Photo Essay: A Tribute to Japanese American Migrant Workers

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.

Terminal Island, California, 1940. Female employees of a Japanese fishing cannery leave work for the day. Courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News negatives collection, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

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Nemah, Washington, 1937. These Japanese Americans are shucking oysters on a table. Unshelled oysters were stored behind the wall shown here. The workers grabbed the oysters through an opening in the wall, opened them, placed the oysters in buckets, then deposited the shells on a conveyor belt below the worktable. Shuckers were paid by the bucket. Courtesy of the Mitsuoka Family Collection.

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Alaska, 1934. These cannery workers are aboard the steamship “Aleutian” on its way to Alaska. Three individuals are identified: Hiroshi Yamada (middle front), Hiro Nishimura (right front), and Kenny Nakatani (back right). Courtesy of the Mitsuoka Family Collection.

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Alaska, 1934. Cannery workers are sitting on plywood in front of the cannery. Courtesy of the Mitsuoka Family Collection.

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Railroad workers in Rock Springs, Wyoming, 1925. Courtesy of the Uyeda Groves Family Collection.

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Seattle, 1918. These Issei men worked for Joe Moyer in his machine shop on First Avenue. Left to right: unidentified, unidentified, Mr. Yoshikane, Tajuro Kunitsugu, unidentified, unidentified, and unidentified. Courtesy of the Kunitsugu Family Collection.

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Kodiak Island, Alaska, 1940. These workers are at Shear Water Bay near Kodiak Island. They appear to be playing cards. Left to right: unidentified, Tom Matsudaira (cannery foreman), “Cannon” Watanabe, (first name unknown) Yamasaki, and Paul Sakai. Courtesy of the Mitsuoka Family Collection.

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Seattle (possibly Vashon Island), 1915. Strawberry farm workers pose in the field. Courtesy of the Ouchi Family Collection.

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Kodiak Island, Alaska, 1936. George Munato (left) and Takeo Dozen hold their catch of halibut from the Shear Water Bay area of Kodiak Island. The item on top of the halibut is a skate. Courtesy of the Mitsuoka Family Collection.

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Willapa Bay, Washington, 1930s. Japanese Americans were active in oyster farming in the Puget Sound area before World War II. Courtesy of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, the Hatate Collection.

By Natasha Varner, Densho Communications Manager

[Blog header: Issei man working on a milling machine, Seattle 1918. Courtesy of the Kunitsugu Family Collection.]

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