The 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement between the United States and Japan severely limited the entry of Japanese immigrants into America. However, the federal government made an exception for the Japanese wives of current American residents. The Japanese American community, which was mostly young single men, saw this as an opportunity. If a man married a woman who was in Japan, he could bring his new wife into the country legally. Matchmakers established a system where men reviewed pictures of single women seeking husbands in America. After a choice was made, the woman could set sail for America. These women, known as “picture brides,” made up the vast majority of Japanese immigrants between 1907 and 1924. By 1920, over 10,000 picture brides had arrived in the United States, and over 15,000 arrived in the then-territory of Hawaii. Picture brides played a crucial role in establishing the Japanese American community.
For many Japanese women, becoming a picture bride was a chance not only to fulfill the traditional obligation of marriage, but also to escape a life of poverty. But they did so at a great risk. Most picture brides did not speak or read English. Many were shocked when their new husbands were much older and poorer than they anticipated. Most picture brides worked for pay because their husbands did not make enough money to support two people, let alone any future children. Many of these women were also lured into unsafe environments, including abusive marriages or forced prostitution. Because anti-Asian sentiment was widespread at this time, many of them also faced racial discrimination throughout their lives.
This image was taken at an immigration station in San Francisco, California, called Angel Island. The government officials (who are all white men) are reviewing the passports of newly arrived picture brides. After passing such a review, brides met their husbands for the first time and participated in a group wedding on the dock or at a nearby location. Holding an immediate wedding guaranteed the marriages and the women’s arrival were legal. By 1924, Japan stopped issuing passports to picture brides, which reassured the United States of Japan’s commitment to controlling immigration and closed the door to many would-be immigrants.