Setsuko Yotsugi: an immigrant story from 1950s Japan to Aotearoa today

Setsuko Yotsugi: an immigrant story from 1950s Japan to Aotearoa today

What does a young Japanese migrant from Hiroshima bring with her to her new adopted country? Setsuko Yotsugi brought a few things with her to start a future life in Wellington: hopes, dreams, resilience, and values. Here, her daughter Deb Donnelly tells the story of her mother’s journey to Aotearoa New Zealand and how she kept her connection with her birth country alive.

A woman in a kimono stands behind six children in matching Japanese dress
Setsuko Yotsugi as a young woman, in yukata cotton robes with children at obon summer festival in Hiroshima, Japan, about 1955. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Deb Donnelly

How our parents, Setsuko and Mick, met

Our parents met in Kure, Japan during 1954 while Mick was stationed there carrying out administrative duties with New Zealand’s Kayforce, part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF). Mick also served as a rugby referee for international and local team games in the mid 1950s. Setsuko and Mick were introduced by a migrant Catholic priest in Hiroshima and a year after meeting they dealt, as best they could, with New Zealand immigration policy, army compliance, and visa processes at the time.

Setsuko travelled from her hometown Takehara, near Hiroshima, to New Zealand and married Mick at St Anne’s Catholic Church in Newtown in 1956 to live their married life in Berhampore. In her 35 years as a New Zealand citizen, Setsuko returned to Japan once to visit family and friends with her migrant friend Sachiko Jones.

Two people stand by water, with two fake deer. In the water is a torii (gate)
Setsuko Yotsugi and Mick Donnelly at Miyajima, Japan, about 1954. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Deb Donnelly

Setsuko was a modern woman who raised four children and was called upon as a community liaison for the Japan Embassy in Wellington. As a result, she met many Japanese employees of Japanese businesses who were contracted to work in Wellington with their usually young families.

This growing community network enabled Setsuko and other Japanese migrant women to keep their connections to Japan alive. Through official events organised by the Japanese business and diplomatic community, Wellington migrants like Setsuko were able to keep their kimono and textile collections active and on trend, even by Japanese standards.

When required, my siblings and I would be ‘volunteered’ to babysit Japanese children of business couples on weekends for pocket money, giving us more opportunity to become familiar with all aspects of cross-cultural lifestyles. My wardrobe always benefitted from ideas gleaned from Japanese magazines as Setsuko subscribed to Shufunotomo magazine and was a great patternmaker, knitter, and seamstress all her life.

Carrying on the kimono tradition for New Zealand audiences

Setsuko gave us all an understanding of her Japanese identity and customs through role modelling and sharing knowledge of Japanese culture throughout her life in New Zealand. This inspired us, I believe, to keep those links alive between Japan and New Zealand and pass on the customs she taught us.

Setsuko considered the kimono a key symbol to express her cultural origins. The furisode kimono, undergarments, obi or waist belt, and tabi cotton socks with geta or zōri shoes were traditionally worn in Japan but not often seen in Wellington in the 1960s. Often kimono designs had seasonal motifs and used traditional katazome stencil or shibori resist techniques were dyed in selected colours and worn on special occasions, mainly made in silk or summer style yukata robes made in cotton for the obon summer festivals which Setsuko continued to enjoy.

Two girls pose for a photo in kimono, obi, and zori
Debbie (left) in silk kimono, hanhaba obi, and zori, and Josephine (right) in summer cotton yukata and geta shoes, at their home in Berhampore, about 1970. Photo by Mick Donnelly, courtesy of Deb Donnelly

I vividly remember Setsuko teaching my Year 5 classmates and myself how to wear the kimono at St Anne’s convent primary school in Newtown. The convent school had quite a few international students, so I didn’t find her demonstration unusual with so many nationalities represented.

Even though wearing a full kimono is not comfortable to sit or eat in, it is interesting to wear. The silk undergarments feel luxurious. This early experience helped me to develop a love of all kimono, obi, tabi, zori, as well as Japanese shuttlecock paddle hagoita traditionally seen in manga art prints.

Paddle adorned with a three-dimensional picture of a lady wearing a kimono
Hagoita shuttlecock paddle for playing hanetsuki (similar to badminton). Photo by and courtesy of Deb Donnelly
Japanese sash
Obi sash or belt worn by Setsuko, woven in gold thread, brocade kimono closure. Photo by and courtesy of Deb Donnelly

I had always hoped to pass on those practices to Setsuko’s grandchildren. Through hosting several Japanese homestay students or taking study trips to Japan for textile design and printmaking, we have all enjoyed wearing or sharing the kimono and still do to this day.

Peachy-orange sash and red cord
Kumihimo – hand-woven cord and dyed obijime sash for holding up the obi or belt. Photo by and courtesy of Deb Donnelly
A pair of zōri (sandals) on the left white socks
Zōri – shoes worn with tabi – woven white socks – with metal tab closures. Photo by and courtesy of Deb Donnelly

Setsuko and the beginnings of the Japan Society of New Zealand

Setsuko was a foundation member of the Japan Society of New Zealand, established in 1959. She was made a Life Member in 1980 for her service to the society.

Memories of social events include Setsuko’s role as the event organiser for the annual Japan Society sukiyaki party every winter, often held at Clare’s Cabaret in Garrett St off Cuba St. Sukiyaki originated during the Edo period when eating meat was prohibited. Farmers broiled (yaki) meat in secret on spades translated as (suki). Sukiyaki has steadily grown in popularity in Japan since the 19th century.

Setsuko soon needed more cooks stationed at each table for her sukiyaki parties. While we were each given table duties, it was fun to be invited to support Setsuko’s sukiyaki night and enjoy meeting other regular and new Japan Society members and guests. As teenagers we actively supported her success and we had always enjoyed her delicious cooking, so sharing this experience again was not unusual. Setsuko also called on her close team of able Japanese migrant women to cook or prepare food, all wearing full kimono outfits and obi, plus special apron covers called kappougi, usually made of white cotton. I still enjoy wearing these ‘covers’ as art pinafores.

As an active member of the Japan Society in Wellington, Setsuko shared her manākitanga and welcomed people from all over Japan to Wellington. Sometimes local Māori kapa haka groups would perform at the Japan Culture and Information Centre where meetings took place monthly.

Setsuko also demonstrated the art of wearing the kimono, i.e. kitsuke, several times for the Japan Society evenings. I modelled kimono twice at the Customhouse Quay Japan cultural centre meeting rooms for my mother’s demonstrations and once at the St Patrick’s College in Wellington (where my brothers Leo and Patrick attended school) for their bridal fundraiser event where I was dressed by Setsuko in a bridal kimono.

A group of women pose for a photo in wedding dresses
St Patrick’s College Wellington annual bridal gown event. Setsuko, standing behind the group, is in a kuro tomesode kimono for married women, e.g. the mother of the bridal couple in formal kimono attire. “I would have been around 20 years old as her model to wear the bridal kimono, without traditional head gear,” says Deb, seated in front of her mother. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Deb Donnelly

A sought-after interpreter and community liaison

Our parents were called on to be Wellington community liaisons to facilitate Japanese trade and diplomatic relations during the late 1960s and early 1970s. As our father worked for several government departments he would field these requests.

Setsuko enjoyed her work as an English interpreter for the fishing company Nippon Suisan Kaisha from the mid 1960s to late 1970s. We all enjoyed going along on her bus tour guides around the Wellington region often mixing English and Japanese karaoke style en route. We then fortunately had access to many types of Japanese food and gifts or omiyage from various staff who valued Setsuko’s knowledge of New Zealand.

Two men and two women sitting on a couch. In front of them on a small table are two glasses of beer and plates with what look like potato chips and crackers
Setsuko next to Sachiko Jones, her migrant friend, with visiting two Nippon Suisan Kaisha representatives. Photo by Mick Donnelly, courtesy of Deb Donnelly

Many connections and farewells for the fishing crews were held at Queen’s Wharf. Setsuko became well-known amongst Wellington businesses as an interpreter and respected for including her family in many social exchanges such as hosting dinner parties at our family home, always wearing kimonos.

The photo below was taken by Wellington press photographers of me, aged 12, greeting Japanese royalty at Wellington airport in a purple silk furisode kimono with yuzen design (a gift from Captain Tao, Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd) welcoming the Prince and Princess Mikasa to Wellington airport (on a very windy day) in 1971. When I wore the kimono to greet the royal couple, some people had expected me to be the daughter of a New Zealand businessman and surprised to find out our father was a senior civil servant.

A woman greets two people, a man and a woman with a crowd behind them
Deb welcomes the Japanese royal couple Prince and Princess Mikasa to Wellington, 1969. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Deb Donnelly


Deb shakes hand with the Princess while a small crowd watches on. Behind them are airplanes on the tarmac and a car
Deb greets Prince and Princess Mikasa at Wellington Airport. Photo by Mick Donnelly, courtesy of Deb Donnelly

The second photo captures the Wellington wind making its presence felt during the welcome to Prince and Princess Mikasa. The purple furisode kimono was well worn and aired during this time, this period gave me a sense of the pride and significance of wearing this costume to represent the Japan Society in Wellington.

Full circle: the next generation

Setsuko was a great teacher to us building bridges in areas of hospitality, diplomacy, intercultural friendships, and networks with a community that celebrates cultural traditions integrated into New Zealand Aotearoa contemporary life. First grandson Adam Treweek was dressed in a small boy’s kimono on his third birthday celebrating the shichi-go-san (7-5-1) children’s festival.

An older woman props a child up in her arms
Setsuko and Adam as a toddler in kimono at the family home in Berhampore, about 1989. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Deb Donnelly

Since Setsuko passed on, we have continued her tradition of having sukiyaki dinners prepared for our sibling birthdays and special occasions (which will be discussed in a future article). These have long brought the family together each year. Each sibling also has Japanese dolls in cases in their home, just as Setsuko did. As a designer, I have gained more practice in artistic techniques of textile and taught workshops with Japanese colleagues in printmaking, shibori resist, aizome dyeing, and digital techniques through study visits to Japan and as the New Zealand representative for World Shibori since 2008. I also studied Japanese cultural practice of aizome indigo textiles in 2019.

Setsuko’s legacy of creating bonds between Wellington and Japan continues through organised tour groups and sister city relationships that the Japanese community networks continued to develop with successive mayors. These are a few images of my daughter Imogen Kiyoko Donnelly-Lawrence joining me for the 15th-anniversary tour of Wellington’s sister city Sakai and Lower Hutt with Minoh City as sister city in September 2009. The tour to Japan was organised by members of the Wellington Japan Society and Hutt Minoh Friendship House members.

When celebrating the 55th anniversary of the Japan Society in 2015, I was asked to exhibit Setsuko’s kimono designs and artefacts at their dinner held at Logan Brown restaurant and staff all generously wore our provided yukata – a wonderful commemoration of the relations forged by migrant Japanese women in New Zealand.

Two photos, both showing a girl in a kimono. In both photos a woman (different in each photo) stands beside her
Left: Setsuko’s granddaughter Imogen, left, with Deb behind. Right: Imogen was dressed in a furisode kimono by Nobu Kaki, right, from Minoh City as sister city partner of Lower Hutt. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Deb Donnelly
Three women pose for a photo, one of them holding a baby wearing a baptism gown
Reiko Duncan, Setsuko Donnelly, and Sachiko Jones at St Anne’s Catholic Church, Newtown at Josephine Donnelly’s baptism, about 1962. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Deb Donnelly
Painted portrait of Setsuko
Portrait of Setsuko by Deb Donnelly. Courtesy of Deb Donnelly


Adapted from the Kimono Seikatsu glossary.

  • Furisode – The most formal kimono worn by unmarried women, and features long flowing sleeves.
  • Hagoita (羽子板 「はごいた」) – The wooden paddles used to hit shuttlecocks (羽子 pronounced hago 「はご」 or hane 「はね」), traditionally made of soapberry seeds and bird feathers, that are used to play the traditional Japanese pastime called hanetsuki during the New Year celebrations. Hagoita paddles are decorated with various images, sometimes executed in relief, of women in kimono.
  • Hanhaba – A half-width obi that is either sewn in half. This is the most casual obi and the only kind of obi worn with the yukata.
  • Houmongi – A type of kimono that has a pattern along the bottom hem and on the sleeves. The pattern is continuous across the seams of the kimono. It is a very formal kimono meant for married and unmarried women.
  • Juban – The undergarment worn underneath a kimono to protect the fabric from touching your skin. The juban collar will be seen when finished dressing, and often contains a slot of a collar stiffener to give the collar shape.
  • Kuro tomesode – The most formal kimono for married women. This kimono is black with a pattern only along the hem. It is usually only worn by the mother of the bride at a wedding.
  • Kimono – Literally means “thing to wear”. In the past, it just referred to any kind of clothing, but today it more specifically references the main outer garment of traditional Japanese clothing. Often a kimono is made of silk, cotton, or synthetic material. The basic shape is linear in nature and shaped like a T.
  • Kitsuke – Literally means “the way of wearing”. It is commonly used to mean the way of putting on a kimono.
  • Kumihimo – Dyed silk braided cord used to decorate and hold the formal obi in place.
  • Maru –The maru obi is the most formal type of obi and is completely patterned. Maru obi are often elaborately patterned brocade and have gold or silver threads.
  • Obi – The wide sash that is used to keep a kimono closed.
  • Obi jime – A cord used to hold the obi in place and tied in a decorative knot in front.
  • Obon (お盆) – An annual Buddhist event for commemorating your ancestors. It is believed that each year during obon on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, the ancestors’ spirits return to this world to visit their relatives. (Obon on Wikipedia.)
  • Shibori – A method of dyeing fabric where the undyed fabric is resisted or tied with string under tension, to prevent the dye from touching certain pattern sections.
  • Tabi – White woven socks, sewn with a section for the big toe, to cover women’s feet while wearing zori and fastened with metal clips.
  • Tomesode – A formal kimono for married women with a pattern only at the hem. Comes in many colours.
  • Yukata – An informal summer kimono made of cotton which originated from the clothing worn inside at Japanese hot springs and bath houses. Now yukata are worn during summer at festivals or other casual events.
  • Yuzen – A method of dyeing where a pattern is drawn on the kimono with dye resistant paste. Then when the kimono has been dyed, the paste can be washed off to reveal the undyed pattern.
  • Zori – Traditional Japanese shoes worn with kimono. Zori shoes are more formal than geta.

The Cipiyak project

This article was written for the Cipiyak project, which aims to bring into focus both the objects and histories of Japanese New Zealand diaspora communities and those which link Aotearoa New Zealand and Japan. Read the introduction to our project.


  1. Thank you Deb for this great story about your mother. I grew up in Khandallah in the 1970s and my first friend at primary school was Mariko Nishino. Her father was working in Wellington at the time — it was a very sad day when, waving from the back of her mother’s car, she left to return to Tokyo with her family.

  2. Thank you for this beautiful story. I live in Sydney, Australia, but my father was first posted to Wellington in the 1950s, probably one of the few Japanese people along with your mum. Thank you for sharing your family story

  3. What a lovely article. I was born and grew up in Wellington over 70 + years ago in a different period of NZ immigration and settlement. I am so pleased to see such a successful family, one that has the best of Japanese and NZ culture and has added a bright note to our short modern history. Thank you .

  4. Thank you Deb for this lovely introduction to your mother. I love your portrait! What a treat.

    1. Hi Ann,
      Glad you liked the article.
      My father’s albums and archives really tell the stories. I made the portrait of Setsuko just after she passed away. Her warmth and wisdom continue to be passed on through our family gatherings.

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