Gentlemen’s Agreement

Date: Signed on March 14, 1907

The Treaty: Informal agreement between the governments of Japan and the United States that limited Japanese immigration to the United States to nonlaborers, laborers already settled in the United States, and members of their families

Significance: In the wake of Japanese military victories over the Chinese and the Russians as well as following the turmoil of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and a resultant segregation order by the San Francisco Board of Education against Japanese and Korean schoolchildren, President Theodore Roosevelt’s federal government negotiated a Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan that defused threats of war, ended the segregation order, and limited Japanese immigration.

President Theodore Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt. (Library of Congress)

After Japan’s Meiji Restoration began in 1868, Japanese emigrants began to seek their fortunes in California. After the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, labor shortages drew increasing numbers of Japanese immigrants both to Hawaii (especially after its annexation in 1898 by the United States) and to California, especially the San Francisco Bay Area. Japanese victories in the Sino- JapaneseWar (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) established the previously closed country as a world power, even as California and other West Coast states began to extend antimiscegenation laws to bar marriages between whites and "Mongolians.”

San Francisco Earthquake and Aftermath

Unlike the earlier Chinese immigrants who were mostly male and lived in or near the Grant Street Chinatown, Japanese Americans in San Francisco lived throughout the city. Before the 1906 earthquake, there were ninety-three Japanese children in twenty-three different elementary schools. Also, anti-Asian sentiment was being redirected fromthe Chinese to the Japanese by statements from San Francisco mayor Eugene Schmitz; a series of articles in the San Francisco Chronicle describing the "yellow peril”; and the Asiatic Exclusion League, which was organized by one hundred San Francisco unions in 1905 in order to extend the Chinese Exclusion Act to cover Japanese and Koreans, boycott Japanese workers and Japanese-owned businesses, and segregate Japanese and Korean students from public schools.

The San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, destroyed municipal records that had inflamed fears concerning the incursion of the supposedly more aggressive, clever, and acquisitive Japanese. On October 11, 1906, as temporary and rehabilitated public schools were ready to reopen, the San Francisco Board of Education ordered the segregation of Japanese and Korean schoolchildren with the already segregated Chinese. Although the few Koreans complied with the order, Japanese parents objected strenuously. The Japanese government lodged a formal protest, claiming that the order violated the treaty of 1894. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had received a Nobel Peace Prize earlier in 1906 for helping to negotiate the treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War, articulated his sincere "regard and respect for the people of Japan” in his December 3, 1906, state of the union address. Roosevelt subsequently called San Francisco government and board of education officials toWashington and facilitated the negotiation of what has since been termed the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907.

Legacy of the Gentlemen’s Agreement

The Gentlemen’s Agreement forced the rescinding of the board of education order. In return, the Japanese government agreed not to issue any new passports for Japanese citizens who sought to work in the United States. However, parents, children, and wives of Japanese laborers already in the United States could still immigrate to the United States. Also, critics of the agreement noted the loophole that Japanese laborers could still freely immigrate to the territory of Hawaii, and the "picture bride” industry subsequently developed, in which single male Japanese laborers in the United States could select a Japanese bride from the old country solely on the basis of mailed photographs. The provisions of the Gentlemen’s Agreement allowed immigrant Japanese communities to develop complex family networks in a manner that the previous male-only Chinese communities never achieved. There were 90 Japanese-owned businesses in San Francisco in 1900 and 545 by 1909, despite the negative financial ramifications of the 1906 earthquake. According to the 1900 U.S. Census, there were 72,257 citizens of Japanese heritage living in the United States (42 percent in California); by 1920, there were 138,834 (70 percent in California). Continuing anti-immigration sentiment led to the Immigration Act of 1924, effectively halting all further Japanese immigration to the United States until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.

Richard Sax

Further Reading

Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Comprehensive social and political history of four principal Asian immigrant cultures (Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean) includes treatment of diplomatic and legal landmarks and struggles. 

Daniels, Roger. The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti- Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Details issues of regionalism and racial politics in late nineteenth and early twentieth century California. 

Esthus, Raymond A. Theodore Roosevelt and Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967. Chronological history that describes how statesmanship kept the United States and Japan on diplomatic terms even as Japan waged war with the Russians, annexed Korea, and negotiated the informal Gentlemen’s Agreement with the United States. 

Kiyama, Henry, and Frederik Schodt. The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924. Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 1999. Manga (graphic novel) treatment of four Japanese immigrants to San Francisco, humorously poking fun at the quirky and culturally obtuse behavior of their employers from the perspective of student-workers. 

Neu, Charles E. Troubled Encounter: The United States and Japan. Malabar, Fla.: R. E. Krieger, 1979. Diplomatic study of Japanese-U.S. relations from beginning of the Meiji Restoration (1868) through the late twentieth century. Details how the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 was a precursor to more draconian immigration measures of 1924 that exacerbated relations between the two countries. 

_______. An Uncertain Friendship: Theodore Roosevelt and Japan, 1906-1909. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. Describes Roosevelt’s complex relationship with the Japanese government during the latter years of his second termas well as the legacy leading into the diplomacy policies of theWilliam Taft administration. 

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian-Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. Historical study of Asian Americans with significant treatment of the settling of Japanese America and resultant ethnic stereotyping, prejudice, and state and federal legal issues. 

See also: Alien land laws; Amerasian children; Anti-Japanese movement; Asiatic Exclusion League; California; Immigration Act of 1924; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952; Japanese immigrants; San Francisco; "Yellow peril” campaign.

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