Identification: First-generation Japanese immigrants

Significance: During the mid-nineteenth century, after more than two centuries as a closed nation, Japan began permitting emigration to the United States. The Issei, the first generation of immigrants in the United States, quickly became a crucial element in the development of Pacific states’ agricultural economies. However, because they were Asians and maintained tight-knit cultural neighborhoods with other Issei, they were perceived as a threat and faced bigotry as well as discriminatory legislation. Consequently, most Issei never had all the benefits of immigration enjoyed by members of many other immigrant groups.

The first Japanese to enter what is now the United States came to Hawaii in 1885, when the islands were still an independent kingdom. These first immigrants were mostly well-educated working-class men. Many were students and accomplished artisans who were interested in learning at first hand Western agricultural techniques and economic practices so they could help modernize their economically distressed homeland when they returned to Japan, which was then emerging from two centuries of rigid military rule that had closed off the nation from the international community. These immigrants were welcomed by the Hawaiian government as cheap labor to maintain the islands’ extensive sugar cane and pineapple plantations.

These Issei immigrants quickly extended their range, as subsequent waves of migrants went to the Pacific Coast states, most notably California. There, the Issei faced significant challenges. They did not share the language, customs, religions, or history of the established first- and second-generation European immigrants. They were therefore viewed with considerable hostility even as their hard work and the quiet temperaments, derived from their Buddhist training in stoic endurance, made them important contributors to the economic success of the Pacific region. They were especially important in farming, fishing, mining, and railroad construction. By 1910, nearly 180,000 Issei were working in the Pacific coastal areas.

That influx, perceived to be just the beginning by conservative anti-Asian xenophobes, led to popular sentiments that Asian “hordes” would take away jobs belonging to Americans. Indeed, Asian immigrants faced violence as well as a coordinated campaign of bigoted rhetoric from organized labor. Ultimately they faced harsh government restrictions. For example, the controversial 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was the first national legislation that prohibited a specific ethnic group from immigrating. Ironically, this law initially encouraged Japanese immigration, as the American labor force needed to replace the Chinese. However, the act also denied all Asian immigrants the right to become American citizens, thus ensuring that the Issei would be perpetual aliens in the United States.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated the so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan in which the Japanese government agreed to issue passports only to military personnel, diplomats, and merchants, thus eliminating workingclass immigrants from Japan. In 1910, California passed the Alien Land Law, which prohibited “aliens” from purchasing farmland at a moment when Issei controlled roughly one-half million acres in the state. Anti-japanese sentiments were not nationally held; indeed, Japanese art and culture was a Jazz Age fad. However, the U.S. Congress enacted the Immigration Act of 1924, which aimed at ending all Japanese immigration.

After imperial Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December, 1941, bringing the United States into World War II, the federal government interred nearly one-third of the Issei living along the West Coast of the United States. Denied the right to vote or own land, segregated into ethnic schools, and branded as untrustworthy aliens, the Issei had only their Nisei children who were born in the United States to enjoy the benefits of American citizenship and economic prosperity.

Joseph Dewey

Further Reading

  • Ichioka, Yuji. The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885-1924. New York: Free Press, 1988. 
  • Nakane, Kazuko. Nothing Left in My Hands: The Issei of a Rural California Town, 1900-1942. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2009. 
  • Tamura, Linda. The Hood River Issei. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994. 

See also: Anti-Japanese movement; Asian American Legal Defense Fund; Asian immigrants; Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance; Gentlemen’s Agreement; Immigration Act of 1924; Japanese American Citizens League; Japanese American internment; Japanese immigrants; Little Tokyos; “Yellow peril” campaign.

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