The Early Issei

The Meiji Restoration

When Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 with his four well-armed ships, he came to a country which had been in self-imposed seclusion for over two hundred years under the military rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. By the time of Perry's arrival, the growing affluence of commoners in towns and cities had eroded the power of the shoguns so that the Japan to which he came was a country ripe for change.

The arrival of Perry touched off a power struggle between those who wished to maintain the old ways and those who felt Japan needed to learn more about these strangers to ensure its own survival. The faction in favor of change, rallying behind the cry to restore the Emperor to his rightful position as head of the nation, won the struggle. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868 the victors instituted sweeping changes as Japan sought to meet the Western countries on their own terms.

It is in this context that the first Japanese began to arrive on American shores.


The Japanese were recruited by Americans to go to Hawaii to replace the Chinese as laborers on the sugar plantations as the latter left to become independent shopkeepers and farmers. After a labor convention was signed between Japan and the kingdom of Hawaii in 1886, boatloads of Japanese workers left for the islands. Plantation work was arduous, and in time the Japanese left the fields to find more rewarding employment. Their educated children, by sheer persistence and ability, moved into government, business and the professions. By 1941 they comprised almost 40% of the population of Hawaii and were integrated into the economy and society at all levels.

The West Coast

Those Issei who came to the United States after Japan lifted its ban on emigration in 1866 were a diverse group representing virtually the entire social spectrum, from samurai on the losing side seeking political asylum to craftsmen and laborers.

After the Meiji Restoration the Japanese Government sent its brightest young men to European and American universities to learn the ways of the West. These young men were joined by the scions of wealthy families, entrepreneurs and assorted adventurers.

In 1891 the number of Japanese entering the United States annually reached 1000. Young single men from the peasant class began to replace students, businessmen and drifters.

The dislocations of a society in transition in Meiji Japan had brought hardship to many farm families. Many men, especially younger sons with little hope of inheriting land, saw emigration as a way to help their financially distressed families and secure their own futures. Their dream was to work for a few years and accumulate enough money to return and buy land to assure a secure life in Japan. In addition profit-making emigration companies in Japan painted glowing pictures of opportunities to be found in America. Immigration increased after 1891, with most immigrants coming from southern and western Japan, the areas where agrarian distress was greatest.

The Issei landed in the port cities of San Francisco, Portland and Seattle and spread out onto nearby farms. Many of the boarding home operators and hotel keepers doubled as employment agents. The new arrivals found employment in lumbering, fish canneries and farming from Alaska to southern California. Many thousands of others fanned out into the interior Western states where they worked on railroad section gangs, coal and copper mines, sugar beet fields and other agricultural pursuits. In 1906, the peak year for railroad work, perhaps as many as 13,000 Japanese-one in every three in the country-were working for the railroads. After their terms of employment ended most young men drifted back to the port cities.

The early "Japan towns" in the ports of entry arose out of the natural inclination of people with the same language and customs to cluster together in a new land. These enclaves grew up to provide services to new arrivals and those coming back after finishing their contracts. They had restaurants, stores, barber shops, laundries and banks.

Picture Brides

The pattern of immigration resulted in a gross gender imbalance in the Japanese population here. In 1900 there were 24 men for every Japanese woman. The dream of returning to Japan to become a landowner faded as inflation there put the price of land out of reach. With advancing years the men, some no longer so young, sought to marry and establish families. Men with means returned to the home country to marry women chosen for them by the time-honored system of go-betweens. Others legally married picture brides in matches made after an exchange of photographs. Marriage in Japan had always been a family matter.

Women did not come to the United States in substantial numbers until about 1905. Approximately 20,000 Japanese women emigrated to this country in the two decades after the turn of the century. Of that number about one in four, or about 5000, were picture brides.

As women arrived, followed by the birth of children who were U.S. citizens by birthright, the character of the "Japan towns" changed. The boarding houses, hotels, stores and barbershops were joined by churches, both Christian and Buddhist, Japanese language newspapers and other institutions of a stable, family-oriented community. People from the same prefecture in Japan, e.g. Hiroshima-ken, banded together in kenjin-kai, or prefectural associations, for social purposes and for mutual aid. The more prosperous individuals became the community leaders.

Japanese language classes for "Nisei" (second generation) children were held after regular school hours and on Saturdays. Although the parents tried hard to make their children learn to read and write the difficult Japanese characters, the children themselves were reluctant pupils.

Anti-Asian Hostility

Anti-Asian hostility on the West Coast has a long history, particularly in California. It began against the Chinese, who had been brought by American agents in the mid-19th century to work in cities and on farms and to help build the Central Pacific Railroad. American workers resented the Chinese and pressured Congress to halt their immigration. Congress did so with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

The labor shortage that developed as a result of the exclusion was filled by the young Japanese who began arriving about 1891. As long as they remained laborers they were welcomed. Like the Chinese before them, however, the Japanese found that as they tried to better their lot they became the targets of hostility from organized groups of labor, farmers, veterans and later the general public, urged on by newspapers, mainly those owned by William Randolph Hearst. In 1907 the Japanese Government, in a move to reduce this opposition, entered into a "Gentlemen's Agreement" with the United States, limiting the number of laborers who would be permitted to come to this country.

Political pressure from these organized groups continued, however, and resulted in California's passage of an Alien Land law which prevented Asians from owning land. Other western states quickly followed suit with similar laws. Ultimately these anti-Asian groups succeeded in halting Japanese immigration completely with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924.

In spite of obstacles such as the Alien Land Law, the first generation Japanese made significant contributions to the United States, particularly in farming and fishing. Using innovative techniques to enhance the intensive cultivation practices learned in their homeland, where land was precious, the immigrants made ground that appeared barren to others produce abundant crops of grapes, strawberries, citrus fruits and other fruits and vegetables. In many areas they introduced crops which are the mainstays of Western agriculture today, from apples and pears to garlic, tomatoes and lettuce. They also introduced bamboo pole fishing, which did not damage the fish as other methods did. By 1923 Japanese made up 50% of the fishing boat crews in San Diego.

The Nisei

The Japanese culture which the Issei brought with them placed a high value on education. Although most Issei had not gone beyond high school themselves, they exhorted their Nisei children to study hard and obtain as much education as possible. The children did well scholastically, but when they began to look for work after graduation they found the doors to most jobs closed to them. Except for a few who found jobs in city, state and federal governments, the only Nisei who were able to practice their professions were doctors, dentists and lawyers who served their fellow Japanese. Thus engineers and teachers, who had been honor students, were selling produce at the local markets.

Some of the first Nisei to reach maturity realized that they must do something to combat this pervasive anti-Asian discrimination. They organized the American Loyalty League in San Francisco shortly after World War I to work for their rights as U.S. citizens and to encourage all Nisei to become active politically. A similar group was started in Seattle. Toward the end of the 1920's the two groups merged to form the Japanese American Citizens League.

The "Japan towns" became self-sufficient communities with their own structure. The natural tendency of immigrants to cling together was reinforced by the overt anti-Asian discrimination of the outside community. Except for business contacts necessary for survival and the contacts of the children in the public schools, the community looked inward upon itself.

On the eve of Pearl Harbor the Japanese on the West Coast held a dominant position in agriculture. Japanese American citizens were just reaching young adulthood-the average age of the Nisei was 18.

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