At a Christmas bazaar in Oregon last week, retired technical writer Judi Palumbo tackled pile after pile of other people’s castoffs, unearthing an old, black-and-white wedding portrait.
Palumbo, who prowls estate sales and thrift shops for hidden gems that she resells online, paid $4 for the slightly tattered photograph. Its paper frame was etched with a date: Aug. 24, 1940.
Professionally made at Takasawa Studio in Hanapepe, Kauai, the image features a young Japanese couple, their blank faces looking at the camera fixedly.
Dressed in a dark suit and tie, the groom stands stiff as a soldier. His wife, hands closed and shoulders slumped forward onto her clavicle, sits in a chair at his side. Round-faced and petite, the kimono-clad woman wears a bulky headdress, a traditional Japanese symbol of an obedient bride.
“I’ve never actually bought anyone else’s old family photo before,” said Palumbo, who took the portrait home with no plans to sell it online with the rest of her finds. “I look for interesting photos of places or events. But this one — there was just something about it. I guess it was the date and the couple’s ancestry and knowing what happened 16 months later.”
On Dec. 7, 1941 — 471 days after the couple in portrait married — more than 2,400 Americans were killed in Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. How might the war that followed have altered the couple’s fate? It’s a question that Palumbo, a self-described amateur historian, couldn’t get out of her head.
So she took to social media, firing off a plea for anyone who might know the couple. If they were alive, she reasoned, they would probably be in their 90s. From behind her computer screen, Palumbo launched a search for the mystery couple in hopes that she could return to them their wedding portrait taken more than 75 years ago.
“My grandfather was killed in WWII when my mom was very young,” Palumbo wrote on Facebook. “We only have a couple of grainy photos of him that were taken after he joined the military and I would give anything to have a nice photo of him on the day he and my grandma were married or at some other point in his life. If this couple is still alive and lost their wedding photo during the war I would want them to have it back.”
In the span of a couple days, Palumbo’s Facebook post garnered more than 100 likes and dozens of shares, eventually finding its way to Tammy Puu, one of the mystery couple’s descendants.
Puu was alerted to Palumbo’s post by a relative. She immediately identified the photograph’s subjects as Yoshio and Sueno Miyazaki, her deceased paternal grandparents.
Puu said she hasn’t a clue as to how her grandparent’s wedding portrait ended up in Oregon, where she has no relatives. But she’s ecstatic that it will soon make its way back to Kauai, thanks to the curiosity of a stranger and a little online sleuthing.
“Getting this photograph back in our hands means more than anything,” Puu said.
Puu, who is 45, was born and raised in Kalaheo, the same west Kauai town where her grandparents had lived. Growing up, she was close with her grandparents, especially her grandmother who had a life that was particularly vibrant.
“She was a different kind of Japanese woman,” Puu said. “She was not the type to walk behind her husband. She was not quiet in any way, shape or form. At one point, she and my grandfather actually got divorced because he wanted a more submissive woman. She smoked heavily and she left her cigarette butts all over and he wanted her to be neat and orderly.”
When a couple of years passed and Yoshio Miyazaki realized that leaving his wife had been a terrible mistake, Sueno Miyazaki made sure to have her reckoning.
“My grandmother was a very strong-minded woman,” Puu said. “One day when we were asking if she and my grandfather were getting back together, she sat us down and said, ‘If a man leaves you and decides he wants to come back, make sure he buys you a bigger house and a bigger diamond.’ And my grandfather did. He built a new house for them in Lawai with a mango tree and a lychee tree and my grandmother got a bigger diamond.”
The youngest of 10 siblings, Sueno Miyazaki was born on Kauai in the Kukuiula plantation camp. She was born to Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii to work in the pineapple fields.
When she was old enough, Sueno Miyazaki worked at the pineapple cannery in Lawai. A talented seamstress and Japanese obon dancer, she later became a founding member of Kauai Island Tours, which facilitated Kauai and Japan tour packages with translators. The tour company briefly employed Puu as a concierge.
“I used to joke to her, ‘Grandma, are you a geisha?’” Puu recalls. “It was the way she dressed and the way she danced. She used to do Japanese tea ceremonies and she was always playing music and she sewed these kimonos that everyone wanted.”
Born in Japan, Yoshio Miyazaki immigrated to Kauai as a youth, eventually opening Miyazaki Electrical in Kalaheo. He and Sueno Miyazaki had two daughters and two sons, one of whom is Puu’s father, 75-year-old Herbert Miyazaki. Less sociable than his wife, his presence in Puu’s life was consistent but comparatively muted.
But there were some colorful moments. For example, he once told his granddaughter that they descended from Japanese royalty.
“If we go back to Japan, will people treat us really nice?” Puu remembers asking.
“No, not anymore,” he told her, dashing her childlike dreams. “That was a long, long time ago.”
When Sueno Miyazaki died in 2002, Yoshio Miyazaki said he no longer wanted to be alive. But he was gifted with another three years of life. He died on Sept. 8, 2005 — the day before his deceased wife’s birthday.
It’s comforting, Puu said, to think that he timed his death so they could be together to celebrate.
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