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"Finding a Home in Hawaii: Picture Brides and Their American Dream" by Allison Rhea

Finding a Home in Hawaii: Picture Brides and Their American Dream

Allison Rhea, Frederick Community College

Abstract: Between 1907 and 1924, approximately 15,000 newly married women emigrated from Japan to the Territory of Hawaii. Known as “picture brides,” these women travelled across the Pacific to meet husbands that they had only ever seen in photographs. This paper first examines this “picture bride” phenomenon by looking at the factors leading to their emigration, the circumstances they faced upon arrival, as well as how they were treated by those in power. Seeing them as a threat to the stereotypical American way of life, efforts were made to force these Japanese immigrants to assimilate into the wider American culture, a process known as “Americanization.” While the lives of these picture brides have been studied in detail, there has been much less research into how their personal experiences relate to the concept of the American Dream, a drawing force for many immigrants to the United States, both past and present. Societal expectations from this period of what it means to be “American” are examined to determine if they align with the definition of the “American Dream” given by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America. This analysis clearly shows that efforts to Americanize these women opposed the core values of the American Dream by attempting to repress their freedom and individuality, thus interfering with their capacity to succeed. Despite the odds against them, these picture brides managed to persevere and build a better life for themselves and their families, thus fulfilling their own versions of the “American Dream.”


After the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 heavily restricted Japanese immigration to the United States, the Japanese population in Hawaii was faced with a dilemma: a surplus of unmarried men and a comparably scarce number of women. To solve this problem, the “picture bride” system was created, which allowed these men to legally marry Japanese residents, who would emigrate to Hawaii to live with their new husbands. This practice, which was in place from 1907 until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, facilitated the arrival of over 15,000 Japanese picture brides to Hawaii. These women, like the many immigrants who went to America in that period, were enthralled by the “American Dream” and its promise of freedom and opportunity for all. However, many Americans felt that immigrants should not be given such freedoms and saw them as a threat to American culture. This viewpoint led to a push for Americanization, a movement whose goal was to strip immigrants of their native culture and transform them into “real Americans” through the adoption of traditional American cultural values and practices. This movement was advertised as being beneficial for immigrants, but this was quite far from reality. The Americanization movement had many harmful effects on immigrant communities and attempted to deny them of their chance at fulfilling their American dreams.

It is important to recognize that, during this period, the picture bride practice was more widespread, both in terms of the nationality of its participants and the places that they immigrated to. A number of picture brides also originated from Korea and Okinawa. Additionally, picture brides did not just immigrate to Hawaii, but also went to the mainland United States and Canada. This study focuses on Japanese picture brides in Hawaii for two key reasons. First, the majority of picture brides immigrated to Hawaii. According to the New York Historical Society, over 15,000 Japanese picture brides immigrated to Hawaii, while approximately 10,000 immigrated to the mainland United States (New York Historical Society 2022) . While 5,000 may not seem like a major difference, one must consider the fact that Hawaii has a much smaller population than the continental United States, and thus the ratio of picture brides to the total population was much larger in Hawaii. This ties into the second reason, which is the considerable impact that Japanese immigrants have had on Hawaiian culture, and the fact that this impact would not have been as profound without the immigration of picture brides. Despite the odds against them, these picture brides managed to persevere and build a better life for themselves and their families, thus fulfilling their own versions of the “American Dream.”

The earliest Hawaiian settlers are thought to have arrived in the islands around 500 to 700 AD, bringing with them a number of non-native animal and plant species ( 2013). Among these was sugarcane. It was not until over a millennium later, after the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778, that the islands would be opened to the influence of the Western world. American colonizers recognized the potential profitability of sugarcane, and the first sugarcane plantation was opened in 1835 in Kōloa, Kauai (National Parks Service, n.d.). Plantations were originally staffed by native Hawaiians, because they provided cheap and convenient labor for the white plantation owners, who were known to pay wages as low as two dollars per month (Takaki 1984, 5). However, as the industry grew and the native population shrank, labor shortages became a problem for plantation owners (Takaki 1984, 23). Instead of improving conditions and paying more reasonable wages to entice the local workforce, plantation owners instead decided to outsource their labor. The first international workers came from China, and they were quickly favored by plantation owners for being “far more certain, systemic, and economical, than that of the native,” (Takaki, 1983) meaning that they were considered more efficient and were willing to be paid less than the native Hawaiian workers. Portuguese immigrants followed soon after the Chinese, and these two groups made up most of the labor force of the island in the 1880s, but this would soon change.

A large influx of Japanese workers and their families in the next two decades resulted in a sizeable Japanese population on the islands. By 1900, people of Japanese descent made up 40% of the total Hawaiian population (Thernstrom, Orlov, Handlin 1980, 562). The majority of these immigrants were unmarried men, who often intended to work on plantations for a while to make money before returning home to Japan. While some of these men did follow through with this plan, many others found a permanent home in Hawaii, either because they could not afford to go back to Japan or because they were able to start their own farms and businesses (Ickioka 1980).

Plantation owners, initially pleased by the abundance of cheap labor, quickly grew paranoid that “the Japanese were getting too much of an upper hand in the labor market” (National Parks Service, n.d.). Similar anti-Japanese sentiments from government leaders and labor unions were a major factor in the establishment of the Gentleman’s Agreement in 1907 (Lee 2003, 26). As a result of this agreement, Japan completely stopped issuing passports to Japanese laborers going to Hawaii or the mainland United States (“Gentleman’s Agreement”, n.d.). The only exception to this was that immediate family of U.S. residents were allowed to emigrate to live with them. This meant that many unmarried Japanese laborers were both unable to afford to return to Japan and unable to find a single woman to marry, as Japanese men in Hawaii outnumbered Japanese women seven to one (Nakamura, n.d.). This proved to be a major dilemma for the island’s Japanese population. These unmarried laborers were often extremely lonely, and this loneliness coupled with long hours of demanding labor led many of them into alcoholism (Chai 1979). A solution to this problem would need to be found, or thousands of men would be stuck living alone with no way to start a family and continue their bloodlines. The Japanese population in Hawaii was in danger of practically disappearing within a matter of generations.

The outlook for these men was not so bleak for long, as they quickly found a loophole in the conditions set by the Gentleman’s Agreement. For a marriage to be considered legal in Japan, the wife’s name only needed to be added to her husband’s family registry (Ickioka 1980). After a couple was legally married, the Japanese government could issue the woman a passport to the United States to be with her new husband. Essentially, arranged marriages were the only way for many of these laborers to find wives and start families. They would first send photos of themselves and descriptions of their lives to an intermediary known as a matchmaker, who would do the majority of the work of finding them a bride (Ickioka 1980). These matchmakers would present this information to the parents of potential brides, who were often the primary decisionmakers, with the bride herself having little say in the matter. Once matches were made, the groom was tasked with adding his bride to the family registry to make the marriage official in Japan. Wedding ceremonies were often held without the groom present. With the matchmaking and marriage steps out of the way, there was only one thing left: the bride’s immigration to Hawaii.

Picture brides, usually several at a time, arrived together at the immigration station in Hawaii, the cold and judgmental environment being their first taste of America (Ickioka 1980). They were met with an exhausting immigration process, where they were inspected to determine if they were fit to enter the country. It was also at the immigration station where they would meet their husbands for the first time. Many women were met with husbands who were nothing like the photos they had sent. It was alarmingly common for men to send photos of themselves that were heavily edited or from when they were decades younger, and in extreme cases, some men would resort to sending photos of a completely different person. Many of them would also lie about their jobs and living conditions to make themselves seem like more suitable marriage partners. This type of deceit was done out of fear that they would have been unable to find a bride if they had been honest about their appearances and living conditions, and many brides were left feeling distrustful of their husbands and fearful of the future in store for them.

Life in Hawaii brought forth a whole new set of challenges for picture brides. Out of necessity, many of these women had to take on additional roles outside of what was traditionally expected of Japanese wives. In traditional Japanese culture, “a good wife is a woman who, by bringing forth sons, helps to safeguard and perpetuate the family name, and by being obedient, properly humble and diligent, helps to maintain peace and order in the family” (Masuoka 1938). Essentially, wives were expected to spend the majority of their time at home supporting the family, particularly the patriarch. This family dynamic was what picture brides were expecting to experience when they immigrated to Hawaii, but that was often not the reality of the situation. During the matchmaking process, it was common for men to lie about their occupation and exaggerate how much money they made. Therefore, in addition to taking care of the home and raising the children, many Japanese women in Hawaii had to work because their husband’s salary alone was not enough to support the family. The labor that these women provided to plantations and businesses was considered indispensable, but they were paid considerably less than the men they worked alongside (Ickioka 1980). The seemingly never-ending responsibilities placed on these Japanese immigrant women, both domestically and in the workplace, reinforces the critical role that these women played in the Japanese immigrant community in Hawaii.

Another major challenge they faced was the anti-Japanese sentiment that was growing more and more prevalent in both Hawaii and the United States as a whole. Japanese women, in particular, were seen as “easy targets” for anti-Japanese nationalists to direct their aggression towards (Ickioka 1980). A major reason for this anti-Japanese sentiment was a lack of understanding and respect for cultural differences. Many Americans did not understand Japanese culture and saw it as “inferior” to American culture. For example, in American culture love is considered an important factor in marriage. However, the opposite is true in traditional Japanese culture, where marriages are relationships characterized by duty and respect, and wives are meant to be “obedient, humble, and diligent” to their husbands and families (Masuoka 1938). The love and affection that was considered important by many Americans was treated as “a secondary matter” in Japanese culture (Masuoka 1938). Because of these differences, people deemed the picture-bride practice as “immoral and uncivilized,” and some even accused picture brides of being “laborers disguised as brides” (Ickioka 1980), when, in reality, they never intended to become laborers in the first place, but many had no choice but to do so in order to survive.

This growing sense of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment spawned the Americanization movement. The Americanization movement was large-scale, including the government, churches, and many other organizations. Samuel Rea, former president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, defined Americanization as “the task of producing good United States citizens from the millions of men and women of alien birth who are in this country, and who in normal times come here by the hundreds of thousands yearly…they must be induced to give up the languages, customs, and methods of life which they have brought with them across the ocean, and adopt instead the language, habits, and customs of this country, and the general standards and ways of American living.” (Central Connecticut State University, n.d.). By looking at this definition of the movement, one may think that the intentions behind the movement were altruistic. While pro-Americanization organizations and leaders at this time may have marketed the movement as being beneficial for immigrants, the reality of the situation was more complicated.

Un-Americanized immigrants were not portrayed in a positive light by the Americanization movement. Pro-Americanization literature from this time reflects the negative sentiment held towards these immigrants. A commonly cited quote about the goals of the movement uses the phrase “the unskilled inefficient immigrant” to describe un-Americanized immigrants (Central Connecticut State University, n.d.). This quote reflects that those who were pro-Americanization assumed that immigrants were inherently unintelligent and incapable of success and must be educated before they can be functional members of society. This viewpoint is especially ironic when considering the Japanese laborers in Hawaii, whose labor was highly desired by plantation owners because of their skill and efficiency. Immigrants were also often referred to as “aliens,” which exemplifies how the Americanization movement ended up isolating first-generation immigrants, ultimately harming their original goal of assimilating them into American society.

Second-generation Japanese immigrants, known as nisei, were seen in a more positive light than their parents. This was primarily because these children, having lived in Hawaii for their entire lives, were seen as more malleable and easier to influence as opposed to their parents, who grew up in Japan and moved to Hawaii as adults. The nisei also made up most of the school-aged population in Hawaii. In 1925, 51 percent of school-aged children in Hawaii were of Japanese descent (Talbott 1926). For this reason, most Americanization efforts took place in schools. The nisei were encouraged to renounce their Japanese citizenship. Having dual citizenship was seen in a negative light, because of the assumption that dual citizenship equated to double allegiance and therefore meant that they were not completely loyal to the United States (Talbott 1926). In reality, most of these immigrants were very loyal to the United States, but they were not seen as such because they did not fit in amongst their white compatriots. They were expected to prove their loyalty by completely abandoning their native culture and becoming American in every way possible.

Japanese language schools in Hawaii were seen as a major hindrance to the Americanization movement. These schools, which children would attend after the regular school day was over, taught topics including Japanese language, history, and religion (Talbott 1926). Governor Farrington called these schools “a handicap to the American progress of the children of alien parents” and claimed that “they represent a desire to hold our children, who are our future citizens, under a control that is not American” (Talbott 1926). Attempts were even made to ban the schools, illustrating how any effort to retain Japanese culture within the Japanese immigrant community was frowned upon. This intense effort to keep nisei children as far away from Japanese culture as possible was driven by fear. The white residents were already uncomfortable with the large Japanese population on the islands and thought that, if they did not subdue and Americanize them, their Japanese population would take away control of the Hawaiian economy and government from the “true Americans” (Talbott 1926). This also illustrates the ethnocentric viewpoint held by many Americans at this time, since they saw their own culture as superior to any other (, n.d.).

The Americanization movement represents societal standards that existed during the early 20th century. The question is, did the ideals of the movement align with the ideals that exist at the very core of the country’s culture? There are few concepts more fundamental to American culture than the American dream. The term “the American dream” was created by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America (Wills 2015). Adams defined the American dream as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement…it is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (The Epic of America 1931, 404). Although Adams coined the term in 1931--seven years after the end of the picture bride practice--he was simply giving a name to an ideal that had been present in the United States since its foundation. This can be seen in how the Declaration of Independence declares that “all men are created equal” and that everyone has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence). By comparing the Americanization movement to the key parts of the American dream, we can determine if this movement was truly as “American” as it claimed to be.

First, the definition of the American dream states that the United States should be a “land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” By “richer and fuller,” Adams did not mean that everyone in America should focus on wealth and materialistic things; he means that everyone should be able to lead lives where they can find personal fulfillment. The Americanization movement, however, put a pressure on immigrants to conform to an “American” lifestyle. By doing this, they took away immigrants’ freedom to find what brings them fulfillment. How can life be “richer and fuller” if everyone holds the same values, wears the same type of clothes, practices the same religion, and holds the same political views? A richer and fuller America is one where the separate cultures of its people are allowed to flourish and coexist. Additionally, Adams says that all Americans should have access to opportunities based on ability and achievement alone. However, during the Americanization period, immigrants were not provided opportunities they deserved. In Hawaii especially, white Americans had a tight grip on the property and government of the islands, with little room for Asian immigrants to stake their claim (Talbott 1926).

Adams continues his definition with language that includes women’s freedom to pursue happiness to their fullest capabilities. In America as a whole, women were not granted the same opportunities as men. This treatment was even worse for immigrant women. Picture brides often took jobs alongside their husbands but received lower wages. Considering the fact that these women worked such long hours on top of raising their children, they had very little opportunity to pursue their own interests. Finally, Adams says all Americans should be valued based on character, not circumstances such as of birth. At the core of the Americanization movement was the belief that American culture is superior to any other country’s culture. People had these preconceived notions that Japanese culture was inferior to American culture, and thus did not see them as equals. When you have preconceived notions about a group of people, you make unfair judgements about them and cannot see them in an objective manner. In other words, they were not “recognized for what they were” (The Epic of America 1931).

One might argue that the Americanization movement did improve immigrants’ lives since becoming more Americanized often led to more opportunities and helped them to fit in with their fellow citizens. This was true, but only to an extent. A number of the movement’s educational programs were beneficial, such as those that taught English. However, the true harm of the Americanization movement lies in the underlying pressure that it placed on immigrants to adhere to social norms. When talking about the entire population of a country, there are circumstances where it is beneficial for everyone to share the same viewpoint. For example, a certain degree of loyalty to the country and respect for others is important to maintain social cohesion (Volokh 2015). However, everyone should not be expected to hold the same values and personal beliefs. We can have an overarching American culture while still respecting the various subcultures and what they contribute. This is why the United States is commonly referred to a “melting pot,” because of the “diverse cultures and ethnicities that come together to form the rich fabric of our Nation” (Drexel University 2021).

Essentially, while presenting itself as a movement whose goal was to preserve and promote American culture, the Americanization movement went against the ideals of the American dream. This movement acted to take away immigrants’ freedom of expression, denied them opportunities to succeed, and made negative generalizations that harmed immigrant communities.

Despite facing many obstacles, from dishonesty of their husbands to the damaging effects of Americanization, Japanese picture brides were able to persevere and find success in their own ways. One of the ways that they found success was through forming a community with each other. They encouraged each other to persevere through the hardships they shared. Japanese women who had been long-term residents of Hawaii acted as mentors to the newly arrived picture brides (Honolulu Star-Bulletin 1917, 9). One picture bride recounted in an interview that, after working 16-hour days for years at a laundry facility, she was able to finally open her own boarding house with the help of her friend who lent her money (Chai 1979). While not every picture bride was able to open her own business, many were able to find success on a familial level. Ushii Nakasone was a picture bride who lived a relatively humble life. When interviewed after having lived in Hawaii for several decades, she said that she was so happy because she had children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Her personal success came through raising a family and being able to give her children a better life than she had.

These women also have made a long-lasting impact on the Japanese community in Hawaii. People of Japanese descent make up about 14% of the current population in Hawaii (National Geographic Society, n.d.). Without the arrival of picture brides and the families that they started, this number would be considerably smaller. This also resulted in the preservation of Japanese culture in Hawaii. Organizations like the Museum of Japanese Emigration to Hawaii and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii are dedicated to sharing the rich history of Japanese Americans living in Hawaii, a history that would not be possible without those brave women who took a chance, worked hard, and persevered.

Despite the odds against them, these picture brides managed to persevere and build a better life for themselves and their families, thus fulfilling their own versions of the “American Dream.” Although sentiment towards immigrants has begun to shift in a more positive direction in recent years, immigrants to America continue to face many of the same obstacles that these women faced, such as discrimination and unequal opportunities. The stories of these picture brides can undoubtedly serve as a source of inspiration for immigrants today, because no matter how bleak things seemed, these women kept fighting for their futures and never lost hope for a better tomorrow.


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