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Enduring Communities

Japanese Americans in Texas

Texas is a large state with a diverse population. Although Texans of Japanese ancestry have never been large in number, they have nonetheless made big contributions throughout their unique history. The first significant impact was in the early 1900s, when Japanese initiated at least thirty large-scale attempts to grow rice on the southeast coastal plains around Houston and Beaumont. Following a fact-finding visit and report in 1902 by the Japanese Consul General from New York, Sadatsuchi Uchida, men with money or access to money made their way from Japan to Texas to farm rice. When they arrived they were assisted by “colonization agents,” hired by railroad companies to increase agricultural commerce to support the many new miles of track being laid. These agents provided free railway passage and otherwise facilitated the purchase of land and equipment for the newcomers. Among these early settlers was a banker, a newspaper journalist, several businessmen, former Japanese military officers, a politician turned university president, and even a prominent Japanese socialist by the name of Sen Katayama. They invested considerable sums to procure land and the heavy equipment—seed drills, harvesting binders and steam-operated threshing machines—needed to farm rice on a large scale. They brought other Japanese with them as well, mostly field hands for the hard labor required of any agricultural operation. They also brought their own customs and manner of dress, as documented by local reports of men wearing strange conical hats, rain gear, and sandals, all made of rice straw.

The new farmers may have shared a cultural heritage, but they nonetheless chose to organize their farms in different ways. Some were close-knit colonies with the owners paying wages to their Japanese workers. One operation, owned by brothers Rihei and Toraichi Onishi, leased 100-acre tracts of land near Mackay and required two-fifths of the crop as rent. The Onishis also ran a “company store,” selling food and clothing to the sharecroppers. On other farms Japanese workers were in short supply, putting local laborers in high demand. Blacks, Anglos, Mexican Americans, Louisiana French, Austrians, and White Russians were reported to have worked on these farms. As would be expected some operations were successful, while others were not. The biggest failure was a venture in Dacosta run by Major Oshimaru Takayama, a former Japanese artillery officer. The farm reportedly lasted only two years and lost investors an estimated $100,000 when it folded, a considerable amount in 1908. Whether short-lived or more enduring, however, the Japanese rice colonists in southeast Texas, as with all farmers in Texas, were severely affected in 1918 by the dramatic drop in market prices for rice and other grains following the end of World War I. A few farms survived by switching crops, but many Japanese were suddenly without work. Some found jobs in nearby plant nurseries and restaurants owned by fellow Japanese Texans, while others simply moved away. By 1920 the US Census counted 449 Japanese in Texas, an increase of only 109 from ten years earlier.

In the early 1900s, a number of Japanese were entering Texas at the other end of the state. El Paso had long been a border crossing for Chinese immigrants; so much so it had its own “Chinatown.” After Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, El Paso became a favored entry point for former Japanese soldiers who were having trouble entering the country at other locations. Many were seeking employment as construction workers for railroad companies, but an agreement between the US and Japan kept such workers out. Unable to enter legally then, an untold number crossed over illegally.

The 1910s saw continued Japanese immigration into Texas through Mexico, largely as a result of unrest caused by the Mexican Revolution. During this period Japanese were also coming to the border areas of Texas from other western states such as California, where they were experiencing considerable discrimination. The Rio Grande Valley area west of Brownsville was a particularly popular destination due to its mild climate and undeveloped, yet fertile, farmland. One migrant to the Valley was Uichi Shimotsu, who settled near McAllen after graduating from a Colorado agricultural college. In 1916 he returned to Japan to bring Takako Tsuji back to Texas as his wife. Takako later told her children, “It was like going into darkest Africa!” Other Japanese families settled in scattered parts of the Valley, farming mostly cotton in the summer and vegetables in the winter. Although separated by miles of rough roads and farmland, they congregated on special holidays to eat, drink and socialize. Later in the 1930s these immigrants formed the Rio Grande Valley Royals, a social club for their children. On occasion the Royals met with the Lone Star Club, a similar group comprised of offspring of rice colonists from around Houston.

In 1920 California passed strict legislation prohibiting Japanese immigrants from owning land, and in 1921 a similar “alien land law” was introduced in the Texas Legislature. In response, Japanese land owners in southeast Texas banded with Japanese businessmen from Dallas cotton firms to fight the bill. Their leader was Saburo Arai, a well-respected nurseryman from Houston who provided letters of support from Anglo Texans and who testified for the group before a Senate committee. Although legislation eventually passed, a compromise was struck allowing Japanese currently living in Texas to keep their land and to purchase more in the future. Still, the Texas land law accomplished its intent. With no prospect of owning land, few Japanese newcomers were attracted to the state. In 1924 the final blow came at the national level when Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, halting all immigration of Japanese into the United States.

The Japanese who remained in Texas lived and worked without incident until December, 7, 1941, when their world, along with their fellow Texans, was turned upside down by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Almost immediately the FBI searched the homes of Japanese throughout the state, often taking the head of the household to jail. Japanese Texan bank accounts were frozen and travel was severely restricted. Out of a sense of self-preservation some Japanese changed the names of their businesses. Thus, the Japanese Restaurant, which was established by “Tom Brown” Okasaki in Houston at the turn of the century, became the U.S. Café. In San Antonio city officials themselves voted to change the name of the Japanese Tea Garden in Brackenridge Park to the Chinese Tea Garden. In the process they evicted Alice Jingu and her five children from the garden’s tea pavilion where they had lived and served tea to the public for twenty-four years.

In 1940 prior to World War II, the US Census counted only 458 Japanese in Texas. In a strange twist, the war would increase this number by ten-fold with the creation of three wartime internment camps in the state. One camp, located at Seagoville southeast of Dallas, was built in 1940 as a model reformatory for women. It eventually housed fifty Japanese language instructors, all women, who had been arrested on the West Coast following Pearl Harbor. Japanese immigrants to Latin America were later housed there after being taken from their homes, mainly in Peru, and deported to the US, presumably to be traded for American noncombatants trapped behind enemy lines. Others from Latin America, including Germans, Italians and Japanese, were interned in a camp near Kenedy, southeast of San Antonio. Originally constructed for the Civilian Conservation Corps, this camp also held Japanese Americans, including some from Texas, before it was converted in September 1944 to house German POWs.

The third internment camp was located at Crystal City in south Texas. Before the war it was a government housing camp for migratory agricultural workers, but in December 1942 it opened as a “family” camp, designed to reunite family members interned at various camps throughout the country and to hold families deported from Latin America. Eventually it became “home” for some 1,000 Germans as well who were arrested under similar circumstances as the Japanese following Pearl Harbor. At its height Crystal City housed 4,000 internees, more than two-thirds of whom were Japanese. With its administration offices, hospital, grocery store, schools and row upon row of houses, the camp functioned much like any small town, except of course for the surrounding fence and guard towers. The high school which was named Federal High even had a football team, but had no other team to play. Although local townspeople had jobs in the camp, the internees worked peacefully alongside as store clerks, librarians, shoe repairmen, barbers and beauticians. By all accounts the Japanese also lived in harmony with the Germans at Crystal City. Although they occupied different areas of the camp, there was ample opportunity for the two groups to mix, from playing music in a camp orchestra to attending language classes in German or Japanese.

The end of the war saw the eventual closing of the three Texas internment camps. Rather than return to their home states, a few internees remained in Texas, such as Isamu Taniguchi, who later created the well-known Japanese Garden in Austin’s Zilker Park. Japanese from other internment camps in other states also returned home, but a few moved to the Lone Star State for its economic opportunities and its small, but stable core of Japanese residents. The end of the war also saw a softening of anti-Japanese sentiment existing in the US and Texas, partly in response to the deeds of the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT). One of the most decorated units in the military, the 442nd was best known for its heroic rescue in southern France of the 1st Battalion of the 36th Infantry Division, Texas National Guard, the so-called “Lost Battalion.” While other units were unable to reach the surrounded infantrymen, the 442nd RCT fought back German defenses for five days in a cold rain before finally breaking through to save the lives of 211 Texans. In the effort the 442nd lost 200 Japanese American soldiers, with 600 more wounded. At least one of the dead, Saburo Tanamachi, was himself a Texan and was one of the first two Japanese Americans to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

In the years after the war the descendants of the first Japanese immigrants to the state have taken their place among their fellow Texans, integrating themselves into a society as familiar to them as Japan was to their ancestors. To be sure, in the 1950s and 1960s they faced discrimination and prejudice, the same as other ethnic groups. But they also received kindness and understanding from Texans who knew the story of the “Lost Battalion.” Over time, these younger Japanese Texans have been breaking the patterns of their parents by moving away from agricultural pursuits into other occupations, including the professions. Changes in patterns of marriage have also occurred, with “mixed marriages” becoming much more common. Further evidence of Japanese Texans assimilating into the broader society can be found in the arena of sports. One notable standout is Austin-born Bryan Clay, who is half Japanese American and half African American. Clay took the silver medal in the decathlon in the 2004 Olympics and the gold medal in the 2005 World Championships. In some way his accomplishments are the legacy of another Japanese Texan, Taro Kishi, who was brought to this country as a child in 1907 by his parents. Taro played and worked on the Kishi farm in Terry, Texas, until 1922 when he entered Texas A&M to study agriculture. A gifted athlete, Taro played halfback on the A&M varsity football team and was the first player of Japanese descent to play intercollegiate sports in the Southwest Conference.

In the years after World War II Japanese newcomers to Texas increased. Many of them were “war brides,” the wives of American soldiers stationed in Japan during the Occupation. Such immigration was made possible by the G.I. Fiancées Act (1946) and the McCarren-Walter Act (1952). After nearly three decades of exclusion the latter piece of legislation legalized Japanese immigration once again, albeit in small numbers. Equally important it allowed longtime Japanese residents the right to pursue American citizenship, which many in Texas have done. A symbolic end to past discrimination of the Japanese came in 1988 with passage of the Civil Liberties Act. This law offered both an apology and reparations payments to Japanese Americans interned during the war. It is noteworthy that the redress and reparations movement leading up to the passage of the act had its beginnings in 1970, when a California educator and civil rights activist, Edison Uno, first championed the idea. Edison Uno was a Texan for but a short time as a teenager at the internment camp at Crystal City, but all Texans can be proud of his efforts on behalf of Japanese Americans everywhere.

* * * * *

Timeline for Japanese Americans in Texas

1900 The US Census reports 13 Japanese living in Texas.

1902 Japanese Consul General from New York, Sadatsuchi Uchida, visits Texas to investigate the feasibility of establishing large-scale rice farming ventures on the coastal plains around Houston and Beaumont.

1903 The first rice farms operated by Japanese immigrants were established.

1904-1905 Japan defeats Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. Newly discharged Japanese soldiers and sailors seek employment in the U.S. working for railroad companies. Many attempt to cross into the U.S. at El Paso.

1908 Major Oshimaru Takayama’s rice venture in Dacosta folds and loses its Japanese investors more than $100,000.

1910 Japanese-Texan population reaches 340.

1910s Japanese continue to move to the Texas border region from Mexico and western states such as California.

1916 Uichi Shimotsu returns to Japan to marry Takako Tsuji and brings his new wife to his farm near McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley.

1918 Grain prices, including that of rice, fall dramatically with the end of World War I, severely impacting Japanese rice farming ventures in Texas.

1920 The US Census counts 449 Japanese in Texas.

1920 California passes an “alien land law,” severely restricting Japanese immigrants from owning land in the state.

1921 Texas passes its own alien land law. Opposition by Japanese Texans results in a compromise version allowing Japanese already living in Texas to keep their land.

1922-1926 Taro Kishi attends Texas A&M to study agriculture and becomes the first individual of Japanese descent to play intercollegiate sports in the Southwest Conference.

1924 Congress passes the Johnson-Reed Act, halting all immigration of Japanese into the United States.

1930 The Japanese Texan population reaches 519.

1930s The Rio Grande Valley Royals social club is formed for the children of Japanese settlers in south Texas. They occasionally meet with the Lone Star Club, a similar group from the Houston area.

1940 The US Census counts only 458 Japanese Texans.

1941 On December 7th Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II.

1942 Seagoville and Kenedy internment camp open in April. Crystal City “family” camp opens in November.

1944 The all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team rescues the Texas “Lost Battalion” in southern France.

1945 World War II ends.

1946 Congress passes the G.I. Fiancées Act, permitting the brides of American servicemen entry into the United States.

1952 Congress passes the McCarran-Walter Act, allowing Japanese once again to immigrate to the US, albeit in small numbers, and allowing them to become US citizens for the first time.

1970 Edison Uno champions the idea of providing redress and reparations payments to all Japanese Americans interned during World War II

1987 The University of Texas, Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio, publishes Japanese Texans by Thomas K. Walls.

1988 Congress passes the Civil Liberties Act, offering an apology to all Japanese Americans interned during the war and authorizing payment of reparations to those still living.

2004 Bryan Clay wins a silver medal in the decathlon in the Olympics.

2005 Bryan Clay wins a gold medal in the decathlon in the World Championships.


* Thomas Walls is one of the panelists in a presentation titled, "Enduring Communities: An Overview of Japanese Americans in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah " at the Enduring Communities National Conference on July 3-6, 2008 in Denver, CO. Enduring Communities is a project of the Japanese American National Museum. -ed.

© 2008 Thomas Walls

About this series

Enduring Communities: The Japanese American Experience in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah is an ambitious three-year project dedicated to re-examining an often-neglected chapter in U.S. history and connecting it with current issues of today. These articles stem from that project and detail the Japanese American experiences from different perspectives.