Home / General / This Day in Labor History: February 15, 1907

This Day in Labor History: February 15, 1907


On February 15, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt and the Japanese government signed the so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement” to stop the migration of Japanese to the United States. This came about after the organizing of whites on the west coast against Japanese immigration, as whites steadfastly maintained their states were for the white man alone. Not only had the Japanese entered the labor market in a number of low-wage areas after the end of Chinese immigration in 1882, but they also managed to make a legitimate go of it on farms that whites had failed to make work. The outrage over Japanese labor competition was but one episode in a long history of west coast labor opposing people of color.

West Coast employers wanted cheap labor. The region received very little immigration from southern and eastern Europe like the east, so they had to be creative. Originally, western employers hired the Chinese to do menial work, but the angry response from west coast labor that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major legislative victory for organized labor in the nation’s history, ended that supply in 1882. So employers turned to Japan. Japan in the 1880s was modernizing rapidly, but was still poor. Encouraging migration was a useful way to undermine internal social problems. Almost immediately after 1882, Japanese migration to the United States soared. Much of this was to the sugar plantations of the American soon-to-be colony in Hawaii, but large numbers came to California, Oregon, and Washington as well. There they would serve as a key part of the low-wage labor force for the next sixty years.

Japanese workers entered the growing agricultural industry of California, especially sugar beets. By 1902, 9 contractors supplied Japanese labor to farmers. Wages were originally high but when slashed in 1902, 500 Japanese and 200 Mexican workers organized the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association in 1903, winning some important early victories in raising wages in the fields. Others worked on railroads. Many Japanese women worked in domestic service for whites, often in very difficult conditions.

Japanese celery harvesters, California, circa 1920

Many Japanese went into the timber industry as well. Japanese mill workers on Washington’s Bainbridge Island lived in “Jap Town,” which consisted of several hundred people. This large community had a Baptist church and Buddhist temple, a baseball diamond, and multiple shops that served both Japanese and white customers. Kihachi Hirakawa, a Christian minister in a Washington logging town, remembered all the Japanese laborers living together and the long nights of gambling that kept him up. He fretted about the all-male aspect of these communities, recalling three hundred or more Japanese workers, but only eight or nine families. Whites resisted even these relatively small numbers. In 1904, the Panel and Folding Box Company of Hoquiam, Washington “put on a night crew of Japs” because they “have been unable to secure a sufficient number of girls.” The mill’s manager, a man named Finlayson, defended himself from accusations that he had tried to undermine white labor and simply claimed that “if forced to employ Japs, it will only be to supply that cannot otherwise be filled.”

Tsukamoto and Nakamura Laundry, Salem, Oregon, 1919

Whites became even more angry when Japanese began leasing land (California had laws against Asians owning land) and starting families, seeking permanency in their new home and offending the white Californians who had defined their state as a place of free white men from the time of the gold rush. They were growing fruits and vegetables and would pretty quickly become important and successful small producers within the California agricultural economy. Of course, interracial sex happened too. One farmer wrote to the California legislature:

Near my home is an eighty-acre tract of as fine land as there is in California. On that tract lives a Japanese. With that Japanese lives a white woman. In that woman’s arms is a baby. What is that baby? It isn’t Japanese. It isn’t white. I’ll tell you what that baby is. It is a germ of the mightiest problem that ever faced this state; a problem that will make the black problem of the South look white. All about us the Asiatics are gaining a foothold.

Like in the 1870s and 1880s in California, anti-Japanese fervor began dominating west coast politics in the 1900s. San Francisco passed a law to segregate Asians out of public schools while west coast politicians wanted Washington to end this yellow peril. Organized labor lent its support to the effort. White workers believed any job held by a Japanese was a job stolen from a white man. In 1905, 67 labor unions met in San Francisco to found the Asiatic Exclusion League to eliminate the perceived Japanese and Korean threat to their jobs, much as they had so successfully done in 1882 against the Chinese. Such organizations would continue until World War II. In 1908, the Laundry Workers and Laundry Drivers Union began the Anti-Jap Laundry League, urging whites to boycott doing business with Japanese laundries. Attacks on Japanese immigrants grew. A laundry operator said, “The persecutions became intolerable. My drivers were constantly attacked on the highway, my place of business defiled by rotten eggs and fruit; windows were smashed several times.”

Japanese-American railroad workers

By 1907, the Japanese government was happy to keep their citizens in Japan, as the nation’s rising imperial ambitions meant holding onto potential industrial workers and soldiers. President Theodore Roosevelt, having just negotiated the end to the Russo-Japanese War, did not want to anger the increasingly powerful Japanese who were concerned about the treatment of their citizens abroad. So Roosevelt and the Japanese government came to an informal agreement. The U.S. would not pass a bill to exclude the Japanese and would force California to repeal its school segregation bill. In return, the Japanese government would take steps to halt immigration.

This effectively ended large-scale immigration from Japan to the United States, although the agreement did not apply to Hawaii and thus migrants could go to Hawaii and then to the mainland, although relatively few did. Japanese men in the U.S. could also send back to Japan for wives, leading to the thousands of picture brides coming to the U.S. in the next couple decades. By the time Japanese immigration ended, about 400,000 had migrated to the United States. West Coast employers, still seeking cheap foreign labor, turned their attention to the new American colony of the Philippines. Since the Philippines was actually American, stopping the importation of that labor would prove much more difficult for white labor, although they would eventually accomplish it in 1932, at which point employers began bringing in Mexicans (or did so after the Great Depression anyway).

White resentment remained strong and the anti-Japanese scare after Pearl Harbor was also an excuse to expropriate Japanese property and again turn the west coast into a white man’s haven.

There is a very large literature on Japanese immigration and the backlash to it. I took much of this, including the good quotes, from Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Store. On the experiences of Japanese women, see Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s Issei, Nisei, War Bride. The material on logging in the Northwest comes from my dissertation.

This is the 93rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • It was not just keeping soldiers and industrial workers that changed by 1907 in Japan. In 1890 Japan defeated China and took Taiwan. In 1905 they defeated the Russian Empire and set themselves up as the hegemonic power in Korea which they annexed in 1910 and southern Manchuria. The defeat of Russia gave Japan territory under its control to colonize closer to home rather than send emigrants to he US and South America.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Japan’s colonialist annexation of Okinawa doesn’t get nearly the attention it should, particularly as regards the status of the (descendants of the) indigenous Okinawan people; or so it has long seemed to me.

      • Don’t expect J. Otto to talk about Japanese racism towards Koreans or any other non-Japanese Asian population. He’s not that much of a reactionary to wish for the return of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

      • LeeEsq

        The Okinawa situation is very complicated because the Ryukyu kingdom was in a tributary relationship with the Chinese Empire and the Domain of Satsuma in Japan during the 18th and 19th century. Politically it was something like an autonomous part of both countries. The Japanese did have a sort of plausible claim that the Ryukyus were part of Japan politically when they officially annexed them. Same goes for Hokkaido.

    • Matthew

      You messed up the dates. The Japanese defeated China from 1894-1895, not 1890.

    • LeeEsq

      Minor correction, the First Sino-Japanese war took place in 1894 not in 1890.

  • Grocer

    Thanks for putting this up, definitely want to check out the Takaki book.

    • Takaki’s book is good, but I’m surprised that it’s still the standard text on this. There’s elements of it that are really quite outdated, including the focus on mainland US (nearly ignoring, or separating, Hawaii), heavy-handed handling of cultural issues, and a conventional old-style view of immigration as one-way process instead of diasporic development.

      That said, it’s still the standard, because nobody (as far as I know) has tried to write a full-bore replacement.

  • Anna in PDX

    Last year we (an all staff meeting at my local gov bureau) had a speaker from one of Portland’s older Japanese families talk about his experience growing up in Portland, and he showed us some old maps of the Japanese neighborhoods. It is really strange to me how impermanent cities’ geography is. Even a relatively young city like Portland has entire ghost neighborhoods that were ethnic or underclass or whatever that now have a completely different character. I want to describe them as a palimpsest because I am always looking for places to use that word. But, they are so completely gone, the old characters of those places, that they do not even show through. If not for maps, old photos and people’s memories they might have never existed.

    This speaker also talked about the internment camps, which he spent some time in but left to go to college in Ohio.

    • Albina which is mostly Black today used to be all ethnic Germans from the Russian Empire. Most of them were Volga Germans. But, my great grand father and his family which was from Congress Poland and Volhynia also ended up there after finally deciding to stop ping ponging between Ohio and Canada.


      • Anna in PDX

        Wow, I did not know you were from Portland! Albina, of course, has had a very complicated history. The urban renewal that happened with the I-5 corridor and Emanuel Hospital completely changed that neighborhood from its older character as a place for black Portlanders who were really limited as to where they could live because of redlining.

        • I am not from Portland. I have been there once to give a talk to the American Historical Society of German from Russia on the 60th anniversary of the deportation of the Volga Germans in 2001. But, my great grandfather moved there with his family from Winnipeg when my grandfather was a child.

          • Anna in PDX

            My partner’s father’s family were also from up north. Brrr, I can really understand why anyone would move from there to here. I love living in a temperate place. German immigrants were the largest group in Oregon for quite a while, I believe.

          • Anna in PDX

            That was even covered in al Jazeera! I was sending articles to our public info officer all day yesterday.

    • Hogan

      In my grad student days I lived in West Philadelphia, roughly on the frontier between the student zone and the working/middle-class black neighborhoods farther west. There was an Irish bar on 43rd Street (they still had a picture of JFK on the wall) that apparently predated a major demographic shift: its clientele (other than grad students) was old Irish guys who had since moved out to the suburbs but didn’t want to give up their local, so they would drive in a couple of times a week to drink beers and chat and watch the game. That was where I learned an alternative mental map of the city–instead of intersections and neighborhoods, they thought in terms of Catholic parishes (“I was born in Thomas Aquinas, then we moved to Holy Innocents, but now I live in Francis de Sales”). I think of that when the archdiocese closes another parish–it’s as if the city were telling people there’s no longer an Overbrook Farms or a Society Hill.

      Last time I went by the bar it was a pizza place run by Pakistanis.

      • Anna in PDX

        I have relatives in S Philly and when I visited in around 1991 or so it was still sort of Mediterranean in character … Had been Italian, had a lot of Lebanese businesses. Is it still like that?

        • Hogan

          The Italians are holding on (the Italian Market is still a thing), but there are a lot more Mexicans and Vietnamese moving in and opening stores and restaurants. And of course the gentrifiers are slowly but inexorably moving in from the north, through Queen Village and Buena Vista and the Graduate Hospital area.

          The first council district (which includes South Philly east of Broad Street) has had an Italian representative for the last twenty or so years (except for Jimmy Tayoun, who I believe is Lebanese).

    • sparks

      Our “Japantown” (sorry, that’s what it was called then) was essentially wiped out by the evacuation order and subsequent redevelopment of the area after the war. A number of photos of that area during that evacuation were shot by Dorothea Lange.

    • Ronan

      This is a great comment, fwiw.

  • Nicely done, overall.

    Two quibbles, because this is my field:

    The Gentleman’s Agreement didn’t end migration from Japan, but rather ended labor migration from Japan: businessmen, family reunification (thus the “picture bride” phenomenon), students were still permitted visas. It did, however, largely end transmigration from Hawaii: Japanese visas to Hawaii were stamped “Hawaii Only; Not For Entry Into US” (or something like that; I’m working from memory).

    And “happy to keep it’s citizens in Japan” really doesn’t actually describe the Japanese reaction to the Agreement. It was widely and correctly interpreted as evidence of white racism against Japanese. Japanese out-migration flows did not slow, but rather shifted to places like Peru, Brazil, and to Japan’s new colonial possessions like Taiwan (which, as Pohl notes above, came to Japanese control in ’95) and Korea (still technically a Protectorate in ’08, but not for long).

    And it’s worth noting that jumping the ending from the Gentleman’s Agreement to WWII skips right over the fact that the Agreement didn’t hold on the US side: the 1924 Immigration Act is widely referred to as the “Asian Exclusion Act” precisely because the racial/national quota system was structured to throttle the flow of Japanese and Chinese immigrants; coupled with California’s increasingly restrictive land laws, clearly the US didn’t honor the Agreement long or in spirit.

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