The Immigrant Years 

As with all new immigrant groups, Asians immigrants suffered greatly upon their arrival in America in their pursuit of the American Dream where hard work and determination could lead to prosperity. Beginning with the earliest Asian immigration in the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants who arrived to work in the mines, railroads and fields were met with discrimination and violence, often restricted to specific areas and prohibited employment in skilled trades. All Asians were refused any route to citizenship. European groups were accorded citizenship as “free whites,” and former slaves, people of African descent, received the right to naturalize in 1870.  As “aliens ineligible for citizenship, the rights of Asian immigrants could be restricted through legislation against non-citizens.   

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed to ban Chinese laborers from entering the country.  A shortage of labor for menial jobs resulted, and the agricultural industry looked to Japan, the Philippines and Mexico. Beginning in 1884, young men were recruited from southern Japan to work on the booming sugar plantations of the territory of Hawaii.  The majority returned to Japan, but more than 61,000 stayed in Hawaii, and another 24,000 migrated to the mainland where they worked in the agricultural fields of California, Washington, Oregon, and toiled on the railroads and mines in other western states. Despite a hostile anti-Asian climate, the Issei, or first generation, were able to find work in fields, restaurants, canneries, and make permanent residency in their newly adopted land.  

As the need for labor waned and the country fell into an economic downturn, hostilities intensified against the Issei. The Asiatic Expulsion League was formed in 1905, representing 67 organizations. By 1908, it grew to 238 groups, including the American Federation of Labor (headed by European immigrants), nativist organizations such as the Native Sons of the Golden West, themselves the children of immigrants to the state during the Gold Rush, California State Grange, and the California arm of the American Legion. Pressure from the AEL resulted in legislation to segregate Japanese American students out of San Francisco’s public schools. In return for a promise to stem anti-Japanese legislation, Japan and the U.S. entered into a ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ where Japan agreed to deny visas to laborers leaving to the US. 

The Japanese government, concerned more with diplomacy, did not often defend their citizens abroad against the anti-Japanese expulsion movement.  This ambivalent policy led many Japanese immigrants to consider themselves “an abandoned people” and to believe that they would have to fend for themselves in a hostile land.  Because of these restrictions and obstacles, the Japanese formed communities of their own, developing social and economic ties that enabled them to survive.  The exclusion laws allowed wives to come to the U.S., which encouraged a “picture bride” custom where men called for brides from their home townships or prefectures in Japan.

The Issei departed from being migrant labor to become small farmers or sharecroppers, buying or leasing barren idle land. With a farming background, Issei transformed the land into fertile fields. The Alien Land Law of 1913 prevented those ineligible for citizenship from owning land, and limited leases to three years.  Their children, however, with citizenship as a birthright, could.  With the view that the “only thing that will save California… is a state law that will make it impossible for Japanese to get possession of the soil,” 9 the NSGW and the California Attorney General tried to block this, but in 1918, the Harada family of Riverside, California took their case all the way to the Supreme Court and won.  

The success of Japanese farming methods resulted in the development of the California agricultural industry.  Japanese owned or leased farms grew from 83,253 acres in 1909 to 427,029 acres in 1919 with a net worth of $67 million. Japanese growers produced between 50 to 90% of California’s transported (truck) crops, such as strawberries, celery, tomatoes and asparagus. By 1920, Japanese American holdings in agriculture resulted in at least one millionaire.

Others found work in California as fishermen on boats owned by the canneries.  Washington, Oregon and Alaska had barred “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from fishing by 1905, prohibiting them from fishing for business or pleasure. There were no restrictions for European immigrants once they filed a request to naturalize. But a loophole in the federal law which did not indicate a penalty, allowed California’s canneries to employ Japanese fishermen. Beginning in 1913, Japanese fishermen brought in tuna for the first time off Santa Barbara, and with skills brought over from their native country, they fished lucrative salmon, sardines and albacore in commercial quantities.  Japanese fishermen came to own their own boats and their wives worked in the canneries.  Japanese communities grew around the ports of Monterey, San Pedro and San Diego.  The House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries fought to close the loophole, claiming that “leaving the fisheries in the practical control of the Japanese creates a very serious situation… in the event of war with Japan, their sampans and power boats of the Japanese, which are sea-going vessels, could easily secure arms and munitions and land them…” In 1920, a hearing was held by the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization where it was argued that Japanese fishermen “were trying to control the fishing industry and take over the fresh fish market.” Bills to restrict fishing to citizens were defeated, largely because the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce reported the cannery industry would collapse.

Film footage of Japanese sugar cane workers in Hawaii, circa 1894-1915.