America Immigration: Japanese Emmigrants

Figure 1.--Unlike China, Japanese Governments restricted emigration. American laws restricting Chinese emigration were not extended to the Japanese. Many Japanese became U.S. citizens when merica annexed the Hawaiian Islands. One of the gretest American violations of civil rights was the World War II internmentment of Japanese-Americans. Notably, the Japanese on Hawaii were not interned, only the Japense on the West Coast. It would, however, be the last gasp of anti-Japanese racism. After the War, Japanese-Americans began to enter the American mainstream.

Japanese immigration until after World War II was confined primarily to Hawaii and California. Japan was a heavily populated poor country in the 19th century. Asian emigration to The United States was until after World War II was limited almost entirely to China and Japan, but the pattern was very different. America was not a Pacific country until the Oregon Territory issue with Britain was sorted out and Califoria acquired in the Mexican American War (1840s). The American-Japanese reltionship began when in the 1850s, Comodore Perry forced Japan to open its ports to foreign trade (1853). This was whem immigration began, but not at first in large numbers, at least to California. As Gold was discored in California, it stimulte Chinese emigration, but not Japanese. Until the Opening, the Showgun prohibited emigration. The Japanese came to Hawaii as farm labordecades before Hawaii was americn territiry. The Chinese Exclusion Act restricted Chinese, but not Japanese immigrants. It was the Meiji Government restructed emigration. State laws resticted Japanese economic activity in California. These were state, not Federal laws. The american annexation of Hawaii made large number of Japanese U.S. citizens. Following the Russo-Japanese War, American-Japanese Genteleman' Agreemens restricted Japanese immigration (1906-07). Treatment of Japanese immigrants became an issue between the United States and Japan. Federal laws passed in the 1920s did control actual immigration. The laws limited overall immigration and heavily favored northern Europeans. Many Japanese turned to small-scale farming because many other job oppirtunities were closed to them. We note Japanese children in rural California schools during the 1920s. We note family portraits showing the same process. Many Japanese by the 1930s had achieved some success. These families lost most of their property and possessions when they were interned during World War II. After the War many job opportunities formerly denined Japanese Americans opened up.


Japan was a heavily populated poor country in the 19th century and under the Shogunate closed to foreigners as a step to ensure social stability. The Shogun came to see foreigners as a threatening influence. After killing most Christians, he expelled forigners and instituted a policy of national isolation (1639). Emigration was also strictly controlled. American Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his heavily armed Black Ships into Tokyo harbor, forcing the Shogun to open to internation trade and commerce (1853). The American whaling fleet was a major American concern. This was done at the point of Perry's guns. Ameicns for got about that. The Japanese did not. The antagonistic relationship would evetually lead to the Pacific War. The opening to the West resulted in just what the Shogunate did not want, a remarkable social transformation. For many educated Japanese the West increasingly became a model for the future. And observing the European incursions in China like the Opium War (1840s), they realized that a modern military would be needed to maintain national indepedence. The discovery of gold in California sparked immigration from all over the world (1848). This included the Chinese. Unlike the Chinese, however, the Shogunate's ban on emigration meant that the California Gold Rush attracted almost no Japanese. The result of the sicil change set in motion by Perry's opening was the Meiji Restoration (1868). The Meiji Government began a stunning process of modernzation, including industrilization. Japan's rapid industrialization also meant urbanization. This meant both social disruption and agricultural decline. Japan is a heavily populted, mountainous country with very limited agricultural land, nost of which was owned by arustocratic landlords. With the opening, some tenant farmers began to emigrate. and there were three places that the Japanese learned that greater opportunities existed: the Hawaiian Kingdom, the United States, and Brazil. Most came as farm labor, but over time many became land owners and purchased small plots of their own, an accomplishment that was virtually impossible at home. Land reform in Japan would only come with the arrival of the Americans again at the end of the Pacific War. The first Japanese to reach Hawaii arrived on a derelect ship (1806). More followed and Menji officials, however, were less sure, actually banning emigration (1868-85). They thought that Japanese laborers abroad would give a negative view of the Japanese people. the Hawaiian monarchy incouraged immigration and relations with Japan, especially as American power grew, the Japanese seemed a counter to American and British power. Hawaiian King David Kalākaua traveled to Japan to get the ban removed and to seek a royal marriage for one of his daughters. The Japanese ended the ban and major emigration ensued. The Japanese government showed significant interest in the process, selecting emigrants from a pool of applicants. Most were ambitious young men from rural areas with few prospects in Japan. Women also evetually participated. Many of the emigrants had to borrow money to pay for the ocean voyage. Interestingly before the Civil War and the Transcontinental Railway, it was easier for Chinese and Japanese to get to Califirnia than it was for Americans. The Japanese were unaffected by the Chinese Exlusion Act (1882). In fact, they were seen as a possible off set to the Chinese. The United States annexation of Hawaii meant that a large number of ethnic Japanese were also acquired (1898). Some 0.4 million Japanese made the journey to Hawaii and the United States after the emmigration ban was lifted (1885). Emigration was largely reduced after the Gentelemen's Agreements were negotited (1906-07). The Japanese in Hawaii and the California had very different experiences. On Hawaii they experienced little descrimination. In California a range of discrimatory laws were passed affecting both the Chinese and Japanese. In our modern PC world, great attention is given to this decrimination. And the accounts are largely correct. What the authors discussing descrimintion usually do not mention because many have a hidden agenda is why both Chinese and Japanese emigrants stayed. Many had come to Hawaii and America planning to make money and return home. Few did so. Despite the descrimination they encountered, most decided that America offered more opportunity and a brighter future than was availabe to them at home. Few could have ever bought land to have their own small farms if they had not emigrated.

The Yellow Peril

America like Europe was a deeply racist country in the 19th century. Americans had no experience with Oriental people until encountering Chinese and Japanese in California. Competition first for gold claims and then jobs and land creating friction. The racial and cultural differences fuled racist tension. Journalist began describing the 'yellow peril' as part of anti-Asian campaign. Much of this was aimed at the Chinese who were the first immigrants and immigrated in larger numbers. Few Americans at the time made destinctions between Orientals and thus the Japanese in the eyes of most Americans were just the same as the Chinese.

Restrictive Laws

As with Chinese immigrants, laws resticted Japanese economic activity. These were state laws and municiple codes, primarily California laws where most Chinese and Japanese lived. Most of these laws were passed in the early 20th century. The laws addressed a wide range of issues. They restricted the rights of Chinese and Japanese to become citizens and own land. They also prohibited oriental people from marrying white people. Many states had similar laws, but they were primarily aimed at black people. Other local regulations as well a individual prejudice restricted where Chinese and Japanese people could buy homes and restricted hiring in certain industries. and in 1924, immigration from Japan was halted altogether.

International Issue

Treatment of Japanese immigrants became an issue between the United States and Japan.

Immigration Restrictions

Federal laws passed in the 1920s did control actual immigration. The laws limited overall immigration and heavily favored northern Europeans.


Many Japanese at first worked as itinerant farm laborers, in railroad construction, and as domestic servants. Hard working and frugal, many gradually began small-scale farming and retailing. Many other job opportunities such as factory work were closed to them, in part because labor unions would not allow them to join.

Social Trends

Many Japanese by the 1930s had achieved some success. We note family portraits showing Japanese families were succeeding and becoming Americanized.


Most Japanese Americams lived in Hawaii or California. We note Japanese children in rural California schools during the 1920s. There were segregated schools, but I believe this was done at school district not state level. We notice Japanese children at another California school in Alameda during 1922. Racist ideas were prevalent in California, but because of the number of different minorities (Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Orientals), it was not economically feasible to set up a state-wide system of segregated schools. We also note Japanese Americans in Colorado schools.

World War II Internment

Japanese-American families lost most of their property and possessions when they were interned during World War II. Japanese American children were severly affected by the war. Those living in Pacific coast states were move into concentragtion camps. Although not separated from their patents, Japanese Americans in Pacific coast states were interned in concentration or relocation camps as they were called. Italian and German families were also interned, but only aliens or those whose parents have been involved or suspected of involvement in subversive activites. The Japanese were treated differently in part because of Pearl Harbor, but racial factors were a signoificant factor. President Roosevelt in February 1942 signed the order "evacuating" Japanese, most of whom were Japanese citizens, from the West Coast. Like the Germans, American authorities developed euphenisms for what was done to the Japanese. The order only affected the West Coast, not the Japanese on Hawaii. About 127,000 Japanese Americans were interned. It was one of the most grevious violations of the civil rights of American citizens in United States history. While the internment of Japanese Americans was a terrible injustice, depriving them of their property in many instances and their freedom for several years, the camps were quite different than the the NAZI and Japanese concentration camps. The internees were given adequate food and the children attended local schools. Japanese Americans formed Boy Scout troops such as at the Gila River Relocation Center, Arizona, during 1943.

Post War Experience

After the War many job opportunities formerly denined Japanese Americans opened up.


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Created: 8:15 PM 11/11/2005
Last updated: 3:32 PM 9/17/2017