Essays and Criticism
Ideal Versus Real Relationships
In the novel Picture Bride, Uchida’s protagonist, Hana, struggles throughout the second half of this story in her relationship with her daughter, Mary. Mary is Hana’s only child, for Hana miscarried a son previous to Mary’s birth. The loss of Hana’s son causes great emotional strain on Hana. She takes his death as a sign that she has done something wrong. As time passes, Hana learns to heal herself. One way she does this is to take in the seminary student Kenji Nishima. In helping Kenji to regain his health, Hana feels forgiven for any wrongs she may have done. This sense of forgiveness does not last long though. As her daughter Mary matures, Hana watches the teenage girl pull away from her. The loss of Mary is devastating for Hana, as Mary purposefully removes herself from Hana’s influence. Unlike the death of Hana’s son, regarding which Hana achieves a sense of closure, Mary’s rejection of Hana is ongoing. In an attempt to heal her heart and soul, Hana takes a greater interest in Kenji, who becomes a surrogate son for Hana. Later in the story, when Kenji falls in love, Hana, at least on a psychological level, adopts Kenji’s new bride, Sumiko, as a surrogate daughter. Through both subtle and not so subtle allusions to Kenji and Sumiko, the author sets up a reflection between the ideal and the real as she compares the son and daughter that Hana dreamed of having and the children that Hana bore.
Hana endures many tragedies in this story. She falls in love with a man who is not her husband and then sees him die. She also loses her husband. Other losses include her connections to her Japanese culture, her home, her dignity, and most of the material wealth that she and her husband acquire over the course of their marriage. But the most devastating loss in Hana’s life comes through the loss of her children. The first child that she loses is her son. The miscarriage of her son is linked, at least in Hana’s mind, with her love for Kiyoshi Yamaka, the handsome young man who takes an interest in Hana the first time he sets eyes on her. Hana is equally attracted to Kiyoshi and invites him into her life. She tells him that she is saddened by the bad timing of their meeting. Hana wishes they had met before she promised herself to Taro. They admit their love of one another and are unable to conceal their affection in front of Taro and their other acquaintances. But when Kiyoshi wants to express his love for Hana on a physical level, when he wants to make love to her, Hana realizes they have gone too far. So she stops him. This, however, does not stop her love from further development. She tells Kiyoshi that she will love him forever. Unfortunately, Kiyoshi dies shortly after this, and so too does the baby boy that Hana is carrying. In this way, Kiyoshi and the baby boy are linked. Hana believes that the loss of her son is the price that she must pay for her illicit love of Kiyoshi. She had wanted to give birth to this son as a tribute to her husband, Taro. Hana thought that the son would make up for her transgressions (her love of Kiyoshi) and the subsequent pain that love caused Taro. With the death of her son, this chance vanishes. Hana has to carry the guilt, which is quite intense, until Kenji Nishima comes into her life.
Kenji is a student like Kiyoshi was, but Hana’s interest in Kenji is quite different from the sexual attraction she felt for Kiyoshi. In some ways, Kenji represents Kiyoshi, though. Both are young, lonesome, and starved for attention and nourishment. When the opportunity arises that signifies an urgent need in Kenji’s life, Hana offers herself and her home by way of supporting and nurturing the young man. Kenji becomes a symbol of two of Hana’s losses—Kiyoshi and the miscarried baby boy. It is through her nourishing of Kenji that Hana, in at least a metaphoric sense, resurrects the lives of Kiyoshi and her son. What she was not able to give to Kiyoshi and to her son, Hana offers to Kenji. She finds the means to feed Kenji physically, emotionally, and spiritually, so that Kenji rises from his illness and is filled with zeal. Hana believes that if she is successful in saving Kenji, she will be forgiven for having loved a man who was not her husband and for having miscarried Taro’s son.
Even with Kenji’s return to health, however, Hana’s troubles are not over. Although she carries her next pregnancy to term and gives...
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Prejudice Faced by Japanese Americans
What is most sobering about Yoshiko Uchida’s simple but tragic tale Picture Bride is how closely it follows an unsavory aspect of mid-twentieth century American history. Japanese people who settled on the West Coast did experience prejudice on the part of white people. Federal laws were passed discriminating against Japanese Americans, and Japanese Americans throughout the Pacific Coast region were rounded up and sent to concentration camps shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. As a Japanese American herself, Uchida is an authority on the matter. Just like Hana and Taro in the story, Uchida and her family spent several years at a miserable camp, ironically called Topaz, the Jewel in the Desert, in Utah. It is with an unpleasant start that people in the early 2000s realize that such things did indeed happen on U.S. soil, and within the lifetimes of the grandparents of young readers of Picture Bride in the early twenty-first century.
Poor Hana, the naive Japanese girl who in 1917 takes the boat to California to marry her picture groom—she has only seen a photograph of him—does not know what she is in for. At first her disappointment centers on her husband-to-be, who looks older than his thirty-one years and is already balding and whose drab shop in a run-down part of the city does not resemble in the slightest the smart store Hana had imagined he would own. Hana is a resourceful woman, however, and she soon adapts to her husband and to their limited financial resources. Harder to adapt to, however, is the resentment they as Japanese people face from the white residents, since they can do little to change it other than making sure that their lawn is always neatly cut and no soy barrels that might betray Japanese occupancy litter their yard.
Unfortunately for Hana, she has arrived and will live for the next quarter of a century through what might be called the high tide of prejudice on the part of the majority whites against anyone who happened to be Japanese or of Japanese descent. Examples from the period are not difficult to find. Under the Alien Laws of 1913 and 1920 passed in California, people who were ineligible to become U.S. citizens were not permitted to own land. This is why in the novel Taro is not permitted to own his store; eventually he gets around the problem by putting it in the name of his daughter, who, having been born in the United States, is automatically (according to the Fourteenth Amendment) a U.S. citizen. The Alien Laws were aimed principally at Japanese farmers, since white farmers feared that they would not be able to compete economically with the Japanese, who employed more efficient agricultural techniques. In the novel, when Taro visits a Japanese-American farming community, he notes how hard the farmers work, and he comments that this enables them to sell their produce for less than their white counterparts. His friend Dr. Kaneda explains that this accounts for the prejudice the Japanese face: “As long as we are an economic threat, we are going to be hated. It’s as simple as that.” Kaneda, the community activist, cannot help but feel indignant about this, and he sounds a note that becomes a constant theme in the novel—the fundamental decency of the Japanese people who are being unfairly discriminated against: “And yet why should our farmers be hated for being frugal and working hard to make an honest living?”
The ban on Japanese becoming naturalized U.S. citizens was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1922, and two years later, an immigration law effectively ended Japanese immigration to the United States. In Picture Bride, the injustice of laws such as these is conveyed powerfully through the reactions of the innocent Hana, who finds it hard to believe that such unfairness can exist in the United States. “We Japanese are a peril to this enormous country?” she asks in disbelief after Taro informs her that the newspapers write about how Asians are threatening the jobs of white Americans and use phrases such as “yellow peril” to describe it.
This is just one of the many unpleasant surprises that have awaited the innocent Hana in her new country from the very beginning. For example, when her new friend Kiku Toda tells her that her husband Henry works at the bank, Hana naively assumes that Henry must be a banker or at least a teller or clerk. She is surprised to learn that he is in fact a janitor; the reader guesses what Hana does not yet know: many immigrant Japanese must work at jobs far below their true skills and capabilities simply because white employers will not give them an opportunity to do more. (Later, Henry is fired by the bank and given no reason for his dismissal; the reason of course is clear to readers.)
As the story unfolds, the hurtful slights and more serious discrimination against Japanese Americans accumulate in a steady stream. Taro speaks of how when he first came to the United States, he was humiliated at school because of his poor English skills. (He worked hard to master English, a skill which Hana never seems to acquire.) When Taro tries to rent a house he is refused many times by white landlords who offer the flimsiest of excuses to justify shutting him out. Then there is the delegation of neighborhood whites who report a complaint about the presence of Japanese on the block; they do not have the courage to admit that they are the ones who are complaining, and when asked they can point to nothing that Taro and Hana have actually done to offend anyone. This is racism pure and simple, based not on what a person does but what he or she is. Later, when Hana’s daughter Mary, who was born in the United States and is an American citizen, is growing up, she is advised by the staff at the city swimming pool that she would not “enjoy” swimming there, a thinly veiled way of saying she is not welcome. There may not have been an outright ban on Asians using the pool, but there was a de facto segregation that was understood by...
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