Anti-Japanese Bigotry in the United States Prior to World War II
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Anti-Japanese Bigotry in the United States Prior to World War II Dorothy Mitchell Mellon Scholars, Hope College. Introduction and Objectives

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Anti japanese bigotry in the united states prior to world war ii dorothy mitchell

Anti-Japanese Bigotry in the United States Prior to World War II

Dorothy Mitchell

Mellon Scholars, Hope College

Introduction and Objectives

Have you ever wondered how the United States could intern Japanese Americans during WWII? Such strong anti-Japanese sentiment must have had a history. And yet, people call the Japanese-Americans a model minority. How can this be? How beneficial is it actually for minority groups to readily conform to American rules and customs?

Having knowledge of this history can shed light on how immigrant groups assimilate into America, and how established groups react to this process.

The Story

Early Japanese immigrants to America experienced spillover bigotry from Chinese who came to the West in droves during the Gold Rush. As far back as 1870, there were demonstrations calling for an end to Chinese immigration. In 1882, Chinese immigration was banned. The Japanese began immigrating in 1885, replacing the flow of Chinese providing cheap labor. The fundamental problem—whites fearing job competition—was unsolved.

While the Chinese made little attempt to assimilate, the Japanese readily adopted the trappings of Western culture. The two cultures tended to behave differently as employees and have different goals for success in America. The distinction still did not keep ignorant white Americans from lumping all the Asian ethnicities together.

The Japanese government needed to establish itself as an equal to the other nations, so it had an interest in representing itself well to other countries. Therefore, it oversaw its ex-pat citizens more closely than other nations. Japanese consuls directed a central body that organized local associations of Japanese communities in the United States. Each community was responsible for singling out troublemakers and discouraging undesirable behavior through bureaucratic and social pressures. Prostitution and gambling were community vices that drained resources and did not endear Americans.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 brought prejudice to the foreground when the school board tried to segregate Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students. Tensions ran high; many Japanese and Japanese businesses were attacked. Theodore Roosevelt stepped in with threats of federal military power. Once the school board caved, the United States and Japan wrote the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, slowing the influx of Japanese immigrants.

The Japanese population began to settle down. Demographics changed as more Japanese women came into the US (including picture brides). Laborers, college students, and agricultural workers took the opportunity to become business owners, domestic servants, and farmers.

There were many obstacles. The Japanese struggled to be accepted into labor unions. There were laws against mixed-marriage. Japanese-language private schools, responsible for inculcating Japanese-American youth with a dual heritage, were regulated. College-educated Japanese hit a glass ceiling. The 1913 Alien Land Law made it difficult for the Japanese immigrants to buy, sell, and lease land because they could not become citizens based on the black/white racial qualifications on citizenship at the time. The Japanese organized to fight for the right to naturalize as citizens in court, they were rarely successful.

  • Conclusion

  • At first, Japanese who came to America experienced spillover prejudice in the wake of the Chinese who came during the Gold Rush. Anti-Japanese sentiment became a movement of its own due to white fear of losing their jobs to immigrants. Japan’s government protected and controlled the immigrant communities to minimize negative attention, guiding the first generation of Japanese immigrants towards surprising early success in the United States.

  • Yet For all that the Japanese community did well, they were unable to successfully establish themselves as citizens of the United States. Given the pretense of war, the United States government was able to abuse their rights because of this. Although anti-Japanese racism became less violent as it seeped into institutions and impeded the Japanese-Americans’ upward mobility, it set the stage for paranoia to sweep the country and made Americans susceptible to government propaganda.

  • Through my research, I became convinced that there is a pattern to the cycle of immigration and hate that is not limited a single community. The conflict is predictable.

  • Remaining Questions to Answer

  • How quickly did anti-Japanese sentiment fall out of favor after WWII? Does it persist today?

  • What were the long-term consequences of internment for the Japanese community?

  • Has the Japanese community received adequate reparations and apologies for their treatment during WWII? How settled is this issue within the community?

The Timeline

1639-1853: Japan’s borders are closed to trade

1854: Commodore Perry “opens” Japan to trade

1848-1855: Gold Rush

1863-1869: Central Pacific Railroad constructed

1870: First anti-Asian demonstration in S.F.

1875: Naturalization limited to blacks & whites

1880: Chinese immigration regulated

1882: Chinese immigration banned

1885: Japan legalizes emigration after negotiating with HI; Japanese replace Chinese immigrant workers

1892: CA news pushes anti-Japanese agenda

1894: First Sin0-Japanese War

1896: Plessy v. Ferguson (segregation policy)

1905-1920: Picture bride period

1906: San Francisco earthquake

1907: Gentlemen’s Agreement slows Japanese immigration; marks end of “frontier” period, start of “settling” period

1913: Alien Land Law — Individuals or companies owned by aliens cannot purchase/lease agricultural land more than three years; cannot sell/bequeath land to fellow alien immigrants

1914-1918: WWI

1922: Cable Act—women marrying ineligible aliens lose citizenship, but may reapply if marriage ends. Japanese-American women, because of racial ineligibility, cannot reapply.

1924: Japanese immigration into US ends

1939-1945: WWII

1941: Pearl Harbor bombed; US joins WWII

1942-1945: Executive Order 9066

1945: Second Sino-Japanese War

1946: Last Internment Camp closes

  • Little Known Facts and Statistics

  • Japan offered San Francisco $246,000 in relief funds for the 1906 earthquake.

  • 55% of Japanese immigrants worked in agriculture. 1/3 were farmers.

  • There were 290 incidents of assault between May and November of 1906 on Japanese citizens. Up to one out of twenty Japanese may have been subject to attack.

  • In Japan, Christians comprised only 1% of the religious population, but 22% percent of the Japanese community in America.

Advisor: Professor Andy Nakajima