The History of Anti-Japanese Sentiment in America

In February of 1942, a small minority of American citizens and immigrants faced a problem, they were of Japanese descent. This meant that they were the targets of executive order 9066, which authorized the United States Army to relocate them to internment camps indefinitely, and without their consent, in the name of national security. In contemporary analysis it may seem shocking that such a breach of civil liberties was entertained in policy, however, deeper analysis will move us beyond the shallow explanation provided by the national security argument. Executive Order 9066 was the culmination of an extensive history of anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, and the ease with which the United States Government infringed on the basic human rights of Japanese-Americans and Japanese Immigrants can be attributed to nothing less. 

Between 1861 and 1870 a paltry 218 Japanese immigrated to the United States. This number would increase steadily through the late 19th century, until 1907-1908, when the Gentleman’s Agreement -between Japan and the United States- “drastically reduced immigration from Japan” (Molina, pg. 75). Nevertheless, by the first decade of the twentieth century the number increased exponentially to 62,432 individuals (Gulick, pg. 10). The Japanese quickly became a recognizable minority on the West Coast, and, like their Chinese counterparts (and most non-white, non-protestant immigrants) were quickly discriminated against.

Discrimination against the Japanese in the early twentieth century carries an odd familiarity with that against other immigrant populations, and even those in contemporary America. They were described as “willing to live on almost nothing,” which, alongside their “willing[ness] to labor longer hours and under any conditions whatsoever” allowed them to “underbid and outwork the white man” (Gulick, pg. 11). The traditional “cheap labor” argument was levied against the Japanese, a sure method of aligning poor, white workers against them. The argument against immigrants also echoed popular theories born in the eugenics movement. A Lieutenant Colonel in the Army argued that within some races “the number of children seems to multiply rapidly,” (Molina, pg. 77) an idea remarkably similar to the “differential fecundity” claimed to be present in the targets of the American eugenics movement (Cohen, pg. 73). These ties display the mutual support offered by discriminatory social movements of the same period. Additionally, concepts such as differential fecundity are important because they made up the framework of “scientific racialism” which initially became well developed under the shadow of slavery, and this framework was readily applied to the Japanese and widely accepted in American society (Molina, pg. 77). However, the story of Anti-Japanese sentiment takes a peculiar turn which provides additional, critical insight into the need to remove them.

It was acknowledged even among anti-Japanese proponents that the “Japanese may be… superior to Americans in every way,” a concession not frequently afforded to a targeted minority (Gulick, pg. 16). The Japanese were recognized as being “too enterprising and thrifty,” and known to “aspire to economic independence” (pg. 12). As such, there was a fear among the community -particularly his “rivals”- that the Japanese would “set up for himself” and ‘easily undersell his competitors…driv[ing] them out” (pg. 12). The acknowledgement and fear of the industriousness of the Japanese is a radical diversion from the frequent argument of pauperism among immigrants. It suggests the precarious position Japanese immigrants faced, a sort of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” strata of society. Most importantly however, the Japanese’ ability to compete “successfully with white produce merchants and farmers” was not only offensive to the Americans who “pulled themselves up by their boot-straps,” but they presented direct business competition (Taylor, pg. 3). This was more than enough incentive for American businessmen to lobby for their removal, or at least to have their economic ability severed.

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The discrimination would only accelerate over the coming years, and several important events were its engine. Critical to U.S. domestic fears was the Oahu Sugar Strike of 1920. Inspired by a powerful labor movement across the U.S. in 1919 involving “4.16 million workers” in “3,630 strikes,” the Japanese demanded higher wages, alongside “an eight-hour work day” and “contract changes” (Duus, pg. 54). When their demands were “firmly rejected” by sugar plantation owners, the Japanese -who were notably hesitant- finally came to action, and on “January 31[1920] an official strike declaration… was issued” (pg. 66). Unfortunately for the Japanese however, American newspapers quickly misreported that “the Japanese government was instigating the strike,” in spite of the fact that they were rebuffed when requesting assistance from the Japanese government. The “Acting Consul General” for Japan even stated that the “Japanese has under no circumstances any connection or relation with the labor Union in this territory,” a statement which was accompanied by similar repudiations from labor organizers on Oahu (pg. 69). However, these statements were labeled “weak denials,” (pg. 69) and the “Japanese Conspiracy” was soon circulating in local newspapers (pg. 67). This notion exacerbated fears of Japanese competition with the United States on the global, political scale, which will be discussed later. Unfortunately, though, as it so often does, legislative and judicial practices reflected (and served to propagate) the fear and discrimination which resulted from these events and sentiments.

California, the recipient of most Japanese immigration, would prominently display discrimination in legislation. Between just two states legislature sessions “fifty one anti-Japanese bills were proposed,” (Gulick, pg. 188) and in 1913 the State Legislature passed the Alien Lands Act which prevented “those not eligible for naturalization” from owning land for more than three years” (Molina, pg. 86). This effectively eliminated competition for white farmers in California, again reflecting the role economics played in the exclusion of the Japanese. Additionally, California became notorious for its “so-called school question,” when the “School Board of San Francisco adopted the principle of race segregation” (Gulick, pg. 186). The Japanese found this humiliating, as it placed them at the bottom of the racial hierarchy with African Americans and other minorities.  

Further, the Japanese were dealt a national blow in 1922, when, in Ozawa v. United States, it was determined that a Japanese person was not “eligible to citizenship under the Naturalization Laws” (United States Supreme Court, pg. 151). The courts determined that although there was no indication of “individual unworthiness or racial inferiority,” the Japanese were “not Caucasian and therefore belong entirely outside the zone on the negative side” (pg. 156-157). This was a massive blow to the Japanese. It confirmed within the American Court system that regardless of any seemingly kind suppositions about their “culture and enlightenment,” the Japanese were being placed in an inferior position in American society. This would later be justification for further discrimination in policy.

That discriminatory policy would come in the form of the Immigration Act of 1924, and the Japanese Exclusion clause. With increasing pressure over the Japanese Conspiracy from Hawaiian representatives, Albert Johnson, Chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, pushed for a bill that prohibited the “immigration of all Asians” (Duus, pg. 300). Section 13 of that bill stipulates that “no alien ineligible to citizenship shall be admitted to the United States,” and, among those section 28 defines as “debarred from becoming a citizen,” are the Japanese (U.S. Congress, 1924). The Japanese would not recover from the “shock of exclusion” for some time (Hirobe, pg. 67). 

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It is important to note that fear of the Japanese was not limited to domestic issues. The Japanese had recently achieved victory against Russia “the largest nation in Europe,” in the Russo-Japanese war, thereby demonstrating their “growing prestige and power” (Finkelman, pg. 7). Increasing tension between the United States and the emerging Japanese empire would lead both sides to become increasingly conscious of the other, and the U.S. secretary of State remarked in 1906 that “Japan is ready for war” (pg. 8). Tensions escalated in 1908 when President Roosevelt demonstrated U.S. power by ordering the “Great White Fleet [to] steam into Yokohama Bay” in Japan (pg. 8), and by 1919, a prominent Japanese leader Seigo Nakano remarked that “‘a clash between Japan and America’ over the future of Japanese interests in China would be ‘difficult to avoid’” (Duus, pg. 50). Although it may seem obvious, it is important to note that the American public was not unaware of U.S.-Japan relations, as is illustrated by several political cartoons which appeared in the Tacoma Times in 1904. Both are by Bob Satterfield, the first detailing an impression that the Japanese are reckless and haphazard, almost careless with the specter of war looming. Given increased tension between the United States and Japan, this assumed Japanese attitude towards armed conflict stoked a fear of possible reckless aggression towards the U.S. Additionally, the latter cartoon offers Satterfield’s impression of Japanese censorship of the war, immediately implying distrust of the Japanese empire and their reports of the conflict. Both sustain the notion that domestic racism was both paralleled and supported by international tension and distrust.

It is clear that by the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor there was already a deeply rooted hatred of the Japanese living in America. By the turn of the century the Japanese were considered among “Mexicans…Chinese, and Negroes,” a position of marked inferiority within American society, and these sentiments were reflected and propagated by judicial and legislative practices (Molina, pg. 39). Therefore, given the history of anti-Japanese sentiment stemming from the beginning of the century, it seems impossible to claim national security as the sole motive for executive order 9066.

Finkelman, Paul. “2015 Mid-Atlantic People of Color Conference: Coping with a New “Yellow Peril”: Japanese Immigration, The Gentlemen’s Agreement, and the Coming of World War II.” West Virginia Law Review 117 W. Va. L. Rev. 1409. Date Accessed: 2016/09/20.

Quintard Taylor. "Blacks and Asians in a White City: Japanese Americans and African Americans in Seattle, 1890-1940." The Western Historical Quarterly 22, no. 4 (1991): 401-29.

Hirobe, Izumi. Japanese Pride, American Prejudice. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Duus, Masayo. The Japanese Conspiracy: The Oahu Sugar Strike of 1920. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, London, England: University of California Press, Ltd., 1999.

Gulick, Sydney. The Japanese American Problem: A Study of the Racial Relations of the East and the West. New York, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914.

Molina, Natalia. How Race is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2014.

Cohen, Adam. Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. New York, New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2016

Ozawa v. United States. The American Journal of International Law 17, No. 1 (1923): 151-157.

U.S. Congress. The Immigration Act of 1924. 68th Cong., 1st Sess., May 26 1924.

The History of Anti-Japanese Sentiment in America