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Issei Pioneers - Hawaii and the Mainland 1885-1924 - Part 9

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Though the Issei had come from various prefectures with different customs and dialects, their “oneness” as Japanese became reinforced by the color consciousness of America.  Upon arrival in America, there were almost immediately faced with racism, prejudice, and segregation.

In 1905, when Nisuke Mitsumori landed in San Francisco, he was met by a group of fifteen to twenty youngsters who routinely came to “rough up” the Japanese arriving at the port.  “Let’s go. Japs have come,” they shouted, picking up horse manure off the streets and throwing it at Mitsumori and his friend.  “I was baptized with horse manure,” Mitsumori recalled about his first impression of America.1

The Japanese were suffering the effects of the white working class fear of all Asians. The Industrial Commission reported, “The passage of the so-called Chinese exclusion Law in 1882 stopped for the time at least, the hordes of coolie laborers who were pouring into the Pacific States....Close upon the retreat of the Chinese coolie, however, came the Japanese, equally menacing to the laboring interest of the country.  Almost unnoticed, and without exciting either suspicion or alarm, has Japanese coolie labor crept into the country and established itself in almost every line of industry along our Pacific coast.”2

Between 1890 to 1900, the Japanese population had dramatically increased from 2,039 to 24,326.  A decade later, the Japanese population tripled, the sharp increase largely due to the indirect immigration from Hawaii.  By 1920, the Mainland Japanese numbered 111,010.  The vast majority of the Japanese resided in the Pacific Coast states, particularly California where 65 percent of the Japanese lived in 1920.  While in Hawaii the Japanese were the largest ethnic group, constituting 43 percent of the population, on the Mainland, they were only one-tenth of one percent of the total population.

On February 23, 1905, the front-page headline of the San Francisco Chronicle, the most influential paper on the Pacific Coast, read:  “THE JAPANESE INVASION, THE PROBLEM OF THE HOUR.”  As a warning the paper noted that, “once the war with Russia is over, the brown stream of Japanese immigration” will become a “raging torrent.”  Similar stories appeared almost daily:  “ADULT JAPANESE CROWD OUR CHILDREN” and “THE YELLOW PERIL—HOW JAPANESE CROWD OUT THE WHITE RACE.”

At the American Federation of Labor’s (AF of L) national convention in 1904 in San Francisco, members called for an amendment of the Chinese Exclusion Act to include Japanese and Koreans.  The American Federationist, the Federation’s official newspaper gave the reasons why the Japanese should be excluded from the American labor movement: Their God is not his god.  Their hopes, their ambitions, their love of this country are nothing to him....I say that our interest can never become his.  He can not be unionized.  He cannot be Americanized.3

The Oxnard Strike of 1903 exemplified organized labor’s determination to keep Asian laborers from entering their ranks,  In 1903, Japanese and Mexican sugar beet workers in Oxnard, California formed the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA) and led 90 percent of the entire labor force out on strike.  Growers raised wages in less than a month.

Buoyed by the success of the strike, J.M. Lizarras, the Mexican secretary of the JMAL, petitioned the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) for a charter.  Samuel Gompers, the president of the AF of L granted the request under one condition.  “Your union will under no circumstances accept membership of any Chinese or Japanese.”4

Lizarras responded:  “We beg to say in reply that our Japanese brothers here were the first to recognize the importance of cooperating and uniting in demanding a fair wage scale....We will refuse any other kind of charter except one which will wipe our race prejudice and recognize our fellow workers as bring as good as ourselves.5  The Mexican-Japanese Labor Association was refused membership in the American Federation of Labor.

In 1905, delegates from 67 organizations met in San Francisco to form the Asiatic Exclusion League, formerly called the Japanese-Korean Exclusion League.  The League had decided that Union labor would be denied to Asians.  Through legislation, propaganda, and boycotts, the League directed all its efforts toward one goal: exclusion of the Japanese.

The following year, under mounting pressure from the Asiatic Exclusion League, the San Francisco School Board ordered all Japanese and Korean students to be segregated with the Chinese in the Oriental school.  President Theodore Roosevelt interceded in what was developing into a sensitive international situation between Japan and the United States.  At the heart of the problem was Japanese immigration.  As a concession to the Californians, Roosevelt promised to limit Japanese immigration if the segregation order was revoked and the California legislature restrained from passing further anti-Japanese legislation.

Roosevelt upheld his end of the bargain.  On March 14, 1907, an executive order was passed barring further Japanese immigration from Hawaii, Mexico, and Canada.  Through a series of detailed negotiations, later known as the Gentlemen’s Agreement, Japan agreed to stop the direct immigration of skilled or unskilled laborers.  However, passports could still be issued to former residents, diplomats, and tourists, and to the parents, wives, or children of residents.6   Roosevelt did not realize at the time that under this agreement thousands of Japanese women would come to this country as “picture brides.”

Part 10 >>

1. Nisuke Mitsumori oral history; in Michiyo Laing, Carl Laing, Heihachiro Takarabe. Asako Tokuno, and Stanley Umeda (Eds.), Issei Christians (place of publication unknown, 1977), p. 129.
2. United States Industrial Commission Reports, Vol. XV, Washington D.C. 1901, p. 754, in Yamato Ichihashi, The American Immigration Collection (Stanford, 1932), p. 160.
3. Augusta H. Pio, “Exclude Japanese Labor,” American Federationist (May 1905), pp. 274-76, in Yuji Ichioka, The Issei:  The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants 1885-1924 (New York, 1988, p. 100.
4. Tomas Almaguer, “Racial Domination and Class Conflict in Capitalist Agriculture:  The Oxnard Sugar Beet Workers’ Strike of 1903,” Labor History XXV, 1985, p. 345.
5. Ibid, pp. 346-347.
6. See Roger Daniels, The Politics of Prejudice, (Berkeley, 1977), pp. 31-45, for a further discussion of the Gentlemen’s Agreement.

* Issei Pioneers: Hawai‘i and the Mainland, 1885 - 1924 is the catalogue accompanying the National Museum’s inaugural exhibition. Using artifacts from the National Museum’s collection to tell the story of the courageous “Issei Pioneers,” the catalogue focuses on the early immigration and settlement years. To order the catalogue >>

© 1992 Japanese American National Museum

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