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Collection Woodrow Wilson Papers

“Racial prejudice is at the very root of all this trouble”: The Anti-Japanese Immigration Movement in Letters to Wilson

Japanese Mission to the U.S., 1917, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C., LC-DIG-hec-09441

Executive Office Files 272 and 272a in Series 4 of the Woodrow Wilson Papers chronicle the worsening relationship between Japan and the United States, stemming in part from racist policies in California. File 272 contains 397 items and spans January 1913 to February 1921 and undated material. It focuses on the general relationship between Japan and the United States, while File 272a looks specifically at immigration and related issues in California. File 272a contains 427 images is organized into two chronological sections: March to April 1913 and May 1913 to January 1921 and undated. Files 272 and 272a reveal much of the political maneuvering that happened behind the scenes between the United States and the Japanese government and between the U.S. federal government and California. There are letters and telegrams from organizations, individuals, and prominent people such as Japanese ambassadors to the U.S., members of Wilson’s cabinet, and the Emperor of Japan. The file also includes several articles and documents, including a magazine article titled “California and the Japanese” by economist Harry A. Millis. The two files contained several letters from President Wilson including an unusual handwritten note.

File 272 reveals the increased concern over Japanese overseas ambitions in the years following the Russo-Japanese War. In 1913, American diplomats Edwin V. Morgan reported the landing of Japanese colonists in Brazil and Arthur Bailly Blanchard recorded the Japanese outrage over the U.S. affirming the Monroe Doctrine. An announced plan by Louisianian landowners to bring some Japanese colonists from California to cultivate their land sent the Wilson administration scrambling. Wilson at one point declared that “it is a matter of the greatest consequence that we should head this thing off.” Another note stated that “I fear that this matter is so dangerous that we ought not to deal with it in any way which would require us to place our position in writing.”

To mitigate the racism against Japanese immigration, Hydesaburo Ohashi invited Wilson to help organize a political organization to secure naturalization for Japanese residents as its denial is “obviously a rank and glaring injustice” when it is granted to “the foreigners who swarm to these shores, and to the negro of acknowledged inferiority.” The Japanese people were steadily getting angrier. An article from the Japanese paper Mayo asked “Will War between Japan and America Break Out?” The article described how Japan would conquer America. In the end, the articles concluded that “Governor Johnson of California will then be forced under penalty of death to kneel down before our National Flag. He will do that because like all Americans he will do anything rather than suffer death.”

File 272a deals mainly with the 1913 California Alien Land Law that prohibited non-citizens from owning land in California. The law would, in the words of John R. Mott, “seriously embarrass American interests.” Wilson sent Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to California to mitigate the situation. Numerous telegrams were sent back and forth between Wilson and Bryan, including a transcript of the California legislature proceedings. Despite the confident words of W. B. Hale of the National Press Club that “the whole anti-Oriental agitation in California would collapse if it were to receive a good punch from the President,” Wilson was more hesitant telling Bryan that “I feel that it is inadvisable to sanction particular statutes or forms of legislation.” The law passed nearly unanimously. While Governor of California Hiram W. Johnson staunchly asserted that “We of California believe firmly that . . . we have violated absolutely no treaty rights; we have shown no shadow of discrimination; we have given to no nation the right to be justified in taking offense,” it was clear that the legislation was aimed at the Japanese. 

The American public reaction was mixed. Editor Lawrence F. Abbott declared that “we think Californians have a moral and ethical right to say what class of residents shall own land; we think they have a duty to see that unamalgamatable (to coin a word) peoples are kept out of the State, for one race problem is enough for this country.” David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, rejected that argument, arguing “their ownership of land involves no visible ‘menace’ to any one.” A strictly confidential letter from C. P. Converse of the San Francisco Chamber of Conference bluntly stated that “Frankly I don’t like the Japanese but I do believe in fair play at least until they do something this country can take exception to and further, believing this Coast’s future prosperity lies in trade relations with the Orient I would hate to see anything done which might restrict it.”

A telegram from the Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs Makino Nobuaki made clear that the legislation had “established a discrimination of the most marked and invidious character against Japan.” J. W. Wilbersham reported that Japanese, American, and English businessmen “all agree[d] that the California attack on the Japanese has more profoundly touched the Japanese nation than anything that has happened in years.” Rev. Doremus Scudder of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America wrote of the “extreme delicacy” and the current conviction that “America’s treatment of Japan that America was actuated by intense race prejudice, was determined to discriminate unjustly against them and would, ere long, be at war with them.” Samuel Gompers urged that “the subject of new agitation be deferred until after the close of the terrible European War from which we are at present happily free.” After the war, California and other states passed even stricter laws. In January 1921, U.S. Senator James D. Phelan of California wrote that “to give civil rights to Japanese . . . would be death to my State.” In a letter that same month in 1921, Phelan declared that the “presence of Japanese is destructive of American communities” and that “it is biologically impossible to assimilate the Japanese and it is politically and economically destructive to permit them to undermine the American producer.” He then called on Wilson to “preserve American rights and American institutions against the peaceful invasion of a dangerous race at a critical hour in our history.”

Explore the Library of Congress presentation on Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History and its research guide on Discrimination Against Asian and Pacific Islander Americans. Learn more about the Asian American experience at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center External. The National Archives holds the Immigration and Naturalization Records.

Title quotation from Hydesaburo Ohashi to Woodrow Wilson, July 1, 1913.