Discover Nikkei

Chapter 11 (Part 2) Picture-Bride Marriages on the Rise

Read Chapter 11 (Part 1) >>


In the column “The Rise and Fall of Main Street” (From the Jan. 1, 1939 issue), which I introduced in Chapter 11 - Part 1, Akatonbo Nakamura describes the sharp increase of newborns, based on the number of Japanese reported by Seattle Teikoku (Imperial) Consulate General of Japan within its boundary.

“After 1910, a period of about ten years was the golden era for midwives, with the number of newborns each month continually growing to a large number. The statistics show that there were 267 newborns in 1910 and the number kept growing every year to 376, 461, 402, 477, 509 and so on, eventually reaching 854 in 1919.

It is no wonder why this became the golden era for midwives, as the number of newborns in a month was over 71 on average. In fact, the view of Main Street back in those days was something to be noted for its unusualness. You would rarely find a woman walking on the street without a big belly and these women were all wearing red sweaters, as if pre-arranged. At their sides were kids born in consecutive years, one on the right and the other on the left, who had just learned to walk. Four to six kids followed after them. Such scenes were a common sight on Main Street for about 12 to 13 years.”

Table 1: Number of Japanese Birth in Seattle

“70,000 Japanese in California”
(Dec. 12, 1919 issue)

“According to the report of the California Department of Public Health, the total number of Japanese in the state of California today is 70,404, with their birthrate surpassing that of every other nationality. The ratio turns out to be 68 per 1,000 and the past July saw a record-breaking number of 400 newborns.

On the other hand, the birthrate of Americans was just 17 in every 1,000, meaning that the number of Japanese is increasing four times faster. Ross, manager of statistics at the of the California Department of Public Health, says that this ratio shows that Japanese women between the ages of 15 and 45 are giving birth to babies every other year on average.”


Around November 1919, Zaibei Nihonjin-kai (Committee of Japanese in America) which is the Nihonjin-kai in Los Angeles, decided to abolish picture marriages and a number of articles was published in Seattle questioning its decision.

“Problem of Picture Marriage Discussed at Consulate General of Japan” (Nov. 13, 1919 issue)

“Three parties visited the Consulate General of Japan recently. For the whole day, they talked about the American Nihonjin-kai’s actions on the issue of picture marriage. Consul (Naokichi) Matsunaga snapped back, saying ‘So what are your thoughts on this issue?’

“The three of us think that the chief secretary of the Nihonjin-kai in America, called Kanzakie, NOT KANAZAKI? for some reason wants to present himself as something of a semi-official, causing this trouble in the first place. He went around saying foreign authorities said such and such thing, as something he thought as an anecdote to accompany his return to Japan. What a thoughtless act by someone who represents the board.’

In response, the Consul answered, “I feel the same way. I do not think the Nihonjin-kai should make a fuss about abolishing the law of picture marriage, which (by the way) has been accepted by the government of California.”

Then Naito, the clerk secretary, cut in to give his explanation.

“If picture marriage is truly pushing the anti-Japanese movement in the State of California (fuel for the argument that Japanese were uncivilized), we just need to let husbands and other people understand what it is and clear up the misunderstanding. Why on earth would anyone so thoughtlessly put out an English translation and make it a public matter as if picture marriage is a wrongdoing that hinders friendship between Japan and America? There might be some among the committee who think that picture marriage is exclusively done by the Japanese, but it is rather troublesome that they might not know such marriages are quite often carried out in developed countries in Europe as well.”

“Executive Members of the Committee to Quit Due to Picture Marriage Abolishment Problem” (Dec. 10, 1919 issue)

“Making such a noise on the coast, the Japanese committee’s decision to abolish picture marriages was met with (resident Japanese) public opposition and elections of new Nihonjin-kai representatives were held in many parts of the country. Accordingly, what was thought to be an impressive idea ended up fading away, leading to the resignation of all executive members as expected. Chairperson Ushijima and his managing members all submitted their resignations. Their authoritative committee has now become a watered-down entity with nothing inside.”

“Executive Members of the Committee to All Quit Due to Picture Marriage Abolishment Problem” (The North American Times, December 10, 1919)


The news that picture marriage would officially be prohibited starting February 25, 1920 was announced in the form of a notice from Consul Matsunaga.

"The request for passports of women who are planning to travel to the U.S. through picture marriage will not be accepted after February 25, 1920. If you reside in the U.S. and need your wife to relocate here, we urge you to obtain the certificate from us at your earliest convenience and submit your application no later than the said date. Although we used to accept the application if an applicant has been married for over six months, the restricted period is no longer valid. …"

—    Consul Naokichi Matsunaga, Seattle Teikoku (Imperial) Consulate General of Japan, December 17, 1919


“Certificate of Picture Marriage Finally Meets Its End” (Dec. 18, 1919 issue)

“Certificate of Picture Marriage Finally Meets Its End” (The North American Times, December 18, 1919)

“The announcement seems to imply that those needing to have a picture marriage should get everything done to complete the process before the due date as soon as possible. Picture marriages will definitely be prohibited after February 25. The fact that young and mature men will miss the most opportune time of marriage due to strict adherence to the new ordinance is greatly regretted, considering the impact it will have on the future of our people. Many experts say that it is because of the inconsistency of the (Japanese) Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the government officials voluntarily relinquished the privilege of being able to use picture marriage, which was opposed by U.S. authorities, but people will now be obliged to follow the order of the ministry regarding this matter.

Some residents who have heard the news suggested that they form a “tourist party for cherry blossom viewing in their home country.” Given that the conventional tourist party is already considered a way to pick up wives, the idea of organizing a sightseeing party disguised as cherry blossom viewing, should be understood as a product of the times and its solution. Yet they still have to find their wives within one month of their stay in the country. We feel sorry for the men who have reached maturity whose lives are impacted by the decision.”

“Last Day for Picture Marriage Certificate” (Jan. 26, 1920 issue)

“Since the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered the termination of picture marriages, the number of people trying to apply for the certificate before the termination date has skyrocketed. This has made the Consulate as well as the Nihonjin-kai extremely busy. As the last shipment of paper documents to arrive before the termination leaves tomorrow on Fushimi-maru, the Consulate adopted simple processing, without copies of family registries. But they were nonetheless swamped for the last few days. After today, only telegram certificates will be accepted for the next ten days.”

“Rapid Increase in the Number of Travelers” (March 2, 1920 issue)

“Last year (1919), a total of 30,000 people received their passports from the authorities and went abroad from Yokohama, which was about 15,000 more than the year before. Among them, most traveled to the U.S. while only 500 went to South America. This is partly because the US economy is doing better, compared to other countries. The ban on immigration derived from picture marriages, where applications were due February 25 and which became effective yesterday, also led to the sudden increase in the number of travelers.

Last December alone recorded 3,000 immigrants and 89 non-immigrants, including those who went abroad for educational observation. January had 493 immigrants sent by Kashima-maru and Fushimi-maru of YKK Shipping and by Chicago-maru of Shosen (merchant shipping). About 400 also traveled by Kiyo-maru and Shunyo-maru of Toyo-kisen (Pacific Shipping). February saw 1,026 travelers sent by various ships. The number of travelers from picture marriages, which had been 44-45 monthly, almost doubled since the announcement of its abolishment. The number who will receive their passports before the effective date of the abolishment is expected to reach 270.”

“Rapid Increase in the Number of Travelers” (The North American Times, March 2, 1920)

In summary, during 1906 to 1920, the number of people moving from Japan to America increased largely because the Gentlemen’s Agreement which intended to reduce Japanese immigration allowed immigrants to call over their parents, spouses and children and to have women come to America as picture brides. The below table shows the number of people who entered and left America since July 1918. More people entered than left every month. In particular, a great number of women ventured to the states, many of whom were picture brides. Thus, many single men who first went to America as migrant workers were able to start families, and thereby, establish a foundation in the country through picture marriages. Many Nisei children were born.

Table 2: Number of Japanese Arrivals to and Departures from the United States

My grandfather Yoemon was also married this way to Aki in 1911, ran a barbershop business with her, and made quite a fortune.

In the next chapter, I will introduce articles about Japanese schools that provided education for Nisei.



Renraku Nihonjin-kai of Northwest America, Brief History of the Japanese in Northwest America, 1923.

Hokubei Nenkan, Hokubei Jijisha, 1928.

Masako Iino, Another History of the Japan-US Relationship. Yuhikaku Publishing, 2000.


*The English version of this series is a collaboration between Discover Nikkei and The North American Post, Seattle’s bilingual community newspaper. This article was originally publishd on November 20 and December 13, 2022 in The North American Post and is modified for Discover Nikkei.


© 2022 Ikuo Shinmasu

brides communities generations immigrants immigration Issei Japan Japanese language newspapers migration newspapers picture brides Seattle The North American Times (Seattle) (newspaper) United States Washington wives
About this series

This series explores the history of pre-war Seattle Nikkei immigrants by researching old articles from the online archives of The North American Times, a joint project between the Hokubei Hochi [North American Post] Foundation and the University of Washington (UW) Suzzallo Library.

*The English version of this series is a collaboration between Discover Nikkei and The North American Post, Seattle’s bilingual community newspaper.

Read from Chapter 1 >>

* * * * *

The North American Times

The newspaper was first printed in Seattle on September 1, 1902, by publisher Kiyoshi Kumamoto from Kagoshima, Kyushu. At its peak, it had correspondents in Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Spokane, Vancouver, and Tokyo, with a daily circulation of about 9,000 copies. Following the start of World War II, Sumio Arima, the publisher at the time, was arrested by the FBI. The paper was discontinued on March 14, 1942, when the incarceration of Japanese American families began. After the war, the North American Times was revived as The North American Post.

Learn More
About the Author

Ikuo Shinmasu is from Kaminoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan. In 1974, he started working at Teikoku Sanso Ltd (currently AIR LIQUIDE Japan GK) in Kobe and retired in 2015. Later, he studied history at Nihon University Distance Learning Division and researched his grandfather who migrated to Seattle. He shared a part of his thesis about his grandfather through the series, “Yoemon Shinmasu – My Grandfather’s Life in Seattle,” in the North American Post and Discover Nikkei in both English and Japanese. He presently lives in the city of Zushi, Kanagawa, with his wife and eldest son. 

Updated August 2021

Explore more stories! Learn more about Nikkei around the world by searching our vast archive. Explore the Journal
We’re looking for stories like yours! Submit your article, essay, fiction, or poetry to be included in our archive of global Nikkei stories. Learn More
New Site Design See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon! Learn More