May Day is known the world over as a day of worker protest and rebellion. After the bloody Haymarket Riots of 1886, the May 1 holiday became so notorious for its association with anarchy and revolution that the US created an entirely separate holiday (Labor Day) as a more benign celebration of workers. Even so, May Day is still recognized as International Worker’s Day, and so we take this opportunity to pay tribute to Japanese Americans working in the coastal US prior to World War II.
Japanese American history in the U.S. was, at its origins, a story of immigrant labor. Mass migration of workers from Japan to the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1885. Most who came to the islands arrived as contract laborers recruited to work on sugar plantations.
Given the arduous nature of Hawaiian plantation labor, most sought other forms of employment as soon as they were able. (There’s a complex history of labor and resistance in Hawaii that we’ll save for another post. If you need to sate your curiosity in the meantime, check out the Densho Encyclopedia entries on the Hawaii Sugar Planters’ Association and the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union.)
Many made the journey to the continental U.S. where they worked on railroads, at sawmills and canneries, as agricultural laborers, and other similar occupations. Over the next four decades, several hundred thousand Japanese migrated to the U.S. at the same time that mass migration from Europe peaked.
These workers made major sacrifices and suffered abuse, harsh conditions, and grueling work. As Erika Lee writes in her book The Making of Asian America:
“Workdays started early and ended late. In the fields of central and southern California, the temperature could soar to 120 degrees. Railroad workers, on the other hand, suffered bitter cold in the mountain states where the temperature could get as low as 20 degrees below zero. In Alaska, Japanese cannery workers processed huge catches of salmon as conveyor belts sped as many as 200 fish per minute their way. The ‘Alaskan smell’ of ‘rotten fish, salt, sweat, and filth stayed with them for days.” Erika Lee (117)
Scroll through these images for a little glimpse into the lives of Japanese American laborers before World War II.
By Natasha Varner, Densho Communications Manager
[Blog header: Issei man working on a milling machine, Seattle 1918. Courtesy of the Kunitsugu Family Collection.]