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War Brides Vol.2

Tsuchino and her husband Mike. At the Nikkei Bunko that Tsuchino opened.

War Brides Vol.2
Interviewing Tsuchino Forrester and Narachiyo Sekine

It is said that shortly after the war, approximately 40,000 to 50,000 Japanese women immigrated to America through marriage with American military men. What kind of lives have these so-called “War Brides” led up to this point? Now, 74 years after the events of World War II, all is revealed as we introduce their precious personal stories, as a continuation of our previous article published on September 27th.

Interview by Hitomi Kato, translated by Andrew Wexler

Tsuchino Forrester
Connections with the Nikkei community through hardships and happiness

Currently, Tsuchino Forrester serves as the president of both the American International Marriage Society and Seattle Nikkei Society, as well as the director of the Japanese Cultural Community Center of Washington (JCCCW). Join us as we look back on the days Tsuchino and her husband, Mike, lived and laughed together even in the face of prejudice.

This Kid is an Oddball

“Ever since I was young, I was stubborn,” said Tsuchino, analyzing herself. Even when entering a girls’ high school, she took the entrance exam without consulting her parents. When she found out she had been accepted, she had a discussion with her father about paying the tuition. As she always does, she made her decision without looking back. Her parents were soon outlasted saying, “This kid’s an oddball. Even if you leave her be, she’ll come out on top sooner or later.” 

When Tsuchino could not be found, tree tops would have been a good place to look, as she was a tomboy who loved climbing trees.

Tsuchino’s family was known as big landowners, but due to the post-war agricultural land reform, they lost much of that land. During her first year at school, her father suddenly died, leading her brother to quit school and succeed his father as the head of the family. Tsuchino, who had long yearned to go to college, also had no choice but to abandon her educational pursuits, for as a woman, Tsuchino was not permitted to be more educated than her brother, the eldest son. “With that, I thought my life was over. I felt nothing but despair.” Tsuchino was born and raised in the northern part of Fukuoka prefecture in the farming village of Kasuga, where women could not even think of finding employment. “I would get married for my family, stay at home and that’s it. I couldn’t bear the thought of that being my life.”

Tsuchino was 24 when she met Mike. Her first impression of him was not good. In an era where one dollar was equal to 360 yen, the monthly salary of a private in the Air Force like Mike was around the same amount of money a Japanese person in that region would make in a year. “Back then I thought, ‘what are you so proud of, rich boy? You just wait, I’ll show you the Japanese spirit!’” On the other hand, Mike was completely smitten with Tsuchino’s beauty, from her long flowing black hair to her, slender figure. Mike was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Long Island City, Queens. He was the eldest of five siblings and enlisted in the air force to help his family. “At that time, my husband wanted to return to college one day. I guess I was charmed by his passion.” Tsuchino, on the other hand, wanted to see the outside world. “I thought with the military tuition fund, to make up for me not being able to go, I would send him to college, and take care of him.”

Racial Discrimination and Prejudice

Marriage between a woman of the defeated Japan and an American military man was no easy feat. Tsuchino’s family naturally objected strongly to this, to the point where a family meeting was held. However, when Tsuchino decides something, she does not budge an inch. Nobody knew this better than her family. When Mike was assigned to Japan, his grandmother said to him, “Make sure you don’t bring back a Japanese wife.” However, Mike’s father, who had experienced the Battle of Okinawa while in the Navy, much to Mike’s surprise, seemed to approve of the idea saying, “That would be a wonderful thing.” Mike’s mother and soon his grandmother, who initially objected to the idea, came around in the end. “You found a good wife,” they told him.

During that time, marriages had to be approved by the military. However, the military higher-ups, who disapproved of marriage with Japanese people, suddenly reassigned Mike to a Virginia military base. After receiving this order for relocation, Mike had to leave Japan within two weeks. While they were separated, Mike wrote to Tsuchino every day. He bought her a diamond ring and sent it to her via parcel delivery concealed inside a bottle of body powder.   

The person who was particularly mad about Mike’s sudden restationing was Mike’s mother. Putting aside her opposition to his marriage with Tsuchino, Mike’s mother wrote a letter to President Eisenhower, telling him of the unjust mistreatment her son received from the military. Mike’s grandmother, acting as Chairwoman of the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee had influence in the political world and 4 months later, Mike was issued orders to go to Okinoerabu Island, a small island between Kyushu and Okinawa .

Okinoerabu Island Air Force chapel wedding in 1959

Tsuchino, to convince her family to let her go to Okinoerabu Island, held a wedding ceremony at Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, despite not obtaining permission from the military. When this matter came to light, Mike was sometimes questioned by military personnel. During their time on Okinoerabu Island, because Mike was still not granted permission, the moment he was out of work, he would go to Tsuchino’s house where she would be waiting for him, then return to the base in time for curfew, and spend their evenings apart. They had no choice but to live this kind of life. We heard that Mike was sometimes called a “nigger lover” by his southern peers. “Nigger” is used as a derogatory term for African Americans, but we can infer this was because of the intensity of racial discrimination at the time. On the other side, Tsuchino told us that she would often get jeered at by children calling her “pan-pan” because of her marriage with Mike. “Pan-pan” was mostly used after the war to refer to a prostitute who keeps company with American occupation troops. “War Brides” like Tsuchino were subjected to this kind of prejudice each and every day.

Mike and Tsuchino were finally able to officially get married in 1958 at the U.S. consulate of Fukuoka. At that time, in American southern states and the state of California, there was still a law prohibiting marriage between whites and non-whites. They were required to sign a document acknowledging that they understood that they could be arrested should they step foot into one of these states.

Tsuchino came to America in 1960 when Mike’s father had passed away. Due to the sudden news of his father’s death, Mike and Tsuchino ended up coming to the U.S. separately on a civilian aircraft and military aircraft respectively, headed for a New York funeral home. Tsuchino made the journey all by herself on a JAL flight, transferring both in Alaska and Seattle. “I came with the feeling that I may not ever be able to return to Japan.” The only thing she was able to bring to America was 300 dollars in cash and one suitcase.

However, Tsuchino had big dreams about coming to the U.S. “America is a country where anyone can seize opportunity. Where you can carve your own path in life. I convinced myself of that.” They started their new life together in Oklahoma. “A few pieces of tableware, a pot and a frying pan. At first, those were the only things we bought. We were poor, but we were prepared to get by on our own. So, I never thought we were going through hard times.” At any rate, her goal was to get Mike to pursue a good education, and she pushed him every day to do so. Tsuchino told us that everything else besides this wasn’t worth worrying about. “Even only eating two meals a day was fine with me.” Mike said that Tsuchino was a smart spender, and she was mostly in charge. The image he held until then that a “Japanese woman would do whatever she is told,” was turned completely on its head. Mike got his bachelor’s degree at Columbia University and his master’s in civil engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. After serving in the Military, Mike worked for the Federal Aviation Administration.

They moved many times: Washington DC; Spokane; Kansas City; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Brentwood, New York; San Francisco; Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska; Madrid, Spain and finally, settled down in the middle of New York and Japan, Seattle. “We passed by this area when we moved to Alaska. Back then, there were many Japanese gardeners living here, so there were a lot of pruned pine trees. I remember thinking about it and making my decision ‘This is a great place, and it’s just like Japan. Let’s settle down here one day’.”

What Tsuchino achieved in the Kisaragi-kai

“At first, I was surprised at how many Japanese there were. In Seattle, there’s a Nikkei community, so I felt like I needed to do this and I needed to do that and soon enough my weekend was all filled up.”

In Seattle, there was a Women’s Association called the Kisaragi-kai, formed by Japanese women who came after the war. Tsuchino was invited by a friend and she went to a meeting. For Tsuchino, this was her first Nikkei gathering. “Up until that point, there were no Japanese people around at all.” At that time, the Nikkei community seemed to showcase a slightly complicated state of human relations. “We did not have any social connections with the second-generation Nikkei,” Tsuchino recalls. “I heard that there are people who speak ill of coming to America through marriage with an American. The post-war group had a strong will and they made their opinions clear. I guess this didn’t sit well with the second-generation Nikkei who think like the Japanese people of past generations.” There are not many societies with as strong Nikkei solidarity as Seattle.  Perhaps it is for that reason that the newly immigrated “War Brides” took time to fit in.    

“So, at that time, I put great importance on Kisaragi-kai events. Over 100 families would come and we’d line the tables with food. I also took part in an athletic meet.” Wanting to maintain Japanese culture, Tsuchino started a performance club, seeking out the help of a dance instructor, and learning to perform traditional Japanese dance. Tsuchino told us that when she expressed an interest in making Kimonos, she was sometimes thought of as audacious by the senior Nikkei. Even so, she ordered eight kimonos, kimono sashes and sensu fans from Japan and went ahead with her plan.

Community service soon began at the Seattle Keiro nursing home. It was a facility established by the second-generation Nikkei for their elderly parents. Before, there was resistance, but the recent idea to hold a performance on Father’s Day was approved. “The Kisaragi-kai was asked to help for the grand reopening after the facility moved.” Afterwards, Tsuchino volunteered at the Keiro Northwest beauty salon for over 10 years.

After Mike’s retirement, they founded a software company and sold it off in 1999. They now live in Sammamish. Tsuchino was called an oddball in Japan. “The world will be what it will be,” says Tsuchino. “I am so happy I was able to come to this country and get to a position where I can help somebody, even just a little bit. The pioneers of the Nikkei community instilled Japanese patience into America society. When I think back about us, I think we were able to enter America in a true sense, and visibly spread Japanese culture throughout American society. I’m curious to know what the young people of today will leave behind. In today’s world, where you can come and go freely, I wonder just what they’ll accomplish.” These big challenges cited by Tsuchino are entrusted to the next generation.