Would you marry somebody you met through a picture and a brief description and move to an unknown land? That was what nearly 20,000 Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean women did from 1908 to 1924 to immigrate into Hawaii.
For some men, their families back home or matchmakers arranged marriages with women in the same villages. First-cousin marriages were common, accepted, and even encouraged in Japan and Okinawa. In those countries’ tradition, the couple can match in social status and keep their family assets within the family. In contrast, Korea prohibited marriages between relatives and clan members for centuries until late 1900s.
For a Japanese marriage certificate, the groom was technically not required to be present at the marriage ceremony. Thus, the bride would have a ceremony without him, celebrated with her family in her best kimono, and sailed to Hawaii. However, this ceremony did not qualify the couple for an American marriage license because they were still considered citizens of their home country.
Mass ceremonies happened on Honolulu docks and hotels. Literally fresh off the boat, brides donned their traditional dress–such as a kimono or a solid white hanbok signifying purity–and tied up their hair to signify their married status. In front of an officiator, the brides lined up on the dock and said their vows likely in English, a foreign language to them.
However, the photographs sometimes lied. Many of the bachelors sent outdated and/or retouched pictures and even pictures of different men. In the photographs, men wore borrowed suits and appeared with luxury things they didn’t own including cars and houses.
The men were ten to twelve years older than their brides on average, and most of the men were in their 30s or 40s. Some women were in their 30s, and they were usually divorced or widowed. However, the majority of the women’s age ranged from 15 to 20 years old. For example, at the dock, a Japanese bride discovered that her new husband was 45-years older than her.
Not all the brides would stay with their husbands. Some divorced their husbands immediately. For example, on Maui, an alcoholic man deserted his picture bride, and they divorced. Others tried to return to Japan, but were instead entrapped into prostitution — Some couldn’t afford the return trip home, or a bride’s “uncle” “steals” a picture bride and the original husband tried to get her back. Some with abusive husbands ran away to a shelter for abused picture brides. And some returned to their homeland, only to come back to Hawaii as picture brides again for other men.
Because of the high rates of divorce and desertion and the anti-Asian sentiment on the U.S. Mainland, critics wanted the picture-bride practice to end. For example, in 1916, the Japanese newspaper Nippu Jiji claimed 101 divorce cases out of the total of 241 involved Japanese couples.
Because of the criticisms in the United States, Japan stopped issuing passports to picture brides on March 1, 1920. And in 1924, the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which halted immigration from Asia.
– Alice Kim
Articles from Chronicling America
“Nippon Brides Have Hookworm: Thirteen Japanese from Chiyo Maru Held in San Francisco for Treatment”
Evening bulletin, Dec. 20, 1910, Page 8
“147 Picture Brides Come on One Ship”
Honolulu star-bulletin, Sept. 30, 1912, Page 1
Hawaiian gazette, Aug. 12, 1913, Page 8
“‘Picture Brides’ Arrive Here in Large Numbers”
Honolulu star-bulletin, Nov. 12, 1913, Page 2
“Picture Bride’s Pilikia”
The Maui news, April 11, 1914, Image 1
“Picture-Bride Custom Doomed, Japanese Think”
Honolulu star-bulletin, March 24, 1915, Page 12
“Wants Husbands for a Thousand Picture Brides”
Honolulu star-bulletin, May 6, 1915, Page 3
Honolulu star-bulletin, Oct. 11, 1915, Page 5
“Picture Bride Custom Rapped by Nippu Jiji”
Honolulu star-bulletin, Jan. 5, 1916, Page 3
“Japanese Go to Claim Picture Brides Today”
Honolulu star-bulletin, Feb. 18, 1916, Image 3
Honolulu star-bulletin, May 5, 1916, Page 2
“Korean Wants Picture Bride”
Honolulu star-bulletin, March 2, 1917, Page 5
“Picture Brides Will Have to Pass New Literacy Test”
The Hawaiian gazette, May 4, 1917, Page 3
“Picture Brides Find True Friend Here: YWCA Worker Is Their Counsellor”
Honolulu star-bulletin, Nov. 10, 1917, School and Home Garden Section, Page 9, Image 21