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Race against time: Gathering the stories of NZ’s Japanese war brides

New research has provided insight into the experiences of Japanese war brides who moved to NZ after WWII. Pictured: Setsuko and Mick Donnelly in Miyajima, Japan, in 1955. (Photo: Donnelly family)

Like many migrants, Mutsumi Kanazawa experienced a profound sense of disconnect when she moved to New Zealand. Her feelings of isolation sparked her interest in researching the little-known stories of Japanese war brides who moved to Aotearoa in the 1950s and 1960s – a project she hopes will move descendants into learning more about their families’ pasts.

When Mutsumi Kanazawa first came to New Zealand in early 1990s, she had no inkling she would end up researching the stories of earlier migrants from Japan.

Kanazawa experienced feelings of isolation and disconnect after she arrived in the country – which led to her interest in learning how Japanese war brides coped with racial tensions and cultural differences at a time when the memory of World War II was still raw.

“Being an immigrant in a foreign country, not entirely by my choice, but more because it was where my husband had chosen to live, I found a commonality with the war brides. Like them, I had no support system to start with, and was not familiar with New Zealand culture. Even now, I am still struggling to somehow fit in,” she wrote in the preface of her thesis.

In the course of her research, Kanazawa learnt that the stories of war brides and their Kiwi families were virtually untold in both New Zealand and Japan. In fact, compared to other Asian immigrants in New Zealand, such as Chinese, Indians and Koreans, immigrants from Japan are among the least researched.

Very little is also known, in both Japan and New Zealand, about New Zealand’s involvement in post-war Japan.

“When I was a student in Japan, we were told about American occupation in Japan after the war, but I didn’t know Kiwis were also in Japan on two occasions,” said Kanazawa.

The first occurred between February 1946 and November 1948: New Zealand sent some 12,000 servicemen and women to Japan, colloquially known as Jayforce, as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force.

The second mission was during the Korean War, when a 6,000-strong Kayforce was dispatched to Korea and Japan under the UN Command between 1950 and 1956.

“The headquarters were located in Hiroshima and the RNZAF (the Royal New Zealand Air Force) was in Yamaguchi. So many of the war brides who came to New Zealand are either from Hiroshima or around that area,” said Kanazawa.

Marrying an enemy soldier

Omiai marriages, or arranged marriages, between families remained the norm after the war in Japan. Love marriages were rare or frowned-upon in many instances, let alone interracial marriages with former enemies.

Japanese war brides and their in-laws endured hardship from Japanese relatives, and also from their host countries – including New Zealand.

In most cases, these brides were disowned by their parents. 

“Because of the war brides’ association with former enemies, they were not welcomed or their families were not happy their daughters were going out with former enemies,” said Kanazawa.

All the women knew that the decision to leave Japan to marry an enemy soldier would be one from which there would be no turning back. 

None of them knew much about New Zealand before they came to the country, and Kiwis were also unfamiliar with Asian people.

Taeko Yoshioka Braid was among the women who moved to New Zealand in the 1950s.

“In the beginning, people in New Zealand thought Japanese and Chinese people were the same, said Braid, who got married in 1952 in Japan and moved to Hawke’s Bay in 1956.

I have three boys and three girls. When they all started going to school, I had to go there to sing a song, explain Japanese history compared with New Zealand history.”

While war brides in New Zealand at the time were regularly portrayed as vulnerable and obedient, Kanazawa said her research suggested otherwise – they came across as determined and strong-willed.

“When Air New Zealand had the fatal accident over Antarctica, there were many Japanese passengers on board, so war brides were asked to work as interpreters or cultural liaisons to support the affected families,” she said.

‘Drifters’ and immigrants to New Zealand

Japanese movements to New Zealand emerged in the early 19th century. 

During the Edo era (1603-1868), Japan had a policy called Sakoku, which saw the country closed off for 260 years.

“During these 260 years, the only people who could go overseas were ‘drifters’. Normally they would not be able to come back to Japan,” said Kanazawa.

Japanese immigration started at the end of the Edo era, as the government sought ways to deal with a population boom. 

“There were government policies to alleviate population growth in Japan ... They were telling young men they could make a fortune if they went abroad. The first country they sent Japanese men to was the Kingdom of Hawaii, to work for a sugar plantation. Many people also went to South America.”

Among the drifters that came to New Zealand was Asajiro Noda, believed to be the first Japanese person to settle in New Zealand in the late 1880s or early 1890s.

He first found work in Invercargill as a cashier, before moving north to work as a kauri gum-digger in Northland and Waikato.

“Another drifter named Kiyohei Tsukikawa arrived in Dunedin. They both married local people, and had some families,” said Kanazawa. “There was no Japanese community to support early Japanese immigrants.”

The first wave of Japanese migrants through the Japanese government-assisted scheme arrived in New Zealand in 1905. Immigration from Japan continued until 1919 with an average of 75 people entering each year and was virtually abandoned by 1919.

New Zealand immigration policy for Asians was harsh immediately after the war.

“For New Zealand, Japan was an enemy and was a great threat to New Zealand ... The war brides could not come to New Zealand till 1953,” said Kanazawa.

The arrival of war brides after WWII coincided with the dawn of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and Japan, but apart from being used as “makeshift support staff in their efforts to forge a new relationship”, there has not been any official acknowledgement of the contributions of this group of women, she said.

Kanazawa’s research identified the names and details of some 50 Japanese war brides who came to New Zealand, of whom 10 to 12 are still alive.

Due to time and legal constraints, not all identified war brides could be interviewed. Kanazawa hopes her work will prompt descendants to dig deeper into their family histories – before it is too late.

“Being a nation of immigrants, interest in investigating genealogy in New Zealand is particularly strong,” Kanazawa noted in her report.

“I personally hope future research is carried out by the children and the grandchildren of Japanese war brides to add more depth to each story.

“With active support from the Japanese Embassy or Consulate-General, it is not too late to interview the Japanese war brides who are still with us.

“The stories gathered ... provide hopeful examples for immigrants to New Zealand and elsewhere, and they are stories that need to be treasured and acknowledged.”

Mutsumi Kanazawa is a researcher at the Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland. She exhibited her research in the Photo Exhibition and Seminar at the Japanese Immigrants’ Experiences in New Zealand event, Wellington, on 11 May 2018.

– Asia Media Centre