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A Brief, Cautionary, History of Japan-US Immigration

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Trans-Pacific View | Politics | East Asia

A Brief, Cautionary, History of Japan-US Immigration

Migration policies are influenced by a complicated mix of labor markets, geopolitics, trade and diplomacy — and often have unintended consequences.

A Brief, Cautionary, History of Japan-US Immigration
Credit: Public Domain

Migration policies are often formed at a confluence of many competing forces: local and international labor markets, global trade, media reporting, local political environments, and diplomatic relationships. U.S. immigration policies singling out Asians as nonassimilable — thus noneligible for citizenship — started with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and continued from there. Such policies had a profound impact on the U.S.-Japan diplomatic relationship alongside the thorny historical course the Empire of Japan chose to take between 1892 and World War II, and its enduring aftermath in East Asia’s anti-Japanese sentiment, territorial disputes, and war-related compensations and apologies. The history of Japanese migration to the United States offers a cautionary tale, shedding light on the complexity of current immigration-related challenges and on the dangers of a simplistic understandings.

After slavery was abolished in the British colonies in 1833, labor shortages created a demand for “cheap” labor, which was frequently sourced from Asia. Chinese “coolies,” typically treated terribly, filled the vacuum first. Japan attracted only nominal American interest when Commodore Matthew C. Perry reached Japan from Norfolk, Virginia, on the first U.S. diplomatic mission, in 1853. Compared to China, Japan was a small fish in the eyes of Westerners, and the most the United States could hope to gain from the “land of the rising sun” was access to its territory as a whaling waystation and a small amount of trade.

Against this backdrop of muted Western interest, while fearfully watching European encroachment in China, Japan had time to prepare the country to withstand the strong current of European colonialism in Asia. A fortunate development for Japan was that the global labor shortage was largely being filled through migration of Chinese laborers, whether working at sugar mills in the Caribbean or building the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States. The Japanese directly witnessed their inhumane treatment when the Peruvian cargo ship María Luz, loaded with Chinese laborers, docked in Yokohama on the way from Macau to Peru in 1872, and they determined not to fall into a similar disgrace.

Perry’s gunboat diplomacy was successful in gaining an initial set of concessions from the shogunate government. Japan and the United States signed their first bilateral treaty, the Convention of Kanagawa, in 1854. The Japanese government grudgingly opened two ports, one in Shimoda and another in Hakodate. The first American diplomat to be stationed in Shimoda was Townsend Harris, who came to Japan in 1856. American diplomats requested that the reluctant Japanese government allow them to hire and take Japanese servants out of the country with them. This action opened the door for Japanese migration and had unintended consequences.

Administrative and cultural gaps between American and Japanese diplomats were beyond imagination. The Japanese had an entirely different concept of emigration. To them, Japanese subjects belonged to the soil of Japan. Japanese subjects going abroad to work were, by definition, temporary migrant workers who were required to return to Japan. At the same time, Japanese political leaders — preoccupied at the dawn of the Meiji era with gaining international standing and improving the nation’s image in the eyes of the West — worried about migrants’ behavior once overseas, concerned that it should not to dishonor the country as a whole. The last thing the Japanese government wanted to see was penniless Japanese wandering the streets of a foreign country.

As a result, the Japanese government devised an emigration policy requiring guaranteed employment and security deposits paid by migrant workers or their foreign employers to ensure money for a return trip. But it was precisely the Japanese requirement that its emigrants return home — defining them as contract laborers, not U.S. immigrants — that put this policy at odds with the Foran Act (the 1885 Alien Contract Labor Law), which prohibited the entry of contract laborers into the United States. Some Japanese migrants were caught between two irreconcilable policies and were denied entry into the United States.

Having inherited from its shogunate predecessor what the Japanese considered “unequal” treaties with the European and American powers, the newly formed nation-state prioritized Western acceptance of Japan as an equal partner and amendment of the conventions. To distinguish Japan from its neighboring nations, Japanese leaders advocated “de-Asianization” — a wholesale adoption of Westernization in government structures, law, transportation, architecture, military organization, dresses, even down to hairstyles. But in less than 30 years, Westernization under the flagship of civilization and enlightenment took a more nationalistic turn. Japan developed territorial ambitions in Asia and meddled in Korean internal affairs. To remove Chinese interests on the Korean peninsula, they started the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894. Popular rhetoric and visual images that debased the status of Chinese and augmented that of Japanese spread among the Japanese people like wildfire.

Japanese victories in the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) boosted Japanese self-aggrandizement, which led to a miscalculation of their place in the Western world. Japanese complacency that Americans would not treat “civilized” Japanese as the same category as Chinese, as demonstrated by the Chinese Exclusion Act, turned out to be an unfortunate misunderstanding of the depths of American racism. This Japanese perception of supremacy over other Asians and territorial aggression persisted through World War II, resulting in today’s persistent anti-Japanese sentiment among other East Asian nations and territorial disputes between them and Japan.

The shortage of Chinese labor in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act increased demand for Japanese workers in the United States. Ironically, this fueled anti-Japanese sentiment in the western United States. Despite the wishes of the Japanese to be seen as superior to and more Westernized than their Chinese counterparts, Americans tended to lump all Asians together. Consequently, the Japanese government was compelled to voluntarily curtail emigration to the United States (via the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement). Eventually, the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 wholly banned the immigration of Japanese on the grounds of their being “ineligible to be naturalized.”

Contributing to this end was the press of the era, which often wrote inflammatory articles propagating disinformation about Japanese migrants in the western United States. The San Francisco Bulletin, for example, warned of the greater danger of Japanese workers than that of Chinese on May 14–15, 1895:

The United States contract labor laws are being violated every two or three weeks by the Japanese. The country is being flooded with cheap Japanese laber [sic], the little brown men are pouring in upon us in greater numbers than did the Chinese before the Restriction Act was passed by Congress, and the State of California is threatened with an epidemic of cheap labor and hard times in farming and commercial circles.

As Japanese products started entering the U.S. market, the perceived threat of “Orientals” spread to trade, and the line of distinction between Japanese laborers in the United States and Japan as a country of manufacture became blurred. The rhetoric used by Asian exclusionists influenced American trade protectionists, who argued that cheap Japanese imports produced by low-wage labor hurt U.S. industry; and that Japanese willing to accept low wages and living standards affected conditions for American workers. Media perpetuated these sentiments with phrases describing Japanese migrants as having “wormed their way into every farming industry” to evoke an image of undesirable creatures entering into white America en masse. 

The history of Japanese migration to the United States demonstrates the complexity of migration issues. Often the root of problematic policies resides in the global labor market, in geopolitical concerns, and in trade, even if the immediate impact may be felt in the local labor market. Tightening border security, for example, would not offer a fundamental and long-term solution. Often crafted with a lack of understanding of broader, more fundamental global issues and without a willingness and patience to tackle them, U.S. immigration policies can become volatile and create unnecessary confusion without ever yielding the desired outcome of creating job opportunities for “displaced” American workers.

Kaoru Ueda, curator of the Japanese Diaspora Initiative at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, is the editor of the forthcoming book On a Collision Course: The Dawn of Japanese Migration in the Nineteenth Century (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University).