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Japanese picture brides
Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



current topic Immigration
World War II Incarceration

Historic Sites
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A History of Japanese Americans in California:

One of the first groups of settlers that came from Japan to the United States, the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony under the leadership of John Schnell, arrived at Cold Hill, El Dorado County, in June 1869. Additional colonists arrived in the fall of 1869. These first immigrants brought mulberry trees, silk cocoons, tea plants, bamboo roots, and other agricultural products. The U.S. Census of 1870 showed 55 Japanese in the United States; 33 were in California, with 22 living at Gold Hill. Within a few years of the colony's founding, the colonists had dispersed, their agricultural venture a failure.

Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony
Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, El Dorado County

The 1880 Census showed 86 Japanese in California, with a total of 148 in the United States. Possibly these were students, or Japanese who had illegally left their country, since Japanese laborers were not allowed to leave their country until after 1884 when an agreement was signed between the Japanese government and Hawaiian sugar plantations to allow labor immigration. From Hawaii, many Japanese continued on to the United States mainland. In 1890, 2,038 Japanese resided in the United States; of this number, 1,114 lived in California.

Laborers for the Hawaiian sugar plantations were carefully chosen. In 1868, a group of Japanese picked off the streets of Yokohama and shipped to Hawaii had proved to be unsatisfactory. Thereafter, a systematic method of recruiting workers from specific regions in Japan was established. Natives from Hiroshima, Kumamoto, Yamaguchi, and Fukushima were sought for their supposed expertise in agriculture, for their hard work, and for their willingness to travel. Immigrants to California from these prefectures constituted the largest numbers of Japanese in the state.

Except for a temporary suspension of immigration to Hawaii in 1900, the flow of immigration from Japan remained relatively unaffected until 1907-08, when agitation from white supremacist organizations, labor unions, and politicians resulted in the "Gentlemen's Agreement," curtailing further immigration of laborers from Japan. A provision in the Gentlemen's Agreement, however, permitted wives and children of laborers, as well as laborers who had already been in the United States, to continue to enter the country. Until that time, Japanese immigrants had been primarily male. The 1900 Census indicates that only 410 of 24,326 Japanese were female. From 1908 to 1924, Japanese women continued to immigrate to the United States, some as "picture brides."

Japanese Picture Brides
Japanese Picture Brides at Angel Island, Marin County [circa 1919]

In Japan, arranged marriages were the rule. Go-betweens arranged marriages between compatible males and females, based on careful matching of socio-economic status, personality, and family background. With the advent of photography, an exchange of photographs became a first step in this long process. Entering the bride's name in the groom's family registry legally constituted marriage. Those Japanese males who could afford the cost of traveling to Japan returned there to be married. Others resorted to long-distance, arranged marriages. The same procedure that would have occurred if the groom were in Japan was adhered to, and the bride would immigrate to the United States as the wife of a laborer. Not all issei were married in this manner, but many were. For wives who entered after 1910, the first glimpse of the United States was the Detention Barracks at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. New immigrants were processed there, and given medical exams. As a result, this was the place where most "picture brides" saw their new husbands for the first time.

Those hoping to rid California of its Japanese population thought the Gentlemen's Agreement would end Japanese immigration. Instead, the Japanese population of California increased, both through new immigration and through childbirth. Anti-Japanese groups, citing the entry of "picture brides," complained that the Gentlemen's Agreement was being violated. A movement to totally exclude Japanese immigrants eventually succeeded with the Immigration Act of 1924. That legislation completely curtailed immigration from Japan until 1952 when an allotment of 100 im migrants per year was designated. A few refugees entered the country during the mid-1950s, as did Japanese wives of United States servicemen.

The pattern of immigration has left its mark on Japanese communities to this day. While immigrants before 1924 were uniformly young, the delay in immigration of women resulted in many marriages in which the husband was considerably older than the wife. Immigration of women between 1908 and 1924 also meant that the majority of children (nisei) were born within a period of 20 years, 1910-1930. Researchers during World War II noted that rather than a normal curve, the Japanese population in the United States was bi-modal — an age group for the original immigrants and another for their children. This has influenced the ways in which Japanese communities have been organized, e.g., the need every 25 years or so to have facilities and organizations oriented to children, with long periods of time when such facilities were not needed. Consequently, large numbers of nisei would enter the job market at the same time, and they would have children at about the same time. The immigration pattern is also reflected today among issei who are still living. The vast majority are women. Eighty-five percent of the clientele of Kimochi-Kai and other Japanese senior citizen organizations in California's major cities are women.

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Last Modified: Wed, Nov 17 2004 10:00:00 pm PDT

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