Japanese Picture Brides in the United States

The modern world incorporates a variety of social activities into a single system that helps to interpret a divergent environment and to establish successful ethnic interactions. The roots of multicultural patterns go back to contradictive ideas and notions adopted in the past. For instance, immigration, which has brought both negative and positive consequences throughout the history, is one of the major factors that have influenced the multicultural society in the United States. Moreover, a notion of “picture brides” that is referred to a system of organized marriages among Japanese men and women is an important part of the American history that also defines a complicated nature of the relationships between the United States and Japan. In fact, the concept of “picture brides” may be viewed as controversial due to its social, political, and moral aspects.

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Japanese women formed a big immigration wave in the beginning of the twentieth century. Under different circumstances, women responded to men that went to the United States and wanted to have a Japanese wife. That process included a number of factors. The reality behind the picture often led to frustration and legal prohibition of the phenomenon. To discuss this issue, it is important to explain the main ideas that define the notion of picture brides and to concentrate on its legal and economic implications as well as the major challenges faced by women in a foreign country. In this essay, we focus on the life of picture brides who married Japanese men in Hawaii.

Traditions behind the Notion of Picture Brides

The system, known as “picture brides,” originated from a traditional Japanese approach to form a family. The practice of arranged marriages was highly popular in the past. In fact, marriage was regarded as a family concern rather than as a matter of personal choice (Yanagihashi 3). Partners were selected by parents on the basis of family relationships, economic expectations, and social position. In general, brides and grooms came from the same location. When matchmakers found a suitable spouse from another town, families exchanged photographs to gain a visual representation and to approve a partner before the initial meeting. After the proposal, a bride moved to live with a man. That traditional approach was adapted to the needs of immigrants.

Men who came to the United States realized that they would spend many years in a foreign country. Therefore, with permission from their employers, workers started to invite their wives and children. Consequently, a number of families were created known as “summoned immigrants” (yobiyose) (Yanagihashi 3). The yobiyose process included single men that wanted to start a family and contacted their relatives in Japan in order to arrange a marriage. Thus, new groups of immigrants known as picture brides or shashin kekkon emerged (Yanagihashi 3). Women left their homes to meet their husbands and to settle in the United States (the biggest population was in Hawaii).

The practice of matching picture brides was simple. Future couples exchanged photographs adding personal information about them. For instance, it was customary to provide such data as age, occupation, work environment, expectations, hobbies, and other important facts. Additionally, people shared their background related to education, genealogy, health, and wealth. Judging from that knowledge, families made a decision about marriage. It should be noted that the notion of picture brides was often idealized as a way of honoring a family and carrying a moral responsibility.

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To form a union between a man in the United States and a woman in Japan, people often resorted to the services provided by a nakkodo. A nakkodo was an intermediary between the families (Stroescu). It was his task to present gathered data and to help make a decision. It is worth mentioning that some matchmakers did not provide all the needed information in order to protect one of the parties and to close a deal quickly. For example, there were cases when older men wanted to have younger brides. To satisfy that expectation, a nakkodo could use a photo that portrayed a young man or he did not mention any illnesses and financial troubles. That aspect was a common part of the Japanese picture bride system (Hones). The practice also related to legal and political elements in terms of historical events.

Historical Background

Picture brides practice may be defined as a prototype of modern wedding agencies and websites. However, the history of matchmaking services appeared many centuries ago. A more primitive form of arranging marriages existed in the seventeenth century and may be characterized as mail-order brides system. In 1620 on the territory of colonial Virginia, men started to “recruit” women from other areas via personal mail and letters to authorities (for example, priests) (International Love Scout). After the middle of the nineteenth century, picture brides practice became more common (International Love Scout). A great number of picture brides arrived after 1907 when the Japanese-American Passport Agreement was made (Stroescu). The Gentlemen’s Agreement did not allow Japanese to enter the United States as a labor force. Therefore, people started to explore other possibilities.

The majority of Japanese men that left their home country did not have the intention to return. For example, many of them wanted to avoid military service. Despite that fact, they respected traditions and laws of the homeland. According to those traditions, a Japanese man should marry a woman of his origins. The main problem was that there were not many Japanese women in the Unites States and “the only women who were allowed to leave Japan were married women” (Stroescu). In fact, the government allowed Japanese women to go to the United States as the family members (Takaki 234). That official position permitted more than 60 000 women to emigrate from Japan (Takaki 234). It should be noted that 15 000 women were picture brides (Yanagihashi 3). Picture brides could travel to the United States only after an official marriage took place in Japan. Families arranged the ceremony which did not require a groom to be present. The practice ended in 1920 when “Japan stopped giving passports to picture brides” (Stroescu). Nevertheless, the system continued to be immensely popular for different reasons.

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Main Reasons

Both men and women had a number of reasons to benefit from a picture bride system. In that context, it is important to consider that most men worked on the plantations in Hawaii and their employers supported the decision. Furthermore, the plantation owners encouraged the practice of picture brides as they believed that wives could provide additional labor force and improve productivity and morale in Japanese community (Stroescu). Additionally, the owners supported the marriages as a means to make the workers stay permanently. Married life was also supposed to be a mechanism to deal with drinking and gambling that were a part of daily life in the settlements of men.

From the standpoint of Japanese men, it was beneficial to have a picture bride for several reasons. Firstly, they would have someone for intimate relationships. Secondly, wives were expected to clean, to cook, and to do other kinds of housework. Thirdly, women were also needed to help with the work on the plantations. Women chose to become picture brides to improve their living situations, to receive financial support, and to explore another country and culture. Moreover, they wanted to escape from a constant family control and to receive more rights. Interestingly, the official government policy under the rule of Emperor Meiji was to assist women and to educate them in a manner that would help to adapt to norms and traditions of the United States. Thus, since 1876, English language and literature had been studied in schools (Takaki 235). Moreover, the stories that described the United States as a heavenly country were popular. However, most picture brides were disappointed and frustrated when they arrived.

The Reality behind the Pictures

As it was mentioned above, the majority of men that wanted picture brides worked on the plantations. Thus, women had to join them and to do similar tasks. For instance, they had to hoe and to harvest while also doing housework. It is estimated that in 1920, over “14 percent of the plantation labor force was female, mostly Japanese” (Takaki 240). A typical day of Japanese brides started at 4 a.m. and continued until the lights were turned off at 8 p.m. (Stroescu). Men and women performed almost the same tasks, but the payment was different. For example, in 1915, women’s salary was approximately 55 cents per day, while men received 78 cents per day (Takaki 240). When a woman became a mother, she was not released from her work. Consequently, she had to take children to fields. Generally, women strapped children on their backs. Moreover, picture brides could be married to men that lied about their age or illness. There were a great number of alcoholics among the husbands and men that beat their wives. As a result, many picture brides were unhappy and depressed. However, they preferred to stay in the United States to avoid deportation and shame. Some of the women chose to escape unhappiness and committed suicides (Stroescu). Over time, the intense situation with picture brides drew the attention of the governments of both countries.

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The picture brides system had a negative public perception. The United States viewed the system as an uncivilized practice that “did not involve love or pay attention to their idea of morality” (Stroescu). In some cases, the system of picture brides was regarded as a disguise for the prostitution business. However, there is no official data that supports this claim. Moreover, there is no way to determine the number of Japanese women who had to work as prostitutes in order to support families. It was obvious that picture brides were treated as workers by husbands. Thus, in response to the negative comments from the United States, Japan prohibited picture prides practice in 1920 (Stroescu). However, the system influenced profoundly social and economic aspects of life in the United States by bringing diversity and foreign women labor resources.


Picture brides practice is a system of marriage arrangements that was popular in the twentieth century. According to tradition, the arrangements were made between Japanese men who lived and worked in the United States and women who wanted to leave Japan to marry the immigrants. The majority of marriages took place in Hawaii where the main population of future husbands worked on the plantations. Often, women were treated as human resources. In fact, they rarely experienced any romantic feelings. In some cases, the idea of a perfect life in a foreign country that made women immigrate turned to be a disappointing reality. Under severe circumstances, women were frustrated but refrained from going back to Japan. The notion of picture brides was associated with negative aspects making the governments of the United States and Japan end the practice as an uncivilized system. Thus, having deep historical and cultural roots, the system remained a controversial subject in terms of social, political, and moral norms.

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