A quest to tell the story of Japanese war brides who married American soldiers and assimilated into life in the United States in the years following World War II brought journalist Kathryn Tolbert to small towns across the country, including the Kalispell and Trego areas.
Tolbert, the daughter of one of those tens of thousands of Japanese war brides, took a year’s leave of absence from her job as an editor at The Washington Post to travel and collect the personal stories of these women and their families. Most have died, and those remaining are in their 80s now.
Her effort began with a documentary film she co-directed: “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides.” The film tells the stories of three Japanese war brides, including her mother, who was transplanted from a life of privilege in Tokyo to her in-laws’ chicken farm in rural New York. The reaction to the documentary convinced Tolbert more stories needed to be told.
She also wrote at length about the Japanese war brides for The Washington Post and has an ongoing oral history project that is documenting the stories. The project now has spiraled into an application to The Smithsonian Institute to preserve the compelling stories Tolbert has gathered.
Tolbert’s search led her to Kathleen Burk, the daughter of Dale and Wakako “Katie” Burk, who was raised in Kalispell and now lives in Las Vegas. While Kathleen Burk was honored to have her mother’s story told, she knew there was a bigger story here locally because several Japanese war brides landed in the Flathead Valley.
“I couldn’t rightfully tell her story without including the other Japanese women in the Flathead Valley,” Burk told the Daily Inter Lake. “Kathyrn had no idea how many layers would unfold as our week [in the Flathead] progressed.”
When Tolbert told Burk she wanted to come to Montana to see where her father had taken his Japanese bride, she had to laugh because the newlyweds wound up in rural Trego west of Whitefish.
“Trego is such a sharp contrast to my mother’s home in Yokosuka, Japan,” she said. “Thankfully my mother had the loving support of the Burk family and people like my Aunt Marianne Roose to see her through.”
Marianne Roose, Dale Burk’s sister, is a former Lincoln County commissioner and was interviewed by Tolbert for the Japanese war brides oral history project.
“Her interview established the warm embrace of the Burk family toward my mother, in spite of the community sentiments toward the Japanese so soon after World War II and Korea,” Burk said.
Tolbert also interviewed Dale Burk during her time in the Kalispell area. He had begun a journalism career at the Daily Inter Lake after leaving the U.S. Navy, where he was a foreign correspondent in Tokyo during his time in the Navy. Dale Burk later won a Nieman Fellowship through his reporting with The Missoulian.
During his time at the Inter Lake, Dale Burk wrote a feature story in 1966 about the Overseas Wives Club, a group that was founded in Kalispell in 1951 in the postwar era by a group of brides “whose husbands brought them to the Flathead from far-off places.” That group included not only the Japanese war brides but immigrant brides from Europe and other places.
Like many of the Japanese war brides, Burk’s mother worked in the service industry. She was a dedicated employee of the Elks Lodge in Kalispell for 35 years and took pride in her work. She died in 2015.
Burk’s mother developed close friendships with other Flathead Valley Japanese war brides, who formed what they called the “Japanese Joy Luck Club.”
“These Japanese war brides found themselves in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls in the late ’50s and early ’60s, facing horrific prejudice in a primarily white community, having half-Japanese children,” Burk said. “They established themselves in such an environment and eventually won over those that may have felt otherwise.”
Burk’s mother was good friends with Emy Aho Minnich’s mother, who also was a Japanese war bride.
“We’re so thankful they had each other,” said Minnich, who still lives in Kalispell. Her mother, Kazuko “Kay” Aho, survived the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki in the final stage of World War II.
“We came from Germany to Montana and didn’t know we were different,” Minnich recalled. “It was an eye-opener, someone calling you a half-breed. Yet my mom, her proudest moment was being American.”
Both Minnich and Kathleen Burk’s mothers attended the American Brides School offered through a Red Cross program to help Japanese brides learn American customs such as the proper way of setting a table.
“We feel that our moms paved the way for cultural diversity in Kalispell,” Burk said. “These women proved themselves.”
A photograph published in the Daily Inter Lake in the early 1960s of her mother and other young Japanese brides added another layer to the story, Burk noted. The elderly Japanese mentor in the photo was Aya Hori Masuoka, who had married Jim Masuoka after the death of her first husband, M.M. Hori, an acclaimed Whitefish businessman.
“That one picture took us down another vein of local history with the Masuoka family’s early arrive in the Whitefish area via the [Charles] Conrad family,” Burk said. “Since our trip, and using her resources at The Washington Post, Kathryn has managed to contact a granddaughter of the Masuokas who now lives in Seattle.”
Burk and Minnich said it’s an honor to have their mothers included in the Japanese war brides oral history project.
“Just the thought that these stories can live at the Smithsonian” makes Minnich grateful about Tolbert’s effort to document this forgotten slice of America’s history.
For more information about the Japanese War Brides Project, go to www.warbridesproject.com. View the documentary film online at Vimeo On Demand: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/fallsevengetupeight
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or email@example.com.