Japanese immigrants

2015-09-14 07:42:00

Significance: Fromthe 1880’s, Japanese immigration to Hawaii and the western states made the Japanese one of the largest Asian ethnic groups in the United States. Though mostly blocked by legislation between 1924 and 1965, some Japanese immigration continued through those years. Japanese Americans completely integrated and became very successful in government, business, the sciences, and cultural enterprises.

 Japanese immigrants awaiting

Japanese immigrants awaiting processing at the federal government’s immigrant reception center on San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island during the 1920’s. (NARA)

The first immigrants from Japan began to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands between 1885 and 1895, following on the heels of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Plantation owners who were forbidden from hiring Chinese workers hired thousands of Japanese citizens to work in the sugar cane and pineapple fields. About half of these Japanese eventually migrated to California, Oregon, and Washington State. More than 100,000 Japanese people made the journey across the Pacific to Hawaii before 1900, making the Japanese the dominant immigrant group in the islands. The new Meiji emperor of Japan had opened up the country and finally allowed citizens to emigrate. The working conditions were not good in Hawaii, but Japanese laborers were lured to the islands by the prospects of earning ten times more than was possible in their home country.

Profile of Japanese immigrants

Country of origin


Primary language


Primary regions of U.S. settlement

Hawaii, West Coast

Earliest significant arrivals


Peak immigration period


Twenty-first century legal residents*

62,096 (7,762 per year)

*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

Life in Hawaii

During the 1880’s, Hawaii was technically still a monarchy but was mostly controlled by American businessmen and plantation owners who farmed sugar cane, coffee, and pineapple on large estates throughout the islands. This required huge workforces. The native Hawaiians had fled or died out due to the diseases brought by American and European missionaries and white settlers, thus creating a labor market for the Chinese and Japanese. As a part of its new openness to foreign trade, the Meiji government formulated an agreement with Hawaii that made it easier for agricultural workers to leave Japan to work in the plantations. The agreement took the form of a labor contract that allowed American plantation owners to pay for transportation costs to Hawaii. The Japanese were required to work for up to a year to repay the debt.

In 1885, approximately 30,000 Japanese workers immigrated to Hawaii. The first-generation Japanese born outside America were known as the Issei. They had few chances for education or goodpaying jobs at home and hoped to save some of the money they earned working in Hawaii. Almost all the Japanese immigrants to Hawaii worked the sugar cane fields and were paid low wages. Some returned to Japan after one year, but many stayed in Hawaii until the opportunity arose to immigrate to the West Coast of the United States.

The number of Japanese moving to Hawaii through labor contracts and also through repayment arrangements made between immigrants and their home villages greatly increased during the last years of the nineteenth century. The official census of Hawaii counted 12,610 Japanese citizens in 1890, and that number had increased to more than 60,000 by the turn of the century. The new Japanese residents of Hawaii set up communities that resembled Japanese villages around the boundaries of plantations. The influx of Japanese to the islands was mutually beneficial because it provided jobs to those displaced by the Meiji Restoration. The thousands of new workers helped increase the productivity of the sugar cane and pineapple fields. The working conditions were unsurprisingly not good: The plantation workers spoke only English and treated the Japanese workers like horses or cattle, forcing them to get up at 4:00 a.m. to begin working the fields at 6:00 a.m., seven days a week.

In 1900, Hawaii became a U.S. territory, which meant that it would be governed by U.S. law, under which contract labor arrangements were illegal. When the Japanese who came to Hawaii under such a contract finished their obligation with the plantation owner, they were free to return to Japan. Many chose to go to California to look for better opportunities, while about one-third decided to remain in Hawaii and continue in agricultural labor. Since the majority of Japanese workers were men, some had to wait for future wives to be sent from Japan through arranged marriages, which were still common during the early years of the twentieth century. Some women traveled to Hawaii to join brothers or husbands already working there.

The longer the Japanese stayed in Hawaii, the more likely they were to marry and have children, thereby increasing the size of their community. As fear of the immigrants increased, in 1908 Japanese workers staged protests against the long hours and harsh conditions, demanding better wages and safer working conditions. The strike did not change the plantations’ working conditions but served as a testament to increased immigrant political power and community action. With little prospect of change in Hawaii, Japanese workers left the islands to search for better jobs, mostly in California. About 40,000 Japanese traveled from Hawaii in the years after the labor strike of 1908, becoming the first large group of Japanese immigrants to reach the mainland.

Journey to the Mainland

By 1908, a labor shortage had been created by anti-immigrant laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens, making it easy for the Japanese workers to find jobs. Chinese workers had taken many of the lowest-paying jobs in railroad construction, farming, logging, mining, and fishing, but now those jobs were available to new immigrants. Some Japanese looked for work in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, but many had grown up on farms in Japan or Hawaii, so they decided to pursue agricultural work. They were especially keen on the possibility that they might eventually be able to buy the land themselves. The large and productive valleys of California presented unlimited possibilities.

Japanese workers, like the Chinese before them, soon developed the reputation for accepting physically demanding work for low pay. They took to the fields and factories, working long hours and putting up with challenging conditions. Farmworkers who harvested produce were paid by the bushel of produce picked. Japanese workers proved that they could earn twice the pay of others because they were quick and efficient. They came from a small country with limited farm resources, so they were accustomed to getting the most produce from the lowest-quality farmland. In California, where the land was fertile and abundant, Japanese farmers could outproduce other farmers with techniques such as growing strawberries between rows of grapevines. They were also good at saving their earnings, so eventually farmworkers could combine their individual savings and buy land for the benefit of one another.

Immigration from Japan, 1860-2008

Immigration from Japan, 1860-2008

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008. Figures include only immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status.

Pressure Builds to Exclude Japanese

The Japanese immigrants’ willingness to work long hours and work together in order to purchase farmland made them one of the most successful ethnic groups, but some Americans resented their success. Some people felt that the Japanese were taking away jobs from white Americans. Labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) refused to allow Japanese workers to join their organizations. Businesspeople and farmers were afraid of the Japanese workers’ success, and they began to pressure the government to take action. In 1905, the Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL) was formed in California to prevent more immigrants from coming to the United States from Japan. The AEL and other racist groups pressured President Theodore Roosevelt to stop further immigration, but Roosevelt did not want to needlessly irritate the Japanese government. Roosevelt vetoed several new laws modeled after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, but he did accept the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan in 1907, which prohibited male workers from emigrating to Hawaii or the mainland. While new immigration was banned, the agreement allowed the Japanese to send family members (children, wives, or parents) of workers already living in the United States to join them.

More anti-Japanese laws were passed in the years after the Gentlemen’s Agreement because of ethnocentrism and negative attitudes about immigrants from places other than northern Europe. The Immigration Restriction League (IRL) was led by Prescott Hall, who argued that people from northern Europe were energetic, free, and progressive while southern Europeans, Jews, and Asians were downtrodden, primitive, and lazy. These racist attitudes were common during the early twentieth century. Both the AEL and the IRL posited that the Japanese were taking away unskilled, low-paying jobs from Euro-Americans, but in fact the industrious Japanese were rapidly leaving agricultural work and beginning to own land and lease it to others.

In 1913, however, California enacted its first Alien Land Law, which made it illegal for noncitizens to purchase land. A Japanese immigrant named Takao Ozawa resented this law and fought against it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared in 1922 that naturalized citizenship was limited to whites and African Americans. However, children of Japanese immigrants born in the United States would be considered citizens. The Immigration Act of 1924 prevented almost all immigration from Japan for three decades. Despite these barriers, Japanese immigrants continued to work hard and prosper, combining resources to create social organizations such as savings and loans, banks, and social assistance groups. The slew of anti-Japanese laws was not completely effective because the new laws did not apply to those born in the United States.

World War II and Japanese Immigrants

During the 1930’s, as the United States struggled through the Great Depression, Japan’s government became increasingly militaristic. With Emperor Hirohito on the throne, Japanese leaders elevated the traditional Shinto religion, transformed the emperor into a religious figure, and demanded total obedience to the state. Japan turned away from the path of modernization and democracy, spreading a doctrine of world domination and propaganda about its racial superiority. Japan’s army invaded China’s Manchuria region in 1931 to begin a path of destruction that would not end until the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. After the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan and its allies, including Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy.

Like other Americans, the Japanese Americans in the western states viewed the rise of the military government in 1930’s Japan with savage indignation, and they could not understand the godlike reverence for Hirohito. After many years of anti- Japanese laws in California, some people were still suspicious of the Japanese citizens who worked hard, owned houses and farms, and attended churches and schools like other Americans. Soon after Pearl Harbor, western states enforced curfews that required Japanese Americans to stay inside their homes between 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) went to work arresting suspicious "enemy aliens” who might be leaders in the Japanese community such as Shinto and Buddhist priests, businesspeople, teachers, and professionals. In 1942, California fired all state employees of Japanese ancestry without reason or due process of law. Most were American citizens with rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Secretary of War Henry Stimson believed that Japanese American citizens were more loyal to their race than to their adopted country.

In February, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which empowered the military to remove any persons from any area in the country where national security was at risk. Even though the executive order did not mention the Japanese by name, it was effectively designed to contain Japanese Americans in California, Oregon, and Washington State. Roosevelt’s order displaced some 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes, relocating the immigrants to internment camps for the duration of the war. About 70,000 of this group were U.S. citizens. Most of the Japanese were surprised by the forced resettlement because they thought of themselves as Americans. The Army’s Western Defense Command set up makeshift assembly centers at old fairgrounds, horse racetracks, rodeo grounds, and farm labor camps, fromwhich internees were later transferred to permanent detention camps in scattered locations throughout the United States, from Manzanar, California, to Rohwer, Arkansas.

As the tide of World War II began to change and the Allies won battles in Europe and in the Pacific, Americans started to reconsider the internment camps and their view of Japanese Americans. Many Japanese Americans stayed in the camps from 1942 until the end of 1944, but some took a loyalty test and were allowed to leave as long as they resettled away fromtheWest Coast. Some Japanese Americans were disgusted by the loyalty tests and refused to submit to them since they were already legal citizens.

From the 1950’s Through the 1970’s

With the tragic conclusion ofWorldWar II, a difficult period for Japanese Americans ended. The Evacuation Claims Act of 1948 allowed Japanese Americans who had lost property during the internment to claim 10 percent of every dollar lost, but this small amount of compensation was difficult to obtain. During the 1950’s, many Japanese immigrants had dispersed to other cities, but the majority still lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose, which had their own Little Toykos. The largest group of new Japanese immigrants was made up of "war brides,” women who had married American soldiers during the occupation of Japan. In some ways, the war brides had a more difficult time than the first Japanese immigrants because they lacked a social network and moved to places where few if any Japanese people were living.

During the early 1960’s, John F. Kennedy called for reform of exclusionary immigration policies, namely those of the Immigration Act of 1924. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson carried out Kennedy’s wishes with the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which resulted in more than doubling Japanese immigration to the United States from less than 2,000 to about 4,500 per year. The Civil Rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., also influenced Japanese Americans, as they began to question the violation of their rights by the government during the 1940’s. Some Japanese Americans published memoirs about their experiences in the internment camps and made a pilgrimage to Manzanar. Bowing to pressure from Japanese Americans, Gerald R. Ford signed a proclamation in 1976 admitting that internment had been a "national mistake.”

Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-first Centuries

According to the 1980 U.S. Census, more than 600,000 Japanese Americans were living in the United States, still mostly in the western states. Third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans were well integrated into American society. Surveys revealed that about half of the married Japanese Americans living in large California cities were married to non-Japanese. Japanese Americans were successful in many professional careers and were represented at many levels of local, regional, and national politics. In 1980, Congress established the Commission onWartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to hold hearings, allowing many Japanese Americans to speak about their experiences in the internment camps for the first time. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that gave payments of $20,000 to each surviving Japanese American detainee, and the law also provided money for education of their descendants. Although it took more than forty years, justice was finally realized.

The 2000 U.S. Census documented about 800,000 citizens who claimed Japanese ancestry. Most Japanese who came to the United States during the late twentieth century tended to be either university students or high school students who stayed about five years, or Japanese businessmen, who stayed for a shorter time. In the early twentyfirst century, the number of Japanese immigrants to the United States is relatively small compared with the influx in the early twentieth century, but the impact of Japanese culture has been tremendous. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Japanese corporations started to build factories in the United States as car companies such as Honda, Toyota, and Nissan became increasingly popular. Japanese consumer electronics companies such as Sony, Hitachi, Toshiba, and Panasonic became household names in America. Japanese popular culture, including anime and manga, and Japanese cuisine also became widely popular with Americans. The rapid acceptance of Japanese culture is all the more astonishing given the rampant racism and anti-immigration laws of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Japanese Americans have become one of the most assimilated and successful groups of immigrants in the United States.

Jonathan L. Thorndike

Further Reading

Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988. Well-written, scholarly account of the experiences of Japanese and Chinese immigrants in America.

Duus, Peter, ed. The Twentieth Century. Vol. 6 in The Cambridge History of Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Essays discuss the rise of Japanese nationalism and the push toward colonial expansion and World War II.

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. An excellent overview of Japan in relation to world history and immigration.

Ingram, W. Scott. Japanese Immigrants. New York: Facts On File, 2005. Juvenile book with goodquality photographs and sidebars about Japanese culture and individuals’ stories.

Jansen, Marius B., ed. The Nineteenth Century.Vol. 5 in The Cambridge History of Japan. New York:Cambridge University Press, 1989. Standard scholarly work that chronicles Japan’s transformation from a feudal society to a modern democratic state during the Meiji Restoration.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. An account of the systematic racism and discrimination that Chinese, Japanese, and later immigrants from East Asia and Southeast Asia faced in the West.

See also: Anti-Japanese movement; Asiatic Exclusion League; Gentlemen’s Agreement; Gospel Society; Issei; Japanese American Citizens League; Japanese American internment; Japanese Peruvians; Little Tokyos; North American Free Trade Agreement; Ozawa v. United States; "Yellow peril” campaign.