By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
For nearly 40 years, she told everyone else’s stories. Now, with a children’s book under her arm, and a memoir to come, retired KING 5 anchor Lori Matsukawa is telling her own story.
“I guess old retired people do this,” she joked, speaking particularly of researching one’s ancestry. But in all seriousness, since retiring in 2019, Matsukawa has had more time to “reflect,” and that opportunity has been welcomed by her in this next phase of life, which is as productive as ever.
It started with a writing club at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center, called the Omoide (“memories”) Project, where members are encouraged to record their experiences for the purpose of passing down to the next generation. Add to this a tidbit about her family that Matsukawa hadn’t known until about 15 years ago.
“My niece was writing a report about her family and my mom told her,” that Matsukawa’s maternal grandmother was a picture bride.
In the early 1900s, many Japanese men worked in Hawaii, on the West Coast of the United States, and in countries like Brazil and Peru. When it came time for them to start a family, they would contact relatives and matchmakers back home to set them up with a “picture bride,” so called because the only way the two people knew each other in advance was from a picture. The practice was not exclusive to Japanese immigrants. Koreans and others did the same, but was largely an unknown phenomenon to many, including Matsukawa herself, until the movie “Picture Bride” came out in 1995. Once she retired and began researching her family history, she was able to come into possession of the marriage certificate and ship manifests of her maternal grandparents. Her grandmother, upon whom the book is based, arrived in Hawaii around 1914.
Brave Mrs. Sato, a children’s book written by Matsukawa and illustrated by Tammy Yee, tells of preschooler Cathy and her babysitter. Every day, when mom goes to work as a schoolteacher (similarly to Matsukawa’s mom, who taught elementary school), Cathy gets dropped off at Mrs. Sato’s house, where she absorbs Japanese cultural traditions as transmitted through Japanese immigrants living in Hawaii. Starting in the 1880s, Japanese men traveled to Hawaii to work in the cane and pineapple fields. They likely thought, “We’ll come to Hawaii, make our fortunes, and go back,” said Matsukawa, but life and family happen. “Most of them never did.”
A microcosm of Japanese traditions developed in Hawaii, as shown in the book through the babysitter’s habits and surroundings. She practices ikebana (the art of flower arranging with a distinctly Japanese aesthetic), makes tsukemono (pickled cabbage) in the time honored way with a stone on top, and uses ‘old timey’ remedies such as when Cathy hits her head and Mrs. Sato rubs a cold egg from the refrigerator onto the lump.
“Until World War II, [life] was pretty comparable” in Hawaii to the way it was in Japan, Matsukawa said. Staying with Mrs. Sato, or for Matsukawa, her real babysitter at that time, was a way to learn about their culture.
The time comes when Cathy is obliged to go to school. On top of this, Cathy is moving to a new town, an even more traumatic scenario, and will not see her babysitter anymore. Mrs. Sato bolsters Cathy’s confidence by telling her the story of how she came to Hawaii as a picture bride.
“It was a long journey. And I felt very sick leaving my home. But, it was what my parents wanted,” Mrs. Sato says. “They knew I would find a better life in Hawaii.” She began incorporating practices from Japan to lessen her homesickness. “Whenever I missed my village, I’d pick some flowers and do my ikebana. It made me feel peaceful.” Mrs. Sato gives Cathy a kimono with the same design as a kimono gifted to Matsukawa by her grandmother.
Mrs. Sato was lucky in that Mr. Sato was a kind man (not all the matches worked out so well). Matsukawa was careful to reference this in the text, and includes in the pivotal scene of Mrs. Sato arriving on the dock, another young woman with eyes wide because her betrothed is not what she expected (like today, marriage candidates were prone to providing misleading photographs of themselves). Whether your ancestry is similar to that in the book or not, it’s a chance for grownups to say to their kids, “I had a relative who also went through something difficult,” or “we have a comparable family tradition.” The hope is that someone from any culture can find something relatable in the book, and will find it worthwhile to pass that down to their children.
Matsukawa grew up on Oahu, Hawaii. She, too, had to one day say goodbye to her babysitter and attend school. Eventually, she graduated from Aiea High School and her journey continued with college on “the Mainland” and the remarkable career we all know her for now. Writing Brave Mrs. Sato gave Matsukawa a chance to reconnect with her own background and, through the book, encourage others to do the same. Since writing the book, Matsukawa has found the daughter and granddaughter of that babysitter, and let them know how important their relative was to her as a young girl during some of her most formative years.
A lot has changed in Hawaii now, but Brave Mrs. Sato allows a glimpse into a seminal era, when Hawaii wasn’t even a state yet and Japanese settlers made up 43% of the population by 1943. That number has now reduced, but Japanese culture remains prevalent in the islands. In Yee’s beautifully done illustrations, the everyday life of Matsukawa’s childhood is lovingly reflected, from the mango tree in the backyard, to the shoyu ewer on the vinyl-topped table. Yee calls home base Kaneohe, Hawaii, and perfectly encapsulates with her art the world that Matsukawa wanted for her story.
“The colors and the details,” which Matsukawa and Yee hashed out over Zoom, “are accurate to the time and place.” The tale and the imagery draws in the reader immediately, and the specific contextual elements given engage and educate, as well as entertain.
Brave Mrs. Sato is an excellent book for children or grandchildren (or nieces) and sharing with them your family’s heritage. Especially during the holidays, Brave Mrs. Sato can act as a centerpiece where multiple generations gather and share. While not every picture bride, historically, lived happily ever after, in the case of Matsukawa’s grandmother and Mrs. Sato, a loving family was founded. What Matsukawa most hopes is that people reading Brave Mrs. Sato will recognize, like she does, that “everyone has a story.” For herself, Matsukawa finds stories everywhere and will likely continue sharing them with us.
“I stand in a line, like at the grocery store, and I see a little old lady standing there [and think,] ‘What’s her story?’”
“These kinds of memories are gone in one or two generations,” she reflected. Matsukawa encourages others to write down their own memories as she has done so they don’t forget.
Brave Mrs. Sato can be found at local bookstores and online.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.