marriage contract, but chose to stay in Canada. She spent the next three years picking strawberries and working in a cannery to repay the

The brides made the journey to escape life as spinsters or out of a sense of adventure

$250 crossing fare to the man she jilted.

Murakami is one of more than 6,000 Japanese women who arrived on Canadian shores between 1908 and 1924 as “picture brides,” but only a handful of their stories has survived. What they have in common is the desire of Japanese men already living in Canada for Japanese wives. After exchanging photos in the mail, the couples married in Japan. But the nuptials, says Midge Ayukawa, who researched picture brides as part of her Ph.D. in history, were generally carried out in absentia. The husband’s family would register the marriage in village records and, in some cases, perform a simple ceremony with his picture standing in for the real thing.

The exchanged snapshots, however, could not always be trusted. Some “were

10 years old, or the man posed in such a way that it looked as if the Hotel Vancouver was his home,” says Ayukawa, whose mother emigrated to Canada in 1922 as a picture bride. “A woman in Japan would look at it and say, ‘OK, if he owns that big house, and he’s got this suit, he looks pretty good.’ ” Once in Canada, however, the women—many of whom led comfortable lives in Japan and were relatively well-educated—usually found themselves working 12-hour days alongside their husbands on farms or in canneries, and maintaining a full workload of domestic duties at home. Others went to remote logging and fishing camps to cook and clean.

The picture brides had their own reasons to emigrate—from escaping life as a spinster to a yearning for adventure. Becoming a picture bride was a rational means to achieve their goals because single Japanese immigrants were limited to 400 annually following the so-called Gentleman’s Agreement of 1908 between Canada andJapan.

Another picture bride who struck out on her own was 19-year-old Kiyoko TanakaGoto, who crossed the Pacific in 1916 looking for more than a husband. She was also searching for her father who years earlier had abandoned her and her mother in Japan. Although Tanaka-Goto never found him, she achieved a degree of independence—and notoriety-unusual for any woman of that era. Tanaka-Goto lived with her new husband until 1918, cleaning chicken coops and laundry. Somehow, she managed to save $2,000 which she invested, with three other women, in a bawdy house. “She was extraordinary,” says Ayukawa.

As well as defying gender expectations, Tanaka-Goto resisted when authorities came to remove her in 1942 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As a result, she went to prison for a few months before ending up at a detention camp. After the war, although Japanese were prohibited from returning to the West Coast until April, 1949, Tanaka-Goto made her way back in 1946 by pretending to be Chinese. At the end of her life, she had attained a somewhat mythic, if not heroic, stature in Vancouver’s Japanese community. “She used to walk down the street,” says Ayukawa, “still looking like a pickupcheeks painted bright, bright pink and

hair dyed black, wearing slinky clothes.”

Fellow picture bride Murakami, who soon remarried and raised 10 children, had her own, highly personal reasons for emigrating—reasons that had much to do with those two snapshots she kept hidden from her family. When Murakami failed to show up for her 100th birthday party nearly five years ago, her filmmaker granddaughter began to suspect there was more to the old woman than met the eye. In a series of interviews captured in her Genie-nominated documentary— Obaachan’s Garden embarks on a 15-city Japanese tour that opens at the Canadian embassy in Tokyo on Nov. 7—Ohama eventually unlocked her grandmother’s secret: in coming to Canada, Murakami, as a result of a family squabble, had been forced to leave behind two little girls.

In time, Murakami produced the photos of her two children, Ohama’s aunts. “They were always in my heart,” Murakami says in the film of Fumiko and Chieko, who were six and four when their

One picture bride managed to save $2,000 from cleaning chicken coops and laundry-and invested it in a bawdy house

mother left. “So many dreams of their cute faces.” And clapping her hands, seemingly for closure, she says to the camera, “That’s enough, that’s enough.” Ohama discovered that Chieko is still living—Fumiko died in 1996—and orchestrated a touching reunion to take place in the garden of Murakami’s former home in Steveston, B.C. Recalls Ohama: “It was like watching an 80-year-old woman gradually transform into a baby, and my grandmother, at 101, give birth again.” Now, 104 and living in a Calgary nursing home, Murakami communicates with her daughter in Japan every week. “The years are just falling off her,” says Ohama, “because she feels lighter, more content.”

Murakami may be Canada’s only living picture bride, says Ayukawa, whose own mother died last July at 100. Like Ohama’s family, Ayukawa spent much of her life in the dark about her mother’s background. Not only did her mother never volunteer information, “people of my generation,” she says, “avoided asking questions”—an attitude the historian attributes in part to the racism JapaneseCanadians encountered here. Referring to the “shame of being Japanese,” Ayukawa explains, “I had rejected everything about my heritage after the war.” How many other stories, she wonders, remain hidden because the pain of probing into the past is too great to bear?