Mrs. Kou Kitano arrived on Angel Island in 1914 and waited for her husband, who she had only seen in a photograph. Thus, begins the journey of a Japanese picture bride, as told by her daughter, Chizu Iiyama.
My sister Masako visited Japan as a graduation present with my mother in 1935. Their stay was extended several months as Mother became ill. She became very close to my mother who reminisced about her early life in Japan, how she became a picture bride, and her brief stay at Angel Island and her first glimpse of her husband-to-be.
Kou Yuki was born in 1888 in the village of Oita, Japan. She was very fortunate that the Japanese government, under the Meiji reforms opened up public education. This included girls for the first time. She was very bright, graduated 8th grade, then became an elementary school teacher.
One day, as her mother washed clothes in a nearby river, she encountered my father’s mother Mrs. Kitano (I never got her name) and they rubbed their laundry side by side, chattered about their families. Mrs. Kitano turned to her, with a big grin on her face, and queried my mother Kou. “How would your daughter like to go to America? My son Motoji is doing well in San Francisco. He owns a hotel. And he is seeking a wife from Japan and would like to have a family. Would your family be interested?”
My mother who was 24 years (considered “old” in Japan) and her family had been pondering a recent proposal made by one of the more wealthy families in the village. Thinking things over, realizing that either choice would make a drastic change in her life. Unable to make a decision, she decided to visit a well known fortune teller who read the lines on her hand and suggested “I would recommend a new life in California, a different world.”
After much reflection she made the choice of coming to America. She told my sister later “You know, it was the right decision – for several years later, I heard that the young man from the village had passed away. Think of what would have happened to me! I would have been a widow in a strange family, and probably would have lived a very restricted life there. Maybe treated like a servant.”
So she embarked on this journey as a picture bride. My sisters and I thought perhaps it was the spirit of adventure, of going to a land for a better life. In June 1914 she boarded a Japanese steamer where she encountered other women, other picture brides who were excited, though anxious about their futures. She made lifelong friends, who continued their ties to one another in their new Japanese American communities.
There was one woman who felt she knew so much about American life, customs, and food… She was “Miss know it all,” And everyone deferred to her knowledge. One day they were served artichokes, and no one knew how to eat this strange vegetable. They watched her as she proceeded to chew on this tough food, which seemed to have petals… They tried gulping it down, but they choked and could not continue. “But Miss A ate it all up,” declared my mother. “I’ll never know how she did it.”
The boat trip was difficult, and many of the women, third class passengers became seasick. It was a long trip (2 weeks?) As they neared San Francisco, there was misgivings and fear about what they faced, especially about the man they were to marry. Mixed in was relief that they had reached their destination, and hope about a new life.
They reached Angel Island glad to be over the long sea voyage. They were disappointed that they were not proceeding to San Francisco where they would set sight on their future husbands.
Once, years later when we took our parents to visit Angel Island, we asked about their experiences when they set foot on this island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. They both shook their heads. Mother spoke of fading memories. “It was not pleasant. It was not pleasant. It was windy and cool. They asked many questions and we had to submit to a physical examination. It was difficult with so many of us stuck here, behind a fence.” She thought she stayed for a few days, but could not remember the details of her confinement.
They were later put in a small boat which took them to a dock in San Francisco. There was excitement in the boat as they spotted some Japanese men waiting at the port. The women took out the pictures of their future mate to see if they could spot them. My mother recalls, “Way off, apart from the group was a young man throwing stones into the water. I figure this was going to be my husband. And I knew he was going to be different.
Some of the women had difficulty reconciling the photos of the young men they received with the reality of these older men awaiting their arrival. There were two women who adamantly would not leave the boat. Mother added “The men were honorable. Shaking their heads, they grimly paid the return passage for these two women.” She repeated, “They were honorable.”
Motoji who was only several years older and looked like his picture picked her up and started a new life in San Francisco.
Photos provided by Chizu Iiyama (top to bottom) Top - photo of Kou Yuki Kitano circa 1914, Bottom - Motoji Kitano and Kou Yuki and Hisashi Kitano (rear) circa 1914