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Issei Pioneers - Hawaii and the Mainland 1885-1924 - Part 17

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As soon as the women settled into their new homes, they found themselves engaged in hard work.  Few families could afford for women to stay at home.  In the cities women worked as chambermaids, dishwashers, seamstresses, or laundresses.  In the countryside, they worked alongside their husbands in the vineyards of Fresno, the apple orchards of Watsonville, or the canefields of Hawaii, planting, hoeing, weeding, irrigating, and harvesting.

In every region where Issei settled, women played an important part in “getting ahead,” for survival in America was a joint effort.  Women’s income often decided whether a family showed a profit or fell into debt at the end of the year.1  Setsuji Miyoshi of Portland, Oregoin spoke for many Issei men when he acknowledged that his wife was not only his “wife” but also an important assistant.” 2

Faced with new challenges, the women were proud of the accomplishments.  “Helping my husband, I worked so hard that I was amazed at myself,” claimed Shizue Iwatsuki.  When my husband failed in his business, I worked all the harder in order to help him start again.  I drove a car around all over in order to buy several hundred dollars’ worth or farm tools,  I was the first Japan woman around there to drive a car.”3

Michiko Tanaka boasted, “No one worked more than I....I remember clearing 40 acres... as far as the eye could see.  They wanted all the brush burnt so I did it by myself, taking my children along with me...gathering, then burning, gathering, then burning.”4

Deep into the past
My struggle has disappeared.
But I remember
Those days I cultivated
The open fields and swamplands.5 

While thrust into the workplace, Issei women gained greater self-confidence.  Rikae Inouye recalled how nervous she was when she started selling vegetables at the local flea market.  “I couldn’t face the customers at the front,” she confessed.  “Not having any customers, I turned my back and...pretended that I was tying my shoes.”  The women who was working next to her said, “Mr. Inouye, a customer.”  After helping the customer, Mrs. Inouye turned her back again.  After a few more Saturdays of back-turning, Rikae Inouye was able to watch the customers to see if their eyes fixed on her table.  “Do you like anything?” she asked with a smile, no longer afraid to face the front.6


Kings Hand Laundry (Left to right): Tazu, Susie, Sakutaro Tagawa, and Mr. Uyehara. (Gift of Naomi Tagawa, Japanese American National Museum [93.24.4])


“While I was raising the children, I took care of a lot of farm workers as well,” recalled Takae Washizu..”I got up at four a.m. and fed the workers and my children by seven a.m. I went to work on the farm after washing dishes.  I came back home an hour before lunch and dinner to cook meals.  I always bathed last and washed clothes every night by hanging a lantern on a willow.  I usually went to bed at midnight.”7

Without the supportive network of parents or in-laws, childcare was constant problem for the Issei woman.  Many took their children with them to their workplaces.  Osame Manago remembered how the women tied their children to the table with their obi (sash) while sorting coffee beans for the Captain Cook Coffee Company in Hawaii.8

Others took turns sharing childcare responsibilities with other women, while some had to leave them at home by themselves.  Kiyono Mukai panicked when she came home during lunch break to feed her son but found him missing.  Frantically searching through the house she heard her baby’s cry.  “What a relief!” she recalled, when she found him on the floor wedged between the wall and the bed.

Children’s homes and rooming houses were other places where parents sent their children to be cared for,9 while some couples decided to send their children to Japan to be taken care by their parents.

Although the majority of Issei men did not participate in child care activities, quite a few were intimately involved in the birthing process.  Especially in rural areas where doctors or experienced midwives were not readily available or too expensive, husbands often had to deliver their own children.  Gin Okazaki’s husband, who had never delivered a child before, sought advice from a friend who had once safely delivered a baby in an emergency situation.  These were the instructions he received:  The important thing is how to cut the umbilical cord.  First you tie it tightly with string in two places.   Then cut in between the tied places with a pair of scissors.10

The delivery went smoothly and though it was customary for the Japanese mother to rest for twenty-one days after delivery, Gin rested for only three.  Her husband, now an experienced midwife, went on to deliver a total of four boys and four girls.  

The infant mortality rate was very high in those early days when childhood sickness like whooping cough., diphtheria, polio, and measles claimed the lives of the young.  According to Matsu Kina, malnourishment weakened the health of many children on the plantation in Hawaii.” Since the foods were very plain and poor, the children would catch colds very easily . . . But we didn’t take them to the plantation hospital.  Everybody talked badly about the doctor there,” quipped Matsu.  “We called him a ‘vet.’  Really he was a vet.”11

Many Issei used their own folk remedies to cure illnesses instead of relying Western medicine.  Raisuke Tamura explained, “Rather than buy something with an English name which they didn’t understand,” the Issei “never failed to put the familiar remedies in their wicker trunks.”12

In Hawaii, peddlers of Japanese medicine went from door to door, canvassing plantation camps and homes throughout the islands.  Kikuchi Ujiie carried bags stuffed with specially prepared medicine from Toyama, Japan:  Hangonton was “miraculously effective for upset stomachs;” fujinto, a mixture of “strange smashed nuts and seeds” was steeped in hot water and taken by women after child birth, and the most popular medicine was Kazefurusan, a remedy for the flu and colds.  Kikuchi’s customers knew that he would return in three months to collect payment and replenish their medicine supply.13

Part 18 >>

1. See Timothy J.Lukes and Gary. Y.Okihiro, Japanese Legacy: Farming and Community Life in California’s Santa Clara Valley (Cupertino, 1985), Moriyama, Imingaisha, p. 109.
2. Setsuji Miyoshi interview, Ito, Issei, p. 526
3. Shizue Iwatsuki, Ito, Issei, 499.
4. Akemi Kikumura, Through Harsh Winters (Novato, 1981), p. 43.
5. Yoko Fukuzawa, Ito, Issei, p. 695.
6. Rikae Inouye, Eileen Sunada Sarasohn, The Issei; Portrait of a Pioneer (Palo Alto, Dalifornia, 1983), p. 135.
7. Takae Washizu interview, Sarasohn, The Issei, p. 112.
8. Osame Manago interview, Hanahana, p. 158.
9. See Memories of Children’s Home, 1919-1928; Guadalupe, California (Berkeley, 1986); personal recollections of Takeo Shinmoto, February 22, 1990, Walnut Grove, California.
10. Gin Okazaki, Ito, Issei, p. 250.
11. Matsu Kina interview, Uchinanchu, p. 449.
12. Anonymous Issei women, Issei Christians, p. 225.
13. Ethnic Studies Oral History Project, Kikuji Ujie, October 4, 1979, Sprecklesville Maui, Interviewers Haruo Yamamoto and Warren Nishimoto, p. 635.

Issei Pioneers: Hawai‘i and the Mainland, 1885-1924 is the catalogue accompanying the National Museum’s inaugural exhibition. Using artifacts from the National Museum’s collection to tell the story of the courageous “Issei Pioneers,” the catalogue focuses on the early immigration and settlement years. To order the catalogue >>

© 1992 Japanese American National Museum

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