Japanese immigrants began their journey to the United States in search of peace and prosperity, leaving an unstable homeland for a life of hard work and the chance to provide a better future for their children. However, before the first generation of immigrants could enjoy the fruits of their labor, they had to overcome hostile neighbors, harsh working conditions, and repeated legislative attacks on their very presence in the country. Acceptance came only after the immigrants and their children were forced to endure one of the 20th century's worst crimes against civil liberties, and from that crucible fought to claim their place in the life of the nation.
An Open Door
In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy sailed gunships into Tokyo harbor, forcing a reclusive nation to open itself up to trade with the U.S., and incidentally providing the people of Japan with an unprecedented glimpse of an alien culture.
Since 1639, Japan had maintained an official policy of isolation from Europe and most of its colonies, and emigration was strictly controlled. However, in the years that followed Perry's arrival, Japan underwent a tremendous social transformation, and for many Japanese the U.S. increasingly became a model not only of modern military might, but also of a desirable way of life.
After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan's rapid urbanization and industrialization brought about great social disruption and agricultural decline. As farmers were forced to leave their land, and workers were left jobless by foreign competition, they looked more and more for a better life outside the islands of their homeland. As Japanese wages plummeted, and word of a booming U.S. economy spread, the lure of the United States became difficult to resist.
Some of the earliest Japanese immigration to lands that would later become part of the United States was illegal. In 1868, the Hawaiian consul general secretly hired and transported 148 contract laborers to Hawaii. Beginning in the 1880s, however, legal barriers to emigration began to drop, and major emigration soon followed. The Japanese government showed significant interest in the process, often selecting emigrants from a pool of applicants, favoring ambitious young men with good connections. Many prospective emigrants enlisted the support of prominent citizens to underwrite their expensive journey to the U.S. At first, most emigrants planned to return home eventually, and saw their sojourn as a quick path to wealth and respectability.
Between 1886 and 1911, more than 400,000 men and women left Japan for the U.S. and U.S.-controlled lands, and significant emigration continued for at least a decade beyond that. The two most popular destinations were the archipelago of Hawaii and America's Pacific coast. In both places, the immigrants would discover a new and radically different way of life, but the two destinations each responded to, and were shaped by, the newcomers in a unique and distinctive way.