By David Yamaguchi The North American Post
In a small, informal gathering held at the Nisei Veterans Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 30, the Nikkei Kokusai Kekkon Tomonokai held their “Saigo no Atsumari.” The group, founded by Japanese “war brides” in the 1990s, assembled for their last meeting because “it is getting too hard for them to get together anymore.”
During the meet-and-greet half-hour, Karen Kasmauski, the now-adult daughter of one such marriage and a professional photographer, stressed two key points. The first is that many such women married Korean War soldiers (1950-1953), in addition to post-WWII US Occupation soldiers (1945-1952). (Japan was the jumping-off point for servicemen headed to Korea.) The second is that the #1 challenge the women faced in starting their new lives in the US was “raising American kids.”
After a brief building tour, followed by a generous bento lunch, the event, which by then had grown to 28, began in earnest. Some attendees had driven in from Tacoma, others from Vashon and Mill Creek, commonly with an adult child.
Welcome speeches were delivered in Japanese, in turn, by local organizer and club president Tsuchino Forrester, by Council-General of Japan Hisao Inagaki, and by Shigeyoshi Yasutomi. Forrester-san and Inagaki-san are familiar faces around the Seattle Nikkei community. Yasutomi’s name, by contrast, may be a new name for NAP readers. A retired professor from Kaetsu University, Tokyo, he has been a leading researcher of the war brides.
A later speech delivered by Kathryn Tolbert was the most accessible to this listener, for she delivered it in English. By way of background, she flew in to attend from Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. She is retired from a career with “The Washington Post,” which included time as a Tokyo-based correspondent. She first began taking a serious interest in her late mother’s story after attending a similar gathering in 2014 in Denver.
Addressing the group last week, Tolbert began by stating how “Your decisions to marry were individual dreams…
“What did you have in common?
“One word is lonely…
“You persevered…””Thirty years later, you formed connections that first started meeting in the 1990s…
“You have changed the perceptions of Japanese war brides…”
“Until this organization, there was no Japanese war-bride organization.
To date, there have been dozens of studies… dissertations… the play “Tea” (Velina Hasu Houston) is a well- known example.)
“What does it mean when 45,000-50,000 Japanese women married (Americans)?
“(You were) the first Asian immigrants to the US since 1924 (when the) McCarran-Walter Act, 1952 (reopened immigration).
“(Your kids were) interracial…
“This is an important part of US history that should be more than a footnote.
“We were interracial children… We are not identified as Japanese… We struggle with whether we are Japanese Americans…”
During breaks in the meeting, it was interesting to interact briefly with the adult children of the war-brides in the room, now in their 60s.
Felix Nishida, the son of widely known Mary Nishida, described how his mother had first come to the UW as a Fulbright Scholar.
Kasmauski took advantage of the opportunity to give me a photography tip. Watching me work had bugged her.
“You need to change from that direct flash to a bounce flash,” she explained. “Especially when photographing older people, you need to capture them in softer light.”
Kasmauski showed me her camera, equipped with the desired attachment.She knows far more about photography than me.
“I teach photography,” she said.
Previously, she was a photographer for “National Geographic.” That well-known yellow-bordered magazine arguably employs the best field photographers in the world.
The meeting also doubled as an opportunity for Kasmauski to extensively photograph the attendees, and for Yasutomi and Tolbert to meet afterwards to exchange research materials and ideas.
According to Tolbert, ongoing projects include a full-length film as a follow-up to the short documentary “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight” produced by Lucy Craft, Kasmauski and Tolbert (2015; 26 min), a traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibit, and a manga version of the war bride story.
They hope the exhibit will come to a Seattle venue such as the JCCCW or the Wing Luke Museum. Pages of the manga were in a plastic-sleeved travel folder that Tolbert carries with her.
On leaving the still-in-progress meeting mid-afternoon, I felt I had seen “history in the making.” On rewatching the online trailer of the existing war- bride documentary at home, I could now appreciate Tolbert’s late mother’s immigrant drive and influence on her.
The mother had taught herself English by reading newspapers. She had encouraged her daughter to become a journalist.
The mother’s motivation was to prove to herself and to the world that she had made the right choice, that her journey had been worth it. The other accomplished adult-children present suggested that their mothers too had felt similarly.
I was just happy to be in the room with all of them, watching the history-makers and history-recorders interacting.