40″ x 60″ acrylic on wood panel, Tsuneko Kokubo, New Denver artist

By Mayumi Spry, Historic Walking Tour Volunteer Guide

“Hey, Teizo, when are you going to get married? You know there are brides for sale in Japan.” My grandfather is getting ribbed yet again by some of his Japanese-Canadian coalmining buddies. It’s 1917 in Cumberland on Vancouver Island. Immigration policies have eased a bit; Japanese men here are finally permitted to send for their wives and families back in Japan. Since Teizo is single he decides to write to his family back in Kumamoto. Perhaps there is a suitable Japanese bride for sale for him? 

His parents talk to friends and discover the Matsunaga family has a young single daughter named Matsue (my grandma). Letters of introduction and black and white photos are exchanged and my grandfather and grandma are married by proxy. My grandfather sends over $50 to her family which helps pay for her one-way boat trip ticket from Yokohama to Vancouver.

My grandma is barely 17 when she immigrates here. She looks young for her age,  slight and petite.  She’s one of maybe 300 women, now known as “picture brides” on that freighter, the Nippon Maru. “Picture brides” was the term for women being married off to single men here in Canada with just the exchange of a photograph and some money. 

My grandma arrives at Ballantyne Pier here at the foot of Dunlevy Street. All she has with her is a well-weathered leather suitcase and this black and white photograph of her husband – looking handsome, yet stern, in his dark suit and tie. 

She’s wearing a blue wool suit she had made by the neighbourhood tailor. Her family hears how cold it is in Canada compared to Kumamoto where it is almost always balmy. For a going-away gift, her parents buy her a big heavy black bear fur coat that she now wears with much sadness. She understands that she will probably never see her family again.

She holds onto this picture and searches for her husband for three whole days on that pier. When she finally lays eyes on him, she’s shocked. 

“You don’t look at all like your picture! Tottemo toshori kusai! You’re so much older!” Yes, in fact, my grandfather is over 40! The photograph my grandma has gripped in her hands was taken when my grandfather was in his early 20’s.

Her 17-year-old heart sinks. But she is a devout Buddhist so she will carry on as the wife of this 42-year-old stranger in this foreign land. 

And, she has 13 children by him! She probably would have more kids except that my grandfather dies of a heart attack at the age of 56. 

So now, she’s a 31-year-old single mother with 13 kids, and no visible means of supporting her family. She opens up her modest home and sets up a barbershop in her kitchen. At least, she knows how to cut hair; she has 13 heads to practice on! She says “five cents for haircut” as she offers a free cup of green tea. The Chinese barber in nearby Chinatown and the Italian barber in Little Italy both charge six cents but NO cup of tea. 

This simple offer of a cup of hot green tea distinguishes her from the competition. And, green tea is cheap. Even though her English is spotty, she can say “sit, sit; like ocha?” (green tea in Japanese). She becomes the local town barber and her kitchen becomes the social hub of the community, like our neighbourhood coffee shop is today.

To help supplement her income, she takes her children, including my father, into the nearby woods to forage for roots, leaves and flowers. She then brews it all together for days and makes root beer and sells it by the gallon! My grandma is a very clever, astute young woman, who raises 13 children, almost single-handedly.

And as a devout Buddhist, she carries on and survives:

  • The outbreak of WWII and ensuing removal of her entire family from her home in Cumberland to Vancouver,
  • The subsequent displacement of her entire family to an internment camp called Lemon Creek in the BC Interior,
  • The unwitting loss of her home and possessions back in Cumberland,
  • The repatriation of her and her Canadian-born children back to Japan.

My grandma returned to Vancouver in 1956 with her oldest son and started her new life as a grandmother. As a Buddhist, she always saw the “goodness“ in life and in death. She embraced all her challenges with dignity and grace. She never spoke ill of any of her misfortunes. We only learned her stories when she died; we found her diary where she had written in Japanese all about her struggles here and her fears of not being a good wife and mother. 

She wrote about how her friend had no breast milk for her newborn son so Grandma fed him with her own breast milk. They were lifelong friends after that. She wrote about how difficult it was to learn English. She told me later that her best English teacher was Mr. Rogers-san from television.

She was always so genuinely happy to see you and had the strongest handshake of anyone I`ve met. 

She would take the bus every day to wherever she wanted to go but she`d always have a brightly polished orange for the driver. Sometimes she would tote ten pounds of shiny oranges because she was taking a few buses that day and each of those bus drivers deserved an orange.

My grandma has passed now; we buried her in her black bear fur coat that she had kept all those years.