Home History History of Seattle Nikkei Immigrants from “The North American Times” Part 8 Picture-Bride Marriages on the Rise, continued

Part 8 Picture-Bride Marriages on the Rise, continued

History of Seattle Nikkei Immigrants from ‘The North American Times’

This series explores the history of the pre-war Japanese community in Seattle, by reviewing articles in “The North American Times,” which have been digitally archived by the University of Washington and Hokubei Hochi Foundation (hokubeihochi.org/digital-archive). Publication of this series is a joint project with discovernikkei.org.

By Ikuo Shinmasu
Translation by Mina Otsuka For The North American Post

‘The North American Times’ was first printed on September 1, 1902, by publisher Kiyoshi Kumamoto from Kagoshima, Kyushu. At its peak, it had a daily circulation of about 9,000 copies, with correspondents in Spokane, Vancouver BC, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. When World War II started, 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 paper was revived as “The North American Post.”

Part 8 Picture-Bride Marriages on the Rise, continued

Arguments For and Against Picture Marriage (continued)
“Determination of Picture-Bride Wives in America” (NAT, Jan. 1, 1920)


Shikako Takatani, a female writer of “The North American Times” who appeared previously in this series (“History of ‘The North American Times’ 1, napost.com, Dec. 31, 2021), wrote a commentary on picture-bride marriages.

“Under the current marriage situation in Japan, it is common that two parties get married without knowing anything about each other, as their parents choose spouses for them, or they get married after having met just once in person. Picture marriages fall under the category of arranged marriage. Two parties exchange their pictures and letters of love as people in the old days might have done, whispering the words of love under the moonlight or in the shade of flowers – this is rather self-motivating and rational for the Japanese… for you ladies who got married as picture brides, you don’t have time to think about yourself or agonize and grieve over the stupidity of whatever you think is making you suffer. The weak and meek women who were kept under control in the feudal era have now been set free, to live their lives on equal terms with men. You shouldn’t let yourself be a whining one under the pressure of some strong force, like a puppy barking and running away in fear of the legs of a big elephant. We must be the strong women like the ones in films, the fat wife that kicks the butt of her husband to send him off to work… Those out there are now throwing the hammer called “exclusion” up in the air. We have to watch over our husbands and kids who walk under it, from inside the windows quietly and carefully.”

High Birth Rate of Japanese

In the column “The Rise and Fall of Main Street” (NAT, Jan. 1, 1939), which I introduced above, 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.”

Japanese population registered with Japanese Consulate, Seattle.
Number of Japanese births in Seattle. Here, births per thousand range from 21 (1910) to 41 and 39 (1919-1920). (Specific data from Japanese version of this article, napost.com)

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

“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.”

Decision to Abolish Picture Marriages

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”
(NAT, Nov. 13, 1919)

“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 Kanzaki, 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”
(NAT, Dec. 10, 1919)

“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.”


“The weak and meek women who were kept under control in the feudal era have now been set free, to live their lives on equal terms with men….
We must be the strong women like the ones in films, the fat wife that kicks the butt of her husband to send him off to work… Those out there are now throwing the hammer called “exclusion” up in the air.
— Shikako Takatani, “N Am. Times,” (Jan. 1, 1920).

Prohibition of Picture Marriages Finalized

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

To be continued


Editor’s notes. From this article, we learn that the 1924 cut-off of immigration from Japan was not the only determinant of the rare “peaks and valleys” population age structure of Japanese Americans. (In simple terms, these days one is either ~95, 65, 35, or five, with few in the gaps.) We now know that the February 1920 ending of picture marriages also contributed.


Ikuo Shinmasu retired in 2015 from Air Liquide Japan Ltd., then researched his grandfather who migrated to Seattle. He shared his findings through the series, “Yoemon Shinmasu – My Grandfather’s Life in Seattle,” in the NAP and in “Discover Nikkei” in Japanese and English during 2019-2020. He lives in Zushi, Kanagawa, with his wife and son.

Mina Otsuka is a freelance translator for “Discover Nikkei.”

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Ikuo Shinmasu retired in 2015 from Air Liquide Ltd., then researched his grandfather who migrated to Seattle. He shared his findings through the series, “Yoemon Shinmasu – My Grandfather’s Life in Seattle,” in the NAP and in Discover Nikkei in Japanese and English during 2019-2020. He lives in Zushi, Kanagawa, with his wife and son.