Uncle Gunjiro's Girlfriend by Brenda Wong Aoki

  • By Brenda Wong Aoki
  • Posted 4/01/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7716
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This is the family story of Gunjiro Aoki (b. 1883) and Gladys Emery (b. 1888), an interracial (Japanese American and Caucasian) couple who wed in Seattle on March 27, 1909, after traveling from California and Oregon, which prohibited mixed-race marriages and declined to issue them a license. "Uncle Gunjiro's Girlfriend" is written by the couple's great niece, Brenda Wong Aoki. (Aoki's grandfather, Father Peter C. Aoki, founded the Japanese mission in San Francisco and was Gunjiro Aoki's brother.) Aoki's story is reprinted with kind permission from Nikkei Heritage (Vol. 10, No. 4, Fall 1998), the journal of the Japanese American Heritage Society. Brenda Wong Aoki is a professional actor and storyteller of Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Scots descent.

Uncle Gunjiro's Girlfriend: The True Story of the First Hapa Baby

In our family there has always been a secret shame. It's so bad no one talks about it. Since no one can talk about it we can't find out what we did. But it's there and it permeates all of our lives.

At first I thought it was because we were poor. Everyone knows the Aoki clan started out as dirt poor sharecroppers (but honorable because Grandpa was once an Episcopal priest.) Then I thought maybe it was because we're not pure -- I am Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, and Scots. Then I thought, it's the legacy of the Internment. But my family was not interned. We were already in Utah.

So I thought I had better go over and talk with the eldest Aoki, my 106 year old cousin -- Sadae. I drove up to Sacramento. I knew I was on the right track because she lives on Green Tree Lane. Aoki means Green Tree. She served me lunch on these exquisite dishes which she said my great-grand mother had brought over from our ancestral home in Japan. After the lunch, Sadae brought out an ancient photo album paging through until she came to a picture of this dashing young man.

"This is your Grand Uncle Gunjiro." Standing next to Uncle Gunjiro was a Hakujin woman in a long white Victorian gown and Sadae said "That's your Aunt Gladys, Uncle Gunjiro's girlfriend." Just then my relatives came home. Someone said, "Humph" and they closed the book. That's when I realized I'd uncovered the secret.

So I went to the library, looked into the archives of the San Francisco Chronicle, Examiner, and the Call. This is what I found:

March 10, 1909:
Cleric's Daughter Will Marry Samurai Neither wars nor rumors of wars nor the manifestations of race prejudice interfere with true love, as is proved by the announced engagement of Miss Helen Gladys Emery, daughter of Rev. John A. Emery, archdeacon of the Episcopal diocese of California, and Gunjiro Aoki scion of a noble house of the Japanese Samurai.

Samurai? I thought we were dirt farmers!

March 12, 1909:
Friend of Emery Family Seeks Medical Advice as to Whether Hypnotism Can Explain Girl's Wild Infatuation For Japanese


March 16, 1909:
Japanese Barred From Marrying Caucasians
The Sacramento Assembly passed today the Polsley Bill, adding the Japanese to the list of races forbidden to marry Caucasians in the State of California.

Aoki Scorns Bribe to Quit Sweetheart
Shaking $1,000 in the face of Gunjiro Aoki, a representative of the Japanese of San Francisco used every argument he could bring to bear to break up the match. "Not for two million dollars," was Aoki's reply.

I like this guy.

Throw Bricks at Japanese Suitor, Corte Madera Men to Treat Miss Emery's Fiancee to Tar and Feathers

Geez, this is in the days when they lynched Orientals.

Goes to Join Jap Fiancee
Amid hoots and yells, banging of tin cans and an ironical shower of rice and decayed flowers, Mrs. Emery and her daughter left Corte Madera yesterday evening. Every man, woman and child were at the train station to greet them. The women in the crowd were particularly loud in their demonstrations of wrath. One person threw an immense calla lily, striking Miss Gladys full in the face. "My friends," she said "the enemy."

What a woman!

My research revealed that like Joseph and Mary, the couple began a sojourn in search of a marriage license. They left California. In Portland the Deputy District Attorney said, "If she parades the street with her Jap lover I'll jail 'em both." The county clerk added, "If they come to my office looking for a marriage license, I'll throw 'em out." In Tacoma an angry mob of hundreds of people blocked them at the train station. They continued north and were about to be married in international waters off of Victoria when the mayor of Seattle came to their aid. They were married under armed guard at Trinity Church.

Said Uncle Gunjiro after the wedding, "To Christian spirit all things are equal. If you understand about love, you know it is the same in all nationalities. What is the color of love?" The new Mrs. Gladys Aoki replied "I love him. Can't you people understand that I just love him." Mrs. Emery added "We're all immigrants. What's wrong with marrying another immigrant?"

I wish I could say that everyone lived happily ever after, but there was a horrible backlash. Mr. and Mrs. Emery split up. She went to live with the young couple. Archdeacon Emery submitted his resignation to Grace Cathedral. My grandpa, Father Peter C. Aoki, founder of the Japanese mission in San Francisco circa 1897, was asked to resign by his own congregation. The Episcopal church banished him to Utah where he and my grandma died shortly after, heartbroken, leaving 11 children orphaned. And that is how the Aoki clan became sharecroppers in Utah.

Finally, I found this article in 1933:

San Francisco Chronicle, November 11, 1933
U.S. Judge Restores Citizenship to Wife in East-West Marriage
The federal court here yesterday restored to citizenship Mrs. Helen Gladys Aoki, 45, wife of the late Gunjiro Aoki and mother of five children by her Japanese husband. Mrs. Aoki was permitted to change her name to Oakie by federal Judge Kerrigan and thus regain her American citizenship. Despite the storm of disapproval by scores of persons she and Aoki, son of a Japanese General and one of the noble Samurai Families of Japan, were married in Seattle. The romance proved contrary to all expectations, idyllic.

Gladys lost her citizenship over this! That is when I thought, this is the family's secret shame?! I'm proud of these people! I'm proud to be related to these people!! I am going to tell this story and I'm going to pass on to my son what Sadae told me, "No need to lower your head. The Aoki's are an honorable family."

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