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Greg Girard/Contact Press Images for TIME.
FAR FROM HOME: Wives from Philippines have brought new blood to Yamagata.

Imported Brides
A struggling rural community looks beyond Japan to save its way of life

Japan may be very, very small, as its citizens are fond of reminding the outside world, but it has regions that can feel as remote as a Siberian outpost. The village of Okura in northern, mountainous Yamagata prefecture, fits that description. From the nearest big city, it takes an hour by train to get to the farming hamlet, and during the winter Okura is buried in snowdrifts for at least four months. Its way of life is best loved by the native-born.

But as with many out-of-the-way communities, Okura has suffered a steady population exodus, particularly of young people lured to the bright lights and big salaries of Tokyo. In the mid-'80s, eligible bachelors outnumbered available women three to one. (Sons traditionally take over farms; daughters are free to depart.) So in 1986, 10 men traveled to the Philippines to find brides—and to keep Okura from shrivelling up. All succeeded, marrying their spouses only days after being introduced. "It was a question of community survival," says Shigeya Mori, a former village official who organized the tour.

Nearly 15 years have passed, and Yamagata now has more than 2,000 foreign wives, hailing from the Philippines, South Korea, China and Vietnam. Some didn't take to life in backwater Japan and returned home. But not Matilde Sino Nagase, whose husband Toshio was on that first tour to the Philippines. "I was so happy to come to Japan," she says, "that I didn't give a thought to the difficulties that lay ahead." Today, she speaks flawless Japanese and her three children are ordinary Japanese schoolkids, though Matilde says she hopes they will learn Tagalog, the Philippine national tongue, when they get older.

The foreign brides start married life facing big challenges. Their new husbands are virtual strangers, and often years older than they are. The language barrier is rough; so, too, is living with a mother-in-law, which is the tradition in the Japanese countryside. The Japanese press has paid a lot of attention to the foreign brides, often stressing that economic hardship in their homelands brought them to Japan. "Many Japanese, including the media, are prejudiced against these arranged, mixed marriages," says Haruo Yaguchi, a local official in Tozawa, another small Yamagata town.

Baek Myung Sook decided to wed a man from Tozawa in 1989, after having divorced in her native South Korea. A marriage broker introduced her to Seiji Shoji, a farmer seven years her senior, and the couple tied the knot three days later. She found Yamagata dirty, cold and far less affluent than she expected. "I was duped," she says, half-jokingly. There were mother-in-law problems and disappointment with unaccepting neighbors. Her husband tells her she can be a little blunt for Japanese sensibilities. "If you are not tough," she says, "you can't live here."

Nonetheless, Myung Sook helped the village with a small industrial project to produce kimchee, the Korean vegetable dish now popular in Japan. Seven years ago she published a collection of Korean folk tales in Japanese, which she speaks and reads fluently. Myung Sook is in Japan for the long term. "I failed in marriage once," she says. "I don't want to fail again." Hoping to give others the same opportunity she had, she has helped arrange several marriages between Korean women and local men. Yamagata may be cold, remote, forbidding—but for many of the foreign brides, it's now the place they call home.

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