From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

May 2010 - Exceptions That Prove the Rule: Interracial Nisei Marriages

Wedding party, Seattle, 1925, denshopd-p166-00006
"The first generation was, you might say, narrow-minded...The second generation didn't marry out. But when it came to third generation and fourth, they had more freedom."
   --Takashi Matsui

To examine Japanese American history is to encounter generalizations about generations. Familiar characterizations emerge from the family stories of Densho interviewees: tradition-bound Issei, bicultural Nisei, and integrated Sansei. Marriage stories follow the same route: After establishing a foothold in the United States, Issei fathers brought back brides from the home country. Upon leaving camp for military service, college, or careers, Nisei sons and daughters married other Nisei sons and daughters. As Nikkei communities dispersed, growing numbers of Sansei and Yonsei grandchildren married other Asian Americans, Caucasians, and occasionally African Americans or other ethnicities. And now we have Shin-Issei narratives - new families bound to the old country. All of which raises the question, is Japanese American identity being developed or diluted?

Statistics bear out the generalizations. The Nisei rate of interracial marriage was very low for a second- generation group. According to one historian, only 2 to 3 percent of prewar California Nisei married non-Japanese. After anti-miscegenation laws that banned interracial marriage were repealed, the rate rose to 10 percent of Nisei men and 17 percent of Nisei women by the late 1950s.1 Densho interviews with Nisei who married "out" reveal intriguing variations on the norm. The individuals who risked parental and societal criticism by marrying someone of another race or ethnicity report that levels of acceptance and rejection evolved over time.

Takashi Matsui, a Kibei originally from Hood River, Oregon, describes how he felt when his son married a Caucasian:

I think it's a difficult issue, but it's an individual choice. We cannot tell our children what to do or what not to do. The first generation was, you might say, narrow-minded. So they even thought that the second generation like us should not marry anybody outside of their community. In other words, our folks came from Fukuoka and they thought that we should find somebody from Fukuoka and not Hiroshima or some other place. They were against that. Well, that was one thing. Then they thought that Japanese should stick to the Japanese, but the second generation didn't marry out. But when it came to third generation and fourth they had more freedom, independent thinking, and Issei parents all gone, and the new parents were more broad-minded. So it's getting to be that way.

On the eve of World War II, Betty Fumiye Ito was a high school beauty queen in Bellevue, Washington. She was popular but says, "In those days, our parents didn't want us to marry Caucasians, and they didn't want me dating Caucasians, so I didn't date anyone. I was invited by a young student to attend the junior prom, and my mother shook her head, so I didn't go." Fred Shiosaki lived further east in Spokane, where there were scarcely any Japanese Americans he could date. He remembers, "I didn't go to dances, except the afternoon dances, I would go there and at least would be a wallflower. They did have senior proms, but obviously, I didn't go to that."

Then there were the exceptions. Mae Iseri Yamada, who grew up in rural Washington, speaks of her Caucasian sister-in-law: "My oldest brother was married in 1938, and he married a hakujin. Of course, you can imagine what kind of commotion went on then, the oldest son in the family, and he's married a hakujin, and oh, brother. But my brother was determined. He says, 'Well, she said she would do whatever it took for her to be a responsible wife.'" Mae knows her parents would have preferred their eldest to marry within the Japanese community, but her mother said, "Well this is America, and I guess this is the way it's gonna be." Mae reports that her sister-in-law did prove to be a good wife, undeterred by the looks and comments the couple drew from white people.

Another exceptional marriage was that of Joe Ishikawa, who left confinement at Amache, Colorado, to accept a scholarship to the University of Nebraska. He met the "beautiful" Olivia Brandhorse, lost track of her, and encountered her again three years later working in a department store. They decided to marry but lived separately in St. Louis and Los Angeles for a year, to allow the families to "get used to the idea."

We were kind of friends, but they really didn't want her to get married. He had grown up in Oklahoma, and knew about "squaw men," men who married Indian women and so forth. And so he was really very nervous about it. Her mother, of course, went along with him, although I invited her to come to our wedding when we were married in Denver. I went there with my best man, and we were married in a little church in Denver with no family from either side. And it's funny because--selective memory-- my mother-in-law once said to Livie, "So-and-so got married, I feel so sorry for her. Can you imagine? Her mother wouldn't even go to her wedding." And Livie thought, "Gosh, Mom, you gotta pick your targets better than that." She had selective memory about that...

My father, who was living with me, was the best of all. I was over thirty at this point -- he said, "You know, you ought to think about getting married, and it's okay if you marry a hakujin, a Caucasian." And I thought, "I'm going to put this old boy to the test," so I said, "What if I married a black girl?" Because I'd been active in the black community, so it wouldn't be out of the realm of the possible. And he says, without hesitation, "Well, if you loved her and weren't doing it just to try to prove something, make a political statement." And I thought, "That's the right answer." I thought that was very good.

Chizuko Norton returned home to Seattle after being confined at Minidoka, Idaho, where her mother died. She vividly remembers her anxiety over telling her father that she planned to wed a white man.

Chizuko: It took me two weeks. And I will never forget. My father was reading the paper, and I was sitting in the rocking chair getting more nervous. My sister and brother-in-law---I had discussed it with them, and they said they would position themselves outside the apartment door so that when Father would explode, they would dash in and save me.

Densho: So you were anticipating some kind of...

Chizuko: Oh, yeah. My husband had come to the apartment, but a few of my Nisei men friends had come, too. I wasn't dating them, but we would all go out together. And so he finally said, "I wish you wouldn't be rocking like that, you're making me nervous." He was trying to read this paper, and so I said to him, "I have something to tell you." He slowly put the paper down and said, "What is it?" So I told him and his response was, "Dame, dame," that's not good. I don't know what possessed me, I said, "Well, my mind is made up." And I almost flopped over dead when he said, "Well, if your mind is made up, I guess there isn't anything I can do about it, but we can talk about it." And, of course, "What about the children? You're going to face a lot of discrimination." He said, "I think you could take it, but what about your, your friend?" So I said, "Well, we've discussed it, and we know it's not going to be easy." So, we got married.

While her father accepted the decision, their Japanese American and Caucasian friends did not approve. Chizuko reflects, "For us to expect everyone to think this was great was asking a bit too much. I think we both went into it with our eyes wide open. And if I were to do it again, I would do it again." Chizuko took care to tell her biracial daughter that she was "just as good as anyone else," and "how exciting it is to have two different cultures that you could mix together."

True to the statistical pattern, Sansei interviewees describe dating and marrying members of diverse cultural groups.2 Roger Shimomura, raised in Seattle, describes the evolution of his family's attitudes toward intermarriage. They started by telling him, "Only date Japanese women. Don't date Chinese. And don't date Filipinos, and above all don't date white people." Roger rebelled and brought home several women his parents disapproved of.

I started dating this other girl that was mixed, from Hawaii. But her uncle was the governor of Hawaii, so I was impressed by that. And she was this absolutely beautiful person. All my parents heard was that her uncle was the governor of Hawaii. I think they assumed that if you're Hawaiian, you're Japanese. So I said I was gonna bring her home for dinner. My mom said, "Fine, bring her over." The minute they looked at her they knew she was mixed. And they didn't say anything, but when dinner was ready, my mom got two TV trays and brought them downstairs and put them in the basement, and essentially said, "You guys can eat down there." That's when I realized just how impossible this situation was. And I was in college.... They obviously grew out of that because as it turns out, my sister married a Caucasian right in the middle of all this. And then I dated a lot of Caucasian women that they met and I ended up living with an Iranian woman. They had to put up with all of this and soon, in their older age, like a lot of older people do, became a little bit more liberal in their values. So, before they passed away, it really didn't matter.

1. Paul Spickard, Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 38.

2. Some studies show that by the 1980s, 60 percent of Sansei were marrying non-Asian partners. See Harry H. L. Kitano et al., "Asian-American Interracial Marriage," Journal of Marriage and the Family 46, no. 1 (Feb. 1984): 179-90.

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