The Pioneering Spirit of “Issei” Women: A Personal Perspective

For Japanese women, who immigrated to the United States in the 20th century, the task of adjusting to a starkly different society and culture posed daunting challenges. Not many “issei” women had adequate mastery of the English language to communicate. Not many had learned the basic skills necessary to lead independent lives. Very few were able to establish footholds in the mainstream of American society.

My mother, whose maiden name was Kirie Kumagai, never felt completely at home here. She possessed some of the functional requirements of long-term residence, including a college education, a brief interlude of study in Hawaii, a professional career as a Christian missionary, a cheerful outlook on life, a strong work ethic, and a consuming commitment to the healthy upbringing of her children. Yet, she never fit in.

Probably the main reason is that she couldn’t function on her own in the United States. Everyday, she depended on my father and older siblings to handle the chores of daily existence, such as driving, shopping, and communicating in English.

My mother, bless her soul, died of cancer when I was 13 years old. About a year later, my father married Taeko Obara, who had a similar profile: college educated, foreign study in the US, a strong work ethic, and a devout Christian minister. When my father told me of his intention to remarry, I was happy for him. I knew that he was feeling lonely and needed a spouse and soul mate in life. What surprised me that he was marrying another Christian minister. How was it, I wondered, that two college-educated, strong-willed Christian ministers would become my mothers?

Unlike Kirie Kumagai, who was born into a farming family in Fukuoka, Taeko Obara hailed from aristocratic stock in Tokyo. Her mother, Suzuko Tokugawa, was the great granddaughter of Japan’s last Shogun, Yoshinobu. Suzuko oozed aristocratic refinement in her movements, mannerisms, and verbal and non-verbal expressions. She was, without doubt, the most elegant and naturally dignified woman whom I had ever met.

Taeko Obara’s fluency in English and her capacity to navigate the commonplace challenges of life in the US (without having to depend on others) made it possible for her to operate at an unusually high level of competence. Of all the older generation of “issei” I have known, Taeko had probably the firmest command of spoken and written English .

She was educated at Tsuda College, known for its excellence in English education. She then spent several years as a foreign exchange student at Taylor University, a tiny Christian college in rural Upland Indiana. At Taylor, Taeko was the sole student from Japan. That meant that she had no choice but to think and speak in English and to immerse herself in American society and culture.

After marrying my father and coming to live in Pasadena California, Taeko learned how to deal with the daily necessities of life: driving, answering phone calls and mail, paying utility bills, compiling monthly budgets, completing and sending in tax forms, and registering to vote.

Before emigrating, Taeko had never learned how to drive. In Tokyo, she could take trains, taxis, and buses to get to wherever she needed to go. In Pasadena, she had to be able to drive a car. It was absolutely essential.

For Taeko, obtaining a driver’s license turned out to be anything but automatic. She took the driving test six times–failing all six times. But she never gave up. On her seventh try, she finally passed. Barely. She received her California license and drove everyday for the next 30 years. It’s a minor miracle that she never had a serious accident.

In terms of English mastery, individual determination, and personal autonomy—Taeko was a representative graduate of Tsuda College. The college embodies the spirit of Umeko Tsuda, the pioneering woman who studied at Bryn Mawr College in the late 19th Century and subsequently returned to Japan to found Tsuda College. Umeko Tsuda was just as remarkable an educational pioneer as Yukichi Fukuzawa, founder and President of Keio University.

It must have been extraordinarily difficult for Taeko, at the age of 40, to come to California to join the Okimoto family, with three grown children and one student in junior high school. She was particularly worried about the challenge of raising a teenage son–me–who had been extremely close to his deceased mother.

She tried hard to be a good step-mother. What I appreciated most was that she gave me plenty of space to be a teenager capable of making mistakes. More space than my biological mother probably would have given me.

Today, and throughout my life, I have felt immensely grateful to both Kirie and Taeko for the love and support that they gave my father. I wanted my father, who had worked tirelessly to put food on the table, to be as happy and as fulfilled as possible. Both Kirie and Taeko stayed by his side through good times and bad, and supported him in ways that sustained his life and lifted his spirits. Against the background of these two “issei” mothers, is it any wonder that I am such an unabashed admirer of “issei” women? My wife, Michiko, happens to be another. But what’s different about Michiko is that she’s not another devout Christian minister.

Daniel I. Okimoto
Professor Emeritus Stanford University