Written by Stephanie Chang, Summer 2011 intern.
There are several perks to being an intern at the Smithsonian Institution. With a wave of my purple badge, I am able to breeze on by the long lines at the museums, receive discounts at various Smithsonian food courts and even get free tickets to the Smithsonian IMAX. But I must say, perhaps the best perk of all has to be the opportunities I get to work with prolific Asian American scholars and notable members of the APA community. Roger Shimomura, a ground-breaking artist to be featured in next month’s Smithsonian exhibit, Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter at the National Portrait Gallery, was one such member that I had the pleasure to collaborate with.
Professor Shimomura has created a wide range of, as stated by his biography on his website, “paintings, prints, and theatre pieces [that] address sociopolitical issues of ethnicity.”1 Much of his art, which convey his experience being Japanese American, is said to have been inspired by several sources. One source that I found particularly interesting was his grandmother. Shimomura’s grandmother, Toku Shimomura, was a picture bride. Picture brides, an entity that most Americans know nothing about, were some of the first Japanese and Korean women in America. These women were arranged into marriages by the sole exchange of pictures. They would arrive in America as complete strangers to their husband, customs, and the land. It was an undoubtedly terrifying experiencing for all the brides. However, with a bit of luck, some of these brides were able to rise to the occasion and become strong women in charge of their families, and even in some cases, communities.
Toku Shimomura’s tale is filled with courage, hard work, and a bit of good fortune. It began in a Tokyo silk factory where Toku and her future brother-in-law, Sabe, both worked. Sabe found her suitable for his brother in America, and proposed a picture marriage. She accepted. In 1920, Toku arrived in Seattle. There, she met her husband for the first time. Similar to most picture brides’ sentiments at the time, Toku felt disappointed with who met her at the harbor. However, as Roger stresses, his grandmother eventually overcame her initial dissatisfaction and soon fell in love with her arranged spouse. With the love and support she received from her husband, Toku was able to earn a midwifery license and begin her own private practice.
Toku’s business boomed—she eventually delivered over 1,000 babies, including her own grandson, Roger—granting her economic power and status as the household breadwinner. Toku was heavily involved in the Japanese Methodist Church as a member of the choir. She even held the distinction as the first Japanese woman to acquire a driver’s license in the United States. Toku took advantage of the opportunities available to her and was able to assert her strength as a woman. Her neighborhood looked upon her with respect and admiration. Mrs. Shimomura, a “matriarchal figure in a quiet way”, as Roger reminisces, eventually ascended to the role as a leader of the community. With her passing in 1968, she left a lasting legacy in her hometown, the APA community, and, of course, as the artist’s own personal inspiration.
While Toku’s story is certainly atypical of most picture brides (and women for that matter) at the time, it is a wonderful testament of female empowerment within the APA community. Many of Professor Shimomura’s artistic renderings reflect her strength and elegance, and are an incredibly noble and honest tribute to his grandmother’s memory.
You can see his pieces live at the National Portrait Gallery from August 12, 2011 through October 14, 2012. We hope to see you there!
Photos courtesy Roger Shimomura.