Japanese ‘Picture Brides’ Was Our Ancestor’s Version of Catfishing

picture brides

Catfishing, a modern-day phenomenon in the world of online dating, has existed since the late 1800s through a traditional form of matchmaking called “picture brides.”

Catfishing is an unfortunate and potentially dangerous nuisance that comes with all the glory of online dating. It is when people misrepresent themselves online so they show up to a date looking nothing like their photo, much less funny than their profile lets on, and our personal favorite, at least two inches shorter than what was written on the profile.

It’s the 21st century, and we are still experiencing the same issue that our ancestors faced.

picture brides
Picture brides | Image by California State Parks via KCET

In Japan, “miai” or “omiai”, was the practice of matchmaking to unionize two families. It was said to have started in the Kamakura period (1185–1333) within the aristocracy to form strategic marriages. Then, by the Edo period (1603–1868), the practice gained popularity and became a common custom, according to Nippon.

From the late 1880s into the 1900s, over 400,000 Japanese people immigrated to the U.S. to work on plantations and create a better life for themselves and their future generations. This followed the social disruption and agricultural decline of the Meiji Restoration in 1868 which left many workers jobless. The U.S. economy was booming and legal barriers began to drop, so major emigration soon followed, according to the Library of Congress.

picture brides
Miai

As more Japanese laborers moved to the U.S. to find work, Americans were afraid that the “issei” (first-generation Japanese immigrants) would take their jobs, and tensions rose between the two countries. In an effort to calm these tensions, President Theodore Roosevelt passed the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907: Japan would stop issuing passports to those who wished to emigrate to the U.S., in exchange for Roosevelt urging San Francisco to rescind an order that segregated Japanese children from White students in schools, according to Britannica.

Many of the “issei” originally planned to work in the States for several years then return to Japan with the money they earned. However, as a result of the Gentleman’s Agreement, these Japanese workers were stranded in the U.S. One loophole of the Gentleman’s Agreement was that wives from Japan were allowed to immigrate to be with their husbands in the U.S. Thus, came the rise in popularity of the “picture bride.”

Picture brides arrive at Angel Island | Image via nikkeijin.densho

The “picture bride” was a practice used during this time where women from Japan would be paired with “issei” men in the U.S. by exchanging photographs. “This resulted in the immigration of over ten thousand Japanese women to the West Coast from 1908 to 1920,” according to KCET.

Sometimes, a “nakōdo” (matchmaker) would be involved and it could be a friend, family member or professional. Today, our modern-day “nakōdo” are the algorithms on dating apps.

 

Sounds like a win-win situation doesn’t it? Men who found it difficult to find a wife in the U.S. could marry a beautiful woman from their home country and make the States their new home. Meanwhile, the women could fulfill their dreams of getting an American education, potentially come upon economic prosperity, and send money home to help their families out.

Unfortunately, the same issues we deal with today with dating existed then as well. It was common for men to send misleading photos of themselves. Many would send very old photos where they looked decades younger than they actually were, according to KCET. Some men would borrow suits or fancier items to give the illusion of wealth or prosperity. Sound familiar?

Picture of groom | Image by USC Digital Archive via KCET

Some women willingly chose to become a picture bride to obtain the prosperity that America seemed to promise. One of these women was Setsu Kusumoto, who was “enticed by the promise of good fortune in America, only to discover that her groom was 11 years older and hardly resembled the man in the photograph,” according to the LA Times.

Others were forced through arranged marriage by their families. Upon entering America, Hisano Akagi wanted desperately to go home, but she was afraid of defying her parents. She recalled “the hardest part about leaving her family to come to America about 75 years ago as the bride of a man she knew only by photograph, Akagi says in broken but emphatic English, ‘Everything taihen‘ (a Japanese word that means terrible and innumerable).”

Movies and books have even been made out of this phenomenon. In “The Issei: Portrait of a Pioneer,” author Eileen Sunada Sarasohn wrote, “None knew what their husbands were like except by the photos…The men would say that they had businesses and (would) send picture(s) which were taken when they were younger and deceived brides.”

 

In 1920, the Japanese government stopped issuing passports to picture brides in an attempt to better its relations with the U.S. By 1924, the Immigration Act further restricted immigration by setting a national quota.

However, by that point, Japanese families had already rooted themselves in the states and began to grow. Some historians report that the majority of Japanese people in the U.S. today can trace their ancestry to a picture bride, according to the LA Times.

Featured Images via KCET

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