A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

October 2001

Stories From a Pacific Northwest Japanese American Community

by Stan Flewelling

Chapter 2


An excerpt from the book Shirakawa,
which is in progess of being designed and printed.
Look forward to the book in early 2002.

Many Japanese laborers who came to the United States before the turn of the century made their money and returned home. Others found their financial ambitions hampered, but were still gripped by visions of better opportunity in America. In time, married men who remained in the United States usually tried to bring wives and children over from the old country. As for bachelors, marrying a non-Japanese was considered unacceptable, and few could afford the round-trip passage to Japan to seek a wife. Arrangements were begun with extended families in Japan to look for suitable brides.

Before that could happen, though, the men had to meet certain criteria. Until 1915, the Japanese government did not allow common laborers to summon wives out of the country. But farmers and businessmen could do so, as long as they could verify minimum income and savings levels. The prospect of marriage and family life added an incentive to leave itinerant jobs and lease farms, or launch other types of business.

Picture Brides
These were the foundations of the "picture marriage" ("shashin kekkon") or "picture bride" tradition. The practice was not substantially different from traditional Japanese courtship custom, where parents and go-betweens ("baishakunin") took the lead in suggesting and negotiating prospective unions. As one Japanese American historian states it, "In Japan, marriage was never an individual matter, but always a family affair."

The important distinction in the picture bride practice was that men living overseas supplied photos and information about themselves and their lives in absentia. Their claims, and even their appearance (in case they sent photos that were old or touched up) couldn't be easily verified. And if the process resulted in a marriage agreement, the groom was also absent from the ceremony-legally permissible in Japan. Although both Japanese and U.S. authorities set strict screening standards to prevent fraud and to verify a man's ability to support a family, many of the arriving picture brides were shocked to see new husbands in person and discover their true circumstances.

Despite the surprises and hardships awaiting them in the new land, women brought an extraordinary dimension of stability and hope to Issei communities. Japanese custom presumed that they would maintain their homes as dutiful wives and mothers. In addition, the brides of farmers almost always went to work in the fields alongside their husbands and other workers. When children arrived, Issei mothers taught them to be part of the family work team.


Newlyweds of an arranged picture marriage,
Natsuyo and Utaro Shimakaki
WRVM 167

The early Issei who built legacies in the White River Valley often came to them in roundabout ways. Takejiro Mayeda's family owned a sake (rice wine) distillery in Shiga-ken. Around 1897, when he was age 18 and still in high school, he fell in love with a 16-year-old farmer's daughter named Toyo. They wanted to marry, but their families objected. So the young couple eloped-a social affront almost unheard of in nineteenth-century Japan.

Mayeda's father was more forgiving than most Japanese patriarchs of his day. Instead of disowning his son and daughter-in-law, he bought a store with an upstairs dwelling where they could live and sell sake. There they began their family. But young Mayeda was restless, and decided to go to the United States in 1901. A year later, Toyo followed with their two children, a 4-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl named Hatsu. Takejiro Mayeda cooked for a while in a Washington logging camp, and eventually started a dairy farm in Orting. The Mayedas' two Japanese-born and ten American-born children grew up in that community.

Meanwhile, Kotaro Hikida was a farmer and family man in Shiga-ken. Hearing tales that "streets in the United States were paved with gold brick," he decided to try his luck there. His wife agreed to let him go, but said she would never follow and would not maintain their farm while he was gone. When he left around 1902, she rented the farm out and returned to her parents with their two infant children, ages 4 and 2.

Hikida did not prosper in the States, but found jobs that occupied him for over 12 years. In 1914, his son, Yohei, who was only 16 years old, asked to join him in America. Crossing the Pacific on his own, he found his father farming in Thomas, Washington with a man named Ishikawa, the second son of the famous Kikkoman Shoyu ("soy sauce") Company family. Yohei enrolled at Thomas School to study English while keeping house for his dad, cooking, cleaning, and helping on the farm.

Yohei Hikida
Yohei Hikida came to America to take advantage of economic opportunities and by his early teens was a successful farmer. A "baishakunin" or matchmaker later arranged his marriage to Hatsu Mayeda.
[Courtesy of Tom Hikida]

They raised cabbage, but it was a terrible year for that crop. Deeply discouraged, the senior Hikida decided to move to Yelm, where opportunities were said to be better. Ishikawa returned to Japan to work for his older brother at Kikkoman. Young Yohei Hikida volunteered to stay in Thomas and keep the farm going. Not knowing what else to raise, he grew cabbage again the next year. No one else grew cabbage, the crop thrived, and the boy made a fortune. Kojiro's lot did not improve in Yelm and he decided to return to his family in Japan. He was amazed when his son sent $1,000-a third of his profits-home with him. Yohei Hikida continued farming in Thomas, and eventually met Hatsu Mayeda through a "baishakunin" matchmaker. They married in 1921 and made the Valley their permanent home.

In June, 1900, Matahichi Iseri joined his older half-brother, Kajijiro, in North America. The older Iseri had already left their home in Kumamoto-ken to work abroad. Matahichi was only 16. He arrived in Victoria, British Columbia and the next year crossed the channel to Blaine, Washington. Young Iseri worked for a Japanese hotelier in Everett, Washington, for a year or two, then moved to Seattle where he was employed as a schoolboy and enrolled in night school to study English. It was an intensive course, and Iseri studied hard. Afterwards, he spoke, read, and wrote the language with reasonable fluency-rare abilities among Issei.

Some six years after his arrival, "Mat" (as he was known) was ready for marriage. He sent home for a bride, and his family arranged a wedding with Kisa Okuna, who came from a nearby village. She had started school as a youngster, but cared little for it and soon dropped out, assuming the regular child care of her younger siblings. Kisa was nineteen in 1906 when she married and moved to Seattle (in early 1907) to join her new husband.

The couple soon leased a farm in Sumner, Pierce County, just south of the White River Valley. There the first three of their twelve children were born. Inspired by the growing success of dairies in the area, the Iseris started one of their own in Thomas in 1911.

Mat's abilities in English were an asset to his work and to his Issei neighbors, and before long Charles Leonard, who owned the general store in Thomas, offered to employ him. Leonard wanted Iseri to start a Japanese goods department in his store and build customers among the Issei farmers who were becoming so abundant in the Valley. The offer was attractive, and around 1914, the family sold their dairy business and Mat joined up with Leonard. Kisa and their older sons maintained a small farm at their new Thomas home.

Sentaro and Fusano Tsubota were married in Hiroshima-ken before the turn of the century. They came from relatively affluent families of rice farmers. Many of their friends had migrated to the Pacific Northwest and wrote home saying how fine things were there, and how easy it was to make money. Sentaro wanted to visit his friends and see these wonders for himself. He consulted his parents, but as he was their only son, they refused him permission.

In 1902, Sentaro told his wife and family that he was going to visit Tokyo. He boarded a train and got as far as the port city of Yokohama. The next time Fusano Tsubota heard from her husband, he wrote to say he was in Seattle in the United States and would be back in three years. By 1904, he was operating a Japanese food store in the city.

Sentaro Tsubota did not made it back to Japan in three years as promised. Instead, Fusano joined him in the United States in 1906 and they moved to Kent, where they raised ten children. In 1909 they opened a general goods store in Kent. In 1911, Sentaro Tsubota built a sawmill west of town near the Great Pacific Highway-today's West Valley Highway.


Traditional Japanese often participated in arranged marriages using a go-between or baishakunin. For bachelors who immigrated to America, the cost of traveling home to find a bride was prohibitive, so men and women supplied photos and information about themselves and their lives in absentia to baishakunin who located a suitable match.

Matsu Takami Hanada,
soon after her 1918 U.S. arrival.
[Courtesy of Amy Hanada Nikaitani]

Kuramatsu Hanada, 1912.
This probably the portrait he sent to a matchmaker arranging for his 1918 "picture marriage."
[Courtesy of Amy Hanada Nikaitani]

Stan Flewelling