Case Study: Japanese Migration & the U.S.

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Learn how Japanese migration to the U.S. has shaped and been shaped by various government policies.

Early Japanese immigration to Hawaii and the western states resulted in Japanese Americans becoming one of the largest Asian ethnic groups in the United States. Although they faced many obstacles, Japanese Americans integrated and eventually became successful in government, business, the sciences, and cultural enterprises. Learn about the history of Japanese migration to and within the United States, then complete the assignment at the end.

Japanese Migration & the U.S.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 1,469,637 Japanese Americans in the United States in 2016. Also, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. population at the end of 2016 was 324,650,630.¹

Though the Japanese American population remains less than one half of one percent of the U.S. population, the Japanese American experience offers a look at various types of migration. 

Identifier: LC-DIG-ppmsc-09965. Source: Library of Congress

Time Periods

For the purposes of this lesson, the history of Japanese migration and the United States is divided into the following three time periods:

1.  Mid-19th century to 1924

2. 1941 to 1946

3. 1965 to the present

*This is not meant to be a comprehensive history of Japanese migration and the United States.

Teahouse at Koishikawa the Morning After a Snowfall by Katsushika Hokusai, ca. 1830–1832.

Identifier: LC-DIG-jpd-02457. Source: Library of Congress

Copy of beautiful-color-ui-gradients-bac

​Mid-19th century to 1924

Beginning in the 1630s and lasting for more than 200 years, Japan largely isolated itself from foreign powers, allowing very few Westerners into the country and very few Japanese out.


Nevertheless, contact between Japanese and Westerners did occur to a limited extent, and in the mid-19th century, some shipwrecked Japanese who were rescued by Americans were brought to the United States. 

Among them were Manjiro Nakahama, who adopted the name John Manjiro, and Hikozo Hamada, who adopted the name Joseph Heco.


Manjiro later became an interpreter for Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who played a leading role in the opening of Japan to the West. Heco became the first Japanese to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. 

Manjiro Nakahama, ca. 1880.

Meanwhile, powerful companies in Hawaii were recruiting plantation laborers, and the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act by the U.S. government prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States, which resulted in labor shortages in places like California. Japanese immigrants were recruited to fill the labor void. 


Approximately 30,000 Japanese, mostly from poor farming communities, traveled to Hawaii over a nine-year period from 1885 to work on sugar plantations on three-year contracts.³ 

Chinese laborers on a sugar plantation in 19th-century Hawaii.

Honolulu Advertiser photo collection. Source: University of Hawaii

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By 1920 there were 109,274 Japanese and Japanese Americans in Hawaii.⁴ Many early immigrants to the U.S. mainland worked as farm labor, but also in lumber mills, canneries, mines, and railroads of the American West. Eventually, many established their own businesses, ranging from small restaurants and general stores to large farms.

In 1890, there were 2,039 Japanese and Japanese Americans on the U.S. mainland,⁶ but over the next 20 years their population increased to 138,834. By 1920, Japanese immigrant farmers controlled more than 450,000 acres of land in California.

Some early immigrant laborers returned to Japan after the end of their labor contract period, but others chose to stay. Many of the young men were second or third sons who—due to Japanese inheritance practices at the time—could not inherit their ancestral land.

Some immigrants were not laborers, but students or entrepreneurs who traveled to U.S. cities in search of educational or economic opportunities outside of Japan. 

Like other immigrant groups, early Japanese immigrants experienced discrimination, including laws that specifically targeted them.

In 1907, the Gentlemen’s Agreement, an informal agreement between the United States and Japan, resulted in Japan agreeing to end further emigration of laborers to the United States and also the immigration of Japanese laborers from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland.


Although this effectively ended male immigration, there was a loophole in the Gentlemen’s Agreement that allowed wives and children to join their immigrant husbands or fathers in Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. 


an ambiguity or inadequacy in the law or a set of rules

Japanese store, Honolulu, HI, ca. 1895–1910.

Identifier: LC-DIG-det-4a20736. Source: Library of Congress

Following the Gentlemen’s Agreement, Japanese women, as brides of Japanese immigrants living in Hawaii and the U.S. mainland, began to immigrate to the United States. They became known as “picture brides” because many of the marriages between Japanese women and Japanese immigrant men were based on an exchange of photographs.

Between 1907 and 1923, 14,276 Japanese picture brides arrived in Hawaii, and between 1908 and 1920 over 10,000 picture brides arrived on the West Coast of the United States.¹⁰ These women were motivated for several reasons.

Many came from poor farming families and decided to marry and emigrate for economic reasons—to not only help themselves but also their families back home.

Some felt that they could not go against their parents’ wishes that they get married even though their spouses were living abroad and thus married for social reasons. Others felt that they could possibly sidestep responsibilities that would be expected of them as “traditional” wives in Japan.

Picture bride Kane Mineta, ca. 1910.

In 1913, California passed an Alien Land Law that banned Japanese immigrants, who were ineligible to U.S. citizenship and hence “aliens,” from purchasing land. Many other states passed similar alien land laws. Some Japanese challenged their designation as aliens ineligible to citizenship.


In 1915, Takao Ozawa filed for U.S. citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906 that allowed only “free white persons” and “persons of African nativity or persons of African descent” to naturalize.


In 1922, in Takao Ozawa v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Takao Ozawa, who was born in Japan and had lived in the United States for 20 years, was ineligible for naturalization.  


With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924—a law that effectively banned Asian immigration—Japanese immigration to the United States ended except for a few isolated cases of Japanese entering for family or specific occupational reasons.¹¹

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In the U.S. Census of 1940, there were 157,905 Japanese and Japanese Americans in Hawaii and 126,947 Japanese and Japanese Americans in the U.S. mainland.¹² A key turning point in their lives was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941.

After the attack, Japanese American families—most of which consisted of Japanese immigrant parents who were aliens ineligible to U.S. citizenship and U.S.-born children who were thus U.S. citizens—were thrust into a very daunting situation.


Japanese community leaders in Hawaii and the West Coast, e.g., Buddhist ministers and others who were deemed possible threats to the United States, were arrested and detained without due process of law. Countless crimes were committed against Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans.


Also, Japanese Americans serving in the military were reclassified as 4C, “enemy alien,” though they were U.S. citizens. 

due process

fair treatment through the normal judicial system, especially as a citizen's entitlement

On February 19, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, leading to the removal of nearly 120,000 people of Japanese descent from the West Coast, and incarceration in what the government initially called “concentration camps.”


Executive Order 9066 authorized the War Department to “prescribe military areas…from which any or all persons may be excluded… The right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave” those areas was at the discretion of the “military authorities.”

Government directives to Japanese Americans in San Francisco outlining curfew and exclusion orders, April 1, 1942.

Photo by Dorothea Lange. Identifier: 210-G-A39. Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Most were sent initially to one of 15 so-called “assembly centers” throughout the West Coast and eventually to so-called “relocation centers” in 10 desolate areas in Arizona, California, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Arkansas.

Heart Mountain Relocation Center, WY, September 18, 1942.

Photo by Tom Parker. Identifier: 210-G-E126. Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Students were required to withdraw from schools, and adults lost their jobs. Farm-owning families were forced to leave their crops and most eventually lost their land.

At Tule Lake Segregation Center, goodbyes took place through fences.