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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

The U.S. Mainland: Growth and Resistance

In the mainland of the United States, Japanese immigration began much more slowly and took hold much more tentatively than it had in Hawaii. While an initial handful of adventurers left Japan for California in the 1860s, the number of immigrants did not reach the thousands until the 1880s. By 1900 there were still fewer than 25,000 Japanese nationals in the U.S. These early arrivals scattered up and down the Pacific coast, forming small communities within small towns and larger cities, such as San Francisco's Japan Town. Farm labor was a common choice among the first immigrants, but they also could be found in lumber mills and mining camps, and sometimes established general stores, restaurants, and small hotels.

The turn of the century saw the beginning of a great twenty-five-year surge of immigration, in which more than 100,000 Japanese nationals arrived in the U.S., and during which many of the foundational institutions of the Japanese American community were established. These newcomers at first found much of their employment in migratory labor, working the farms, mines, canneries, and railroads of the American West, sometimes becoming active in the labor agitation of the period. Eventually, however, many were able to launch their own businesses, at first serving the needs of their own community with Japanese restaurants, boarding houses, and shops, but soon opening department stores and tailoring chains that catered to the general public. Japanese cooperative societies, such as the Japanese Associations, provided financial support and advice to many such enterprises. Many Japanese farmers, using the labor-intensive growing methods of their homeland, were able to buy their own land and launch successful agricultural businesses, from farms to produce shops. By 1920, Japanese immigrant farmers controlled more than 450,000 acres of land in California, brought to market more than 10 percent of its crop revenue, and had produced at least one American-made millionaire.

Newspaper article, 1905

Even at the peak of immigration, Japanese immigrants never made up more than a tiny percentage of the U.S. population. However, by the early years of the century, organized campaigns had already arisen to exclude Japanese immigrants from U.S. life. Sensational reports appeared in the English-language press portraying the Japanese as the enemies of the American worker, as a menace to American womanhood, and as corrupting agents in American society-in other words, repeating many of the same slanders as had been used against Chinese immigrants in the decades before. The head of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, denounced all Asians and barred them from membership in the nation's largest union. Legislators and mayors called for a Japanese Exclusion Act. Anti-Japanese legislation quickly followed. In 1908, the Japanese and American governments arrived at what became known as the "Gentlemen's Agreement"; Japan agreed to limit emigration to the U.S., while the U.S. granted admission to the wives, children, and other relatives of immigrants already resident. Five years later, the California legislature passed the Alien Land Law, which barred all aliens ineligible for citizenship, and therefore all Asian immigrants, from owning land in California, even land they had purchased years before.

These new legal barriers led to elaborate circumventions of the law, as Japanese landowners registered their property in the names of European Americans, or in the names of their own U.S.-born children. Meanwhile, Japanese immigration became disproportionately female, as more women left Japan as "picture brides", betrothed to emigrant men in the U.S. who they had never met. Finally, the Immigration Act of 1924 imposed severe restrictions on all immigration from non-European countries, and effectively ended Japanese immigration, supposedly forever. For as long as this Act was in effect, it seemed that the first great generation of Japanese immigrants was also to be the last.

The Nisei

As the hopes of future immigrants were dashed, however, a new generation of Japanese Americans was making itself known. By 1930, half of the Japanese in the United States were Nisei—members of the U.S.-born second generation. Nisei were the children of two worlds: the traditional Japanese world maintained at home by their parents—the Issei—and the multiethnic U.S. culture that they were immersed in at school and at work. The Nisei were born U.S. citizens, and were more likely to speak English than Japanese, more likely to practice Christianity than Buddhism, and more likely to prefer "American" food, sports, music, and social mores than those of Japanese tradition. Many Nisei struggled to reconcile the conflicting demands of their complex cultural heritage. However, they overwhelmingly identified themselves as Japanese Americans, not as Japanese in America.

The Japanese American Citizens League, an organization of Nisei professionals, declared in its creed:

I am proud that I am an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, for my very background makes me appreciate more fully the wonderful advantages of this nation… I pledge myself… to defend her against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

These words were published in 1940. Before the next year was out, the Japanese American community would find its resolve, its resilience, and its faith in the nation put to a severe test.