As part of last month’s Hapa Japan Festival 2017 was a screening of a pair of documentaries I was very interested in viewing: “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides” and “Rising Sun, Rising Soul.”
Both screened Thursday, Feb. 23, in Little Tokyo at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum, with filmmakers from each in attendance to speak about the respective documentaries afterwards and to take audience questions.
While different in emphasis, both “Fall Seven Times” and “Rising Sun” had at their respective cores a shared source, namely the so-called Japanese war bride phenomenon that occurred following Japan’s defeat after World War II.
It was during that post-war occupation period when thousands upon thousands of U.S. military personnel from all branches of the Armed Forces, as well as civil service employees, went to Japan and Okinawa, the latter of which was a quasi-U.S. military colony that didn’t regain Japanese prefectural status until 1972.
The goals and purposes for all those Americans — mostly military, mostly men — getting sent there was to stabilize and rebuild a broken Japan and its economy, and help establish a government that was more democratic than the prewar militaristic government while keeping it from veering toward communism.
I know there are those who would disagree with the following, and I do acknowledge that there are plenty of examples of U.S. arrogance and stupidity that occurred, along with abuses of power at the micro and macro levels with regard to how well this country succeeded at achieving those goals — but the U.S. occupation of Japan has to stand as one of the most successful and benevolent examples of a victorious nation helping a vanquished enemy in the history of humanity. (There is also no doubt a parallel situation to the U.S. occupation of Germany.)
It came at a tremendous cost — and I don’t just mean money — and questions as to why there is still a huge U.S. presence in Japan so many decades later are open to debate. But when compared with the still-ongoing debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, to me there is no question it worked more often than it failed. (And it must be noted that the presence of Japanese Americans in postwar Japan who served as liaisons, translators, interpreters and advisers is a big, perhaps unsung reason for that success.)
One of the unintended but in retrospect obvious consequences of having tens of thousands of young, unmarried American men in Japan and Europe at the end of WWII was what came to be known as the war bride phenomenon. In the case of Japan, in the first 15 years after the end of WWII, there were literally tens of thousands of American men of all ethnicities who married women who came from all strata of Japanese society, whether it was strictly for love or simply a desire to have a better life. Maybe both.
While some of those couples did stay in Japan, the bulk of those international couples scattered across the nation, from rural areas where there were few ethnic Japanese enclaves to big cities. That’s where things get interesting and that’s where both “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides” and “Rising Sun, Rising Soul” pick up threads of that story, which might be looked at as a huge, living experiment in race relations and cross-cultural intermixing, combined with the small-scale drama of when a pair of very different people roll the dice on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In today’s environment, when no one in California, the West Coast or big cities pauses when seeing a mixed-race couple in which one of the two is an Asian, these two documentaries do underscore what a big deal the Japanese war bride phenomenon really was.
The U.S. military, for instance, tried initially to thwart those marriages. Sometimes relatives on both sides disowned and disavowed their daughters and sons. The recent movie “Loving,” for instance, underscores that in many states, those marriages between a white man and a Japanese woman would have been considered illegal. (In the case of Nisei men who married Japanese women and returned to civilian life, the effect was less apparent, of course, but I’d have to speculate that those Japanese women provided a needed infusion of Japanese culture to the existing Japanese American communities they joined.)
When a Japanese American man or woman today marries someone who is non-Japanese/non-Asian with no problem, it’s in part thanks to those barriers having already been breached by the Japanese war brides.
I spoke with two of the principals from those movies — Kathryn Tolbert, an editor at The Washington Post, and Velina Houston, a USC professor and playwright. I wanted to know more about how they went about getting their documentaries produced, what is in store for their respective movies, what they learned while making the movies, etc.
I spoke with Houston while she was at home recuperating from the flu (proving sometimes it’s better to speak with someone on the phone rather than in person!), and she generously related some of her thoughts on “Rising Sun, Rising Soul,” which was focused on the offspring of Japanese war brides who married African American men and how that experience impacted their lives.
For her, inclusion was part of the motivation for helping produce her documentary. “Often, whenever I saw a book or film project about the Asian American or Hapa experience, often the Afro-Asian experience was marginalized,” she said. “So, I thought I would create a film document. The primary purpose for our film is we want to provide it as an educational tool to schools and to universities.
“I wanted to look at the lives of mixed-race Japanese people who are also of African descent, and different kinds, too — some who might have been raised in a strictly Japanese vein, some who might have been brought up in more of an African American neighborhood, all those kinds of things. I wanted to show that variety so that people would think of them beyond a peripheral type of perspective.”
In the case of “Fall Seven Times,” Tolbert’s focus was more on the Japanese war brides themselves, and to be more specific, Hiroko, Emiko and Atsuko — the mothers of the documentary’s co-producers: Tolbert, Karen Kasmauski and Lucy Craft, all three of whom are journalists.
The three native Japanese women are stand-ins for those thousands of Japanese war brides, even though each individual story is unique as a snowflake. Speaking of snow, I chatted briefly with Tolbert, who was telecommuting from home due to the gigantic snowstorm that clobbered the East Coast.
“The structure of the film is three mothers, three daughters, and that works really well for this film,” Tolbert said of the 26-minute version screened — but she added that they are working on turning it into a 60-minute version.
“We’d like to include more in it. Those stories represent a good part of these women [war brides in general], but for example we don’t have the story of the African American men who married Japanese women and we don’t have the story of the Japanese American men who married Japanese women in that period of time. There’s also a lot more historically. There’s great archival material. There’s so much, we’ve got more than enough to make a longer film.”
The longer movie, however, is part of a bigger vision they have. “We’d like to create a traveling exhibit that would have the film or short clips from the film and some of the audio stories that I created with photographs … that would encourage conversations about immigration and what it means to be American and do to it in a variety of places,” Tolbert said.
When I asked if Tolbert and her partners might ever want to be a part of any collaboration with JANM on an expanded exhibition on the Japanese war bride phenomenon, she answered, “We would love to. I think they know of our project, but it’s still in such the early stages yet that we haven’t had concrete discussions of any sort. Obviously the Japanese American National Museum would be a great venue for this kind of exhibit.”
In the cases of both movies, the still-living Japanese war brides — who married during peace and are many decades removed from being brides — are in their 80s and 90s now, ancient in human years. Getting their stories directly now is getting more difficult with every new day.
“What we’re trying to do is to fill in a gap and to say, ‘Here is another immigrant story of Japanese women who lived very uniquely American lives and who are kind of hidden stories in the overall narrative,’” Tolbert said.
(As part of her effort to tell that story, Tolbert has a wonderful website with audio oral histories and photos; it’s at www.warbrideproject.com/. A Washington Post article — “The Untold Story of Japanese War Brides” — can be read at http://tinyurl.com/z73jjfu)
Houston, whose play “Calligraphy” is presently in production at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, also said that “Rising Sun, Rising Soul,” which currently clocks in at 28 minutes, will also likely add another 10 minutes. “It’s my hope to fine-tune it,” she said.
As for what she and her producing partner, Monique Yamaguchi, might add, Houston said, “We have a lot of footage, more footage of the personal lives of the people we interviewed. I would like to intertwine more of that footage.”
When asked what she got from making the documentary, Houston said it reinforced what she already knew. “The thing that I found refreshing was that so many people were able to discuss negative experiences in a positive framework. In other words, they didn’t let any negative experiences get them down or deter them. It simply strengthened them and they found a way to look at them as learning experiences. And that was good.”
She also noted how important it is to respect how different individuals self identify, even if she herself isn’t too keen on some terms like “Blackanese” and “Blasian,” which have recently arisen. “How you wish to hail yourself is a very personal choice,” she said, adding that she is never going to refer to herself in that way.
Meantime, it turns out there is another Japanese war brides project in the works from Yayoi Lena Winfrey, titled “War Brides of Japan” (see www.warbridesofjapan.com).
Ultimately, these two complementary documentaries simply add more squares to the Japanese American quilt, which is an integral part of the greater American quilt. Both aim to become available to wider audiences in the months and years to come, be it via an outlet like PBS or online streaming, so be on the lookout for them if this topic is of interest to you.
Rafu Feedback Dept.: It’s been about a year now since The Rafu Shimpo announced it was on shaky ground — but we’re still here, and hope to keep it going, especially as we approach summer and all the Obon and summer festivals. Hopefully, many of the same organizations that so kindly allowed The Rafu Shimpo to have a physical presence will allow it again!
As far as “behind the scenes” stuff is concerned, the Japanese section and English section staffs are working on some new initiatives and products to roll out in the coming weeks and months.
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Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.