At first glance, the Japanese immigrant experience echoes the experiences of millions who came to America from all over the world, full of mixed emotions and hope for a new start. Using World War II as a pivotal period from which to view Japanese-American assimilation, this paper will analyze the push and pull factors of Japanese immigrants coming to America, and the unconstitutional restrictions Japanese decedents were subject too.
Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor Japanese migration to America was at an all time high, and it was from there that the American dream for Japanese Americans wasn’t much of a dream.
The push factors for Japanese migrants were the Meiji Empire (sometimes referred to as a nationalist revolution) had re-established a strong central government, in order to deal effectively with outside influences. The reorganization was costly, and heavy taxation burdened the farming class so heavily that many lost their lands, were unable to find jobs, and suffered poverty.
The Meiji Restoration in 1868 brought rapid urbanization and industrialization, social disruption and agricultural decline, farmers forced to leave land, and workers left without jobs. Japanese immigrants first arrived on the Hawaiian Islands in the 1860’s but before 1853 Japanese culture was separate from western development for centuries.
The circumstances that opened Japan to trade, pushed Japanese from their homeland, and pulled the first generation of migrants to Hawaii, where they worked as contract laborers in the sugarcane fields.
These plantation required lots of manpower. The planters first hired Hawaiians as laborers, but found them unwilling to devote themselves to plantation life. Next, planters imported Chinese, who were more loyal than Hawaiians, but had ambitions beyond plantation labor. The planters’ search for loyal, hard-working contract laborers coincided with the end of Japanese Sakoku (closed country) and the first major Japanese migration in 200 years.
Men and women, Issei (Japanese migrants to America) worked hard, raised families, the Nisei (a person born in the U.S whose parents were immigrants from Japan), and were successful within the limits of their class. They were obligated by contract to live and work on the plantations.
The plantations can be seen as both a push and pull factor. It provided work and money for people but also forced them to work long hours and hard labor and were bound by contracts to do so. Other more distinguishable pull factor for the Japanese wanting to come to America were, the same for most wanting to migrate to America; job opportunities, higher wages, education, and better way of life. Eventually the Japanese migrants would move to the west coast where many settled in California, Oregon, and Washington, where they worked primarily as farmers and fishermen.
After coming to the continental United States the Japanese faced racially restrictive laws, which segregated Japanese students from public schools, made citizenship unavailable to non-whites, and prohibited aliens from owning land. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act barred additional immigration and declared Asians ineligible for citizenship. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first immigration law that excluded an entire ethnic group, which is important to note to understanding the prevalent racism that limited the civil rights of Japanese Americans at the time. The Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 limited the number of Asian’s that could come into America and had a set quota of how many people would be allowed in. This explicit preference system continued to shape American demographics and immigration policy until the 1960s and drastically changed the number of Japanese immigrants coming to America.
After Pearl Harbor, Japanese immigrants and American-born citizens of Japanese descent were subject to unconstitutional restrictions. After Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States government and military personnel scrambled to assess and anticipate further danger. A celebrated cast of characters weighed their security options, aware that historical anti-Japanese sentiment would exacerbate tensions.
“Western Defense Commander General John DeWitt, U.S Attorney General Francis Biddle, F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt debated options for reassuring the homeland population, while uneasy with the idea of singling out ethnic Japanese for particular scrutiny. Ultimately, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.” Which excluded all enemy aliens (aliens being non citizens) from a prescribed military area. These included all Issei and were selected because they were ineligible for citizenship.
The evacuation order crossed a Constitutional line by including Japanese American citizens in the curfew, mass relocation, and eventual internment of over 100 thousand ethnic Japanese. The resulting curfew and evacuation affected all Japanese, who represented about two percent of the population on the west coast. “Compared to Hawaiian Japanese, these mainland Japanese were economically marginal and socially isolated.” First person accounts show the wavering confidence of the Issei, and their American-born offspring who doubted that their government could make fair choices during the months after the bombing.
Nisei, Frank Chuman, a student at the University of California at Berkeley, says, “I felt very much alone… fearing that my features would cause me to be the target of hatred and suspicion.” All Asian immigrants faced prejudice, economic hardship, and social indignity; many became victims of riots and attacks.
Barred from participation in the country’s legal or political systems, including citizenship, Japanese immigrants suffered injustice and exploitation under American policies, even as thousands fled bleak conditions in Japan. Japanese immigrants share many of the migration experiences of settlers to the United States.
They also endured unique and extraordinary forms of social and bureaucratic prejudice. For Japanese Americans, the aftermath of the Second World War was a time of difficult challenges as well as great triumphs. For the Issei, the years of internment represented a total disaster. During the war, they lost their hard earned homes, businesses, and farms, along with the status and sense of achievement that these assets had brought them. The Issei had to struggle for years to gain even partial compensation for their losses. It was not until the 1980’s that they received official acknowledgement of the injustice that had been done them.