War Brides Fought Stigma, Racism
By John Sammon
The Japanese women who met and married American servicemen on occupation duty in Japan after the close of World War II faced duel heartbreaks, ostracized by their own countrymen, and then migrating to the U.S. to face the disapproving stares of new in-laws who considered them to be enemy aliens.
Nevertheless, the new brides faced their challenges with stoic courage and dignity.
A film documentary titled, “Fall Seven Times, Get up at Eight: The Japanese War Brides,” recounted the experiences of Japanese women who married American GIs. An estimated 50,000 such women immigrated to the U.S. just after the close of the war.
The federal government changed the laws which had earlier restricted Japanese immigration to the U.S. to allow the new brides to immigrate. Some of the women came to the U.S. on their own to join husbands waiting for them, virtually penniless, not knowing what to expect, during a time when anti-Japanese racism in America was endemic and mixed-race marriages unheard of.
Viewed by an audience of about 50 people at the Japanese American Museum in San Jose’s Japantown on Aug. 20, the film recounted an up-until-now almost unknown chapter in history, the saga of Japanese war brides.
The film, at times sad, was also funny as former war brides recounted their struggles and tribulations.
One of the women Hiroko Furukawa, was working at a PX (Post Exchange) in Tokyo where she was a saleswoman. She initially refused requests to date from her husband-to-be (Sam Tolbert), but eventually grew affectionate towards him. Her prospects to remain in Japan seemed bleak.
“My family were devastated I was going with an American soldier,” she said.
She moved from Japan to upstate New York and a farm in Elmira where she said her new American in-laws disapproved of their son’s marriage to a Japanese woman.
Tolbert hung her kimono in a closet even though it was the only decent clothing she had when she arrived because her new relatives disapproved of it. She did not put it back on for years. She also adopted a new Americanized name, “Susie.”
The film premiere event was hosted by Cindy Nakashima and Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, a Stanford psychologist and himself the son of a mixed-race marriage. The 26-minute film was produced by Lucy Craft, Karen Kasmauski and Kathryn Tolbert, all three the children of mixed race marriages between American servicemen and Japanese women.
Japan at the end of World War II was a burned-out bombed-out shell of ruins particularly in big cities like Tokyo and Hiroshima. Jobs were almost nonexistent and the few that were available often centered on serving American servicemen at the military bases where they lived. Though Americans were originally instructed to avoid fraternizing with civilians and women this proved untenable. Some were attracted to Japanese women and romances blossomed.
Special schools for Japanese war brides were set up at military bases in which the women were taught American customs, such as how to walk in high heels, and including advice such as giving up bowing as an act of greeting and politeness.
Such women had faced deprivation and starvation during and after the war and old habits die hard. The child of a mixed race (half Japanese) marriage recalled seeing his mother sucking (eating) an egg right off the floor that had fallen and broken rather than waste food, and her humiliation when this was discovered. Another time a war bride was seen guzzling milk so as not to waste it because the carton said it “expires tomorrow.”
Laughter from the audience came when one war bride, Atsuko Craft, recounted that right after the war bus transportation in the U.S. was segregated with white people on the front of the bus, and black people in the back. Because she was Japanese the driver couldn’t figure where she should sit.
“I said I’ll sit in the middle,” Craft said.
Asked in the film why she looked so happy in a photo posing with her new relatives, one former war bride responded, “That’s the way you’re supposed to look in a picture,” to accompanying laughter from audience members.
The women admitted as mothers they had been at times hard on their (mixed race) children, demanding perfection in school achievement and appearance, or seeming to denigrate them when in reality it was a Japanese custom to be overpolite, to appear not to brag.
“My mother said she couldn’t believe I had any friends because I was so ugly and stupid,” the grown-up child of one war bride marriage recalled.
Tolbert said in retrospect she should probably have had only two children instead of the four she had.
“I was kind of stupid and not as supportive as I should have been in those days,” she said. “I was a little hard on my kids. There were the ups and downs of a marriage and the humiliations.”
She later divorced and remarried.
“My second husband is wonderful,” Tolbert noted.
After viewing the film its director Lucy Craft answered questions from the audience via Skype from her home in Tokyo. She said the film garners different reactions from audiences depending on where it is shown.
“It depends on the different cultures,” she said. “In San Jose it gets a rousing laugh the funny parts, in the Midwest maybe a few chuckles, but in Japan there is dead silence. No smiles. The war is a very serious subject and the Japanese are trying to show respect.”
Craft said war brides at the time they were married were often viewed by their own relatives in Japan and their new in-laws in the U.S. as little better than prostitutes.
“It was an epithet,” she said.
Co-host Nakashima told the gathering former war brides had been invited to attend the screening of the film but they declined. They still consider the designation “War Bride” to have a stigma.
“How far away the world of the 1940s was from today,” Craft said. “The public back then believed you could not successfully raise children of a mixed race marriage. They believed such children would be handicapped, like it was trying to mate different animal species.”
Craft said while a great deal has been learned about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the subject of Japanese war brides has been overlooked by history.
For more information on the film go to www.fallsevengetupeight.com.
The Japanese American Museum is located at 535 N. 5th St. in San Jose’s Japantown and has a mission to collect, preserve and share, Japanese American art, history and culture. The nonprofit museum regularly schedules presentations of history and culture.
On Saturday, Aug. 27 a Japan Earthquake Relief Benefit Concert will be held at the museum from 6 to 9:30 p.m. with dinner, drinks, a silent auction and live jazz featuring the artists Ayako Hosokawa, Akira Tana, Masaru Koga, Art Hirahara and Ken Okada. Tickets are $50 go to www.jazzkatsu.org.
On Saturday, Sept. 17, at 1 p.m., the museum will host “Okinawan America, Past Present & Future,” a discussion of Okinawan culture and immigration. The event is free with museum admission ($5 for non-members, students and seniors $3).
On Saturday, Oct. 1, at 1 p.m., the museum will feature the program “What are You?” Featuring interviews with 80 multiracial teenagers and young adults from across the country, the theme coincides with the museum’s newest exhibit, “Visible and Invisible, A Hapa (mixed race heritage) Japanese American History.”