THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Issei Women,Giving birth to a community


This overview article starts off a series of portraits from a whole class of “unknown greats”: Issei women. Of all the ethnic Japanese in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, the lives and experiences of immigrant women have been arguably the least studied by family and community historians, despite notable efforts of such scholars as Akemi Kikumura Yano and Evelyn Nakano Glenn.

The reasons for this, even when we leave aside simple sexism or denigration of women, are not hard to find. Issei women generally spoke and wrote English badly, if at all, and thus left few readily accessible primary sources behind. In keeping with popular ideas of the female role in both the American and Japanese societies of the day, they were largely relegated to care of families and unpaid labor on farms or in shops.

Though I will focus in the coming articles on a few outstanding individuals, comparatively few were able to establish themselves in careers. Yet it would be a great mistake to dismiss these women or to minimize their contributions. For the Issei women, on the whole, were unique.

First, they represented an elite class of women. As a result of the establishment of universal education in late Meiji- and Taisho-era Japan, they were almost entirely literate — far more so than the average white American of their period. Further, a large fraction of these women continued their education in Japan beyond primary school to high schools and normal school, where they studied to become schoolteachers, the only independent career open to Japanese women at that time. (Since the national universities, moreover, were closed to women, they studied in many cases at Christian schools or with help from Christian missionaries, which facilitated their subsequent familiarity with and embrace of Christianity once in the United States.)

It was precisely these studies that led them to marry overseas Japanese. That is, because of their extended studies, masses of Japanese women remained single into their early to mid-20s, which was considered too old for a respectable bride in Japan. Thus, their only remaining option, if they wished to marry, was to look abroad, and to agree to unite with Japanese immigrant men. Their prospective husbands, themselves generally much older, could not afford to be so choosy about the age of the wives who would agree to leave Japan and join them in North America. They gladly tapped into this available pool of potential partners, even though it meant that arranging proxy marriages with women they had never seen in person, women whose educational background, and sometimes class origins, were often superior to their own. Thus, the mass of Issei women came to North America as “picture brides,” to be greeted upon entry by their new husbands and begin their new life. (Legion are the stories of shock and disappointment experienced by women who discovered that their spouses were not so young or prosperous as they had made out, and had sent faked, misleading, or outdated photos!)

We can only begin to imagine the difficulties that these women experienced, suddenly stuck in a new country with unfamiliar language and customs, and foreign (and sometimes hostile) inhabitants. Locked into wedlock with strangers, they had a difficult adjustment to married life — as in other immigrant subcultures, wife-beating and abandonment were not uncommon in Japanese communities — and had little recourse unless they were prepared to give everything up and make the long trip back to Japan. Such drastic action became exceedingly more complicated once these wives became mothers — the immigrant women were at the height of their age of fertility, and the average birthrate in Japanese communities was thus considerably higher than that among native-born whites. As Issei men in most cases did not participate in childcare, the women had to shoulder alone the double burden of work and of raising a family.

Still, whatever the rigors and trials of their existence, these women not only adjusted with fortitude to their new circumstances but pursued social and intellectual interests. Unlike their husbands, who generally had much less education, Issei women remained devoted readers and writers in their native tongue. They faithfully wrote entries in their diaries, and a number of these diary volumes survive. (For example, as is shown in Susan Smith’s “Japanese American Midwives,” the diaries of Toku Shimomura, a midwife in Seattle, furnish considerable information on birthing practices.) They also wrote letters, especially back to friends and family members in Japan.

They composed a large proportion of the audience for Japanese-language newspapers and magazines, and they long remained impassioned contributors to the haiku and tanka poetry contests run by these newspapers, one of which is poignantly dramatized in Hisaye Yamamoto’s famous story “Seventeen Syllables.” In response to such demand, the West Coast Japanese press not only expanded its coverage of sections deemed “women’s interests” but commissioned feminists such as Mei Tanaka (Ayako Ishigaki) of Rafu Shimpo and Misatoshi Saijo (Miyata Asano Saijo) of Sangyo Nippo as columnists.

Yona Abiko courtesy of Grace Abiko

Indeed, after the death in 1936 of founding publisher Kyutaro Abiko, San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Shimbun, the leading organ of the West Coast Nikkei press, was edited by his widow Yona Abiko (who was the sister of the notable feminist educator Umeko Tsuda, founder of Japan’s Tsuda College) until its forced dissolution in spring 1942. There were Issei “aunts” who published as well in the English-language press.

The extraordinary creativity of the women of the Issei generation was most powerfully demonstrated, ironically, by their wartime confinement. Released from farm labor and shop duties and relieved of the need to cook by communal mess halls, these women were able to take advantage of a measure of leisure to cultivate the activities they had previously engaged in only during stolen moments. They thus both practiced and taught ikebana, Japanese dance, theater and folk arts, all of which had been largely outside the community’s purview in the prewar era.

Finally, the Issei women, to the extent that they could communicate with their Nisei children, were responsible for passing on their interest in education, and its value. The stellar educational record of the Nisei generation, especially women, very soon became evident — despite various areas of discrimination and exclusion, such as quotas for Japanese in West Coast medical schools, Nisei were receiving higher education in disproportionate numbers well before Pearl Harbor. Researchers in American education have long agreed that the most important variable in determining the educational success of children is the educational level and interest of their parents. Since in the case of Japanese communities, fathers were more often absent or emotionally distant, it was mothers who encouraged their children to succeed, and were most responsible for aiding their achievement.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at robinson.greg@

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