Skip to main content

Japanese Americans in World War II

California State University Japanese American Digitization Project

Japanese Immigration to the United States

Early Japanese immigrants to Hawaii
Early Japanese immigrants to Hawaii

  • The first Japanese immigrants initially settled in Hawaii to work on sugar plantations.
  • The Japanese government was afraid Japan would become a source of laborers like China.
  • The first group of immigrants to California settled in El Dorado County in 1869.
  • The number of Japanese immigrants never exceeded 1,000 in any given year until 1890.
  • Approximately 75% of immigrants were in their teens and twenties and were overwhelmingly male.
  • In 1900 there were 24,326 Japanese in the mainland U.S., 42% in California.
    • By 1940 there were 126,948 Japanese in the U.S. mainland, 74% in California.
  • Immigration was driven by economic conditions during the Meiji Restoration.  Heavy taxes were imposed during and after the Sino-Japanese (1894-1895) and Russo-Japanese Wars (1904-1905).
  • The influx of Japanese immigrants to the western U.S. driven by two factors:
    • As a result of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese were able to take jobs as Chinese numbers dwindled.
    • The 1898 Annexation of Hawaii by the U.S., which made immigration easier.
  • Japanese constituted less than 1% of the immigrant population between 1890 and 1907.
  • In 1900 men outnumbered women 95 to 5.
  • A 1907 presidential proclamation prohibited Japanese migration from Hawaii, Canada and Mexico.
  • Also in 1907 the U.S. and Japanese governments concluded the Gentleman’s Agreement in which immigration of Japanese labor was limited, but parents, children, and spouses were allowed to join their relatives already in the U.S.

    Picture brides
    Picture brides
  • Some men went to Japan and returned with their brides.  Others asked relatives to choose and send them brides, with only photographs being exchanged beforehand.  These “picture brides” married their new husbands on the docks before formally being admitted to the U.S., thus officially being admitted as wives joining their husbands.
  • Between 1907 and 1920 the number of Japanese women immigrating to the U.S. vastly outstripped the men, and the male-to-female ratio began to normalize.
  • As the Japanese’ economic clout increased they were designated “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” as were other people of Asian descent. 

    Juichi Soyeda and Tadao Kamiya of Japan lobbying against the Alien Land Law of 1913
    Juichi Soyeda and Tadao Kamiya of Japan lobbying against the Alien Land Law of 1913
  • Alien Land Laws were passed in 1913, 1920, and 1923 in California, prevented ownership of farmland, and limited leases to 3 years.
  • The Immigration Act of 1924 ended further immigration from Japan.