My great grandfather, Koho Higa, came to America in 1913 on the Shinyo Maru. Six years after Koho arrived he married Kana Nakao by proxy. Kana was looking forward to living in the huge house in a photograph sent by my great grandfather, but it turned out that he worked there as a yard man. Kana was unable to bring many personal possessions; she traveled to America wearing an Okinawan formal kimono. Okinawan women wore patterned kimonos of dark colors that were typically tied at the waist by a narrow belt. The patterns were often imitations of the tattoos that “picture brides” wore on their hands. Naturally, these beautiful garments could not survive the sharp edges of the Hawaiian sugar cane fields and women like Kana were forced to adapt to Hawaiian plantation life. Abandoning her traditional Okinawan wardrobe was the first step in the grueling process of cultural adaptation and plantation life. Life in the camps was hard; it was a constant struggle for my great grandparents and their family to make a living. Koho worked in the sugar cane fields. Kana would return home and have to brave the antics of Koho, who often turned to the bottle to cope with his struggles. She would look towards her kimono which, worn as it was, still looked vibrant amongst the stark, unadorned walls of their shack-like plantation home. Kana’s kimono served as a physical representation of home and the Okinawan community, giving her the tenacity she needed to take care of her family and survive.
– Elyssa Sur