What does it mean to leave your country, where you were somebody, and move miles to a continent you’d only heard of? A country where you’d be a ‘nobody’. Not knowing whether the decision to say ‘yes’ to a former enemy was right. Struggling for words that help start a conversation. Being told not to wear the one piece of cloth your identity hinges upon? And years of trying to fit in, juggling two distinct identities? Listen to the Japanese War brides as they tell their story on BBC this week.
For 21-year-old Hiroko Tolbert, meeting her husband’s parents for the first time after she had travelled to America in 1951 was a chance to make a good impression. She picked her favourite kimono for the train journey to upstate New York, where she had heard everyone had beautiful clothes and beautiful homes.
But rather than being impressed, the family was horrified. “My in-laws wanted me to change. They wanted me in Western clothes. So did my husband. So I went upstairs and put on something else, and the kimono was put away for many years,” she says.
Seventy years ago many Japanese people in occupied Tokyo after World War Two saw US troops as the enemy. But tens of thousands of young Japanese women married GIs nonetheless – and then faced a big struggle to find their place in the US. The War Brides Act of 1945 allowed American servicemen who married abroad to bring their wives home, but it took the Immigration Act of 1952 to enable Asians to come to America in large numbers. When the women did move to the US, some attended Japanese bride schools at military bases to learn how to do things like bake cakes the American way, or walk in heels rather than the flat shoes to which they were accustomed. But many were totally unprepared.
“One of my husband’s aunts told me I would find it difficult to get anyone to deliver my baby, but she was wrong. The doctor told me he was honoured to take care of me. His wife and I became good friends – she took me over to their house to see my first Christmas tree,” she says.
But other Japanese war brides found it harder to fit in to segregated America.
“I remember getting on a bus in Louisiana that was divided into two sections – black and white,” recalls Atsuko Craft, who moved to the US at the age of 22 in 1952.
“I didn’t know where to sit, so I sat in the middle.”
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