Akiko Yamashita carefully pricked a hole in the paper strip and strung it high on a bamboo shoot adorned with origami cranes and angel fish.
A visitor to the Japanese section of the Huntington Gardens in San Marino handed Yamashita another strip with her wish written on it.
Nearby, Atsuko Hasegawa explained that in Chinese lore, dreams come true on the seventh day of the seventh month because mythical lovers meet on that day every year.
Sharing that legend with visitors was part of the duties of Hasegawa, Yamashita and five other Japanese women training to be docents at the Huntington Gardens.
The women are all wives of employees that Japanese firms assign to Southern California for six months to a year.
Visa regulations forbid them to work, but the women have found numerous ways to fill their hours.
They can be found volunteering at schools and nursing homes, taking English and crafts classes at community colleges, and enjoying tennis and golf.
Although some wives, mainly due to language difficulties, shy away from interacting with those outside their circle, others want to participate in community activities.
Yamashita, 57, said she signed up as a Huntington docent because “living in this area we have to do something for the community. . . . (Also,) we can make more friends, with American ladies.” She also volunteers in a Gardena nursing home.
Huntington activities director Lee Devereux started the Japanese guide program, the only one in the gardens catering to a single language group, because of numerous tour requests from Japanese visitors, who made up a large part of the half-million visitors last year. The seven Japanese volunteers will lead an average of two tours a month after completing 21 weeks of training.
Michio Katsumata, Los Angeles bureau chief for Nihon Keizhai Shimbun, a major Japanese financial daily, estimated that about 7,000 Japanese employees--almost entirely men--work temporarily in more than 700 offices in the Los Angeles area.
American Honda Motors Co. Inc. alone has 55 visiting employees stationed in Southern California, according to Mayumi Sakai, deputy director of the Japan Business Assn. of Southern California. The organization, which has a membership of 565 Japanese companies with offices in Los Angeles, runs a women’s club of about 900 members.
Those assigned to this country “in most cases are (the) elite,” Katsumata said, and are almost always promised promotion upon their return to Japan. “It’s a good experience for middle-management people to run an organization and learn how to train subordinates” here, as well as pick up techniques they could introduce to their parent companies.
In the San Gabriel Valley, many of the visiting families have congregated in San Marino and Arcadia because of the reputation of the schools, said Sakai.
Despite language and cultural barriers, most of the visitors say their stay here has brought some unexpected pleasures.
Free from family obligations and pressures of social conformity, many wives say they have more freedom and time for themselves. Most of the wives, many of them college graduates, are in their 30s or 40s, Sakai said. They say they experience a closer relationship with their husbands, who often work shorter hours here.
“In Japan (my husband comes home) every day after midnight,” said Satoko Kaneko, 46, a San Marino resident whose husband heads the international division of Mitsui Manufacturers Bank. On weekends he would be “tired (or) otherwise on the golf course” discussing business with colleagues, she said. Now he returns by 9 p.m. and they dine together, a previously uncommon occurrence.
“I spend more time with my family here, definitely,” said Hasegawa’s husband, Atsuo, president of Tokai Bank of California and chairman of Asahi Gakuen, a Japanese school in South Pasadena. More than 670 children of the visitors who live in the San Gabriel Valley attend the Saturday school to keep up with their classmates back home.
Atsuo Hasegawa, 50, said his wife is more interested in his affairs now that she is included in more of his social activities.
“The wife knows a little more about what her husband is doing. . . . (It) brings them closer together,” said Hasegawa, who expects to leave his company-owned San Marino home for Japan within three years.
Hasegawa said he finds it easier to take time off for vacations here, and added that his children’s greater dependence on their parents in a foreign environment has also strengthened family ties.
Katsumata contrasted the relatively carefree life of Japanese wives here with their “miserable situation” back home, “cluttered in a small house, worrying about what neighbors would say about their kids.”
“It’s a society where your neighbors are almost always watching you,” he said. “You have to behave yourself always.
“Here they can do anything. No need to worry about complicated family relationships or your husband’s rank in the office. In Tokyo, wives of lower-ranking businessmen are regarded as inferior.” That hierarchy is less respected here.
Atsuko Hasegawa, 46, agrees. “Here I feel more relaxed and free because there are no relatives watching, so I can choose what I want to do. Back home neighbors are watching, mothers-in-law are watching.”
And there are other benefits as well.
“Back home social activities are solely for men, but here, I go out for parties and dinners with clients and corporate visitors from Japan. Also I entertain people at home because it’s the American custom. . . . I like it,” Hasegawa said.
“Japanese businessmen rarely bring their friends to their houses because they are so small,” preferring to entertain in restaurants or bars, Katsumata said.
Yamashita, 57, said entertaining her husband’s business associates at their home has been enjoyable because she feels more involved in her husband’s work.
Yamashita belongs to the Santa Anita Women’s Golf Club and plays every week. A round of golf, about $7 here, costs $150 in Japan and is a luxury usually reserved for men.
“If I go back, I can’t play so often,” she said, adding that she has a wider range of things to do here, including bridge parties every Thursday.
She said many wives feel comfortable in Southern California because of the large Japanese community. After a visit to the East Coast, returning to California is “like coming back to Japan,” she said. “You can get Japanese food, Japanese TV and you can live without using English.”
Yet many still yearn to go home where their families are. Kaneko said it is a “big relief” knowing that she will return eventually. Although she has found many friends, there is constant “tension being here in a foreign country,” she said.