I interviewed Lori Matsukawa about her new picture book, Brave Mrs. Sato, and where she got the idea for the story.
Seattleites know Matsukawa as a TV journalist who spent 36 years as evening news anchor at KING 5.
In the story, when Lori’s mother went to work, Mrs. Sato was her babysitter. Mrs. Sato taught her a great deal about Japanese culture and language. However, one day Lori learned that she had to leave her babysitter because her family was moving. In the process, Lori found out that part of her family history included her maternal grandmother’s experiences as a picture bride and how courageous she had been to leave Japan. This is an edited version of the interview with Ms. Matsukawa.
Valerie Ooka Pang: Congratulations on your debut picture book, Brave Mrs. Sato. Who is Mrs. Sato based on?
Lori Matsukawa: The Mrs. Sato character is a combination of my real-life grandma and real-life babysitter. My grandmother was a picture bride, my babysitter was not. However my babysitter exposed me to Japanese culture like making tsukemono and language. It shows that caregivers need not be blood relatives and that back in the late ‘50s, moms in Hawaii worked to support their families.
VOP: The illustrations are accurate and depict a Japanese American home in Hawaii. How did Tammy Yee draw such precise visuals of life in Hawaii? The book provides an excellent representation of what a home in Hawaii looked like.
LM: The illustrations are true to time and place. Mrs. Sato’s home and furnishings (doesn’t everyone remember those kitchen tables with chrome legs and vinyl chairs?), Cathy’s family car and Mrs. Sato’s dress are all very 1960. Tammy was raised and currently lives in Hawaii, so she’s very familiar with what a “typical” Hawaii home looks like, as well as a mango tree. We emailed a lot, this was during COVID, and discussed every detail, like the kitchen table and even the red and black lacquer candy dish in the living room. I shared photos of my grandmother so Tammy could see what Mrs. Sato’s dress might look like. I also found historic photos showing the kind of kimono and glasses women and men wore in the ‘60s and in the early 1900s when picture brides arrived in Hawaii.
VOP: What is your favorite memory with your babysitter?
LM: Learning how to make tsukemono was a big deal for me. I also loved listening to her Pidgin English. She spoke a mixture of English, Japanese, and Hawaiian. We would sometimes wait for the arrival of the man who came to pick up her kitchen scraps. She called him the “buta kaukau man” — buta is Japanese for pig, kaukau is Hawaiian for food — he collected slop to feed his pigs.
VOP: There have been many brave women who came to the U.S. as picture brides or as new immigrants. What did your mother say about this part of your grandmother’s life?
LM: My mother described my grandmother as a quite fearless and sharp businesswoman. She hired a Japanese speaking stockbroker and invested the family’s money. By the time she died, she could leave plots of land for all of her eight children.
VOP: What was one of the major points you learned researching the issue of picture brides in writing this book?
LM: I appreciated that the women brought their culture with them to Hawaii and shared it with their children and the children they cared for. If you open the cover of the book, you can see Mrs. Sato leaving Japan — in sepia tone — and heading to a new life in Hawaii which is in color. But she brings her culture along with her, represented by the cherry blossoms that follow her.
VOP: As you travel around the U.S. talking about your book to students, what has been the most surprising reaction to the story?
LM: They absolutely love the illustrations that Tammy created. There are details galore that they are curious about. I always tell kids to look for the “surprised bride” on the boat dock because, as you know, not every guy sent an accurate picture of himself!
VOP: What message do you hope students, parents, educators and others receive from reading Brave Mrs. Sato?
LM: I want readers to write down their own family origin stories. There’s a “Mrs. Sato” character in everyone’s family – someone who made a difficult choice, someone who took a chance, someone who was brave. Find that story and write it down to pass on to the next generation.