- Nikki Sawada Bridges Flynn and What Comes Naturally
When I got a copy of What Comes Naturally, I felt a pang upon seeing the cover: there was Nikki Bridges, also known as Noriko Sawada Bridges Flynn, captured by a press photographer in 1958, standing beside her soon-to-be husband Harry Bridges, the well-known leader of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU). Nikki—warmhearted, witty, a spirited civil rights activist and writer—was a dear friend. I met her as a graduate student at Stanford when her organization, the Center for Japanese American Studies in San Francisco, invited me to give a talk about my research. She would have gotten a kick out of being on the cover of Peggy Pascoe's book.
One of the many things I appreciate about What Comes Naturally is Pascoe's resistance to portraying interracial couples as one-dimensional champions of justice. In this essay I aim to add more dimension to the history of the Nisei (U.S.-born second-generation) woman on the cover. I also briefly consider how Asian American families have responded to the issue of interracial marriage and how Japanese Americans—the Asian Pacific American group I know best—have been affected by the changes illuminated in What Comes Naturally.
Nikki Sawada Bridges Flynn
Noriko Sawada Bridges Flynn was born in southern California on February 11, 1923, the only child of a Japanese immigrant farmer and his picture-bride wife. In 1901 her father, who had a third-grade education, had come to the United States seeking economic opportunity at the age of twenty-six. He left behind in Japan a wife who, after not hearing from him for eight years, divorced him. Nikki wrote, "For nearly ten years my father labored on railroads as far East as Colorado, returned to California to farm, and saved enough money by 1918 to [End Page 31] sponsor a wife."1 A neighbor in Santa Barbara, himself returning to Japan to marry, provided an introduction to his cousin Ura, with whom Nikki's father began to correspond.
Her parents' courtship illustrates the lengths to which desperate Issei (first-generation immigrant) men might go to attract a wife. Like some other uneducated bachelors Nikki's father enlisted the services of a professional letter writer to woo his prospective bride; Ura was impressed by "his" eloquent letters and poems. She was not alone in being fooled—some men sought to improve their chances of securing a wife by sending touched-up photos or photos taken when they were much younger; others exaggerated the degree of their success in the United States, conveying the impression that they were farm operators rather than field hands, or prosperous merchants rather than small shopkeepers.2 The photo Nikki's father sent showed "a balding man with a Pancho Villa mustache and piercing black eyes," someone who seemed "affluent and urbane." Noted Nikki, "The picture does not show that he was self-effacing and gentle, with neither the drive nor the powerful will possessed by my mother."3
Ura, the daughter of a scholarly rice merchant, arrived in San Francisco as a picture bride, carrying the photo of a man whom she would meet for the first time at the dock. A majority of the Japanese wives who came to the United States during the peak of family immigration—1910–20—were picture brides.4 While Nikki's father had misrepresented himself, Ura had kept silent about her own checkered past: the third daughter of eight children, she could never gain the affection or approval of her father, who favored his three sons. At age sixteen she became pregnant by a neighbor's son, bringing shame to her family; her son died at age two. Shunned and bitter, she "had resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood" for twenty years—until the opportunity of marriage abroad offered a fresh start. Nikki recounted, "At dockside she blurted out the story of her life. She promised that she would cause him no regret and be faithful forever if he would permit her to stay. My father was touched by her candor and courage...