Brown Quarterly - Vol. 3, No. 4 (Spring 2000)

Asian American History Month

Vol. 3, No. 4 (Spring 2000) is not available in pdf format, but you can read the articles on the following pages.

The History of Japanese Immigration

The history of ethnic minorities is characterized by adversity, hard work, community initiative, heartache, triumphs, indomitable spirits and hope for the future. People of color in the United States have often been depicted as helpless victims of discriminatory practices with little appreciation of their strengths and their struggle with adversity. Like other minorities, Japanese Americans, attempted to establish themselves in the United States economically, educationally, socially, religiously and politically.

In 1869, settlers with The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony were among the first to arrive from Japan. They brought mulberry trees, silk cocoons, tea plants and bamboo roots. By 1880, 148 Japanese lived in the United States.

Japanese laborers were not allowed to leave their country legally until after 1884 when an agreement was signed between their government and Hawaiian sugar plantations. From Hawaii, many Japanese moved to the U.S. mainland. By 1890, 2,038 Japanese resided in the United States. A systematic method of recruiting laborers from regions in Japan for Hawaiian sugar plantations was established. Natives from Hiroshima, Kumamoto, Yamaguchi and Fukushima were recruited for their expertise in agriculture, hard work and willingness to travel. Japanese immigration continued until 1907 when agitation from white supremacist organizations, labor unions and politicians resulted in a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” curtailing immigration of laborers from Japan. The agreement, however, permitted wives and children of laborers to enter the country. From 1908 to 1924, many Japanese women immigrated to the United States, some as “picture brides.”

In Japan, marriages were arranged based on careful matching of socioeconomic status, personality and family background. The exchange of photographs was a first step in the process. Entering the bride’s name in the groom’s family registry legally constituted marriage. For wives who entered the country after 1910, their first glimpse of the United States was the detention barracks at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. New immigrants were processed there and given medical exams. This was the place where most “picture brides” saw their new husbands for the first time.

Many thought the Gentlemen’s Agreement would end immigration. Instead, the Japanese population increased. A movement to totally exclude Japanese immigrants led to the Immigration Act of 1924. That legislation curtailed immigration from Japan until 1952 when 100 immigrants per year were allowed. A few refugees entered the country during the mid-1950s, as did Japanese wives of United States servicemen.

Settlement and Work

In many communities, nihonmachi (Japanese sections of town) were developed with their own businesses. Buddhist churches and Japanese Christian churches were established. Labor contractors drew immigrants away from the cities to work for the railroads, oil fields, canneries and farms. Fishing industries developed. In the San Joaquin Delta, more than 100,000 acres of land was reclaimed with the help of Japanese laborers. Potatoes, asparagus, and onions are now grown there.

The Japanese community was firmly established in agriculture. They organized their produce and flower industries vertically in a system of Japanese-owned operations, from raising the plants to retail sales. Cooperatives were organized to improve the growing, packing and marketing of crops. Many businesses were dependent on the traffic of male laborers who traveled from one crop to the next. Japanese entrepreneurs had regular routes to the surrounding countryside, taking orders and making deliveries. Japanese Americans experimented with different strains of rice and were engaged in farming, distributing and selling rice. Keisaburo Koda, known as the “rice king,” established new strains of rice. Agricultural areas with Japanese residents had a flourishing Japanese section of town. Cooperatives functioned at their peak. Children were in schools. Japanese-language newspapers added English sections to their publications.

From 1942-45, Japanese Americans were incarcerated in fenced and guarded concentration camps (See Brown Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring 1997). World War II became a turning point in generational control of Japanese American businesses, churches and community politics.

Organizations and Religion

The first Japanese American organization in the United States was the Fukuin Ka established in 1877. This society offered English classes, operated a boarding house and provided a place to meet. Out of this organization came Japanese Christian churches. Before World War II, about 85 per cent of Japanese immigrants were Buddist. Christian, Buddhist, and Shinto churches were the focus of activity for Japanese communities, including women’s organizations (fujinkai) and youth groups.

Organizational leaders spoke for the community and worked as intermediaries to resolve conflicts. Japanese-language schools flourished, the first being established in 1902. By the 1930s, virtually every Japanese American community had its own nihongakko (language school) operated by a church or association.

Persons from the same area in Japan formed kenjinkai, designed to support, aid and acquaint fellow kenjin. Financial aid, informal counseling and care for the sick or injured were functions of these groups. The Japanese American Citizens League, organized in 1930, gained prominence during World War II, but many organizations died when records were lost during the internments.


Japanese Americans have suffered from discriminatory practices, legislation and restrictions. They immigrated to the United States as a source of labor without plans for them to stay and participate actively in the life of society. The Asiatic Exclusion League mounted a campaign in 1905 to exclude Japanese and Koreans from the United States. Under pressure from the league, the San Francisco Board of Education ruled that all Japanese and Korean students would join the Chinese at the segregated Oriental School established in 1884. There were 93 Japanese students in the 23 San Francisco public schools at that time. Twenty-five of those students had been born in the United States.

To appease those agitating for an end to Japanese immigration, President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated a "Gentlemen’s Agreement." The Japanese government agreed not to issue passports to laborers immigrating to the United States. As part of the Immigration Act of 1924, immigration from Japan was cut off for 28 years.

Beginning in 1909 and continuing until after World War II, anti-Japanese bills were introduced into the California legislature every year. The issue of U.S. citizenship eventually was decided by the 1922 Supreme Court decision Takao Ozawa v. United States which declared that Japanese were ineligible for U.S. citizenship. “Free white persons” had been made eligible for citizenship by Congress in 1790. Due to some ambiguity about the term “white,” some 420 Japanese had been naturalized, but a ruling by a U.S. attorney general to stop issuing papers to Japanese ended the practice in 1906. The Supreme Court ruled 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 Mongolian.

An amendment to the State Political Code in 1921 established separate schools for Indian, Chinese, Japanese or Mongolian children. Chinese, Japanese and Filipino children in these school districts attended segregated schools until World War II. In 1945 a Japanese American family challenged the constitutionality of segregated schools and the Los Angeles County Superior Court concurred that segregation on the basis of race or ancestry violated the 14th Amendment. The California legislature repealed the 1921 provision in 1947.

The most serious discriminatory act toward Japanese Americans was the internment camp policy of World War II. Thirteen temporary detention camps in California were hastily established to hold Japanese Americans. The constitutionality of incarcerating more than 120,000 Japanese Americans is still questioned. While losses by Japanese Americans were estimated to be at least $400,000,000 only 10 percent of this amount was disbursed to former internees.

Japanese Americans have endured discrimination in housing, shopping, dining and recreational activities. When the remains of highly decorated 442nd Combat team were returned to the United States after World War II, they were refused gravesites in some cemeteries because of their ancestry. Discrimination toward Japanese Americans may be subtle, but is still very much in existence, as in recent legal cases involving discrimination in employment promotion.