The term picture bride refers to the practice in the early 20th century of immigrant workers (chiefly Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean) in Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States selecting brides from their native countries via a matchmaker, who paired bride and groom using only photographs and family recommendations of the possible candidates. This is an abbreviated form of the traditional matchmaking process, and is similar in a number of ways to the concept of the mail-order bride.
Motives of husbands
In the late 19th-century Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean men traveled to Hawaii as cheap labor to work on the sugarcane plantations. Some continued on to work on the mainland. These men had originally planned to leave plantation work and go back home after a few years or a contract was up. Between the years of 1886 and 1924, 199,564 Japanese entered Hawaii and 113,362 returned to Japan. However, many men did not make enough money to go back home. Also, in 1907 the Gentlemen’s Agreement prohibited immigration from Hawaii to the United States for laborers. Because now these men were put in situations with limited mobility, they had to make Hawaii or the United States their home, and part of that was getting married. In Hawaii, the plantation owners also wanted to see the laborers get married. Though they had originally preferred single men, when the contract labor system was abolished, the owners thought that wives would make the men more likely to settle down and stay. Also, the plantation owners hoped that wives would limit the amount of gambling and opium smoking the workers did, and act as a morale booster for the men.
Motives of picture brides
There were many factors that influenced women to become picture brides. Some came from poor families, so they became picture brides for economic reasons. They thought that they would come upon economic prosperity in Hawaii and the United States, and could send back money to their families in Japan and Korea. Others did it out of obligation to their families. Because the marriages were often facilitated by parents, the daughters felt they could not go against their parents’ wishes. One former picture bride recounted her decision: “I had but remote ties with him yet because of the talks between our close parents and my parents' approval and encouragement, I decided upon our picture-bride marriage." Some women became picture brides in an attempt to escape familial duties. They thought that by leaving Japan or Korea they could get out of responsibilities such as filial piety that came along with traditional marriage. Some women thought that they would gain freedoms denied to them in Japan and Korea. A quote from a Korean picture bride named Mrs. K embodies the mindset of many picture brides traveling to Hawaii, “Hawaii’s a free place, everybody living well. Hawaii had freedom, so if you like talk, you can talk, if you like work, you can work.” With the influx of women becoming picture brides, some women followed the trend as the thing to do. As one Japanese picture bride, Motome Yoshimura, explained, “I wanted to come to the United States because everyone else was coming. So I joined the crowd.”
The marriage process
These Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean women got the name picture brides because the men in Hawaii and the United States sent pictures back to their home countries in order to find a bride. Family members, often with the help of a go-between (called a nakodo in Japanese and a joong-mae jaeng-i in Korean), used these photos to try to find wives for men who sent them. When looking at prospective brides the go-betweens looked at the family background, health, ages and wealth of the women. The process of picture bride marriage was modeled after traditional arranged marriage (called miai kekkon in Japanese and Joong-mae-kyulhon in Korean). Picture bride marriage was not much different from these arranged marriage customs, except instead of the man having little role he had no role. Once the bride’s name was entered into her husband’s family registry, the marriage was considered official in Japan, and she was eligible for travel documents to the U.S. or Hawaii. However, even though this was sufficient in their home countries, it was not considered a valid form of marriage by the American government. Because of this, mass wedding ceremonies were held at the dock or in hotels subsequent to the brides’ arrival.
The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 stopped the issuance of passports to Japanese laborers trying to go to America or Hawaii. However, there was a loophole in the agreement that allowed wives and children to immigrate to be with their husbands and fathers. It was because of this loophole that so many picture brides were able to immigrate to Hawaii and the United States. The impact of the Gentlemen’s Agreement is evident in the population percentage of men and women before and after it was issued. For example, 86.7 percent of Japanese admitted to U.S. prior to Gentlemen’s agreement were men, after the agreement only 41.6 percent of the Japanese admitted were men. The spread of the Japanese people grew so rapidly that, in 1897, the Japanese were known as the largest single ethnic group in Hawai’i, consisting of 40 percent of the population by the year 1900. Between 1907 and 1923 14,276 Japanese picture brides and 951 Korean picture brides arrived in Hawaii. Between 1908 and 1920 over 10,000 picture brides arrived on the West Coast of the United States.
It was a rough journey for the picture brides. When they first arrived, they were required to go through numerous inspections at the immigration station. The United States government did not recognize picture marriages as being legal; therefore, the picture brides would meet their soon-to-be husbands for the first time and attend a mass wedding ceremony on the docks. Many of these women were surprised at what they found upon arrival. Most of what the women knew about their husbands before meeting them was based on the photos they had sent. However, the images presented did not always represent the men’s real lives. Men would send photos back to Japan and Korea that were retouched, old, or of different men completely. Men often wore borrowed suits and chose to pose with luxury items, such as cars and houses, that they did not actually own. One picture bride summarizes the feelings of many of the brides subsequent to meeting their husbands, she writes “I came to Hawaii and was so surprised and very disappointed, because my husband sent his twenty-five-year-old handsome-looking picture...He came to the pier, but I see he’s really old, old-looking. He was forty-five years more old than I am. My heart stuck.”  On average, the grooms were ten to fifteen years older than their brides. The age of their husbands were not the only shock for the women, they were also taken aback by their living conditions. Many women expected to live in houses like ones in the photos the men sent them, but instead found plantation quarters that were crude, isolated, and racially segregated. One of the reasons that the grooms and go-betweens were not altogether truthful with the future brides was because they believed that the women would not come if they knew the reality of the man and his conditions.
Life for picture brides in Hawaii
Though they were now living in Hawaii, the Japanese picture brides still felt it was important to preserve their traditions and heritage. The values they tried to instill in their children were filial piety, obligation to community and authority (on in the Japanese language), reciprocal obligation (giri in Japanese), the importance of hard work, perseverance, frugality, and a drive for success (seiko in Japanese). Many picture brides worked on the plantations. In 1920 fourteen percent of the workers on the plantations were female, and of those female workers, eighty percent were Japanese. On the plantation they usually irrigated and weeded the fields, stripped cane of dry leaves, or cut seed cane. Men were given similar tasks, but were often paid more. For example, in 1915 Japanese women plantation workers made 55 cents compared to the 78 cents made by their male counterparts. In addition to working in the fields the women also were expected to take care of the house, which included cooking, cleaning, sewing and raising the children. When a woman could not afford childcare she might work with her child on her back. Some picture bride women with children left the fields to work for bachelor men by doing laundry, cooking, or providing clothing. Korean picture brides left plantation life sooner than many Japanese women did, and many moved to Honolulu to start their own businesses. Regardless of if they stayed on the plantation or not, it was important to the picture brides to build communities between themselves through women’s groups and churches.
Problems with the practice
Though initially unhappy, most of the picture brides eventually settled into their marriages or just accepted them so they did not shame their families. Japanese couples were often from similar areas of Japan and therefore had fewer marital issues than Korean couples who were often from different areas of Korea. Though, there were exceptions to this, and not every marriage worked out. Some of the picture brides, after seeing their husbands for the first time, rejected them and went back to Japan or Korea. Some married husbands turned out to be alcoholics, physically abusive, or tried to sell them into brothels, but many of these women nevertheless stayed in the marriage for the sake of the children. An example of a picture bride who stayed married to her husband, despite his mistreatment towards her, was Shizuko Tamaki; she and her husband were married for 50 years. Others who initially married did not end up staying with their husbands. These picture brides resorted to elopement with another man, or kakeochi in Japanese. Elopement was especially hazardous to the picture brides because of its endangerment to their reputation and their residency in the United States. Wives who eloped could be deported to Japan, following the Japanese civil code that granted the husbands the ability to decide the new residency of their wife; for those women, the Women’s Home Missionary Society in the United States provided temporary housing while they waited to go back to Japan. In order to find their wives who had disappeared, the husbands of these women would take out reward ads in Issei community newspapers for whomever could find their wife.
Many residents of America and Hawaii thought that the Gentlemen’s agreement would end Japanese immigration to the United States, so when vast numbers of picture brides started arriving, it revitalized the Anti-Japanese Movement. The people who were so against the immigration of the Japanese and picture brides were called exclusionists. They called picture bride marriage uncivilized because it didn’t involve love or have any regard to morality; exclusionists thought of picture bride marriage as a violation of the Gentlemen’s agreement, since they believed the women were more like workers rather than wives to the men. Exclusionists also feared that children produced from picture bride marriages would be a dangerous addition to the population because they would be able to buy land for their parents in the future. Also, some people, many immigrant inspectors included, thought that picture bride marriage was a disguise for a prostitution trade. Overall, there was a negative sentiment towards picture brides in Hawaii and the United States.
End of the practice
In order to maintain positive relations with the United States, the Japanese government stopped issuing passports to picture brides on March 1, 1920 because they were so ill-received in the United States. The end of picture brides left around 24,000 bachelors with no way to return to Japan and bring back a wife. Despite this, picture brides and the gentlemen’s agreement were able to create a second Japanese generation, Nisei, consisting of 30,000 people in 1920.
Picture brides in modern media
In 1987, a novel titled Picture Bride was written by Yoshiko Uchida, and tells the story of a fictional Japanese woman named Hana Omiya, a picture bride sent to live with her new husband in Oakland, California in 1917. The novel also focuses on her experiences in a Japanese internment camp in 1943.
In 1994, a movie called Picture Bride (film) (unrelated to Uchida's novel) was made by Hawaii-born director Kayo Hatta and starred Youki Kudoh in the title role. The film tells the story of Riyo, a Japanese woman whose photograph exchange with a plantation worker leads her to Hawaii.
A 2003 Korean language book entitled Sajin Sinbu (Korean for "Picture Bride"), compiled by Park Nam Soo, provides a thorough Korean/Korean-American cultural approach to the topic, providing a historical overview of the picture bride phenomenon in the Korean context, as well as related poetry, short stories, essays, and critical essays written by various Korean/Korean-American authors. The book was compiled for the Korean centennial, marking the one-hundred-year anniversary of the first known arrival of Korean immigrants to U.S. territory in 1903 aboard RMS Gaelic.
A 2009 novel, Honolulu by Alan Brennert features a Korean picture bride coming to Hawaii.
A 2011 novel by Julie Otsuka titled "The Buddha in the Attic" tells the life of pictures brides brought from Japan to San Francisco about a century ago and what it means to be an American in uncertain times. The novel was a National Book Award for fiction finalist in 2011 and was short listed for 2013 Dublin IMPAC literary award.
- Mail-order bride
- Proxy marriage
- List of Korea-related topics
- List of Japan-related topics
- List of China-related topics
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- Lee (2003). p. 23. Missing or empty
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- True Story of a Korean Picture Bride: Esther Kwon Arinaga
- About Picture Bride, novel by Yoshiko Uchida
- Information from the filmmaker about Picture Bride, film by Kayo Hatta
- Picture Bride at the Internet Movie Database
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