She was their light
By Zenaida Serrano
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Zenaida Serrano
Tsuya's husband tried to force her to become a prostitute in the Iwilei area. When she refused Namihichi's demands, she paid dearly with severe beatings.
Namihichi physically abused Tsuya for at least three days, hitting, kicking and causing her "extreme pain and suffering."
The Japanese bride's tale of suffering at the hands of her own husband is buried in the legalese of a divorce document dated Oct. 7, 1907, and filed in the First Circuit Court of the Territory of Hawai'i. Other legal forms reveal similar stories.
Women in Tsuya's situation, many of them with limited English, unfamiliar with a territorial legal system and no relatives to turn to for help, had few options if their husbands became abusive.
But another woman of the era, Yeiko Mizobe So, stepped forward to help. At the turn of the century, So established a protective shelter in Honolulu for Japanese women, many of them picture brides.
From 1895 to 1905, So offered a sanctuary to more than 700 abused women. In 1905, So opened another shelter that over the years served nearly 400 neglected children.
University of Hawai'i lecturer Kelli Y. Nakamura, who reviewed the documents that reveal So's story, will share her findings about So at the Distinctive Women in Hawaiian History Program, April 25. (See box, above.)
"She was an amazing woman ... who recognized the need for, essentially, social services for domestically abused picture brides," said Nakamura, who focuses on American, Japanese and world histories at UH.
The identities of the women and children who found solace under So's care have been lost to history.]
To prepare for her presentation at the event this month, Nakamura used as examples archived records — such as the divorce document — dating back to the years when So operated the shelters, to reflect the needs So filled.
So was born in 1865 in Fukuoka City, Japan. She was in her early 20s when she became widowed after just six months of marriage.
A Christian convert, So was brought to Hawai'i by the Rev. Orramel Hinkley Gulick, who worked closely with the Hono- lulu Church, the predecessor body of Nu'uanu Congregational Church.
Mary Paik, pastor of Nu'uanu Congregational Church since November, said So's social service work was strongly supported by the Nu'uanu Women's Christian Society. In her later years, So was the house mother of the church dormitories.
"I believe her sacrificial service and resilience, characteristic of women pioneers, contributed to the empowerment of women and care for children," Paik said.
By providing a safe harbor for abused women, So braved the judgment of men who perpetuated the cruelties — and of community members who condoned it with their silence.
She was harshly criticized by some in the community for destroying families, overturning paternalistic values and the Japanese ideal of obedience, according to the book "Notable Women of Hawai'i" (University of Hawai'i Press, 1984).
"Outraged husbands often clamored for their wives outside the home, demanding that they return to them," the book states.
So essentially challenged the gender norms of the time, Nakamura said: "That demonstrated incredible courage, incredible initiative and, of course, incredible resourcefulness."
By providing shelter and support, So enabled women to live independently, "despite ridi- cule, threats and a limited budget," as the book puts it
She was rewarded in seeing her charges "find employment within the community, move out of the home and establish professional careers, especially in teaching and nursing."
Victims of domestic violence — such as Tsuya, the woman whose husband tried to force her into prostitution, as well as the hundreds of picture brides who sought protection at So's shelter — often remained silent about their abuse.
Domestic abuse "was a very shameful topic to bring up, like it is still today," Nakamura said. "This is why this topic is so relevant. ... It's something that really is a pervasive social issue that we should be talking about."
When it came to domestic violence during So's time, there was not only "censorship" among the victims themselves, but also within the ethnic community, Nakamura said.
"It wasn't acknowledged publicly within the Japanese community, and it wasn't acknowledged necessarily as a crime," she said. "When you look at the histories, traditionally written primarily by men of this period, it doesn't really recognize this as a pervasive problem or just as a problem, in general."
Jamie Conway, coordinator and founder of the program, said it's important for So's story to be told.
"Women of today will draw from Mrs. So's commitment to helping these shattered women, and likewise from her example of responding with a combination of compassion and a backbone of steel, which is worthy of contemporary women's emulation in their own journeys," Conway said.
Reach Zenaida Serrano at email@example.com.