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History of Japanese Americans

Japanese American history is the history of Japanese Americans or the history of ethnic Japanese in the United States. People from Japan began immigrating to the U.S. in significant numbers following the political, cultural, and social changes stemming from the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Japanese immigration to the Americas started with immigration to Hawaii in the first year of the Meiji period in 1868.


File:Japanese Immigrants Assembly Hall Hilo 40090628 2000c1f2ae.jpg
The Hilo Japanese Immigrant's Assembly Hall. Built in 1889, today located in Meiji Mura museum, Japan.

Although Japanese castaways such as Oguri Jukichi[1] and Otokichi[2] are known to have reached the Americas by at least the early 19th century, the history of Japanese Americans begins in the mid nineteenth century.

  • 1841, June 27 Captain Whitfield, commanding a New England sailing vessel, rescues five shipwrecked Japanese sailors. Four disembark at Honolulu, however Manjiro Nakahama stays on board returning with Whitfield to Fairhaven, Massachusetts. After attending school in New England and adopting the name John Manjiro, he later became an interpreter for Commodore Matthew C. Perry.
  • 1850. Seventeen survivors of a Japanese shipwreck are saved by the American freighter Auckland off the coast of California. In 1852, the group is sent to Macau to join Commodore Matthew C. Perry as a gesture to help open diplomatic relations with Japan. One of them, Joseph Heco (Hikozo Hamada), goes on to become the first Japanese person to become a naturalized American citizen.
  • 1861: The utopian minister Thomas Lake Harris of the Brotherhood of the New Life visits England, where he meets Nagasawa Kanaye, who becomes a convert. Nagasawa returns to the U.S. with Harris and follows him to Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa, California. When Harris leaves the Californian commune, Nagasawa became the leader and remained there until his death in 1932.
  • 1869: A group of Japanese people arrive at Gold Hills, California and build the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony. Okei becomes the first recorded Japanese woman to die and be buried in the United States.
  • 1885: On February 8, the first official intake of Japanese migrants to a U.S.-controlled entity occurs when 676 men, 159 women, and 108 children arrive in Honolulu on board the Pacific Mail passenger freighter City of Tokio. These immigrants, the first of many Japanese immigrants to Hawaii, have come to work as laborers on the island's sugar plantations via an assisted passage scheme organized by the Hawaiian government.
  • 1893: The San Francisco Board of Education attempts to introduce segregation for Japanese American children, but withdraws the measure following protests by the Japanese government.
  • 1900s: Japanese immigrants begin to lease land and sharecrop.
  • 1902: Yone Noguchi publishes The American Diary of a Japanese Girl, the first Japanese American novel.
  • 1903: In Yamataya v. Fisher (Japanese Immigrant Case) the Supreme Court held that Japanese Kaoru Yamataya was subject to deportation since her Fifth Amendments due process was not violated in regards to the appeals process of the 1891 Immigration Act. This allowed for individuals to challenge their deportation in the courts by challenging the legitimacy of the procedures.
  • 1930s: Issei become economically stable for the first time in California and Hawaiʻi.
  • 1944: Ben Kuroki became the only Japanese-American in the U.S. Army Air Force to serve in combat operations in the Pacific Ocean theater of World War II.
  • 1945: Thirty thousand Japanese Americans were in Japan, unable to return to the United States since the nations were at war.[3]
  • 1945: By war's end, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team is awarded 18,143 decorations, including 9,486 Purple Hearts, becoming the most decorated military unit in United States history.
  • 1962: Minoru Yamasaki is awarded the contract to design the World Trade Center, becoming the first Japanese American architect to design a supertall skyscraper in the United States.
  • 1963: Daniel K. Inouye becomes the first Japanese American in the United States Senate.
  • 1965: Patsy T. Mink becomes the first woman of color in Congress.
  • 1974: George R. Ariyoshi becomes the first Japanese American governor in the State of Hawaiʻi.
  • 1983: The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians reports that Japanese-American internment was not justified by military necessity and that internment was based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." The Commission recommends an official Government apology; redress payments of $20,000 to each of the survivors; and a public education fund to help ensure that this would not happen again.
  • 1988: President Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, apologizing for Japanese-American internment and providing reparations of $20,000 to each victim.

Japanese American history before World War II

People from Japan began emigrating to the U.S. in significant numbers following the political, cultural, and social changes stemming from the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Japanese immigration to the Americas started with immigration to Hawaii in the first year of the Meiji period in 1868.

Following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Japanese immigrants were increasingly sought by industrialists to replace the Chinese immigrants. However, as the number of Japanese in the United States increased, resentment against their success in the farming industry and fears of a "yellow peril" grew into an anti-Japanese movement similar to that faced by earlier Chinese immigrants.[4] In 1907, the Gentlemen's Agreement between the governments of Japan and the U.S. ended immigration of Japanese laborers (i.e., men), but permitted the immigration of spouses and children of Japanese immigrants already in the U.S. The Immigration Act of 1924 banned the immigration of all but a token few Japanese.

The ban on immigration produced unusually well-defined generational groups within the Japanese American community. Initially, there was an immigrant generation, the Issei, and their U.S.-born children, the Nisei Japanese American. The Issei were exclusively those who had immigrated before 1924. Because no new immigrants were permitted, all Japanese Americans born after 1924 were — by definition — born in the U.S. This generation, the Nisei, became a distinct cohort from the Issei generation in terms of age, citizenship, and English language ability, in addition to the usual generational differences. Institutional and interpersonal racism led many of the Nisei to marry other Nisei, resulting in a third distinct generation of Japanese Americans, the Sansei. Significant Japanese immigration did not occur until the Immigration Act of 1965 ended 40 years of bans against immigration from Japan and other countries.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalized U.S. citizenship to "free white persons," and an 1870 amendment extended the right to African Americans, but the Issei and other Asian immigrants were excluded from citizenship. As a result, the Issei were unable to vote, and faced additional restrictions such as the inability to own land under many state laws. These laws would remain in effect until 1952, when the Supreme Court ruled alien land laws unconstitutional and the Walter-McCarran Act removed race-based requirements for naturalization.

Like most of the American population, Japanese immigrants came to the U.S. in search of a better life. Some planned to stay and build families in the United States, while others wanted to save money from working stateside to better themselves in the country from which they had come. Before the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese residents experienced a moderate level of hardship that was fairly typical for any minority group at the time.


Japanese Americans have made significant contributions to the agriculture of the western United States, particularly in California and Hawaii. Nineteenth-century Japanese immigrants introduced sophisticated irrigation methods that enabled the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and flowers on previously marginal lands.

While the Issei (1st generation Japanese Americans) prospered in the early 20th century, most lost their farms during the internment. Although this was the case, Japanese Americans remain involved in these industries today, particularly in southern California and to some extent, Arizona by the areas' year-round agricultural economy, and descendants of Japanese pickers who adapted farming in Oregon and Washington state.

Japanese American detainees irrigated and cultivated lands near World War II internment camps, which were located in desolate spots such as Poston, in the Arizona desert, and Tule Lake, California, at a dry mountain lake bed. Due to their tenacious efforts, these farm lands remain productive today.


During World War II, an estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals or citizens residing in the United States were forcibly interned in ten different camps across the US, mostly in the west. The internments were based on the race or ancestry rather than activities of the interned. Families, including children, were interned together. Each member of the family was allowed to bring two suitcases of their belongings. Each family, regardless of its size, was given one room to live in. The camps were fenced in and patrolled by armed guards. For the most part, the internees remained in the camps until the end of the war, when they left the camps to rebuild their lives.

World War II Service

Many Japanese Americans served with great distinction during World War II in the American forces.

Nebraska Nisei Ben Kuroki became a famous Japanese-American soldier of the war after he completed 30 missions as a gunner on B-24 Liberators with the 93rd Bombardment Group in Europe. When he returned to the US he was interviewed on radio and made numerous public appearances, including one at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club where he was given a ten-minute standing ovation after his speech. Kuroki's acceptance by the California businessmen was the turning point in attitudes toward Japanese on the West Coast. Kuroki volunteered to fly on a B-29 crew against his parent's homeland and was the only Nisei to fly missions over Japan. He was awarded a belated Distinguished Service Medal by President George W. Bush in August 2005.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team/100th Infantry Battalion is one of the most highly decorated unit in U.S. military history. Composed of Japanese Americans, the 442nd/100th fought valiantly in the European Theater. The 522nd Nisei Field Artillery Battalion was one of the first units to liberate the prisoners of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Hawaiʻi Senator Daniel Inouye was a veteran of the 442nd. Additionally the Military Intelligence Service consisted of Japanese Americans who served in the Pacific Front.

On October 5, 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, as well as the 6,000 Japanese Americans who served in the Military Intelligence Service during the war.[5]

Post-World War II and redress

In the U.S., the right to redress is defined as a constitutional right, as it is decreed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Redress may be defined as follows:

  • 1. the setting right of what is wrong: redress of abuses.
  • 2. relief from wrong or injury.
  • 3. compensation or satisfaction from a wrong or injury

Reparation is defined as:

  • 1. the making of amends for wrong or injury done: reparation for an injustice.
  • 2. Usually, reparations. compensation in money, material, labor, etc., payable by a defeated country to another country or to an individual for loss suffered during or as a result of war.
  • 3. restoration to good condition.
  • 4. repair. (“Legacies of Incarceration,” 2002)

The campaign for redress against internment was launched by Japanese Americans in 1978. The Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL) asked for three measures to be taken as redress: $25,000 to be awarded to each person who was detained, an apology from Congress acknowledging publicly that the U.S. government had been wrong, and the release of funds to set up an educational foundation for the children of Japanese American families. Eventually, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 granted reparations to Japanese-Americans who had been interned by the United States government during World War II and officially acknowledged the "fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights" of the internment.[6]

Under the 2001 budget of the United States, it was decreed that the ten sites on which the detainee camps were set up are to be preserved as historical landmarks: “places like Manzanar, Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, Topaz, Amache, Jerome, and Rohwer will forever stand as reminders that this nation failed in its most sacred duty to protect its citizens against prejudice, greed, and political expediency” (Tateishi and Yoshino 2000).


  1. Schodt, Frederik L. (2003). Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan. Stone Bridge Press. p. 59. ISBN 978-1-880656-77-8. 
  2. Mary Granfield (6 August 1990). "Hiroshima's Lost Americans". People (Time, Inc.). Retrieved 7 January 2015. 
  3. Anderson, Emily. "Anti-Japanese exclusion movement," Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16-07-2014.
  4. Steffen, Jordan (October 6, 2010). "White House honors Japanese American WWII veterans". The Los Angeles Times 
  5. "Civil Liberties Act of 1988". 

Text of the Immigration Act of 1907

Further reading

  • "Present-Day Immigration with Special Reference to the Japanese," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Jan 1921), pp. 1–232 online 24 articles by experts, mostly about California
  • Chin, Frank. Born in the USA: A Story of Japanese America, 1889-1947 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
  • Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Washington, GPO: 1982)
  • Conroy, Hilary, and Miyakawa T. Scott, eds. East Across the Pacific: Historical & Sociological Studies of Japanese Immigration & Assimilation (1972), essays by scholars
  • Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (U of Washington Press, 1988) online edition
  • Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps, North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II (1981).
  • Daniels, Roger. The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion (2nd ed. 1978)
  • Daniels, Roger, et al. eds. Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress (2nd ed. 1991)
  • Hoobler, Dorothy and Thomas (1995). The Japanese American Family Album. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512423-5. 
  • Ichioka, Yuji. "Amerika Nadeshiko: Japanese Immigrant Women in the United States, 1900-1924," Pacific Historical Review Vol. 49, No. 2 (May, 1980), pp. 339–357 in JSTOR
  • Ichioka, Yuji. "Japanese Associations and the Japanese Government: A Special Relationship, 1909-1926," Pacific Historical Review Vol. 46, No. 3 (Aug., 1977), pp. 409–437 in JSTOR
  • Ichioka, Yuji. "Japanese Immigrant Response to the 1920 California Alien Land Law," Agricultural History Vol. 58, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 157–178 in JSTOR
  • Matsumoto, Valerie J. Farming the Home Place: A Japanese American Community in California, 1919-1982 (1993)
  • Modell John. The Economics and Politics of Racial Accommodation: The Japanese of Los Angeles, 1900-1942 (1977)
  • Niiya, Brian, ed. Encyclopedia of Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present. (2001).
  • Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore (2nd ed. 1998)
  • Wakatsuki Yasuo. "Japanese Emigration to the United States, 1866-1924: A

Monograph." Perspectives in American History 12 (1979): 387-516.

See also