Japanese immigrants began their journey to the
United States in search of peace and prosperity, leaving an unstable
homeland for a life of hard work and the chance to provide a better
future for their children. However, before the first generation
of immigrants could enjoy the fruits of their labor, they had
to overcome hostile neighbors, harsh working conditions, and repeated
legislative attacks on their very presence in the country. Acceptance
came only after the immigrants and their children were forced
to endure one of the 20th century's worst crimes against civil
liberties, and from that crucible fought to claim their place
in the life of the nation.
An Open Door
In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy sailed
gunships into Tokyo harbor, forcing a reclusive nation to open
itself up to trade with the U.S., and incidentally providing the
people of Japan with an unprecedented glimpse of an alien culture.
Since 1639, Japan had maintained an official policy of isolation
from Europe and most of its colonies, and emigration was strictly
controlled. However, in the years that followed Perry's arrival,
Japan underwent a tremendous social transformation, and for many
Japanese the U.S. increasingly became a model not only of modern
military might, but also of a desirable way of life.
After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan's rapid urbanization and industrialization
brought about great social disruption and agricultural decline.
As farmers were forced to leave their land, and workers were left
jobless by foreign competition, they looked more and more for
a better life outside the islands of their homeland. As Japanese
wages plummeted, and word of a booming U.S. economy spread, the
lure of the United States became difficult to resist.
Some of the earliest Japanese immigration to lands that would
later become part of the United States was illegal. In 1868, the
Hawaiian consul general secretly hired and transported 148 contract
laborers to Hawaii, although they were eventually discovered and
returned. Beginning in the 1880s, however, legal barriers to emigration
began to drop, and major emigration soon followed. The Japanese
government showed significant interest in the process, often selecting
emigrants from a pool of applicants, favoring ambitious young
men with good connections. Many prospective emigrants enlisted
the support of prominent citizens to underwrite their expensive
journey to the U.S. At first, most emigrants planned to return
home eventually, and saw their sojourn as a quick path to wealth
Between 1886 and 1911, more than 400,000 men and women left Japan for the U.S. and U.S.-controlled lands, and significant emigration continued for at least a decade beyond that. The two most popular destinations were the archipelago of Hawaii and America's Pacific coast. In both places, the immigrants would discover a new and radically different way of life, but the two destinations each responded to, and were shaped by, the newcomers in a unique and distinctive way.