“Out of an obscure place”: Japanese War Brides and Cultural Pluralism in the 1950s
In the spring of 1954, the American philosopher Horace Kallen was invited to deliver a series of lectures at the University of Pennsylvania reviewing the state of cultural pluralism in American postwar society. The concept of cultural pluralism was Kallen’s own invention, an idea of American society first expressed in his 1915 essay, “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot,” in which he defended America’s growing racial and ethnic diversity-“the federation or commonwealth of nationalities” that seemed to emerge in the wake of early-twentieth-century immigration-as the strength rather than the curse of the nation. Although by 1954 the supposed menace of immigration had long since been checked, most notably by the 1924 Immigration Act that imposed severe restrictions on immigration from Europe and Asia, the diversity Kallen had defended earlier in the century was once more poised to overwhelm the national imagination. As Kallen delivered his lectures that spring, the Supreme Court was hearing the Brown case, the culmination of a stream of compelling legal arguments that contested the notion of “separate but equal” established in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson. Given the anxiety that racial desegregation provoked in many whites, Kallen and the liberal intellectuals [End Page 47] attending his lectures understood the need to reassess and restate the case for cultural pluralism.
In the face of tense public and legal debate over desegregation, Kallen reasserted the promise of pluralism in stirring strains that seemed at times to evoke an almost radiant vision of what Americans might yet achieve. His vision depended on the willingness of white Americans in particular to embrace change. As he put it, “the dogma that we cannot change the past is not an understanding of the process of change but a prejudice of our resistance to it and a static illusion symbolizing our fear of it” (“Meanings” 24). The chief effect of his lectures and the published responses to them was to affirm that the coming changes in race relations anticipated by the Brown deliberations would be generative rather than enervating:
It is the variety and range of his participations, which does in fact distinguish a civilized man from an uncivilized man, a man of faith and reason from an unreasoning fanatic, a democrat from a totalitarian, a man of culture from a barbarian. Such a man obviously orchestrates a growing pluralism of associations into the wholeness of his individuality.(25)
In descriptions like this one, Kallen recasts the threat of integration as a deft “orchestration” of differences that would leave the nation “whole” rather than fractured. But while most Americans might have assumed this orchestration would soon occur through increased interactions between blacks and whites, as indeed it did, there were other, less visible avenues by which public voices sought to orchestrate or imagine the successful transition to racial integration in the mid-1950s.
As one participant in the lecture series, Stewart G. Cole, observes in his response to Kallen’s lectures, the liberal assurance expressed by Kallen grew out of the belief that because “the resurgence of real democracy has redeemed this country” in the past, it could not fail to do so again in the future. But Cole goes one step further to predict that the coming democratic resurgence would more likely emerge “out of unofficial or obscure places” (114). While the Brown decision clearly established the postwar challenge of cultural pluralism as the integration of African Americans-so much so that it has since become common to view race relations in the 1950s as primarily a black-white struggle-the case for integration also frequently provoked anxieties and shame about racism in [End Page 48] America that encompassed the conditions of other racialized groups as well. In this way, the threat of black-white integration produced a range of related fears about the histories or conditions of race relations that seemed to emerge, almost overnight, “out of unofficial or obscure places” to become a part of the broader discourse on racial integration and cultural pluralism.
Such is the case of Japanese Americans in the postwar period, a group often neglected in considerations of American pluralism and postwar integration despite the fact that the meaning and shape of Japanese American identity was caught in a tremendous crisis. The relocation and internment experience was, of course, the most startling evidence of that crisis. But the postwar dilemma of Japanese Americans as citizen-subjects, while often limited to discussions of the internment experience of the West Coast population, in fact incorporates a range of national experiences and histories, including the resettlement program after the war and the impact of the immigration of Japanese war brides on the meaning of Japanese American citizenship.
Japanese war brides were perhaps the most visible representatives of Japanese American life in the postwar period, although they did not always self-identify as Japanese Americans. Still they were often presented as emergent members of a new kind of Japanese American community, which was primarily attractive because the war brides were seen solely as compliant wives and mothers unfettered by the disturbing public history of internment. Settling into domestic life in the 1950s, with little fanfare, as unfamiliar national subjects who had formerly been citizens of an enemy nation, Japanese war brides soon became meaningful figures in the discourse on racial integration and cultural pluralism. As white Americans tried to negotiate the threat of black integration, and government programs tried in vain to resettle interned Japanese Americans, Japanese war brides provided at least one “unofficial or obscure place” out of which the redemption of cultural pluralism, as an ideal that stabilized relations rather than disrupted them, would reemerge as a distinct possibility. In significant ways, the postwar popular media’s changing view of Japanese war brides projects them as an early form of the Asian American model minority. 1 The 1950s transformation of the Japanese war bride from an opportunistic and ignorant alien seeking to penetrate the suburban affluence of white America to the gracious and hard-working middle-class housewife was an early exemplar for achieving [End Page 49] the integrated future in America, a halcyon story of domestic bliss and economic mobility difficult to extract from the stories of long-time racialized citizen-subjects.
Although the idyllic evolution of Japanese war brides into model racialized wives and mothers hinged on its apparent separation from the recent struggles of existing Japanese Americans, the story of the Japanese war bride was inevitably haunted by the absence of the larger Japanese American community. Having just emerged from the internment camps or returned from war service, longtime Japanese American communities were struggling to establish themselves in the American landscape. In contrast to the story of social accommodation and economic mobility celebrated in stories about the Japanese war brides, longtime Japanese Americans’ resettlement into American life reflected a lingering frustration, an ongoing struggle to find acceptance that was often hindered by economic devastation as well as a continuing sense of social isolation. Even those who heeded the advice of appointed government sociologists by attempting to gain acceptance from and entry into white American institutions were often struck by a sense of what Dorothy Swaine Thomas called the “spoilage” of the promise of democracy in volume one of her famous two-volume publication of a University of California study of the Japanese American relocation and resettlement. Ironically, then, the narrative of the newly arrived Japanese war bride’s successful Americanization, which was initially generated in response to anxieties over integration, in turn produced its own formidable challenges to the belief in a prosperous pluralism by invoking, if only through silence and indirection, the unrealized inclusion of existing Japanese Americans. The celebration of Japanese war brides’ success in postwar America only thinly veiled the broader failures and limits of then contemporary ideas of the relationship of racial difference to American identity; these failures included both the widespread reluctance to grant African Americans fundamental freedoms and the continuing ignorance and neglect of the economic and psychological struggles Japanese Americans faced in their efforts to find a sense of belonging in the post-internment years.
The obstacles and frustrations that characterized the histories of African and Japanese Americans in the 1940s and 1950s clearly diminished their potential for “redeeming democracy” or reflecting a national “wholeness.” As a narrative of racialized national identity interposed between African and Japanese Americans, the evolving story of Japanese [End Page 50] war brides in America exposes the complicated functioning of racial and national identities, which come together in the mid-1950s at vastly different junctures in their histories in the United States, to reflect and reshape race relations in subtle ways. The story of the war brides’ passage and settlement in America reveals the manifold layers of racial and national identity implicated in the attempts to represent postwar pluralism. Considering the immigration of Japanese war brides as an answer to the threat of racial integration, which includes the dilemma of Japanese American subjectivity after the war, compounds our understanding of the processes by which the urgent need to redeem democracy was achieved in the postwar period.
“Terra Incognita” on the Home Front
As new national subjects, the Japanese war brides immigrated to the United States beginning in the late-1940s and culminating in the late 1950s. The first War Brides Act, passed in 1945 (Public Law 271), gave temporary permission to soldiers to bring their wives to the United States. The subsequent Soldier Brides Acts of 1946 and 1947 amended the 1945 Act and extended the time period for admission. The 1947 Act (Public Law 213), for instance, allowed for the admission of any alien wives, “before 30 days after the enactment of this Act . . . irrespective of race.” Although these acts clearly reflected a short-term and tenuous acceptance of the thousands of GI marriages occurring in the wake of peace in Europe and Asia, the revolving door of deadlines was finally done away with altogether when on June 27, 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act repealed the restrictions long enforced by the 1924 Immigration Act. The new law eliminated race as a barrier to naturalization and cleared the way for legal recognition of Asian-GI marriages. The passage of the McCarran-Walter Act had an immediate and profound affect on immigration patterns from Asia (Shukert and Scibetta 209). In the end, Asian war brides came to represent the single largest migration of Asian women ever to come to the United States. Between 1947 and 1964, approximately 72,700 Asian women immigrated: 45,853 Japanese women; 14,435 Filipino women; approximately 6,000 Chinese women; and 6,423 Korean women. 2 If one considers the numbers of Asian Americans from the same countries already settled in the United States before the war-approximately 383,650-the arrival of 72,700 Asian women in just over 15 years represents an increase of almost 20% in the Asian American population (Daniels 351). Among this group of [End Page 51] postwar Asian immigrants, Japanese women soon became the focus of popular attention.
There were a few immediate reasons for the heightened visibility and popularity of Japanese war brides during the early 1950s. The most obvious was the sheer numbers of Japanese war brides, which far exceeded the numbers for any other Asian war bride group immigrating in the period before the Vietnam conflict. When the law was changed in 1952, the numbers of Japanese war brides increased from fewer than 900 prior to 1952 to 4,220 in the year 1952 alone (Shukert and Scibetta 216). The surge of Japanese women entering a country that had, less than a decade earlier, considered them enemy aliens was a phenomenal shift and arguably deserving of the attention it accrued. But a more compelling although less obvious explanation for the interest in Japanese war brides was rooted in the late-1940s rhetoric of partnership between Japan and the United States, in which Japan was viewed as the passive recipient of American guidance and good will. As their numbers surged, Japanese war brides came to embody the dangers and the promises of that partnership.
In 1947, in the face of widespread criticism of his first year as leader of the occupation of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur and his staff actively began to issue statements and encourage press coverage of the United States’ presence in Japan as a partnership of complementary opposites. 3 The Japanese woman became a significant figure in this representation, in which the white American soldier was depicted as “husbanding” the Japanese woman’s emancipation from the formerly oppressive Japanese patriarchy. 4 Framing the political alliance between Japan and the United States as a domestic heterosexual arrangement rendered MacArthur’s proposed “spiritual” revolution, which was often parsed in terms too obscure for many observers, more recognizable to politicians and the public alike. The ideological “romance” between the two countries had the added benefit of naturalizing the dominant role of the American presence in Asia as a whole (Woodard 14–18). Tales of schoolgirl crushes and fleeting occupation romances between white American GIs and Japanese women quickly became the literal manifestations of this new partnership, even though they dangerously blurred the line between a mutually beneficial partnership and an illicit, interracial affair. As long as interracial occupation romances remained a distant metaphor for the inevitability of U.S. dominance in Asia, they could serve a stabilizing function by casting the American mission in Japan as benevolent. But when these romances ended in marriage and the [End Page 52] Japanese woman came home, as it were, her presence in America provoked palpable discomfort.
The first feature article on Japanese war brides in the early 1950s embraces the hazards inherent in the idea of a Japan-U.S. partnership imagined by the provisions of heterosexual attraction and domestic cooperation. In the January 19, 1952 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, the article “They’re Bringing Home Japanese Wives” appeared. The authors, Janet Wentworth Smith and William L. Worden, generally forecast a gloomy future for these new “Madame Butterfly’s,” who were then being trained for the rigors of American domesticity in special Red Cross classes available to foreign wives of American GIs. The tragic suicide of Puccini’s eponymous operatic character, Madama Butterfly, fixes the Japanese war brides as victims doomed by their own desperate attempts to qualify for a middle-class American future. “The great question of how they will fit in and whether they will be welcomed or shunned remains to be answered,” the authors begin, as they proceed to assess expert opinions on “the great exodus now underway,” “the great trans-Pacific jump” (25). Although the women’s racial differences are clearly the basis for their being “welcomed” or “shunned,” the authors largely ignore the racial dread aroused by the influx of Japanese women and focus instead on the dubious class backgrounds of the women in question. Throughout the article Smith and Worden maintain that doubts about the women’s suitability for suburban life are less the result of U.S. racism than the war brides’ uncertain or lower-class origins. Pointing out that “there are very few highly educated women and virtually no representatives of important Japanese families” (79), the authors describe the Japanese war brides as “all sorts of people,” an indeterminate source of future troubles. They are repeatedly depicted as naïve young girls fumbling through the Red Cross classes in cooking and cleaning because they lack the sophistication and aplomb to navigate the rigors of middle-class white suburban domesticity. They are sophomoric “youngsters” who “think having their sleek black hair frizzled into dulled mops” makes them American women. The Japanese war brides are “women stepping into terra incognita,” and the implied risk to the nation is their invasion and disruption of the imagined space of white middle-class domesticity (79).
Thus, in addition to reflecting anxieties about U.S.-Japan relations, the passage of Japanese war brides into the U.S. inevitably became linked to domestic racial problems. Most obvious was the way in which the upswing in the numbers of Japanese war brides coming to the [End Page 53] United States in 1952 seemed to regenerate memories of recent efforts to contain and reform what many political and social leaders defined as an alien and subversive Japanese presence in America during the war. In December of 1941, national hostility against the Japanese so heightened prejudice against West Coast Japanese Americans that they were forcibly removed from their homes and confined in internment camps without due process. In addition, in the late years of the war, selected segments of the relocated Japanese Americans became part of an official government relocation program designed to break up exclusive Japanese American communities by encouraging them to seek acceptance into white, middle-class neighborhoods and communities. This program, which attempted to balance the fear of Asian American difference against the desires of Japanese Americans to be allowed to return to a life outside the camps, was an important liberal exercise in attempting to engineer a change in race relations. It preceded the events of the 1950s, when the Supreme Court was increasingly being asked to recognize and correct the injustices of black segregation in a democratic nation. Although the debates about the postwar integration of African Americans unfolds in a separate set of historical and social pressures, the postwar public discourse about the precarious future of Japanese war brides in the U.S. simultaneously summoned the unresolved national status of both Japanese Americans and African Americans. The situation of Japanese war brides necessarily recalled the troubled history of existing Japanese Americans in the U.S., just as it also reminded postwar Americans of the then pressing issue of black integration and white resistance.
The resettlement of Japanese Americans away from the West Coast after the war was perhaps the earliest organized postwar attempt to effect better racial relations by bringing formerly separated communities into greater contact. But unlike the later civil rights program for integrating exclusively white institutions by forcing them to accept black patronage, the resettlement program was decidedly less threatening and ambitious in its designs for effecting a change in race relations between Japanese Americans and white Americans. Even before the resettlement, the internment itself was conceived as the first step in a program to make Japanese Americans more “American” and thus less alien to non-Asian Americans. The camps were organized as model American communities, complete with a rigorous program of public works, agriculture, and manufacturing. As anthropologist Orin Starn points out, War Relocation Authority (WRA) ethnographers, who helped to formulate the program of [End Page 54] resettlement, gradually came to view the camps as “ideal cities” or as places where Japanese Americans were “to make a new start in America.” Despite the fact that some of the camp organizations and activities had been initiated and endorsed by internees, “WRA ethnographers made clear that the centers represented a new stage in the modernization of Japanese Americans” (714–15). The ethnographers’ view of the camps as modernizing centers was motivated by “the continued hope of WRA . . . officials that the reintroduction of Japanese Americans into normal American life was still possible, despite the public hostility that had halted voluntary evacuation” (Thomas, Spoilage 25). They thus attempted to mirror camp life as a positive experience that promised to prepare the formerly isolated Japanese American for life beyond the ethnic enclave. While the nature of this government-planned resettlement of Japanese Americans was unique in many respects, as was the internment itself, it still operated within the context of broader anxieties about racial integration in general. The government ideally hoped to project a smooth transition to life in a postwar America that still viewed all Japanese as enemies by recasting Japanese Americans as, in effect, model ethnic American subjects deserving of white acceptance. The WRA’s emerging formulations of a way to erase the threatening vestiges of Japanese American difference in the internees was certainly in step with other ongoing efforts to affect positive change in race relations.
As the U.S. government and military were preparing the way to relocate Japanese Americans in early 1942, forces from within the Roosevelt administration were paradoxically determined that the war effort be an example of democratic cooperation and opportunity. In June 1941, by Executive Order 8802, President Roosevelt made racial discrimination illegal in the defense industry and set up the Fair Employment Practices Commission to oversee and regulate the integration of African Americans in particular into the ranks of skilled factory laborers and managers. Although the commission held little official authority, even the mostly symbolic attention it offered had the effect of announcing that achieving equality of opportunity was the cornerstone of a democratic society, which the nation was defending in the war abroad. 5 After the war, in 1947, President Truman went further to establish the Commission on Civil Rights. A year later, in 1948, in an attempt to make good on a campaign promise to African American voters, Truman took action to integrate the military, an event that has since been interpreted as opening the way for the Brown decision in 1954. Thus, although the Brown [End Page 55] decision was pivotal, it was by no means a surprising decision or an isolated event.
The announcement of the end of racial segregation in legal and public life had been, in truth, slow in coming, delayed by a litany of limited presidential programs in the 1940s and by legal decisions in the early 1950s that stopped just short of revoking the doctrine of separate but equal. When the Supreme Court, for instance, heard the 1951 case of Bagsby v. Trustees of Pleasant Grove Independent School District involving the district’s resistance to the abolishment of Negro elementary schools in a segregated subdivision of Dallas, the case was viewed as a very direct challenge to “separate but equal” education. The Court refused to hear it. In the following year, 1952, in yet another major challenge to segregation, the case of Briggs v. Elliott, concerning the inequities between white and “colored” educational facilities in Clarendon County, South Carolina, was presented to the Court. Their ruling was equally timid, a cautious plan “along separate but equal lines” for allowing the original district court to re-hear and resolve the case. 6 Yet the delays in overturning segregation achieved in these pivotal cases also had the effect of highlighting the weak thread of reasoning binding segregation as an American institution. When on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decided the case of Brown v. the Board of Topeka by a vote of 8 to 0, it stated what many Americans no doubt already knew: segregation was no longer viable in a racial democracy. “The earth shook,” writes Taylor Branch of the immediate aftermath of the Brown decision, “and then again it did not” (134). As if to provide further evidence of the ends to which American institutions might go to avoid the recognition of racial differences and inequities, the Court would wait a year before rendering its implementation ruling, and even then would only advise that integration be achieved “with all deliberate speed.” 7 The evasions of the Court, and of other lower circuit courts, only put off the inevitable appointment with segregation, and the centuries of racism that had supported it, in a manner that threatened to indict America’s position as a free and democratic society.
In relationship to these domestic events, it is not surprising to find The Saturday Evening Post article reflecting a similar apprehension about the Japanese war brides’ futures in America. The authors of the article were also attempting to balance the pervasive misgivings about the war brides’ chances for success in the event of “racial discrimination and an uncertain welcome in the United States” against the national myth [End Page 56] of equal opportunity for all (79). Redefining the major obstacles confronting the women as their own insurmountable class deprivations, rather than focusing on the problem of U.S. racism, provides the authors with one means of negotiating the dilemma. But the final line of the article breaks down, exposing the tenuous nature of their negotiations, as the authors wonder whether “the Americans who meet them on the other side of the ocean will try a fraction as hard to help them along.” The question, which remains unanswerable in 1952, turns the spotlight on middle-class white America, upon whose shoulders the fate of cultural pluralism once again seems to rest, despite the reluctance of white American institutions and communities to address this problem.
This uneasy discourse about the future of cultural pluralism in the U.S. first began to emerge in the final years of the war, some ten years before the Brown decision would officially mark the end of segregation, when the Japanese American resettlement was occurring. As the war ended, the Japanese American resettlement project was organized in the interest of achieving a controlled and gradual transition to society outside the camps, the type of gradualism that would later be reflected in the polite rhetoric and legislative timidity in pronouncing on the issue of black-white segregation. To some degree, the War Relocation Authority that initiated the resettlement process was seeking to reconstitute second-generation Japanese Americans, or Nisei, as an early prototype of the model minority and thereby strike the first blow in the achievement of a racially integrated postwar nation, a nation that could truly reflect its status as the leader of the democratic world and the symbol of the fight against totalitarianism.
Beginning in March 1943 and lasting through December 1944, the WRA began a process of reviewing Japanese Americans interned in the camps for permanent release into the general population. Prior to 1943, some 250 internees had been granted permission to leave and enter colleges and universities while another 10,000 were granted leave on temporary work furloughs. Still, none of these “outmigrations,” as they were called in official reports, were part of a program of permanent relocation or integration. The requirements for selection of internees for resettlement or “indefinite leave” were not initiated until the following year, in early 1943, when internees who wished to leave the camps were required to fulfill the following criteria of “loyalty” before being deemed eligible for resettlement: an unqualified affirmative response to the two-part loyalty oath administered in January, 1943, which asked, respectively, [End Page 57] for a vow to serve “wherever ordered” in the armed forces and for “unqualified allegiance” to the United States, forswearing “any form of allegiance and obedience” to Japan or any Japanese organization; no evidence of having applied for repatriation to Japan; no evidence of having ever been a Shinto priest; no record as an alien on parole from the Department of Justice internment camp; and no intention to relocate to any of the seaboard states under the Eastern Defense Command. Although most internees met these base requirements, the catch-22 was the added stipulation that one was not eligible for indefinite leave if one was related to any individual deemed “disloyal” for any reason. This last requirement greatly restricted the number of those who were allowed to leave before the camps closed. 8
The result was that only some 9,177 “loyal” internees had been deemed eligible to be resettled by official means by the summer of 1944. In November, when the exclusion order was rescinded and the WRA was liquidated, 62,000 of the approximately 100,000 original internees were still in the camps. The draft had actually claimed the bulk of the internees who left the camps, so that those who did not qualify for resettlement and were left behind included “disloyal” Nisei, elderly first-generation or Issei members, young children or infants, the poor, and the infirm. Those few internees who participated in the resettlement plan at the close of the war were a hand-picked segment of the camp population: overwhelmingly younger Nisei men and women from middle-class backgrounds, with some degree of college training, who were willing to go to great lengths to prove their “loyalty” and their willingness to be reformed and relocated. These Nisei members of the resettlement program were selected to ensure the success of the program and, by implication, to establish the terms for successful lives in the American society beyond their prewar ethnic communities. 9
Yet any potential claims for the openness of American society that the WRA might hope to make through the resettlement program were compromised from the start, since the program was obviously limited by the exclusion of older and poorer Japanese Americans, in addition to those unwilling to accede to the loyalty oaths and the rounds of government review in order to become eligible for either the draft or resettlement, the only two permanent roads out of the camps. The WRA resettlement program, while designated as a means to achieve the greater mobility of Japanese Americans as a group, in accordance with other attempts to deal with racial inequities in the postwar period, actually limited the mobility [End Page 58] of the majority community left in the camps. The selection process exacerbated the already complex divisions within the camps, where internees expressed a range of responses to the ordeal of imprisonment and often struggled to find some foothold on the future. Some internees rebelled, some languished in doubt over how to respond, some succumbed to the pressures against association with suspect parties, and still others went even further to disassociate themselves entirely from all things Japanese. Within this setting, the WRA winnowed out a small sampling of college-educated or skilled laboring Nisei as those who were “salvageable.”
The concept of the resettled Nisei as worthy of saving resonates in the title of Dorothy Swaine Thomas’s 1952 book, The Salvage, based on the results of a separate University of California study of the effects of the resettlement program. As Thomas’s study reveals, the WRA program of resettlement promoted a broad definition of successful transition back into American society as the denial of and separation from the ethnic community in favor of increased association and identification with white middle-class Americans. As Thomas herself concedes, the resettlement program was fundamentally designed to reform the Nisei as model racialized citizen-subjects by erasing in them what was perceived as the consolidation of an extreme racial and cultural difference. Thus, Thomas concludes that:
[t]he net effect of forced mass migration and selective resettlement was, therefore, the dispersal beyond the bounds of segregated ethnocentered communities into areas of wider opportunity of the most highly assimilated segments of the Japanese American minority.(128)
In order to track the achievement of “dispersal” of the first wave of resettled Nisei, members of the University of California Evacuation and Resettlement Study, which, in addition to Thomas, included a group of field workers who conducted interviews and reported their findings to her, followed the progress of a group of fifteen Nisei who had “outmigrated” to Chicago in 1943 and 1944. The study is chiefly concerned with tracking the incidence and frequency of interracial contacts with “Caucasians.” The official questionnaires delivered to the Nisei respondents frequently request data concerning “whether employers and fellow workers were Japanese or Caucasian,” whether friends or romantic interests included Caucasians, and “what were [the individual’s] relations with and attitudes toward Caucasians” (136–44). Under the heading “Mechanism by which [End Page 59] resettlement was accomplished,” the questionnaire explicitly asks the Nisei informants to track the frequency of “opportunities to break away from minority group; opportunities to break away from family.” Subsequent follow-up questions further advise the informant to consider as “positive influences” those that “pulled the individual to his destination” and as “negative influences” those that “pushed” the individual “away from the relocation project.” “Parental or group pressures against resettling, and how they were overcome” appear as central to the study’s means of evaluating success, with the effect of heightening respondents’ awareness of the need to break the perceived chokehold of Japanese difference on Japanese American futures. The study’s overwhelming attention to “not only what the resettler does, but with whom he does it, with special reference to interracial contacts or limitation to intraracial contacts” evidences the primary importance given to the resettling Niseis’ capacity for securing increased white contacts and the implied future success that such contact conveyed. The anthropologist Alexander Leighton, who had spearheaded the study of Japanese behavior and personality in the camps in 1942, also advised Japanese Americans to seek white friends since “it was largely from such white friends-who were in a sense patrons-that the Japanese children acquired their goals and ideals in American life, as well as manners and language” (153).
The tracking of interracial contacts for minorities as a measurement of success was not limited to the WRA’s plan to remake the Nisei, for it also emerges in Kallen’s description of American society as a “growing pluralism of associations.” He encourages both “interfaith” and “interracial” movements as “conscious ends and conscious means to attain the ends,” although he stops short of approving of interracial marriages by clarifying his image of an integrated America as “a lasting intersocial and interpersonal peace still remoter than words can tell” (98–99). Kallen’s conditional support of interracial relations as the best route to minority success steers clear of addressing the issue of miscegenation, still the source of many white Americans’ deepest fears about racial integration. The conclusions of Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy, that white men were not yet prepared to accept “intermarriage and sexual intercourse involving white women,” marks the outer limits of postwar white Americans’ conceptions of an integrated society (60).
Like the Nisei selected for the 1943 resettlement program, the Japanese war brides of the early 1950s were also seeking entry into [End Page 60] predominantly white national spaces and opportunities, although the terms of their entry were unexpected and unplanned. While the resettlement officially tried to disperse selected Nisei away from their ethnic communities and encouraged their efforts to penetrate white enclaves, in contrast the war brides’ entry into those same enclaves was contested on the grounds that like the elderly Issei, their national and class differences were simply too great to overcome. To complicate matters even further, the Saturday Evening Post article simultaneously projects the Japanese war brides as too eager to “shed everything Japanese in favor of American substitutes as fast as they can,” since they prove resistant to advice “that soup served in Japanese lacquer will make a tremendous hit with American guests, and that everybody will wish to see the kimono” (80). In coming to America with the intention of being perfect, middle-class housewives, these Japanese women were caught in a predicament: their success as housewives relied on their success in divesting themselves of all that formerly made them appealing to non-Asian Americans: their distinct and distant Japaneseness. Unlike the resettled Nisei, who were national subjects and whose Japaneseness was in need of eradication if their challenge to Americanness was to be neutralized, the loss of the war brides’ Japanese traditions and their instantaneous adoption of American ways ultimately threatened to expose the illogical terms of national inclusiveness. The further risk at the heart of assumptions that Americanness may be learned, particularly from white Americans, in the case of both the Nisei and the war brides, is the potential for the erosion of the myth of American exceptionalism. 10
But even more troubling for the concept of national identity was the issue of “the Eurasian children of these marriages.” In tow with their mothers, they promised to increase “the Japanese-race population back home” (25). However, the underlying concern of the Post authors is less that the Japanese American race would be replenished by these immigrant women than that their mixed race marriages and their “Eurasian children” would eventually erode the distinctions between the white and Japanese races. “The effect of these mixed marriages on American life at home is still to come,” conclude the authors, who imagine in mythic terms “the arrival of thousands of dark-skinned, dark-eyed brides in Mississippi cotton hamlets and New Jersey factory cities, on Oregon ranches or in Kansas country towns” where “their bright-eyed children soon will be knocking on school doors in most of the forty-eight states” (25). The probability of mixed race families living openly in formerly [End Page 61] white or non-Asian areas of the nation not only renders these regions unfamiliar; it also disturbs miscegenation anxieties that are the bedrock of white resistance to racial integration. The interracial marriages of Japanese war brides, then, established the limits of white-Japanese relations, limits that had been checked in the case of resettled Nisei by the idiom of patronage that defined their contacts with whites. Although, as the passage of time revealed, these limits did not necessarily contain the ambivalent feelings often expressed by most of the fifteen Nisei respondents to the 1943 study.
The Nisei, unlike the Japanese war brides, were given a public forum in which to articulate their feelings about their status in the United States. And in their testimonies, they express a desire to be accepted by white Americans, as well as a resulting resentment of being seen as Japanese and a pronounced cynicism regarding the potential for an integrated future. In a very real sense, the Nisei were struggling to reproduce themselves as “whole” Americans, and their own reports on their progress toward fuller inclusion in mainstream white society are at once anxious and resigned. Their reports of life outside the camps ultimately throw into relief the failed terms of Japanese American resettlement in the later-wartime and early-postwar years, as well as set the stage for the nation’s understanding and incorporation of Japanese war brides a decade later.
Despite the fact that most of the Nisei resettlers had been able to procure varying degrees of college training, the autobiographies collected in the study recall prewar childhoods marked by the dire conditions of rural and urban Japanese home life as a result of the relatively narrow economic opportunities for Japanese Americans to succeed in the industries of the West Coast (Takaki 203–08). 11 The majority of Japanese Americans frequently struggled to earn a living in the early 1940s, many having barely survived the Depression. They continued to struggle to send their children to college, where the Nisei confronted still other circles of white privilege. As a result, a majority of the fifteen Nisei respondents traced their ongoing sense of separateness as Americans to an early and chronic awareness of their lower-class status, even going so far as to suggest that their attraction to the comforts of white middle-class culture was a desire to escape poverty as much as racial discrimination.
Memories of early home and work lives are often punctuated with embarrassment over the deprivations the Nisei endured, particularly [End Page 62] in comparison to local whites, whose economic opportunities they envied. One young man, who calls himself a “schoolboy” in the interviews, remembers working “in the California slave pattern which existed at that time,” “denied all of the things that normal kids had because of our extreme poverty,” a situation that, in his terms, “made us feel inferior” (Thomas 153). Other respondents concur, routinely describing their homes as “not too good” (187), “miserable” (369), or “barely scraping along” (484). The accumulated reports of an early sense of deprivation depict Japanese American culture as synonymous with the entrapment and depression of poverty from which there seemed no immediate escape. “I became more aware of my race,” reports the same young Nisei woman, “and I recognized that the Caucasians on the whole were really superior to the Japanese culturally . . . they had a poise which we Nisei lack” (484). “I wanted to get over the border which prevented the Nisei from fully participating,” remembers one Nisei man, “but I didn’t know how” (215).
Indeed, some of the resettling Nisei felt an inordinate responsibility for figuring out how to “get over the border” that apparently separated Japanese Americans from white Americans. Achieving a college degree was viewed as one means of gaining entry to greater opportunities. By early 1943, those Nisei who chose to endure the qualification process for the WRA resettlement program were prepared to go “along with the attitude that I did not care what happened as long as I got out of the camp” (Thomas, Salvage 174). They began to get what was popularly termed “the resettlement fever” (225). In pursuit of what they perceived as (white middle-class) American “poise,” the Nisei who resettled in the Midwest during the closing years of the war were prepared to dissociate themselves from their poorer ethnic communities and to adopt new patterns and social contacts. Although the terms of their planned assimilation into white society may now be viewed as regressive, it was not unusual for Nisei resettlers to see themselves as pioneers bravely attempting to claim privileges denied to them. Given the lingering anxieties over racial mixing, the price of admittance to white society sometimes required inordinate courage. The resettling Nisei struck a difficult bargain that, on the one hand, seemed to make them sacrificial lambs to the government’s tentative experiment in improving race relations where Japanese Americans were concerned. But, on the other hand, given their pronounced sense of guilt and frustration over Japanese Americans’ wartime ordeal, many Nisei simultaneously viewed the program as a [End Page 63] second chance at achieving American success. Some resettlers speak of the practical benefits of pursuing white acceptance, saying “they have a lot of pull and we have to depend on them for many things” (297). Still others express the hope that resettlement might have positive, long-standing implications for all Japanese Americans. Couched in terms of “our great chance” (320) or “a great opportunity to build Utopian communities” (555), the resettlement is explicitly articulated as a redemptive process, both for the Nisei who were participating and, more indirectly, for ideals of American pluralism and democracy that were imperiled by the internment. “I also feel,” says one woman who worked as a domestic servant, “that I am contributing something toward the real achievement of democracy” (320). Even those who express cynicism about their experiences continue to believe that “the Nisei do have a future in America” if “a negotiated peace” is reached with whites (376).
Yet by the end of 1945, despite their efforts to relocate and their willingness to cut ties to the ethnic community, the resettled Nisei remained adrift. In stark contrast to the initial vision of resettlement as “a great opportunity,” a substantial number of Nisei who responded to Thomas’s study express increasing doubts about the coming decade. The price of resettlement had been high. Most of the respondents had originally believed that integration would resolve their anxieties about being marked as racially different, but if anything, working and living with whites seemed to increase their sense of self-consciousness. A man working as a journalist reports that “on resettling out here, I had a renewal of my race consciousness and I felt very insecure” (230). Although one woman “lucky” enough to be employed as a bookkeeper claims she has “not consciously been trying to break away from the Japanese group,” she also admits, “I do feel embarrassed when I see them on the streets,” and she wonders aloud why other Nisei “try to avoid me” (473). Even those who admit to registering for the resettlement program in order “to escape the sight of any Japanese faces,” faces that had become “symbolical of all my shattered life hope,” also admit “it would be impossible to ever pick up the pieces again” (500). The notion that “if integration was to be worked out right, we had to lose our group identity” (177) seemed to be furthering rather than diminishing the participants’ sense of dispossession. “On the whole,” reports a man who had been in Chicago for a year, “the way most Nisei are existing now is not satisfactory to them. They are restless and they have no definite place to go for recreational activities.” [End Page 64]
Thomas’s study, completed on the eve of the postwar period, seems to indicate a grim future for the overwhelming majority of the resettled Nisei. According to The Salvage, the WRA resettlement program, with its emphasis on the redeeming nature of interracial contacts with whites, had apparently done little to help Japanese Americans acquire the “culturally superior” poise of whites. Instead, the break with the ethnic community and the resulting pursuit of an unmarked racial identity as Americans had only increased the Nisei sense of disillusionment with American society. Precisely because it cast selected Nisei participants as the exceptional “salvage” from the “Japanesy” world of their parents and of the Japan-educated second-generation Japanese, or Kibei, the resettlement program initiated in mid-1943 did not work to integrate the majority of Japanese Americans into white communities outside the camps but rather worked primarily to accommodate and assuage the fears of non-Japanese Americans, particularly white Americans, upon whose approval the resettlement was deemed to depend. The resettled population’s inclusion as “loyal” Americans was ultimately purchased at the price of their alienation from both the white and Japanese American communities.
Most important, though, is the manner in which the University of California study seemed to indicate the fracturing of the vision of postwar America as “the orchestration of a growing pluralism of associations” into the “wholeness” of the individual. The resettled Japanese American community was instead the antithesis of this vision and, along with the looming question of African American integration, threatened to strip down the veneer of optimism that overwhelmed the early postwar years. Because the resettlement program failed to produce the desired new, postwar Japanese American subject-a racialized citizen no longer burdened by the memories of “a shattered life hope”-it left a void into which the Japanese war bride stepped. As the war brides began their uncertain “exodus” out of one national context and into another, the notion that white America might become “a terra incognita” to itself was a real if unexpected possibility in the context of the buildup to the Brown decision. Or as the Saturday Evening Post article tellingly defines the stateside situation the Japanese war brides will encounter: “Nothing much but time and bitter experience can overcome great hazards like language difficulty, racial question marks and the separation of truth about America from the dream of America” (79 emphasis added). In less than five years, however, these seemingly insurmountable barriers and the pessimism about war brides’ futures in America would undergo [End Page 65] a radical reversal, as the terms of the Japanese subject’s function in relation to the problem of racial difference and American identity took yet another turn.
The Making of a Model Minority: Sachiko Pfeiffer Meets James Michener
Perhaps the pronounced discomfort with the idea of Japanese war brides as American wives and mothers may be attributed to the unwillingness or inability of most non-Asian Americans to reconcile the national maternal or domestic ideal of American femininity with that other feminine ideal, the Asian, or sometimes simply “Asiatic” woman as the sexual delight of the war-weary white soldier. In the 1940s and 1950s, a slew of popular mass-market novels promoted this image of the Asian woman in stories set against a familiar wartime backdrop in which the white GI finds himself uncontrollably drawn into a sexual relationship with a mysterious and nubile Asian girl. By the novel’s end, she usually either dies, becomes impossibly unavailable, or otherwise conveniently disappears under the jungle canopy before any question of marriage or of her returning to the States can be entertained. Her space is not the domestic American space, defined exclusively as a white sphere of experience, but the frontier beyond home and hearth, the lush tropical isles or the steaming port cities of the exotic red districts of the East. Among the list of those relying on this trope for the West’s encounter with the East, Richard Mason, who wrote The World of Suzie Wong (1953), and James Michener, who wrote the earlier war story, Tales of the South Pacific, in 1946, became the most successful purveyors of this genre of fiction. Michener was the more critically acclaimed of the two, winning a Pulitzer Prize for Tales, which went on to win a Pulitzer as a stage musical and became one of the most successful films of the 1950s. His postwar career was literally founded on the refinement of the story of East-West romance, a story line that was central to the plot in nearly all of his early works: Tales of the South Pacific (1946), The Fires of Spring (1949), Return to Paradise (1951), Hawaii (1959), and Sayonara (1953). The last of these, Sayonara, became the best-selling literary portrait of Japanese war bride romance and remains arguably the most influential. Its longevity and its cultural visibility, which culminate the popular appeal of the white GI-Asian women romances to a mostly non-Asian American audience, offer some clues as to why and how Japanese war brides became implicated [End Page 66] in the popular discourse on race relations, integration, and cultural pluralism in the early 1950s.
When Sayonara was published in 1953 it mirrored other early-fifties perceptions of the white GI-Japanese woman romance as “a gloomy conflict-ridden intermarriage” (Kim 96). 12 But in its passage from novel to film in 1957, Sayonara’s narrative of these interracial romances was significantly altered. The 1953 novel version of Sayonara tells the story of Major Lloyd Gruver, a young white American officer who has the world by the tail: scion of an aristocratic, old southern family who is educated at West Point in the distinguished tradition of his forefathers, he is the Air Force’s ace pilot engaged to the beautiful debutante daughter of a general when the novel opens. Initially critical of the interracial romances between American GIs and Japanese women, he eventually falls in love with Hana-Ogi, the exotically beautiful star of the all-female theatrical troupe, the Takarazuka. The romance with Hana-Ogi causes him to question his relationship with his white fiancée, Eileen Webster, as well as the conventional middle-class future now looming ominously in front of him. As he struggles with the idea of committing to the relationship with Hana-Ogi, the military intervenes to stop him from “ruining things” (207). In keeping with the plot of other white-Asian romances, the Air Force arranges for Hana-Ogi to be sent into hiding by the Takarazuka. In the final scene, General Webster, Eileen’s father, drives a silent, brooding Gruver to the airport where Eileen is waiting for them. Gruver resigns himself to Eileen and the demands of middle-class domesticity by bidding an ambivalent farewell to the romantic island-nation: “And you, Japan, you crowded islands, you tragic land-sayonara, you enemy, you friend” (208). The novel varies little from the typical depiction of war bride marriages as tragic encounters, which could not be sustained if the national domestic order was to be reproduced. The film, however, is another matter.
Released in 1957, and starring Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka, the film version of Sayonara is mostly faithful to the novel, but with a crucial difference: at the end, the lovers stay together and openly imagine a happy domestic life in America. Rather than succumbing to the forces of prejudice and his duty to marry Eileen, Gruver, played by a properly surly Marlon Brando at the height of his popularity as a masculine icon, seems almost menacing in his rejection of conventional racial mores. In the final scene of the film, he storms the Takarazuka compound where Hana-Ogi is hiding. Finding her there in the medieval regalia of a geisha, he convinces [End Page 67] her to marry him. After a heart-wrenching discussion of the barriers preventing their union-in which she asks, “But what will our children be?” and to which he responds, “What will they be? Well, they’ll be half of you and half of me, they’ll be half-yellow and half-white! That’s what they’ll be!”-they step outside to tell the throngs of reporters, who have been captivated by the story of the romance, that they have decided to marry and return to America. Hana-Ogi, who renders her statement in a halting Japanese, imagines a loving family scene awaiting them, where she will “teach my children and someday my grandchildren to dance.” But the final word goes to Gruver. When an American reporter asks him for “a word for your critics back home,” his sarcastic retort is, “Tell ‘em we said, sayonara!” The music swells triumphantly, and the credits roll while the couple is packed into a cab that recedes amid the bustle of a busy urban street in Japan. Interracial marriages between white American men and Japanese women seem not only nobler in 1957, but they also seem destined to succeed. 13 What happened in the four years separating the publication of the novel in 1953 and the release of the film in 1957 to effect this dramatic reversal in the story of Japanese war bride marriages? What shifts in the postwar politics of racial integration and the crisis of cultural pluralism made it possible, or even necessary to rewrite the ending of the Japanese war bride story to suggest not just the viability of these marriages but, at least in this famous case, their virtual idealization?
The question of what happened to change the coverage of Japanese war brides is valid, not the least because the transition from Madame Butterfly to American wife and mother is also reflected in the popular journalistic reports of Japanese war bride marriages. Feature stories in mainstream magazines in the mid-1950s confirm that the turnaround in the film version of Sayonara was not isolated. The tragic strains in articles such as The Saturday Evening Post report from 1952 are repudiated by the coverage that emerges in the mid-1950s. Like the novel to film metamorphosis of Michener’s novel, the trend of popular press coverage of Japanese war brides was toward greater tolerance and even celebration, as stories appearing in major magazines turned away from forecasting the futility of Japanese war brides’ futures in America to embrace the Japanese war bride as a symbol of the realization of the American dream. The polite, beseeching Japanese war bride had arrived as perhaps the postwar prototype of the Asian American model minority.
Consonant with the later flowering of the model minority myth of Asian American success, the adulation visited on the Japanese war [End Page 68] bride, at least in the pages of magazines and in this popular film, gained its immediate momentum from the changing dynamics of black-white relations in America. As Asian American critics of the 1960s model minority narrative have repeatedly pointed out, the narrative is dubious because it ultimately serves “to discredit the protests and demands for social justice of other minority groups” by positing the success of Asian Americans as implicit proof of the failure of other racialized groups (Suzuki 13–19). 14 As the model minority, Asian Americans’ success reaffirms the stability of democratic capitalism and makes a critique of the systemic inequities of Americanism unnecessary. In the mid-1950s, Japanese American war brides were still “women stepping into terra incognita,” only now their national and racial difference had the potential to redeem rather than to agitate the fraught racial landscape of America.
In retrospect, the last five years of the 1950s seem marked both by change and complacency, a period that saw the continuing racial violence against African Americans unfold against a backdrop of apparent middle class comfort and growing national power. Given the events of 1954, the nation in early 1955 seemed suspended between some sort of action on the issue of segregation, which would dismantle the enormously influential line between black and white in American culture, and the celebration of peacetime affluence, of finally being free of struggles. The Brown decision in May of 1954 was immediately perceived as opening up an unprecedented national and legal space from which African Americans could protest prevailing forms of public discrimination and, by implication, force white Americans to acknowledge the pervasiveness of white privilege. While the Court delayed the ultimate decision on implementation for a full year until the summer of 1955, the issue of how integration would proceed was, for varying reasons, a major concern of many Americans. In a brutal twist of irony, the implementation decision would be almost immediately followed by the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till at the hands of two white supremacists in the late summer of 1955, including widespread press coverage of the kangaroo court in Mississippi, where the murderers were acquitted. The refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in that same year, an act which set off the legendary Montgomery bus boycotts, completed the cataclysmic events following in the wake of the Brown decision. But, for the purposes of this essay, late-1954 and early 1955 represent the period before those struggles erupted, the suspended time when Americans waited anxiously for the issue of racial integration to be decided and when [End Page 69] many might still imagine a stable transition to integration. This is the point at which popular representations of Japanese war brides’ relations with exclusively white men became screens for the imagining of a successful racial integration in postwar life and for the re-establishment of the illusion of white innocence.
When Life magazine published its feature on the phenomenon of GI-Japanese marriages, entitled “Pursuit of Happiness by a GI and a Japanese,” in February of 1955, Emmett Till was still alive and the Montgomery buses were still segregated. Although the magazine had run a story on the Supreme Court decision in 1954, it generally ignored the meaning of the decision by several means. The editors insisted that “most southerners were calm” despite the fact that polls showed eighty percent of white southerners “vehemently opposed” racial integration. The media also consistently represented blacks as a monolithic, manageable group in photo spreads of black children standing in line to be admitted to those few schools that voluntarily agreed to integrate. And finally, they praised President Eisenhower in an early editorial on the decision for “setting a good example,” although he had actually refused to endorse the decision and privately held that it was wrong for the federal government to tamper with Jim Crow customs (“Historic” 16). In the yearlong period that followed between the Court’s decision and its implementation ruling, Life, the most popular and widely distributed magazine in the country, was curiously evasive or silent on the issue of integration, attempting in most instances to downplay white anxiety and resistance to desegregation. Even after the 1955 implementation decision, Life prophesied that the impending desegregation of American society would be achieved with relative ease. In a June 13, 1955, article on Thurgood Marshall, who argued the Brown case, the magazine focused on the “kind words” for Marshall of some southern lawyers (“Chief Counsel” 141). In a similarly optimistic July 25, 1955, article on voluntary desegregation in Hoxie, Arkansas, writers played up the “quick acceptance for new pupils” by whites even while several mothers confess their children are “always afraid of Negroes” (“Morally Right” 30). In this transitional period of late-1954 and early-1955, Life’s coverage of race relations between blacks and whites was defined by the denial of racial hostilities in the United States in favor of imagining a benign and accommodating national landscape, where the rights of racial minorities were at least tolerated by whites who could be depended on to abide by laws. A February 1955 article on Sachiko [End Page 70] Pfeiffer, a Japanese war bride who immigrated to the U.S. in 1948 after marrying Frank Pfeiffer of Chicago, provides a case in point.
Sachiko Pfeiffer’s story has all the elements necessary during the period to project the nation as an ideal of cultural pluralism; it takes up the timely issue of racial integration on the home front, but without the need to address directly the historical abuses of the nation in regard to African and Japanese Americans. By maintaining Sachiko Pfeiffer’s status as “a Japanese,” the article avoids asking the most urgent questions regarding race relations and racial integration. Instead, the famous author of the article chooses to focus attention on the heroic struggles of a Japanese woman trying to become an American.
James Michener, described by the editors as “one of the more sympathetic interpreters of the East,” recounts the Americanization of Sachiko Pfeiffer in a manner that foreshadows the sense of sentimentalized triumph that would later distinguish the conclusion of the 1957 film version of Sayonara. Although Michener’s 1953 novel about Japanese war brides had previously offered a pessimistic view of the potential for these interracial relationships to survive, and despite the fact that he had researched the novel while working for the State Department to help discourage GIs from marrying their Japanese girlfriends, he agreed to spend time with the Pfeiffers at the editors’ request, to observe “firsthand the workings of one such family in the U.S.” (126). The title of this 1955 article, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” manifests Michener’s final word on Japanese war bride marriages. He approaches the Pfeiffers as a typical American postwar success story, casting them as a young couple steadfastly ascending to middle-class status and finding that racial discrimination in the United States does not impede their rise. Viewed from the vantage point of the late-twentieth century, Michener’s involvement in the cultural politics of Japanese war bride marriages might be seen to foreshadow his later personal choices. In 1955, just a few months after the publication of this article, James Michener would marry Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, a Japanese American woman he met while in Japan. Although his readers in Life could not have known it, in retrospect his marriage to a woman of Japanese descent seems to be the final, ironic footnote in the evolution of Michener’s public opinions about the viability of Japanese war bride marriages. The liberal optimism of his story now raises the possibility that Michener was attempting to succor his own growing personal need to argue for acceptance of marriages between Japanese [End Page 71] women and white men. Certainly his narration of Sachiko’s successful struggles against prejudice succeeds in arguing for her acceptance based primarily on her capacity to reinvigorate the notion that a stabilizing cultural pluralism is, after all, still at the heart of American society. As a story of “the growing pluralism of associations” Kallen celebrates in American culture, Sachiko Pfeiffer’s difficult adjustment to American life is represented in such a way that it becomes an inevitable stage in rendering both her and her white neighbors more “whole.”
Michener begins the article with a brief synopsis of the Pfeiffers’ courtship and marriage in Japan, the “soft-spoken slaughterhouse butcher from the Chicago stockyards” and the hardworking “tiny girl” from Japan with the perennially smiling face, who was lugging a sixty-pound sack of rice when Frank first saw her. “After four speechless dates they knew they were in love” (124). After arriving in the United States, however, they faced their toughest challenge from Frank’s mother, Mrs. Esther Pfeiffer, a middle-aged woman exceedingly apprehensive about the marriage from the beginning. Although they initially lived with Mrs. Pfeiffer when they arrived in Chicago, in time the presence of a Japanese daughter-in-law proved too disturbing. When Mrs. Pfeiffer “cracked” one night and commanded Sachiko not to speak another word of Japanese in her house, Frank and Sachiko were forced out and into an area of Chicago where they were exposed to the harsh realities of lingering postwar hostilities against the Japanese. In their first apartment, located in the city, the Pfeiffers lived with daily hostility from neighbors because many of them “resented Japanese.” “Women began to stand in the street and stare up at the Pfeiffer apartment, talking loudly about ‘that dirty Jap.’” Describing this period as a time when the Pfeiffers “had practically no money” and were forced to live in a cramped apartment, Michener constructs the neighborhood as a crowded residential area, where neighbors were close enough to yell epithets from the street and where “soon there were threats of eviction” and “notes were stuffed in their mailboxes advising them to get out or else face trouble.” Sachiko and Frank considered leaving but eventually opted to stay until they could save enough money to buy a house in the suburbs. The rest of the article is built on the melodramatic tale of the Pfeiffers’ efforts to find their place in the suburbs of Chicago, their tenacity against overwhelming alienation and economic hard times, and their eventual success in achieving acceptance from neighbors and reuniting the Pfeiffer family as a whole.
Sachiko Pfeiffer’s story of assimilation invites parallels with [End Page 72] the experience of the resettled Nisei, not the least because the Nisei had also attempted to find acceptance in Chicago less than a decade earlier. In addition, Sachiko’s success is depicted as hinging on the whims of white approval, like the resettled Nisei covered in Dorothy Thomas’s study who were encouraged to seek and cultivate white contacts. Yet while the Nisei generally reported that they had failed to find a sense of belonging in postwar Chicago, Sachiko’s story is a paean to the dramatic potential for American assimilation of racial differences. Unlike the resettled Nisei, Sachiko’s Japaneseness is precisely what makes her acceptance imaginable, because it is the means by which the national racial landscape becomes defamiliarized. When Frank Pfeiffer concludes, “actually, Chicago as a whole is about the best place in America for people like us,” because “about 30,000 Japanese were resettled here during the war, and 20,000 stayed on,” he unwittingly reflects the unconscious processes of that defamiliarization (130). Despite the fact that Frank collapses their marriage and Sachiko’s recent immigrant status and experience with the history of resettled Nisei, “the people like us,” the Pfeiffers are ultimately accepted by their white suburban neighbors because they are not people like the Nisei. As a Japanese American, Sachiko’s racial and cultural history is seemingly unfettered by the injustice of internment and the failure of resettlement. It is precisely because she is not like the Nisei that she may symbolize the regeneration of cultural pluralism and Japanese American life in America, just as Frank Pfeiffer’s whiteness ensures the avoidance of other domestic crises. In short, if Sachiko’s American husband had been black, or Nisei, Life would not have been able to utilize their story to regenerate the notion of America as a racial as well as political democracy. The future of this new cultural pluralism for Japanese Americans seems to reside in the booming and free access to white suburban life, with the suburban terrain as a space in which the tense racial drama of urban Chicago, and other threatening problems of racial and cultural inequities, might be recast or, better yet, forgotten.
Sachiko’s entry into the suburbs as an unmarked national subject emphasizes the suburbs’ central function in the imagining of a racially integrated future in the United States. As a landscape of indistinguishable shell-houses, each one a symbol of individual labor and accomplishment, the suburbs still held out the hope of believing in a nation where individualism might be reborn freed from the disturbing questions of America’s racial history. As a Japanese woman, Sachiko “had known trouble before,” and enduring white discrimination is made to [End Page 73] seem a natural extension of her Japanese legacy. “Her mother,” according to Michener, “was one of those strong women one meets in Japanese fiction” (129). Sachiko’s peculiar Japanese fortitude in the face of undue struggle is further augmented by the nature of the racism she confronts; it is, to use Frank’s term, “accidental.” “We had the bad luck,” Frank concludes, “to move in among a few families who hated Japanese.” The “bad luck” that circumscribes their Chicago experiences is represented not as a pervasive problem in the United States, but rather as a localized one confined to the crowded, low-rent parts of the city. The key to their problems proves to be escape from the urban jungle that breeds racist resentment and pressure. When one neighbor begins eviction proceedings against them, they step up their plans. Taking an unexpected leap, they decide to move to the suburbs and build a “shell house,” a housing experiment “whereby the builder whips up four outside walls, a sewage system, running water, subflooring and a skeleton kitchen” and the owner “undertakes to finish the construction himself” (130–31). Michener dubs the shell house “the American miracle,” and so it proves for the Pfeiffers.
Deciding on a plot in Melrose Park, Illinois-infamous at the time for the violence that had erupted in nearby Oak Park in 1950 when “the brilliant Negro chemist, Dr. Percy L. Julian, moved in”-the Pfeiffers face an uncertain racial climate, because “tempers in the area were still inflamed” (131). To assuage the fears of white neighbors and prospective buyers, Sachiko is asked by the builder to pass an inspection of sorts, to agree to meet her new neighbors and seek their approval before being approved by the builder. The result is a resounding success, by Michener’s accounting, a miracle conversion to go along with the miracle shell house. Although several white neighbors were initially skeptical, some being World War II veterans with long simmering hatred of anyone with Japanese blood, or as Michener puts it, “hardly the ones who might be expected to accept a Japanese,” Sachiko wins the day (131). “I walked in,” remembers one white woman, “and saw Sachiko for the first time. She was staring at the floor, afraid to look up. She seemed so clean, so needing a friend that I started to cry and ran over to her and threw my arm around her shoulder” (emphasis added). Similarly, another white woman recalls, “it was the finest time of my life. Such warmth, such love we discovered in one another.” Michener encourages his readers to celebrate Sachiko’s achievement of white acceptance, concluding that it was then, embraced in “the love in which her neighbors held her,” that “she became an American” (133). [End Page 74]
Sachiko Pfeiffer’s American success story, as represented by James Michener, is a study in the triumph of racial tolerance in the postwar period and the amazing potential of white middle-class America to forego the legacy of racial prejudice, including, in this case, the very recent violence that had welcomed the arrival of a black doctor some five years earlier. Reborn under the spreading umbrella of shell housing, the white middle-class community opts now to throw its arms, quite literally, around the Japanese war bride who, in 1952, it had predicted would fail to adapt to its kind of America. The same white America that The Saturday Evening Post had conjectured might not try “a fraction as hard to help them along” now had perhaps a new incentive for seeing the Japanese war bride succeed in America. Certainly Michener, reflecting on the potential for the Pfeiffers’ “pursuit of happiness” in white middle-class America, had altered his own narrative framework for the Japanese woman. But Sachiko also remains “one of those strong women one meets in Japanese fiction,” (or in Michener’s own novels), so that her offer to subject herself to a visual survey by white buyers simultaneously reiterates the war bride as victim. As a result, her ordeals in the United States, which might have provided evidence of the considerable prejudice still gripping white Americans, are instead processed as the necessary vagaries of a Japanese woman’s oppression. Her story, in a sense, would not be complete without these hardships. She is the ideal postwar racial subject, one who succors white anxieties about the racial integration to come by reaffirming the power of white middle-class domesticity to absorb and dissolve such anxieties. The “terra incognita” symbolized by the groups of Japanese war brides entering the United States in the early 1950s enables Michener’s portrait of a “terra incognita” of cultural pluralism in the suburbs. As a Japanese woman, Sachiko Pfeiffer becomes a means of approaching the issue of racism in the United States without ever taking up the historical and political threat to white privilege posed by the Brown decision. At the same time, however, the moral challenge of African American integration structures the appeal of the Pfeiffer’s tale and is cleverly reclaimed in this story of “a marriage surmounting the barriers of language and intolerance” (124). As would subsequently be the case in future narratives of Asian Americans as “the model minority,” the Japanese war bride is interposed between black and white to resolve the dilemma of racial hostility in American history. But in addition, the story of Sachiko Pfeiffer’s successful ascendance to white middle-class spaces becomes the means of foregoing the recognition of Japanese [End Page 75] Americans’ frustrating resettlement in the same city and, perhaps, the very same suburban spaces.
And in the way Michener concludes his article, with the story of Sachiko’s efforts to reunite Frank with his mother, he effectively constructs the Japanese war bride’s desirability on the ashes of the white matriarch, that historically vilified racial figure on whom it may be said the responsibilities for white racism rise and fall. Esther Pfeiffer’s racism causes her to fail to be a proper American mother to Sachiko, whom she turns out of her house. An insurgent figure, Esther’s racism and her subsequent regret are metonymic of the national struggle of whites to accept the racial other into formerly segregated spaces. “Desperately lonely,” Esther takes to “spying on” the Pfeiffers from a distance, until the day Sachiko packs her two young children, Penny and Dale, into the car and drives to her mother-in-law’s house. Frank knocks at his mother’s door and asks, as if replaying the parable of the immigrant seeking entrance at the golden door of opportunity, “Mom, Sachiko wants to know if we can come in.” Happily reunited ever since that day, the Pfeiffers reaffirm the potential of Japanese war brides’ difference in postwar culture for national redemption. Even the racist white mother is drawn in and reformed by their entry, and the integration of the nation is symbolically completed.
The final irony of this story of successful assimilation is that the focus of the story, the Japanese war bride Sachiko Pfeiffer, necessarily disappears in the end. The story of a “successful pursuit of happiness” by the racial other necessitates not only the absence of disturbing racialized figures, such as the resettling Nisei or the African American doctor, Dr. Percy, but ultimately the erasure of Sachiko as well, who dissolves under the pressure of a narrative of cultural pluralism that stabilizes the national scene rather than exposes it. When, at the end of the story, Michener asks about the prospects for Sachiko’s own daughter in American life, her final words unintentionally provide an apt description of the costs of her projection as the postwar model minority, as well as a veiled indictment of the mounting pressures of white hostility to racial difference:
Maybe my children want marry pure Japanese. Same-same by me. Maybe they more happy they marry pure Caucasian. I like same-same. I content to lose my Japanese blood stream in America. I gonna die in America. This is my home forever.(139) [End Page 76]
While the urgency to recognize a changing racial pluralism without giving up the illusion of national wholeness and security is resolved in Michener’s story, the loss to Sachiko is finally encoded in this cryptic, closing articulation of an ambivalent desire for homogeneity-“I like same-same”-and in her acknowledgment that such an America cannot sustain racial difference-“I content to lose my Japanese blood stream in America.” It is the larger cultural urgency to stave off the encounter with the various histories of racism in favor of a redeemed dream of cultural pluralism, and the paradoxical and shifting requirements for loss or retention of racial difference as a precondition for entry into white America, that, after all, defines the condition of American cultural pluralism in the 1950s.
Caroline Chung Simpson is an assistant professor of Asian American literature at the University of Washington, Seattle. She is currently completing a book entitled An Absent Presence: Japanese Americans in Postwar American Culture, 1945–1960.
1. As the most recent study of the emergence and progress of the model minority stereotype of Asian Americans points out, the stereotype is commonly cited as originating in the “middle 1960s,” when the general public “perceived Asian Americans as a model minority on the basis of their educational attainment.” See Wong, Lai, Nagasawa, and Lin.
2. Figures for Japanese, Filipino and Korean women are taken from a report on “Asian Women Immigrants Admitted to the U.S. as Wives of American Citizens” compiled by the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization. It is Table 6 in Annual Reports, 1947–75. The statistical evidence offered in the report is considered conservative. In the most recent demographic reports on Asian war brides, which include the ten-year period between 1964–1975, the numbers are listed as: 66,681 Japanese; 51,747 Filipino; 28,205 Korean; 11,166 Thai; and 8,040 Vietnamese war brides. However, the figures for Chinese war brides are more difficult to pin down. According to Shukert and Scibetta, “most of the 6,000 Chinese war brides married Chinese-American soldiers” and were technically not “war brides” but “proxy brides” or young women whose marriages to these men had been arranged prior to the war (200). In addition, The Magnuson Act of December 17, 1943, had repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and made it possible for Chinese immigrants to seek citizenship, although the quota of only 105 immigrants per year made the act “a symbolic gesture rather than a sincere reform” (198). The War Brides Act of 1945 waived this quota for Chinese American soldiers only, thereby allowing many of them to bring their wives to the United States as “war brides.” See Kim; Saenz, Hwang, and Aguirre.
3. According to Eleanor M. Hadley, MacArthur’s administration is widely perceived as having launched a massive campaign in 1946 to redefine the situation in occupied Japan as one of friendly cooperation rather than guarded coexistence. Historian and MacArthur biographer Michael Schaller argues that MacArthur’s own political ambitions in the United States, as well as problems in the Japanese economy, were the foundations of this campaign (145–52).
4. See Snow’s article in the May 1946 issue of The Saturday Evening Post about “A Town Never Occupied by American Troops.” In the article, Snow notes that the hospitality of Japanese women to American soldiers announced that Japanese women were “refusing to accept male Japan’s verdict” in order to “get our rights from our new conquerors.” See also Behrstock’s “Japan Goes American,” in which Behrstock touts Japanese women’s cordial relations with gis “as evidence of Japan’s growing attraction for American democracy.” See also Ashmead, Busch, Huberman, Parrott.
9. Thomas remarks that “in general, the college-educated Christian-secular nonagricultural Nisei not only showed the greatest willingness to leave camp and to reenter ‘American life,’ but they also, initially, had less difficulty than other classes in obtaining ‘leave clearance’” (Salvage 125).
10. The notion that American society represents a unique civilization and society is still contested. See Kammen.
11. As Takaki points out, Alien Land Laws in California had made it legally impossible for Issei to own land and forced many of them into long-term work as farm laborers or service workers in the cities. While many of these same Issei were theoretically later able to own land through their children, who by virtue of being born in the U.S. were citizens with property rights, the difficulty of procuring the funds to do so while also trying to support a growing family and educate older children tended to eliminate all but the most successful laborers, merchants, and those with family money to draw on. The tightening of anti-Asian laws in California resulted in “a drop in Japanese landholdings” after 1925, which meant losses for Issei parents in the years leading up to the depression era. Ichioka explains that the early hopes of Issei as settlers in America were founded on the dream of farmland development and ownership (148). Taking the possibility of land ownership away, alien land laws hit at the heart of the immigrants’ claims to American identity.
12. See also Paul Spickard’s problematic study of mixed race identity, Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America. Spickard’s portrait of Asian war brides is characterized by stereotypical views remarkable for their presentation as scholarly research.
13. Although it is beyond the scope and intention of this paper to render a detailed reading of both the novel and the film version of Sayonara, it is still important to note that there is another interracial couple in both the versions that does not make it out alive. The working-class Irish Amer-ican enlisted man, Kelly, and his Japanese wife, Katsumi, are so overwhelmed by the army’s attempts to break up their marriage that they commit ritual suicide in despair. Their tragic end provides a contrast to Gruver and Hana-Ogi’s situation, as well as proof of the destructive results of the army’s resistance to Japanese war bride marriages, particularly in the case of less privileged, enlisted personnel. For a full consideration of their function in the film, see Marchetti, 125–75.
14. See also Osajima, Hu.