A Japanese war bride who overcame an immigration ban with JFK’s help is lost to covid-19

A Japanese war bride who overcame an immigration ban with JFK’s help is lost to covid-19

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Originally published by The Washington Post

 

Kimiko Yamaguchi was 20 and cleaning rooms at a British military hotel in Kyoto when her girlfriend said an American serviceman wanted to meet her. It was 1946, a year after Japan’s surrender to end World War II, and Allied occupation troops were stationed throughout the country. Kimiko said no. She spoke very little English, and she knew her father would not approve. But the young man with the U.S. Army, Angelo Amato, kept asking. Kimiko finally relented. He took her ice skating.

Four years later, she would arrive in East Boston to join his family of Sicilian immigrants, a journey made possible by then-Rep. John F. Kennedy, who sponsored a bill that allowed her into the United States despite a ban on Japanese immigration.

Her long life, from pampered child raised by her divorced father in Osaka to wife of an Italian American labor activist and mother of three American boys, ended June 11 when she died at 94 of covid-19.

Kimiko Amato is among the last of a generation of Japanese war brides who quietly shaped the character of many rural counties, small towns and big cities in the immediate postwar years and decades beyond. They were often the first Asian people their neighbors had seen. When a young GI returned home with his bride, relatives and neighbors would gather for a look. The brides brought kimonos and some even carried cans of Kikkoman soy sauce to their new homes.

Kimiko and Angelo Amato. She arrived in the United States in December 1950 after a private bill sponsored by John F. Kennedy exempted her from an immigration ban.
Kimiko and Angelo Amato. She arrived in the United States in December 1950 after a private bill sponsored by John F. Kennedy exempted her from an immigration ban. (Courtesy of family)

More than 30,000 Japanese war brides had come to the United States by the end of the 1950s. Most arrived starting in 1952, when a change in immigration law ended racial restrictions on naturalized citizenship, making the Japanese eligible for visas. Before then, entry was limited to narrow windows in temporary legislation and by special permission, often requiring the intervention of congressmen helping their constituents.

Angelo Amato sought to marry Kimiko during one of those legislative windows — a 30-day period in 1947 — but the military chaplain denied approval because she was Buddhist and he was Catholic. Occupation authorities discouraged marriages between U.S. servicemen and Japanese women, requiring multiple interviews and a sheaf of documents attesting to the bride’s character and health. Angelo tried to convince his Army superiors that she intended to convert to Catholicism. He extended his tour in Japan to be with her but finally ran out of options and was shipped home to East Boston in 1948. Despite his family’s hopes that he would settle down with a nice Italian American girl — they had someone in mind — Angelo began writing letters to the State Department and elected officials, appealing for help in bringing Kimiko to the United States.

His breakthrough came when his congressman, John F. Kennedy, agreed to sponsor a private bill in the next session that would exempt her from the ban. There were many such private bills during the period when Japanese were not allowed in and GIs were trying to bring home wives and fiancees. Kimiko arrived in Boston on Christmas Eve in 1950, and she and Angelo were married Jan. 31, 1951.

Her father-in-law, Emilio Amato, liked her right away as someone “good for the family,” who would work hard, cook, clean and take care of the children, she said in an interview last year. Her mother-in-law took longer but finally came around. She settled into life in a triple-decker and focused on learning Italian cooking and how to shop in the neighborhood.

Her boys endured a certain amount of name-calling, often labeled “Chinese” by kids who watched the TV series “The Green Hornet,” with Bruce Lee as Kato. And she was occasionally called Chinese, too. But mostly she was just another East Boston mother, familiar in the community. She wanted to work outside the home and found a job wrapping muffins in the predawn hours at a Logan Airport deli.

Kimiko Amato with her sons in East Boston in the late 1950s.
Kimiko Amato with her sons in East Boston in the late 1950s. (Courtesy of family)

But the boys were the center of her life. She said she never had a mother’s love, so was determined to give it to her sons, Charles, Joseph and John. Her parents divorced when she was a year old, and she was awarded to her father, Mineharu Yamaguchi. Joint custody was not customary in Japan and she had no further relationship with her mother.

Kimiko took her two older sons to Japan with her in 1961 to meet her father, a reunion that mattered deeply to her. She was raised by him and her stepmother, with whom she had a frosty relationship. She went on hiking trips with her father and employees of his sugar company. He taught her how to play baseball — he was an umpire for recreational teams in the 1930s.

Kimiko Yamaguchi with her father, Mineharu. He was an umpire for recreational baseball teams in the 1930s and taught her how to play.
Kimiko Yamaguchi with her father, Mineharu. He was an umpire for recreational baseball teams in the 1930s and taught her how to play. (Courtesy of family)

She remembers vividly the scene at Yokohama port when she left Japan in 1950. Her father and little brother were standing there waving to her. She saw her father turn his gaze away because he was crying. “I made him cry. He can’t even look at me. I wave, I wave, he looked at me and he turned, wiping, wiping.”

Angelo became a civil engineer with the Massachusetts Department of Public Works and was active in labor issues, lobbying to improve working conditions for state employees. He spent long hours away from home, while Kimiko raised their sons. When they separated over his many absences and hot temper, they stayed in the same three-decker, occupying different floors, and never divorced. For the family to stay close was important to Angelo, and Kimiko found that sentiment familiar as a Japanese woman. Angelo died in 2010.

There were several moments early in her relationship with Angelo when she wondered whether she was doing the right thing. Going out with Americans after the war was mostly frowned on by Japanese families, although Angelo won her over with his persistence. “And he looks a little like us, with his black hair,” she said.

When the paperwork and copies of letters began coming from Boston, she had one last misgiving. “That moment, I’m doing the right thing? I’m doing the wrong thing?” But she made the decision to come to America.

Kimiko Yamaguchi Amato is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Mass., next to Angelo Amato, and his parents, Emilio and Angela Amato.

unitedwestay

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