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.
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