Adventures in Feministory: Teiko Tomita


In the public library I recently came across a really interesting book called Women in Pacific Northwest History. It's a collection of articles about specific women and groups of women who made an impact on the culture and politics of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. I paged through articles about some really amazing people like Abigail Scott Duniway, Oregon settler and suffragist, and Bertha Knight Landes, who was mayor of Seattle in the 1920s and the first woman mayor of a major US city. The Northwest has a rich history of women who worked for positive change, and the book, edited by Karen J. Blair, is worth checking out, especially for all of you famously proud Northwesterners.
One section that particularly stood out to me was an article by Gail M. Nomura about a Japanese-American woman named Teiko Tomita. Tomita was born in Japan in 1896 and worked as an elementary school teacher until her early twenties, when her parents matched her with a man who was working as a farmer on the Yakama Indian Reservation in central Washington state. After a two-year epistolary courtship, the two were married in Japan. Soon after their wedding, they traveled to Washington to farm for a few years, thinking they would earn some money and return to Japan. But the climate in central Washington was harsh, and the Tomitas faced prejudice and isolation. The weren't able to earn enough money to go home. Teiko Tomita stayed in the US until her death in 1990.

As someone who grew up in a mostly-white neighborhood in mostly-white Portland in the mostly-white Pacific Northwest, it was a bit of a reality check for me to read about the life of a Japanese pioneer woman tending the fields on the Yakama Reservation. Growing up in the Northwest, I never learned in history class that Washington saw a significant influx of Japanese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But I learned from Nomura's article that after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, which restored imperial rule in Japan, a notable number of Japanese issei, or first-generation immigrants, began to settle on the west coast of the United States. Farming was one way that they eked out a living.

According to Teiko Tomita's oral history, the increase in Japanese issei did not mean a thriving Japanese-American community in central Washington. Tomita lived with her family in Wapato, where she had to walk five miles to see another Japanese face, and she was lonely. Life in their two-room cabin was completely different than the life she'd had in Osaka: there she and everyone she knew had had electricity, and in Wapato she was always polishing oil lamps and gathering brush for the fire. In contrast to the mild weather Tomita was used to, Wapato was sometimes so cold in the winter that "you could hear the eggs in the cupboard in the kitchen cracking."
During the mid-1920s, the US and Washington State passed a series of harsh anti-immigration and anti-alien land use laws. Because they weren't citizens, the Tomitas had their farmland taken from them. And because they were Japanese, they weren't allowed to become citizens. They were forced to make a series of moves throughout Washington to find work, and when World War II broke out they were placed in internment camps.

When I first read it, this story seemed infuriating: here's a non-white woman who was given no choice but to live in an area dominated by white men, and who was stepped on over and over because she was Japanese and because she was a woman. But what made me want to write about Tomita was the way that she chose to deal with the isolation and discrimination she experienced. Tomita used the centuries-old Japanese poetic form called tanka to write about her experiences, and she produced hundreds of raw, emotional poems. While she was dealing with poverty and prejudice in Washington, Tomita was sending her poems to Japan to be published. Here's one of her poems, translated from the Japanese:

Carefully grafting
Young cherry trees
I believe in the certainty `
They will bud
In the coming spring

The cherry tree is a symbol of Japan, and Tomita uses the grafting metaphor to point to her own experience of having to readjust in a foreign place. The mention of buds and springtime mean that this poem is hopeful, despite the hardship Tomita faced. I love the brevity and density of the tanka form: in just five lines, this poem, like all of Tomita's tanka, points to a rich emotional life. The richness that Tomita can pack into such a short space reminds me of another Washington writer who's one of my favorites. It might seem like a strange comparison, but I also love the way that Raymond Carver's spare and simple stories describe life in rural Washington, though his work is mostly about the experience of being a working-class white male and doing industrial and service work. It's fascinating to have found a Japanese woman's voice from that same region. Tomita's verse describes a unique Pacific Northwest life in a beautiful way.

by Lindsay Baltus
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

this book looks fantastic.

this book looks fantastic. thanks for the heads-up. lo & behold, my public library has it too!

Seconding the thanks for the

Seconding the thanks for the heads up. Fascinating!

Thanks for highlighting a

Thanks for highlighting a Japanese-American woman! Asian-American history is often one that goes ignored in our classrooms and media. Also, that poem is amazing.

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