‘‘Tears of Autumn’’ begins with young Hana Omiya standing on the deck of a steamship making its way from Japan to the United States through a ‘‘turbulent November sea.’’ Rather than being excited about the arrival in America, Hana wishes she were not going. She is seasick and nervous, and her thoughts lead her back to the beautiful scenery of her home, Oka Village, and the family and comforts she has left behind. Hana thinks about ‘‘bright persimmon dotting the barren trees beside the thatched roofs. .. .fields of golden rice stretching to the mountains where only last fall she had gathered plump white mushrooms,’’ vibrant seasonal images of food and color that contrast with the ‘‘leaden and lifeless’’ way she feels when she stares at the ocean.
Like other women of her era (the early 1900s), Hana is dressed in the Japanese style of a silk kimono (a long robe-style dress with wide sleeves).
Her ‘‘pompadour’’ (a hairstyle of the era in which women piled their hair high on top of their head) seems ‘‘too heavy for so slight a woman.’’ The reader begins to wonder why such a young, homesick, and seemingly traditional girl has left her home country. Standing on the deck of the ship, Hana asks herself the same question.
Through a flashback sequence, Hana’s process of both remembering and doubting why she decided to make this journey is revealed. She is traveling because she is on her way to marry someone she has never met. Readers learn how Hana’s uncle mentioned, during a visit to her family, that he was helping to find a wife for his friend’s son, Taro Takeda. Taro had left Japan nearly ten years ago and now owns a small store in the United States. While Hana’s uncle does not originally intend for Hana to consider marrying Taro, Hana becomes interested for several reasons.
First of all, Hana is twenty-one years old, which is considered old for a single woman of her culture in this era. Her mother has begun to pester her about getting married before it is too late. Her family, including her brother-in-law who now heads the household, worries that Hana’s completion of a high school education has made her too independent to marry. He worries because if she failed to marry, it would mar her family’s honor. Indeed, while Japanese culture in this era promoted modernization and education for women, it also continued to stress very traditional roles for women.
Secondly, Hana wonders if Taro might be a more ‘‘suitable prospect’’ for Hana than even her uncle and mother seem to think. Her family has a high-class background as members of the landowning samurai , an elite class in Japan. But their fortunes have faded since Hana’s father died fifteen years earlier, in part because of his death and also as a result of financial reform efforts on the part of the Japanese government during what historians call the Meiji Era of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Because samurai families are no longer as powerful as they once were, emigration to the United States to marry a store owner is now an acceptable option for Hana.
When Hana hears her uncle speak of Taro, she experiences an awakening desire to escape the restrictions of life as a woman in Japan. She respectfully asks her uncle, whom she addresses using the Japanese term of respect, ‘‘San,’’ to consider her as a bride for Taro. Her uncle is surprised that she would want to move so far away; he uses the term ‘‘Chan’’ with her name, a word used with children’s names in Japanese.
But Hana wants to be treated like an adult, and though she maintains proper respect for her family, she also wants more independence. She does not want to marry the men her mother has previously suggested to her, men whose lives promise only the kind of predictable existence her married sisters now live. Furthermore, her mother will not allow her to pursue a career. Thus, marrying a man in the United States offers a chance at both escape and adventure. Hana’s mother objects to sending Hana so far away at first, but she is convinced to begin arranging the marriage when Hana, her uncle, and her brotherin-law persist, and when the village Buddhist priest approves. For each of these characters, marriage to Taro offers a possible solution to a perceived problem: Hana’s unmarried status.
The story then describes the long process of negotiation by which Hana became a ‘‘picture bride.’’ This term emerged among Japanese American immigrants to describe a phenomenon that began in part because of U.S. immigration laws. In 1908, American lawmakers, because of prejudicial fears about the impact of Japanese immigrants, restricted immigration to prohibit any further arrivals. Known as the ‘‘Gentleman’s Agreement,’’ this law let women come from Japan to the United States. as long as they were relatives of or would become wives of men who were already there. The Japanese government negotiated this system because it believed that encouraging women’s immigration offered those immigrants already in the United States a better chance of establishing stable families and prosperous futures.
Hana had heard of ‘‘picture brides who went [to America] with nothing more than an exchange of photographs to bind them to a strange man.’’ Now she will become one, but the process involves much more than exchanging photographs. The same customs that dictated arranged marriages within Japan were applied to the women in Japan and men in the United States designated as potential matches. Letters and meetings between the two families established that the health, education, and ancestry of Hana and Taro were suitable to one another. Finally, Hana received a letter and photograph from Taro. She took it to the outhouse, the only place where she could have privacy, to read it and contemplate what her future husband might really be like.
After these memories are described, the story returns to Hana, standing at the ship’s rail, hoping that her husband will be prosperous enough for her to live a leisurely life in America. But these hopes give way to anxiety about her arrival the next day in San Francisco—she is so overwhelmed by fear and sickness that she vomits over the ship’s railing. Up and ready the next morning, she puts on a brave face and her finest clothes. Like the other immigrants on board the boat, however, she does not disembark at San Francisco, but rather at Angel Island, a facility at which officials detain potential immigrants in order to verify they are healthy. Hana feels degraded by the health tests she must undergo. It is only after three days of frustration that she receives a note from Taro telling her he will meet her when she is released.
When she is released from Angel Island, she must ride another boat to San Francisco. She disembarks, and an unimpressive-looking man comes forward to welcome her. It is Taro. He is older than he appears in the picture he sent, and she is visibly taken aback. He is not the prosperous young merchant she had hoped for, and yet she politely tries to excuse her confusion by saying that she is nervous rather than disappointed. Taro speaks ‘‘gently’’ to Hana about his plans for her: she will stay with some friends while he arranges the marriage. He does not actually mention the wedding, and Hana is grateful for his modesty, which spares her further embarrassment.
The story concludes with the couple riding yet another boat, the ferry that will take them across the bay to Oakland. Taro happily reassures Hana, who expresses reluctance about another long sea journey, that the journey will be a quick and easy one. His laughter reassures her, and she laughs as well, relieving tension and allowing her to come closer to accepting the decisions that have brought her to this new home. ‘‘I am in America now,’’ she reflects. The final image of the story, in which Hana sits ‘‘carefully beside Taro, so no part of their clothing touched,’’ reveals both her modesty and her continuing independence. Leaving Japan has not allowed her to leave Japanese ideas of propriety behind, but she continues to make her own decisions, thus maintaining her sense of herself as an individual.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Yoshiko Uchida, Published by Gale Group, 2010