The roots of Japanese immigrant communities in both the continental United States and in Hawai’i began with the start of mass migration of laborers 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 plantation labor, most sought other forms of employment as soon as they were able, with many journeying 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.
Soon after their arrival, Japanese Americans became the targets of severe and racially exclusive forms of discrimination, much of it originating in California. Beginning with organized labor, and including many of the same actors who had earlier agitated against Chinese immigrants, what would become known as the anti-Japanese movement was embraced by nearly all sectors of society in many Western states. Driven by pressure from Western states, the federal government negotiated the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan in 1907 and 1908, which stopped the further migration of Japanese laborers. Japanese immigrants were able to exploit a loophole in the law that allowed family members of those already in the country to migrate, with tens of thousands of immigrant women arriving over the next decade, many of them so-called picture brides.
Much of the discrimination Japanese immigrants faced stemmed from federal laws prohibiting Japanese and other Asian immigrants from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. In 1913, California passed the first alien land law, which prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from purchasing agricultural land. A revised version of the law closed loopholes in 1920, and nearly all Western states followed suit with similar laws.
Japanese immigrant (Issei) community leaders fought back in various ways. Because electoral politics was effectively closed off to them, Issei banded together in Japanese Associations that organized and funded legal challenges to the land laws and to the ban on naturalization, all of which were turned back by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1922 and 1923. Finally in 1924, the federal government banned all further Japanese immigration.
Despite the often hostile environment, Japanese immigrants and their American-born children settled and built ethnic communities and institutions. In the continental U.S., agriculture was the core economic engine of the community. “Little Tokyos” emerged in West Coast cities and Japanese American community institutions such as churches, newspapers, youth organizations, and both political and social organizations, proliferated. By the 1930s the first Nisei—the American-born children of the Issei who typically embraced mainstream American ideals and culture—began to come of age. But Japanese expansion in Asia along with the bleak diagnosis many Issei and Nisei saw for their future in America led to a rise of Japanese nationalism among Japanese Americans, including a rise in the number of Nisei who were sent to Japan for some portion of their education. At the same time, growing tensions between Japan and the U.S. had many Japanese Americans on edge, fearing the worst.