Sharing Mana‘o

All my (nine) children have love marriage. I think that better than matchmake kind like us.

— Ushii Nakasone, quoted in “Picture Bride Stories” by Barbara F. Kawakami

Over 20,000 issei (first-generation Japanese) women immigrated to Hawaii between 1885 and 1924 to marry strangers, men who had earlier immigrated from Japan and Okinawa to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations.

These young women, many still in their teens, were known as picture brides because their marriages had been arranged by families or matchmakers through the exchange of photographs. Some came with trepidation, fulfilling their obligations to family and custom. Others eagerly welcomed the opportunity for economic stability and adventure. Nearly all were met with challenges and hardships they could not have anticipated.

In “Picture Bride Stories,” Barbara Kawakami shares tales of tragedy and triumph as told to her by some of these brave and resilient women. It is the second of two award-winning books she has written, published 23 years apart. Her first, “Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawaii, 1885-1941,” laid the groundwork for “Picture Bride Stories.”

The author’s story is no less remarkable than those of the 16 women profiled in her book. Brought to Hawaii as an infant in 1921, Barbara grew up on a Waipahu sugar plantation, one of eight children raised by her widowed mother. After graduating from the 8th grade, she attended sewing school and subsequently enjoyed a 38-year career as a dressmaker. While working as a seamstress and raising three children with her husband, Douglas, she took adult education classes in the evenings, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1955, and received her high school equivalency diploma in 1959.

Fourteen years later, at the age of 53, she enrolled at Leeward Community College, then continued to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in fashion design and merchandising, and a master’s degree in Asian studies. In 2012, she was designated a Living Treasure of Hawaii by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.

As she states in the preface to “Picture Brides,” what began as a fashion design class project became Barbara’s lifelong work. To research the clothing of the first Japanese contract laborers in Hawaii, she would have to go to the source: the issei themselves.

“The timing was right. In 1978, after years of toiling in the fields . . . these issei were in their eighties and nineties, their memories were still intact, their children were away and they were alone. They were eager to pour out their hearts about their struggles and hard lives.”

Over 40 years, Barbara conducted more than 250 oral history interviews with issei women and their descendants. She has served as researcher, writer and consultant for a number of projects, including the 1994 Miramax film “Picture Bride,” and has lectured extensively in the U.S. and Japan. She has donated some 400 artifacts to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and the Smithsonian Institution.

Last Saturday, my mother and I joined a standing-room-only crowd at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center for a presentation and book signing by Barbara, hosted by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii in partnership with the Japanese Cultural Society of Maui and the NVMC. At 96, Barbara’s recollections are sharp and insightful, and her sense of humor delightful. One statement she made which really struck a chord with us was her observation that many of her interviewees had never shared their history with their children.

Afterwards, over dinner, Mom told me that she never knew how or when her parents met and married. She knew that my grandfather had come from Hiroshima to work on a Kauai sugar plantation but ran away and somehow ended up on Maui. Whether my grandmother was already here as an immigrant worker herself, or was sent as a picture bride, we have no idea.

My paternal grandmother came from an affluent family in Okinawa, sent to marry a man who claimed he was a successful landowner and would take good care of her. When she arrived, she was dismayed to discover he had lied.

They had a daughter and a son, and when the children were very young, her husband took them to Okinawa, presumably to visit his parents. But again, he lied. In Okinawa, he married another woman (or resumed his relationship with a wife he already had, we’re not sure which) and abandoned my grandmother here.

Her second marriage, to my grandfather, was much happier. We don’t know how it came about; most likely it was another arranged union. But I like to think that maybe, for her, it was a “love marriage” as well.

* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is