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Japanese immigrants did not begin entering the United States in significant numbers until the 1890s. By that time the western United States, and California in particular, had developed an anti-Asian tradition that had its roots in the 1849 Gold Rush. The Issei's first American legacy was the hate and fear of Asians which had been generated by the virulent anti-Chinese crusade centered in California where the majority of the Chinese immigrants had settled. First inspired by economic competition and restricted largely to organized labor, the anti-Chinese movement quickly developed racial overtones and received at least passive support from the overwhelming majority of the population in the western United States during the latter decades of the 19th century. [1]


Following the discovery of gold in California in 1848, tens of thousands of Chinese coolies were brought to the western United States as contract laborers, or emigrated as regular migrants, to work in the mines and on the railroads and farms of the rapidly expanding frontier society that required the services of large numbers of common laborers. Chinese immigrant labor, totaling some 75,000 between 1854 and 1868, was largely employed on western transcontinental railroad projects, but in at least one case some were even contracted to work in a shoe factory in North Adams, Massachusetts. The majority of the earliest Chinese immigrants were from the laboring classes, and nearly all of them came from the six districts of Kwangtung Province, a heavily-populated area encompassing the coastal plain of southeastern China below the mouth of the Yangtze River. [2]

At first, the Chinese were received with enthusiasm because labor was in short supply, but soon American workers viewed them with hostility as competitors. The fact that Chinese were satisfied with low wages, and were willing to perform menial jobs, invariably put the white laborers at a disadvantage. Despite growing anti-Chinese sentiment on the Pacific coast where most of the Chinese immigrants had settled, however, the United States negotiated the Burlingame Treaty with China in 1868, giving the Chinese the right to emigrate to the United States. In 1869, to mark the completion of the transcontinental railroad link at Promontory Point, Utah, a golden spike was driven to hold the last rail, and some 10,000 Chinese were thrown out of work into a labor market that had become increasingly depressed — a development that would be exacerbated by the influx of some 160,000 Chinese laborers between 1868 and 1882. Because of the competition with American labor, anti-Chinese agitation on the Pacific coast intensified during the 1870s, among the most notable events being the "Sandlot Riots" in July 1877 in San Francisco, the city having the largest concentration of Chinese. As a result, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed a commission to negotiate a new treaty with China. The result was the Treaty of November 17, 1880, permitting the United States to "regulate, limit or suspend" but not prohibit the entry of Chinese laborers. [3]

Throughout the 1870s the most outspoken opponents of unlimited Chinese immigration were labor spokesmen, primarily for economic but also for racial reasons. After the Supreme Court ruled in 1876 that the federal government had responsibility for immigration regulation, western leaders — notably Denis Kearny, the demogogic leader of the new California Workingmen's Party that thrived briefly on the basis of its single issue: "The Chinese must go!" — urged Congress to bar Chinese and invoked boycotts, claiming that the Chinese immigrants undercut the American wage structure. A Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting the immigration of Chinese for ten years was passed in 1882. Immediately thereafter, anti-Chinese riots in rural districts drove the bulk of the Asians already in California to shelter in urban ghettos such as that in San Francisco, thus intensifying the potential for conflict between them and other American workers. As a result of the lobbying efforts of the Knights of Labor and other labor union groups, Congress passed the Contract Labor Act in 1885 prohibiting the importation of contract laborers into the United States. A new treaty with China in 1894 recognized a 10-year immigration exclusion period. Upon China's termination of this agreement in 1904, an exclusion act was reenacted without terminal date. [4]


The overthrow of the feudal Tokugawa shogunate in 1868 and the return of power of the Meiji to the throne in Japan, generally referred to as the Meiji ("enlightened rule") Restoration, ushered in a period of rapid social, political, and economic change that would transform the country from a backward, agrarian nation to a modern industrial state. This period witnessed a rapid increase in population that exerted economic pressures within the still predominantly agrarian society The rise of modern industry absorbed the bulk of this phenomenal increase, but the imposition of heavier taxes on the farmers to subsidize the development of the industrial sector caused considerable economic hardship, particularly in the crowded rural sections of the island nation. [5]

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspending the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States for ten years had the immediate effect of stimulating the flow of immigrant laborers from Japan to America. The act, which would be renewed in 1892 for ten more years and made permanent in 1902, remained in force until its repeal in 1943. Responding to the need for Japanese labor in the United States and the economic pressures in Japanese society, the Japanese Government Act of 1885 authorized nationals to emigrate as laborers for the first time. In 1894, a treaty was negotiated between the Japanese and United States governments permitting citizens of both countries mutual free entry, although both governments were empowered to protect domestic interests by legislating against excessive immigration of laborers. [6]

Japanese emigration gained momentum in the 1890s, the largest percentage of departures being middle-class farm families from the increasingly overcrowded and impoverished rural areas that offered ever-diminishing economic opportunities for their residents. Studies indicate that about 80 percent of Japanese who left their homeland during the late 19th and early 20th centuries emigrated to the United States. More than two-thirds of the emigrants were from rural farming prefectures in southwestern Japan, including Hiroshima and Yamaguchi in Honshu and Fukuoka, Kumamoto, and Nagasaki in Kyushu. [7]

Although the Japanese immigrants were inclined to seek employment in agriculture in the western United States, many worked for railroad companies before drifting into farming. A report by the United States Immigration Commission stated:

. . . .perhaps one-eighth of those Japanese immigrants gainfully occupied at the close of the year 1909 were on the pay rolls of the steam railway companies operating in the States comprising the Western Division, and chiefly in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. [8]

The Immigration Commission attributed the increase of Japanese in this field of employment to three principal causes. First, the number of Chinese laborers had declined due to the Chinese exclusion acts, and many European laborers had left the railroads to pursue employment in other developing industries. Second, the Japanese were proving to be satisfactory workers, and, in addition, were willing to accept lower wages than some European competitors. Because they worked as families and were frugal, industrious, and better educated than the Chinese, they progressed more rapidly and were preferable to the Chinese workers they displaced. Third, they could be recruited through employment agents and were generally more accessible than other immigrant groups, because they tended to concentrate around San Francisco, their major port of entrance.

Unwilling to remain in railroad employment, the Japanese quickly shifted to agriculture and other more preferable occupations as soon as opportunities were available. Lumbering and mining provided employment for new arrivals, but, as with railroad work, the emigrants used these opportunities primarily as stepping stones to more highly skilled positions in farming and related industries, such as salmon canneries in the Pacific Northwest. By pooling capital, Japanese neighbors were soon able to rent and eventually purchase farmlands and small businesses.

Agriculture held the greatest promise for the Japanese immigrants. Having come primarily from rural areas in their homeland, those who were skilled in intensive agriculture were in great demand throughout the western United States. Farms raising sugar beets, grapes, deciduous and citrus fruits, berries, vegetables, hops, and nuts took the bulk of the Japanese farm workers, although a few found employment on livestock ranches or in general farming. Agriculture in the western states provided employment for an estimated 40 percent of the Japanese population living in the United States in 1909. [9]

Although no significant Japanese immigration to the United States occurred until the 1890s, it increased greatly during the next two decades. During the 1890s, 25,942 Japanese entered the United States, a total that increased to a peak of 129,797 during the following decade. [10] The growing numbers of Japanese in the western United States resulted in agitation from labor unions, politicians, and white supremacist organizations for restrictions and exclusion, because of the increasingly widespread belief that their lower standard of living, like that of the Chinese before them, was detrimental to the interests of American labor and agriculture. California, by virtue of its anti-Chinese tradition and frontier psychology again led the way in this anti-Asian crusade, and the Japanese became the inheritors of California's persistent animosity toward Asians. [11]

The first large-scale protest specifically against Japanese Americans took place in 1900. The site was San Francisco, the mecca of the anti-Asian movement and the home of the largest concentration of Japanese immigrants. The principal organizers and participants were trade unionists, and the main speaker was James D. Phelan, then mayor of San Francisco and later United States Senator from California. Until his death in 1930, Phelan would endlessly reiterate the theme that the "Japanese are starting the same tide of immigration which we thought we had checked twenty years ago." The Chinese and Japanese, according to Phelan, were "not bona fide citizens." They were "not the stuff of which American citizens can be made." [12]

In order to head off the demands for restrictive legislation aimed at the Japanese, President William McKinley, anxious not to offend the emerging industrial power, negotiated an agreement with Japan in August 1900 whereby the latter agreed to inaugurate a policy of voluntary emigration limitation through refusal to issue passports to emigrant laborers. This agreement, however, failed to halt the flow of emigrant laborers to Hawaii, Canada, or Mexico, whence entry to the United States could not be effectively controlled. Because of the ineffectiveness of this agreement, anti-Japanese sentiment intensified and labor unions raised the "old bogey" of coolie competition. On May 7, 1905, a mass meeting attended by delegates from 67 organizations with representatives of San Francisco's labor unions at the forefront established the Asiatic Exclusion League, sometimes called the Japanese Exclusion League, which soon became the principal locus of anti-Japanese agitation. [13]

The following year, on October 11, the San Francisco School Board ordered that Chinese, Japanese, and Korean children attend a separate Asian public school. The move turned out to be explosive, triggering heightened anti-American feeling in Japan. After winning an upset victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 that established the island empire as an emerging military power in the Far East and increased American fears of Japan as a nemesis to world peace (i.e., the "Yellow Peril"), the Japanese asked President Roosevelt to mediate the peace treaty. The terms that emerged from the meetings Roosevelt arranged at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, were less satisfactory than Japanese jingoists wished, and they blamed the American president. Thus, the Japanese government retaliated by charging on October 25 that the San Francisco school board's action violated the treaty of 1894. Faced with an impending international crisis, Roosevelt invited San Francisco Mayor Eugene Schmitz and members of the school board to Washington for a conference in February 1907. As a result of the conference, the board rescinded its action on March 13, 1907, with the understanding that the federal government would take action on the immigration question. The result was an amendment to the Immigration Act of 1907 authorizing the president to exclude from the United States immigrants holding passports to any country other than the United States, any insular possession of the United States, or the Canal Zone, and attempting to use such passports to enter the United States to the detriment of international "labor conditions." By executive order, Roosevelt put this authorization into effect on March 14. [14]

Further diplomatic efforts by the Roosevelt Administration during 1907-08 resulted in the so-called Gentlemen's Agreement" between the United States and Japan. The essence of the agreement was embodied in a Japanese note on February 24, 1907, in which Japan promised to withhold passports from laborers intending to emigrate to the United States, and recognized the American right to refuse admission to Japanese immigrants using passports originally issued for travel to any other country. However, it was not until February 18, 1908, that a Japanese note provided the basis for the effective restriction of immigration. To offset any Japanese surmises that the concessions extended by the United States in the Far East signified a fear of Japan, Roosevelt sent the bulk of the United States Navy on a world cruise from December 16, 1907, to February 22, 1909, thus demonstrating that the United States was now the second ranking naval power in the world (Japan was ranked fifth). The successful implementation of this agreement temporarily satisfied the American advocates of restriction, and no restrictive legislation aimed at the Japanese was then adopted. [15]

Pursuant to the "Gentlemen's Agreement," Japan stopped issuing passports to laborers "skilled or unskilled except those previously domiciled in the United States, or parents, wives, or children under twenty years of age of such persons." [16] Because those domiciled in the United States could send for their relatives, in accord with the agreement, the decline in immigration was slight, temporary, and soon followed by another upsurge. Whereas Japanese immigrants had heretofore been primarily male (the 1900 Census indicates that only 958 of 24,326 Japanese in the United States were female), the renewed influx consisted largely of women, many of them designated "picture brides." Arranged marriage, often with the exchange of photographs, was the accepted mode of contracting marriages in Japanese society; this practice allowed male Issei immigrants in the United States to marry and to send for their brides to join them in this country. [17]

Thus, despite the apparent paper barrier posed by the "Gentlemen's Agreement," Japanese continued to enter the United States, and the Japanese American population steadily increased both through immigration of "picture brides" and the birth of Nisei children. To escape hostility in northern California where most of the earlier arrivals had settled, many Japanese began to settle in the Los Angeles area. As hired hands, they were welcomed. As leasers and purchasers of truck gardens and citrus groves, they were not. Feeling the pressures of economic competition, angry ranchers, like the labor leaders before them, increasingly demanded protection. Various anti-Japanese groups, citing the entry of "picture brides," complained that the "Gentlemen's Agreement" was being violated. Responding to these anti-Japanese pressures, California Governor Hiram Johnson's Progressives in August 1913 passed the Webb-Heney Law, more commonly known as the Alien Land Law, that limited leases of agricultural land to Japanese to maximum terms of three years and barred further land purchases by Japanese aliens. Additional legislation, known as the Anti-Alien Initiative Measure was passed by the California legislature in 1920 to plug loopholes in the 1913 measure. This law prohibited further transfer or lease of land to Japanese nationals; barred acquisition, by lease or purchase, of land by any corporation in which Japanese held a majority of the stock; and prohibited Issei parents who were noncitizens from serving as guardians for their minor citizen children, since that device had been used with great success by the Issei to circumvent the 1913 law. Other western states, including Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, enacted similar laws during the early 1920s. [18]

As a result of the anti-Japanese movement, an amendment to the California 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. Accordingly, school districts in four communities in Sacramento County elected to maintain separate schools, and Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino children in these school districts attended segregated schools until World War II. [19]

In November 1922, a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court simplified matters for the exclusionists in Takao Ozawa y. United States by validating their long-standing contention that Japanese were "aliens ineligible to citizenship." "Free white persons" were made eligible for United States 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," 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. [20] Ozawa had filed his naturalization papers in 1914. In 1922, the Supreme Court decided 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 Japanese. This decision meant that Congress could now safely use the time-honored "aliens ineligible to citizenship" formula, which had been hitherto restricted to state and municipal statutes. [21]

Despite these laws and court decisions, the Japanese American population continued to grow, and the Japanese immigrants continued to acquire property. American statutes declared that all children born on American soil, regardless of the allegiance of their parents, automatically became American citizens. Japanese desirous of owning land simply put the title in the names of their American-born children. Bachelors without children sent to Japan for "picture brides" and raised children who could be land owners. Outraged by this so-called "duplicity", California nativists established a new Japanese Exclusion League and enlisted support in the eastern United States. In March 1924, a three-man exclusionist delegation went to Washington to testify and lobby for anti-Japanese legislation. Its leader, Valentine S. McClatchy, was seconded by former Senator Phelan and the Attorney General of California, Ulysses S. Webb. McClatchy, in a long presentation before the Senate Committee on Immigration, made the ultimate apologia for the California anti-Japanese position. He denounced the Japanese for "violations" of the "Gentlemen's Agreement," singling out the "picture brides" and their successors and the allegedly astronomical Japanese birth rate as examples. He cited as dangers to California's Anglo-Saxon civilization the increased landholdings of the Issei and their clannishness, asserting that all Japanese were loyal only to Japan. He cited their foreign-language schools and the fact that many Japanese sent their children to Japan to be educated as proof of his contention. Despite his denials, the essence of McClatchy's position, as the core of the California anti-Japanese position had been all along, was racism, based on racial stereotypes and fears — the "Yellow Peril" of an unknown, alien, and sinister Asian culture achieving substantial influence over, and thus subverting and destroying, the ideals of western civilization. He noted:

The Japanese are less assimilable and more dangerous as residents in this country than any other of the peoples ineligible under our laws. . . . With great pride of race, they have no idea of assimilating in the sense of amalgamation. They do not come here with any desire or any intent to lose their racial or national identity.

They come here specifically and professedly for the purpose of colonizing and establishing here permanently the proud Yamato race. They never cease being Japanese. . . . In pursuit of their intent to colonize this country with that race they seek to secure land to found large families. . . . They have greater energy, greater determination, and greater ambition than the other yellow and brown races ineligible to citizenship, and with the same low standards of living, hours of labor, use of women and child labor, they naturally make more dangerous competitors in an economic way. . . . California regards herself as a frontier State. She has been making for 20 years the fight of the nation against incoming of alien races whose peaceful penetration must in time with absolute certainty drive the white race to the wall, and prior to that time inevitably provoke international trouble across the Pacific. [22]

In response to such pressures, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, establishing quotas for immigrants from most nations and barring Japanese as well as Chinese. One provision of this law, sponsored by Hiram Johnson who had become a United States Senator from California, completely barred the immigration of aliens who were ineligible for citizenship — a provision designed to exclude Japanese, who were, in common with other Asians, statutorily barred from naturalization. While the bill was under consideration, the Japanese ambassador sent a note warning of "grave consequences" if exclusion of Japanese were enacted. This note aroused strong hostility in Congress, which abruptly rejected all attempts at reconciliation and overwhelmingly adopted the act of exclusion. The Japanese reacted by celebrating "Humiliation Day" in Tokyo on July 1, 1924, marked by "Hate American" mass rallies. [23]

After the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, a new immigration exclusion organization known as the California Joint Immigration Committee was established to coordinate the anti-Japanese movement. It was supported by various nativist organizations, such as the Native Sons, American Legion, American Federation of Labor, and the Grange. McClatchy continued his nativist labors for that group until his death in 1936, but the crusading fervor of most of the exclusionists gained no more victories in peacetime. [24]

Despite the new restrictive legislation, no law could prevent natural increase of the persons of Japanese descent. By 1940, there more than 112,000 Japanese on the west coast, 94,000 of whom lived in California (slightly less than three percent of the state's population). They controlled 90 percent of the truck gardens around Los Angeles, maintained a sizable fishing colony at Terminal Island in San Pedro Harbor, and raised most of the commercial flowers and did most of the landscape gardening in southern California. [25]

Notwithstanding the population and economic gains of Japanese Americans during the remainder of the 1920s and 1930s, the bitter legacy of the anti-Asian crusade in the western United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries would set the tone for future United States-Japanese relations as the Japanese continued their efforts to become the dominant military power in the Far East and the Pacific. This background provided the historical context for the mass hysteria that would lead to the evacuation and relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

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Last Updated: 01-Jan-2002