Fragmentary Sources, Unstable Unions: Marriage and Divorce Practices in Japan and Meiji Hawai‘i

Takai, York University

Marriage and divorce took many forms in early Japanese Hawai`i. Temporary marriage, wife sale and wife brokerage were popular practices among issei (that is, Japanese-born and first immigrant generation) women and men in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Hawai`i. I highlight the importance of these unions and their dissolution which contemporary immigrant leaders and state and local authorities scorned as disdainful and uncivilized. I also discuss the difficulties of documenting these marriage and divorce practices in the light of scattered and fragmented nature of available sources. Temporary marriage, wife sale and wife brokerage were important because they demonstrate that marriage and gender relations of issei women and men were far more complex and less settled than previously understood. Significant regional and class differences marked various cultural practices in Japan. Nevertheless, I argue that gendered social perceptions and practices among working-class Japanese of largely rural backgrounds in Meiji Hawai`i point to deep roots in the history of marriage and divorce in Japan. This is despite the emphasis in existing scholarship that tends to highlight the American or Hawaiian impact alone. Such depiction risks to neglect the transnational consequences of enduring social values and shifting gender practices. Historian Nayan Shah has pointed out three conceptual notions—permanence over transience, the nuclear family household, and polarized heterosexuality—which have limited the historians’ ability to write about movement and change. In my critical re-examination of the resilience of the ideology of “good wife, wise mother” among Japanese immigrants in Hawai`i and Japan, I draw on diverse yet fragmentary sources taken from Japanese diplomatic records, Japanese-language newspapers and work songs created and sung by Japanese immigrant workers in the sugar cane fields. In so doing, I reassess the assumption of issei women’s compliance with this ideology and their husbands’ ability to uphold it.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 10. Intersections of Migration and Gender