Japanese Picture Brides: Building a Family through Photographs

Communication in the modern age is often ruled by artificial connections and third party devices. Social media has only intensified this disconnection, with "friends" curating pieces of their online lives to showcase a version of their face to the public. This comfort with virtual people has shifted our approach toward romance -- married couples who met online now outnumber those who found each other in a bar or club.

But finding a mate through a photograph and carefully edited description is nothing new. Just as online dating services today set up singles with awkward blind dates, traditional matchmaking -- particularly in parts of Asia, Africa and Europe -- has arranged pairs for ages.

In Japan, the matchmaking tradition of omiai dates back to the 16th century. In the U.S., the immigration wave of Japanese laborers in the late 1880s gave way to the practice of marriage through picture brides -- a sort of a translation of omiai in which women in Japan were paired with men in the U.S. using only photographs and family recommendations. This resulted in the immigration of over ten thousand Japanese women to the West Coast from 1908 until 1920, when the Japanese government stopped issuing passports to picture brides.

The popularity among Japanese women of marrying men abroad can be attributed to a combination of social, cultural, economic, and historical factors of Meiji-era Japan, such as the increased importance of education and opportunities to travel abroad. As for the issei men in the U.S., it was both an economic decision and a compromise with the political racism of the times. The Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907 restricted the immigration of Japanese laborers, and made provisions only for family reunions -- which in turn created a loophole for women in Japan to emigrate to the U.S. by becoming the wives of those already present in the country.

Upon a picture bride's arrival, she and her new husband could identify one another only by referencing the photographs exchanged via mail. However, as with the cacophony of alleged "tall, dark, and handsome" online bachelors, discrepancies between the picture and the person were common. Ai Miyasaki, who immigrated from Japan to the U.S. with her husband in 1916, recalls seeing the confusion among picture brides:

None knew what their husbands were like except by the photos...The men would say that they had businesses and send picture which were taken when they were younger and deceived brides...In our own town in that era, the men all wore white clothes and dressed nicely in the summer. Here in America, the men usually had only dingy black suit, worn down shoes, shaggy hair... and to have seen someone like that as you came off the ship must have been a great disappointment. It was only natural to feel that way. (The Issei: Portrait of a Pioneer, edited by Eileen Sunada Sarasohn, 1983)

Besides dealing with deflated expectations, the shift into American culture for many picture brides involved adapting to unfamiliar foods and customs, and facing grueling labor conditions alongside their husbands. Some left their marriages and headed home to Japan; those who stayed, yet were unsatisfied with their situation in the U.S., chose to run away. In 1914, community leaders in Little Tokyo established a society to provide counseling and referral services for such women.

But the majority of the picture brides stayed on. Working beside their husbands, this generation of women made possible the growth of Little Tokyo and survival of the Japanese diaspora that previously was disproportionately limited to men. Few years after the Japanese government ceased issuing passports for picture brides, the 1924 Immigration Act further restricted immigration. But by this time families were beginning to grow. By 1930 Little Tokyo had a population of roughly 35,000 issei and nisei Japanese.

The photos below chronicle the challenges and concerns of the picture brides who traveled to California, as well as the circumstances that led to the phenomenon.

Hisataro with his wife Sugi with their first son Hidihalu in Japan. Hisataro and Sugi were married in Japan in 1906. Hisataro moved to the United States in 1908 for economic reasons and Sugi followed in 1914. The family settled in Los Angeles | Image Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

A picture bride being processed at Angel Island | Copyright 2008 California State Parks

A loophole in the Gentlemen's Agreement allowed single Japanese American bachelors, like the two shown here, to find a wife in Japan to come live with them in the United States | Image Courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library

Large groups of picture brides would enter the U.S. through Angel Island, considered the 'Ellis Island of the West' after a two week journey by ship. North Garrison Buildings of the Angel Island Immigration Station, ca 1930 | Copyright 2008 California Sta

It was common for Japanese men to send old or retouched photos of themselves in fear that if the women knew how they really looked r their real age they would not come. Men often posed with borrowed suits and fancy items in order to give the illusion that they were wealthier and better off than they actually were | Image Courtesy of the USC Digital Archive

Young picture brides, like those seen here, were often disillusioned to see the true appearance and lifestyle of their husbands once landing on American soil. Japanese women were often younger than their new husbands by several years, sometimes decades. Some young brides returned to Japan upon seeing their husbands, but the majority accepted their fate by settling into life in America and starting families | Copyright 2008 California State Parks

A professional portrait of a Japanese American woman and her child | Image Courtesy of the USC Digital Archives.

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