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Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



current topic Discrimination
World War II Incarceration

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A History of Japanese Americans in California:

As with most people of color, Japanese Americans have suffered a variety of discriminatory practices, legislation, and restrictions. Perhaps this could have been expected considering the initial conditions under which Japanese were originally enticed to immigrate to the United States — as only a source of labor, with no plans for them to stay and participate actively in the life of the society.

Even as a source of labor, Japanese immigrants were criticized for being too numerous. They were seen as unassimilable and potentially capable of overrunning the state. The Asiatic Exclusion League, formed in May 1905, mounted a campaign to exclude Japanese and Koreans from the United States. Under pressure from the league, the San Francisco Board of Education ruled on October 11, 1906 that all Japanese and Korean students should join the Chinese at the segregated Oriental School that had been established in 1884. There were 93 Japanese students in the 23 San Francisco public schools at that time. Twenty-five of those students had been born in the United States.

To appease those Californians who were agitating for cessation of Japanese immigration without offending the Japanese government, President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated the 1907-08 Gentlemen's Agreement, whereby the Japanese government agreed not to issue passports to laborers immigrating to the United States. However, parents, wives, and children of laborers already in the United States could immigrate, as well as laborers who had already been here.

This agreement nevertheless stimulated the anti-Japanese movement. Rather than cutting off all immigration from Japan, the agreement resulted in a steady stream of Japanese women entering California. Soon thereafter, children were born, resulting in increases in the Japanese population, rather than decreases. Arranged marriage, sometimes with the exchange of photographs, was the accepted mode of contracting marriages in Japanese society. This practice allowed male issei immigrants to marry, and to send for their brides to join them in this country. The effect was to bolster the stereotyped image of Japanese as being sneaky and untrustworthy, even though the provisions of the Gentlemen's Agreement were being scrupulously maintained.

As the Japanese American population steadily increased, through immigration of picture brides and the birth of nisei children, anti-Japanese forces regrouped after World War I. Charges were made that the Japanese birth rate was three times as high as the general population's. The fact that Japanese females in prime child-bearing years were compared with White women from 15 to 45 years of age was not mentioned. The unassimilability of Japanese was charged. As part of the Immigration Act of 1924, immigration from Japan was completely cut off for 28 years.

Beginning in January 1909 and continuing until after World War II, anti-Japanese bills were introduced into the California legislature every year. The first to become law was the Webb-Hartley Law (known more commonly as the Alien Land Law of 1913), which limited land leases by "aliens ineligible to citizenship" to three years, and barred further land purchases. Amendments to this law in 1919 and 1920 further restricted land leasing agreements. Although the law contains no mention of Asians by name, it is clear that "aliens ineligible to citizenship" included, among others, Japanese, a group without access to U.S. citizenship and the target of anti-Asian groups during this period.

The issue of U.S. citizenship eventually was decided by the 1922 Supreme Court decision of Takao Ozawa v. United States, which declared that Japanese were ineligible for U.S. citizenship. "Free white persons" were made eligible for U.S. citizenship by Congress in 1790. "Aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent" were similarly designated by Congress in 1870. Due to some ambiguity about the term "white," some 420 Japanese had been naturalized by 1910, but a ruling by a U.S. attorney general to stop issuing naturalization papers to Japanese ended the practice in 1906. Ozawa had filed his naturalization papers in 1914. In 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court judged that since Ozawa was neither a "free white person" nor an African by birth or descent, he did not have the right of naturalization as a Mongolian.

Influenced by the anti-Japanese movement, an amendment to the State Political Code in 1921 allowed establishment of separate schools for children of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, or Mongolian parentage. These children were not to be integrated into other public schools once separate schools were established. School districts in Sacramento County elected to maintain separate schools in the communities of Florin, Walnut Grove, Isleton, and Courtland. Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino children in these school districts attended segregated schools until World War II. In 1945, a Japanese American family challenged the constitutionality of segregated schools, and the Los Angeles County Superior Court concurred that segregation on the basis of race or ancestry violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The California legislature repealed the 1921 provision in 1947.

The most widely perpetrated discriminatory action toward West Coast Japanese Americans was the internment camp policy of World War II, which was set into motion by the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The executive order did not mention Japanese Americans by name, but the designation of military areas and the decision to exclude certain persons from these areas was directed toward Japanese Americans. Thirteen temporary detention camps in California were hastily established to hold Japanese Americans until more permanent camps in remote sections of the country could be constructed.

After Executive Order 9066 was issued, the vast majority of public proclamations emanating from Lt. General John DeWitt, Commander of the Western Defense Command, were directed toward controlling the movement and freedom of Japanese Americans. Similarly, the civilian exclusion orders, issued by DeWitt, directed Japanese Americans along the West Coast to report for detention at designated times and places.

Incarceration policy was challenged by Gordon Hirabayashi, who violated curfew regulations in the state of Washington; Fred Korematsu of Oakland, who was prosecuted for knowingly remaining in an area forbidden by military orders; Minoru Yasui, who was prosecuted for violation of curfew orders as a test case; and Mitsuye Endo of Sacramento, who claimed unlawful detention. None of the judgments that resulted from these cases dealt directly with the constitutionality of incarcerating more than 120,000 Japanese Americans. But Ex parte Endo, issued December 16, 1944, did result in the rescinding of exclusion orders, effective January 2, 1945, which eventually closed the 10 concentration camps in the United States.

During the internment years, several legislative actions affected thousands of Japanese Americans. A California statute of 1943, amended in 1945, prohibited "aliens ineligible to citizenship" from earning their living as commercial fishermen in coastal waters. Torao Takahashi brought suit, and after a tortuous sequence of events, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the statute was unconstitutional, resident alien Japanese fishermen were again allowed to fish the waters off the California coast in 1948.

In 1944, a federal statute amended the Nationality Act of 1940 to permit U.S. citizens to renounce citizenship during wartime. The Department of Justice intended that leaders of disturbances at the Tule Lake Segregation Center renounce their citizenship, therefore making themselves eligible for further detention when the camps were dismantled. Instead, 5,522 renunciations came from Japanese Americans (5,371 were from persons confined at Tule Lake), rather than the several hundred expected from pro-Japan elements. When the concentration camps were closed, many internees regretted renouncing their U.S. citizenship, citing coercion, intimidation, and fears of hostility by the dominant society. Lawsuits to revalidate citizenship continued until 1965, including Abo v. Clark (77 F. Supp. 806), which returned U.S. citizenship to 4,315 nisei.

During World War II, while Japanese and Japanese Americans were unable to defend themselves in court, California's Attorney General was allocated additional funds to prosecute violations of the Alien Land Law of 1913. A total of 79 cases were prosecuted, including 59 after the war. The first challenge to the Alien Land Law was Harada v. State of California, in which the Superior Court of Riverside County declared in 1918 that Jukichi Harada could purchase property in the name of his children, who were U.S. citizens though still minors. Subsequent court cases in other jurisdictions had differing results, some ruling that minor children could not own property.

Two escheat cases had particular significance in invalidating the Alien Land Law. The case of Oyama v. State of California in 1948 determined that non-citizen parents could purchase land as gifts for citizen children. The Fujii v. State of California case in 1952 resulted in the Alien Land Law of 1913 being declared unconstitutional. Legal obstacles to land purchases by Asians were thus removed.

To provide partial restitution for losses and damages resulting from the internment, an Evacuation Claims Act was passed by Congress. While losses by Japanese Americans were conservatively estimated to be around $400,000,000, only 10 percent of this amount was disbursed to former internees. The issue remains alive today in 1981, with the establishment of a Congressional Commission to investigate the historical, legal, economical, and psychological impacts of the forced internment of over 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

Japanese Americans have also endured informal discriminatory practices. Shopping, dining, and recreational activities at some business establishments were denied to Japanese Americans in previous years. Restrictive covenants in housing affected where they lived. When deceased members of the highly decorated 442nd Combat team were returned to the United States after World War II, some cemeteries refused to allow them gravesites because of their ancestry. In the past, some occupations have been closed to Japanese Americans, yet others such as gardening have been considered particularly suitable for their temperament, skills, and social standing in the society. Outward manifestations of discriminatory practices toward Japanese Americans can be subtle, but are still very much in existence as recent legal cases involving discrimination in employment promotion indicate.

St. Andrews Methodist Church
St. Andrews Methodist Church, Kern County [circa 1929]

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