Meet the 96-Year-Old Author Sharing the Untold Stories of Japanese Picture Brides
After 35-plus years as a dressmaker, author Barbara Kawakami went back to school, earned a college degree and published her first book—about plantation clothing—at age 53, followed by the award-winning “Picture Bride Stories” last year.
At 96, author Barbara Kawakami is working on her third book about Hawai‘i plantation life.
Photo: David Croxford
Picture Bride Stories weaves together untold—and often heartbreaking—stories of first-generation women who emigrated from Japan to live in Hawai‘i with husbands they often first met in photographs.
The stories emerged from 250 oral history interviews Kawakami recorded over 30 years.
The stories offer an eyewitness account of Hawai‘i’s past, of women adapting to marriage and a new home far from any they’d known. In 1922, Kaku Kumasaka moved from Fukushima, Japan to a Waipahu sugar plantation: “The other picture brides, including myself, whose husbands didn’t show up to claim their brides right away, slept at the immigration station on a bed that looked like silkworm shelves back in the village. I was relieved when my husband finally came to pick me up two days later. He was 28 years old then, and I was 22 years old. I never did receive his picture, so I didn’t know whom to look for, but he had my picture. My first impression of him? I don’t know what we said. I don’t think we said anything. We were both too shy meeting each other for the first time.”
Some found humor in their awkward transition. Kumusaka again: “I went looking for the women’s restroom. Not familiar with Western ways, and not being able to read the signs, I entered the men’s restroom. You see, in Japan, we have only outside benjo (toilets) where you have to squat. The white porcelain looked more like a washbasin to me, so I washed my face with the water flowing in the white urinal … Ah, that was a culture shock!”
Now 96, Kawakami began interviewing issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) in 1979, collecting their stories, gathering information on life on Hawai‘i plantations and earning a reputation as a key resource.
Kawakami was born Fusako Oyama in Kumamoto, Japan, but her family immigrated to Hawai‘i in 1921 when she was 3 months old. Her father was 24 years older than her mother and died at 63—when Kawakami was only 6 and her mother was 39, pregnant with her ninth child.
Her mother made money washing clothes for members of the “railroad gang,” many of them Filipino bachelors. She would start a fire and boil water in an empty 5-gallon Crisco can, put the dirty clothes into the can filled with boiling hot water and try to wash away the red dirt stuck deep in the fibers. Her mother’s only solace was singing. “I wish I inherited her voice,” says Kawakami. “I think that kept her from crying while she was doing the laundry.” She recalls her mother sitting below a single electric bulb in their small house, thinking her children were asleep, ironing heaps of clothes she’d spent all day washing—and quietly sobbing.
Back in 1978, when Kawakami first sat down in Hamilton Library at the University of Hawai‘i to write about plantation life in Hawai‘i, she began crying. Once she began recalling memories of her happy childhood, she realized how hard life was for her mother on the Waipahu sugar plantation. She remembered so much so vividly: the smell of guavas, her tummy rumbling with hunger and her mother singing. One of her earliest memories is of her mother’s pregnant belly pushing against her clothes as she hunched over to chop firewood in their yard.
“When I started writing my stories at Hamilton, tears rolled down,” she says. “I thought she made our life so happy. Our yard was filled with avocado, all kinds of mango trees, guava trees—we went through so much and yet she never showed us how poor we were.” For the first time, Kawakami saw her childhood through the eyes of an adult.
The plantation paid her mother $25 a month, not enough to support nine children. So the children’s weekends were consumed with making money. After Japanese school, her brothers delivered blocks of ice for five hours for the ice man, who would pay each brother 10 cents for their work. The five older children walked barefoot for miles from their home at the Waipahu sugar plantation to pick kiawe beans where the USS Arizona Memorial visitors center is now located. “We walked 5 miles and then took I don’t know how many hours to drag that thing across the rough road,” Kawakami says. “The road wasn’t paved at that time.” A hog farmer paid 10 cents for each bag of beans.
While Kawakami excelled in academics as a child, attending school past the eighth grade was uncommon—especially for a family of her financial standing. She recalls her seventh-grade teacher forcing her to read Ulysses in front of the whole class of 40 students. “I would giggle and giggle,” she says. “I don’t know why Mrs. Marin chose me to read. I think it was because I love literature. I got an A for the class.”
Her eighth-grade English teacher, Shizue Kawamoto, saw a spark in her and urged Kawakami to attend McKinley High School. She even offered to pay for all of the expenses. However, Kawakami’s family, with four younger siblings to take care of, needed money, so her mother told her she needed to start working. Kawakami had to decline her teacher’s offer. Kawamoto wrote in Kawakami’s 1936 yearbook, “Although you may not be able to continue to high school, remember: education is a lifelong process. Keep on learning. Don’t give up and keep on striving.”
This message stuck. After graduating from the eighth grade, Kawakami enrolled in sewing school. She went on to become a seamstress and a dressmaker for the next 38 years. She married Douglas Kawakami and had three children, two boys and a girl.
During World War II, she was classified as an enemy alien and forced to abide by the 6 p.m. government curfew. That restriction and others motivated her to take the naturalization exam and then night classes to become a citizen of the United States while still working as a dressmaker. She gained her citizenship in 1955 and changed her name to Barbara.
The principal of the night school, a friend of her husband, encouraged her to take regular classes. Then, after only one semester of night school, he convinced her to take the 10-hour GED. After she passed, she enrolled at Leeward Community College, where she earned her associate degree. At the age of 53, she enrolled as a fashion design and merchandising major at the University of Hawai‘i and went on to earn a master’s degree in Asian Studies.
In 1979, the fashion department required students to create 10 original designs and model the clothing on the runway as their senior project. “Because I was an older student, I didn’t want to do that,” says Kawakami. “I had more experience than the girls there in sewing so in case I didn’t win I would be embarrassed.” Her adviser encouraged her to instead write a research paper on plantation clothing. At the time, there was very little information on the topic and since Kawakami was bilingual and raised on the plantation, her adviser thought she would be the ideal person to conduct interviews with plantation workers.
Kawakami got started by interviewing plantation friends of her mother. Because the men on the plantation were subjected to harsh work conditions, most of them died long before their wives, so many of the women she interviewed were widowed. “They just opened up their hearts to me,” she says. “It’s like they met an old friend and they were ready to open up and tell me all the intimate stories about their hardships and everything. I hardly had to ask questions.”
For her first book, Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawai‘i, 1885–1941, Kawakami’s executive editor told her to take out 150 pages to focus solely on plantation clothing. “I had to eliminate all the human-interest stories, which is the best part, the juicy part,” Kawakami says.
That book remains a valuable resource and has been used at such prestigious universities as Yale, Stanford and UC Berkeley. And those 150 pages that were removed became the foundation of her second book, which chronicles the journey of 16 Japanese women who immigrated to Hawai‘i, most to marry men they hadn’t met, in unions arranged by family members using only photographs.
Those interviews have proved a rich source of information. Kawakami was contacted by the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics in Tokyo after they learned her interviews contained unique dialects of Japanese they hadn’t heard being spoken before and preserved them. Since she translated and transcribed all of the interviews herself, she wrote them by sounded them out in Romanized Japanese—allowing the institute to also see these dialects visually. “This is exciting for me because after all these years, I thought that I could relax a little.”
Kawakami is also writing her third book, an autobiography about her childhood on the plantation, aiming to publish next year. She wrote most of it while working as a researcher and writer, but the stories were scattered across the years: some handwritten, some typed on a manual typewriter and some stored on her computer. “Once I put it together, it’ll be wonderful stories,” Kawakami says.
Kawakami lives in her home in Mililani with a garden filled with fruit trees. Her son-in-law mows the lawn, but she still does most of the gardening herself. Photos of family, friends and notes line the walls and shelves behind her as she talks enthusiastically about her upcoming projects. “My research keeps on going,” she says with a smile. “To this day, I don’t have time to rest.”
Kama Asato’s exchange photo, 1920. She wears an intricately woven kasuri kimono with white underkimono.
Photos: Barbara Kawakami Collection
Kama Asato recalled how much darker life got after her husband’s injury prevented him from plantation work for a year: “My husband, he drink too much, so I suffer. He used to beat me when he get drunk. The children used to be so afraid. They run out to the outhouse an’ hide, till the beating stop. Sometimes, they wait in dark outhouse long time.”
Kumasaka family photo with oldest daughter, Yaeko, and infant son, Robert Toshimi, 1929.
“I was so lonely at first. I had come with high hopes and dreams of a life of luxury, but when I arrived, ahhh … tamageta, I was shocked! … One day I was so homesick and lonely I wanted to visit my husband’s younger sister, who lives on the ‘Ewa plantation.” When she realized she’d missed the train, she walked more than 5 miles to see her sister-in-law.
Ayako Kikugawa’s chapter is titled “The Unsuspecting Picture Bride,” because she innocently volunteered to travel to Hawai‘i to help retrieve the eldest son of her father’s cousin after he was jilted by his intended bride.
Kikuyo Fujimoto married a man who worked for Queen Lili‘uokalani: “The queen was a very gentle and kind person. She used to tell my husband, I’ll teach you Hawaiian, so you teach me Japanese.”
From 1885 to 1924, more than 200,000 Japanese immigrants, mostly single men, sailed to the Hawaiian Islands to work as plantation laborers. After it became clear that they wouldn’t return anytime soon, more than 20,000 sent for “picture brides” from Japan and Okinawa.
Picture Bride Stories was the adult nonfiction winner of the 2016 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature given by the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association. Kawakami’s granddaughters accepted the award for her in Chicago.
The book can be found at Hawai‘i bookstores and museum shops and ordered online at uhpress.hawaii.edu.