Prairie Home

Leave It to Aiko

Leave It to Aiko

Lillian Nakamura Maguire – Mar. 21, 2023

We got TV in our family around 1953. As a five year old, it had a big impact on me and influenced a lot of my views on “normal” family life in mainstream culture. Probably somewhat distorted... exaggerated...but nonetheless, a glimpse into how non-Japanese people lived.

Aiko, my mother was the Japanese-Canadian version of “June Cleaver” from the American sitcom Leave It to Beaver. It was a TV program that ran from 1957 to 1963.

“June” and Aiko were stay-at-home mothers. June wore pearls and high heels at home, whereas my Mum wore cotton dresses, an apron and slippers in the house. She didn’t have the finely coiffed hairstyle of June, nor the modern kitchen of the 50s, which was featured in the Better Homes and Gardens.

She modelled her life on the trends in post-war Japan found in the popular women’s monthly magazine Shufu no Tomo – “the housewife’s friend”. In 1952 it had the third highest circulation of a women’s magazine in Japan with 8 million readers. 

Whenever the package arrived from Japan, my Mum took the afternoon off from her housework to get a glimpse of what was happening in her birthplace. The main magazine was about an inch thick, printed on high quality, glossy paper. The photos were works of art – sharp, colourful and with designs that attracted your attention. The smaller magazine inserts on food, included delicious looking recipes that made my mouth water, even after having finished a meal. The fashion section featured petite, young, beautiful Japanese women with porcelain coloured skin wearing the latest Western influenced fashions. The home design section covered the clean, simple, natural look that was the trademark of Japanese furniture and home design. Although I couldn’t read a word of the magazine, I enjoyed looking at the photos. 

My mother savoured the magazine. It included news about Japanese personalities like the future crown princess Michiko (a well educated commoner that my mother named our cat after). Not sure if it was meant to be a put down or a compliment. Michiko was the equivalent of today’s Meghan Markle. Michiko represented the modern day Japanese woman – educated, intelligent, athletic and free to marry based on love.

The magazine took a more conservative, traditional approach to the role of women and included crafts, knitting and dress patterns, make-up tips, flower arranging and gardening. After a month or two of reading the magazines, my mother would exchange magazines with her Japanese friends. 

Similar to married Canadian women of that era, my mother’s focus was on the family and management of the household. When she was first married and came to Canada, she said that she hardly knew how to cook or manage a home. Her mother died when she was a preteen, so she relied on her older sister and brothers to take care of her. A housekeeper did the cooking and cleaning. 

Her life in Canada was in complete contrast to her early life in Japan. She trained as a nurse in Japan, but only had a couple of years working in a hospital owned by a relative before she left for Canada with my Dad. As was the cultural norm in Japan, she was expected to marry in her late teens or early twenties. The choice of a marriage partner was not based on love, but carefully arranged through family connections and knowledge of both families. My Mum told me she didn’t want to get married. She wanted to continue her work as a nurse, but she followed the cultural norms and bowed down to her father’s wishes. She married Sadato Nakamura in June 1936. After a brief honeymoon, Sadato left for Canada to work as a chick sexer at Bolivar Hatcheries in B.C. In January 1940 she went to Canada to start her new life with a man she barely knew. They settled in the Surrey area. My brother, Sadamu or “Sam” was born in October of that year. During the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians during the War years, my parents settled in Regina in 1943.

Mum did the everyday cooking but Dad would help out especially on special occasions like New Year’s. Dad helped my Mum with making a Japanese condiment, fukujinzuke. It was made from a mixture of daikon, cucumber and eggplant cooked in a sweet soy sauce marinade seasoned with shiso, a Japanese herb, and ginger. All the ingredients except for the soy sauce and ginger were from their vegetable garden. 

Dad was an expert at making maki sushi (rolled sushi with veggie filling and wrapped in nori or dried sheets of seaweed.) He also became known for his homemade noodles (somen). His gift boxes of somen were prized by family friends. 

Mum was adept at pulling together Japanese dinners for unannounced visitors and bachelors that my Dad would invite home. When surprise guests arrived, I always wondered what my Mum would serve them. She would scurry around pulling out from the cupboards various Japanese dried and canned ingredients. She sent me or one of my sisters to the garden to gather vegetables to supplement the meal--like spinach, lettuce, asparagus, nasubi (eggplant), carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers and green onions.

She also took on the challenge of western cooking. I recall one memorable school lunch that she packed for me. Other kids had bologna or egg salad sandwiches. Not to be outdone, Mum had carefully wrapped in wax paper, a 3-layered “ribbon sandwich”...the kind of sandwich often served at afternoon teas or fancy wedding receptions. She may have seen the sandwich in her women’s magazine or she may have learned to make it from my oldest sister who learned how to make it in her Home Ec class. 

My Mum cut off the crusts on the white bread and on one layer was egg salad and on the second layer, a meat mixture from canned Spam with a bit of chopped pickle. My lunch mates were in awe of the artistry of the sandwich. It had high trading value in that lunchroom!

Prior to that, I asked my Mum if I could have my sandwich wrapped in wax paper or plastic wrap like the other kids. She was a recycler before it became trendy and had always packed my sandwiches in plastic bread bags. With seven kids in our family there was a lot to manage at home. She never wasted a thing. She darned socks, mended clothing but always made sure we were clean and well dressed. I have photos of my middle sister, Harumi at about age four wearing a new maroon-coloured wool winter jacket with brightly coloured embroidered flowers down the front. That same jacket appears in photos of me as a four-year old topped off with a maroon cloche style hat, a hand me down that belonged to my older sister. Five years later in another photo, Tom one of my younger brothers at age four is wearing that same jacket. By the time it reached my youngest brother, Elmer the cuffs were pretty threadbare, the embroidery had rubbed off in some place and the jacket was relegated to outdoor playtime. I wouldn’t be surprised if my Mum took it apart and used the fabric for polishing furniture.

For many years my mother did the laundry with a wringer washer and hung the clothes to dry outdoors in the summer and in the basement in the winter. She spent all of Saturday doing the full week’s worth of laundry. Can you imagine the amount of diapers she had to deal with over the years? Dad fashioned a trough so that the grey water from the washing machine and the traditional Japanese ofuro bath could be used to water the garden.

In those days we wore our school clothes just for school and then we changed into our play clothes after school. Unless you had a major accident, you wore the same clothes all week, except of course for change of underwear and socks. As the girls in the family got older, we helped Mum with hanging out the clothes. One time my oldest sister, Mariko got her arm caught in the wringer, but managed to release it before my mother arrived. The girls had the traditional role cleaning house, helping with meals or babysitting the younger siblings in the family. I’m not sure what my brothers did for certainly wasn’t the cooking, washing dishes or housework! They probably helped my Dad with outdoor chores...or rode their bikes or played ball in the field across from our house. We never questioned the gender roles at the time, but enjoyed the “girl time” with Mum.

It was in the mid-60s when things took a shift...”consciousness raising 101” for my Dad. My sister Mariko approached my parents about her wish to go to university. One of her friends was going to North Dakota for university, taking home economics. My sister had won the national Singer Sewing contest during high school and travelled to New York for the finals. She didn’t win the contest in New York, but I think aspired to be a designer. There certainly wasn’t extra money for university but we all had after school and summer jobs in high school. My Dad dismissed her request and told her, “why bother going, you’ll just get married anyway”. She was discouraged and no doubt had a private talk with Mum about what she was wanting to do. Behind closed doors and in Japanese, which none of us could understand, my parents discussed the matter. I never heard any arguments but I know my Mum worked on my Dad behind the scenes and convinced him to support Mariko in her desire to attend university in North Dakota.

They proudly attended her graduation. My sister did meet her future husband at university and worked as a teacher, providing a secure income for the family.

My oldest sister paved the way for my other sister and I to complete university degrees.  I attended the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. My Dad used to travel through Saskatoon on his way to do chick sexing at a hatchery nearby. I looked forward to the brief visits and the “care packages” my Mum sent along with him. They included Japanese snacks and freshly made sushi or my favourite chicken gohan (chicken and rice). 

In my third year of university, I had a particularly stressful fall semester and at the end of it had failed one of my final exams. When I returned home for Christmas break, I had a major breakout of acne and my splotchy face looked like a pizza. My parents knew that I was stressed out just by my appearance. I confessed to my Mum that I had failed an exam and had to take the course over again in my fourth year. She provided some comforting words and in the days that followed made my favourite chicken gohan and all the special foods for New Year’s celebrations. Later in the evening, my Dad joined me in the living room and I knew that my mother had told him about my failed exam. I was worried about his negative reaction. Instead he offered me a wooden, oval shaped “Daruma” doll and told me in his broken English a story from Japanese folklore. 

The “Daruma” doll was modelled after a dedicated monk who meditated so long until his arms and legs wasted away. The wooden doll was traditionally made with a rounded bottom so that it would swing back upright when knocked over. The eyes were wide open to remain focused. The doll symbolized that you must persevere and keep focused--get up no matter how many times you’re knocked down. The Daruma was a constant reminder to me of the support of my parents, to persevere and to stay focused on my goal. That Daruma helped me throughout the various challenges in my life, until I decided that my youngest brother would benefit from hearing the story and receiving the Daruma. I hoped that it would help him to deal with his grief over our mother’s death in 2005. It served as a tangible reminder of the support our parents provided throughout our lives, especially our mother who was the core of our family life.