Dr. Akemi Kikumura Yano
Dr. Akemi Kikumura Yano

“Why Hawaii’s and the U.S. Mainland’s Immigration Experiences Were So Different”

Dr. Akemi Kikumura Yano
Published with Permission

How did the Mainland experience of Japanese immigrants and, subsequently, Japanese Americans, compare with that of the Gannenmono and later generations of Japanese in Hawai‘i? This is a question I am frequently asked and one that I find so fascinating.

Assimilation vs. Exclusion

Starting with the Gannenmono in 1868, the early Japanese who immigrated to Hawai‘i were welcomed and perceived as “assimilable” by the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and its people. On the U.S. mainland, however, the Japanese were viewed as “unassimilable” from the moment they stepped ashore on American soil.

When Nisuke Mitsumori landed in San Francisco in 1905, he was met by a group of 15 to 20 who routinely turned out to “rough up” the Japanese arriving at the port.

“Let’s go. Japs have come,” they shouted, picking up horse manure off of the streets and throwing it at Mitsumori and his friend.

“I was baptized with horse manure!” Mitsumori recalled. That was his first impression of America. In the 1977 publication, “Issei Christians,” Mitsumori said he soon realized that he and his fellow Issei had inherited the racism and discrimination that had previously been directed toward the Chinese, who had immigrated to America before them, in the 1850s.

After the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the leaders of the Asian exclusionist movement thought they had stemmed the flow of Asian immigration. But the threat of the “Yellow Peril” picked up steam with the arrival of the Ja-panese, and American labor saw the Japanese as competitors who took away jobs from the white population. At the American Federation of Labor’s national convention, which was held in 1904 in San Francisco, the members called for amending the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to include Japanese and Koreans, stating:

“Their God is not his God. Their hopes, their ambitions, their love of this country are nothing to him . . . . I say that our interest can never become his. He cannot be unionized. He cannot be Americanized.”

In those early years, the greatest barrier to assimilation for the Mainland Japanese was their legal status as “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” In 1790, Congress had restricted the right of naturalization only to aliens who were “free white persons.” Nearly a century later, in 1870, they extended the right to become naturalized American citizens to “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent.”

But the Japanese, like the Chinese, were denied the right of naturalization, and without the right of citizenship, they were rendered powerless, excluded from the American body politic and denied the right to seek redress and justice through the court system. Under this classification of “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” many discriminatory laws were passed against the Mainland Issei.

Transition from Temporary to Permanent Settlement

On the Mainland, the overwhelming male population of approximately 24 men to one woman was best suited for the transient lifestyle of the early migratory Issei, who were at the mercy of labor contractors. They worked in the salmon canneries of Alaska, mining camps in Utah, sawmills in Oregon, and the agricultural fields of the Pacific and Rocky Mountain states. The majority of the Japanese migrants settled in California, including my grandfather, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1899. In 1920, he called for my father in Japan to join him in farming peaches and grapes in Lodi. Like many other Issei, they became contract farmers and sharecroppers, moving to cash-leasing and joining agricultural cooperatives and alliances. By 1913, there were 6,177 Japanese farming on 281,687 acres in Northern California. Their growth in agriculture contributed to the development of many thriving Issei businesses and communities.

When their “temporary” stay grew longer than they had imagined, married men made provisions for their wives to join them. Bachelors who had the resources returned to Japan to find suitable mates while others sent for “picture brides.” My father returned to Japan to marry my mother and both decided to immigrate to the U.S. in 1923. Had they waited one more year, they would have been barred from entering the U.S. with the passage of the National Origins Act, which prohibited the admission of “aliens ineligible to citizenship” as immigrants. My parents thought of America as just a temporary stay, but with the birth of their children, the Nisei, their mindset shifted from temporary to permanent settlement.

Unlike the mainland U.S., Hawai‘i had a more balanced gender ratio, which contributed to an earlier transition to settlement. This was by design of the planters, who realized that it was to their benefit if the workers started families because it would stabilize the workforce.

In California, the first Alien Land Law was passed in 1913. It prohibited “aliens ineligible to citizenship” from buying agricultural land or selling already owned land to fellow immigrants. The law also restricted land leases to a period of three years. Within the next 10 years, 13 laws relating to land ownership were passed to discourage Japanese settlement.

In 1920, Japanese farms were producing approximately 10 percent of the total value of California crops, which was valued at $67 million. That same year, loopholes in the 1913 Alien Land Law were closed with the passage of an amendment to the law. It abolished completely the right to lease land. Additionally, American-born minors could no longer legally hold title to land that had been purchased by their Issei parents.

“KEEP CALIFORNIA WHITE.” This was the campaign slogan of California Senator James Phelan, who was running for re-election. The Issei farmers responded with their own slogan: “KEEP CALIFORNIA GREEN.”

Over the next 10 years, 13 more states passed similar laws to discourage Japanese settlement. In November of 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the discriminatory alien land laws constitutional. The motives behind the alien land laws were clear: to eliminate Japanese competition and discourage immigration. In 1924, just a year after that U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the U.S. government “solved” the Japanese problem by passing the National Origins Act, barring further emigration from Japan to Hawai‘i and the continental U.S. This prohibition remained in place until 1952 when the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, granting naturalization rights to the Issei and a token immigration quota of 185 new arrivals from Japan per year.

Volunteers for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were honored with an aloha ceremony on March 23, 1943, on the grounds of 'Iolani Palace. Kikumura Yano notes that when the Nisei were finally allowed to volunteer to enlist in the U.S. military in 1943, close to 10,000 in Hawai‘i rushed to enlist. On the Mainland, however, only 1,208 volunteered in the initial recruitment efforts, falling far short of the 3,000 the U.S. Army had expected. (Honolulu Star- Bulletin photo)
Volunteers for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were honored with an aloha ceremony on March 23, 1943, on the grounds of ‘Iolani Palace. Kikumura Yano notes that when the Nisei were finally allowed to
volunteer to enlist in the U.S. military in 1943, close to 10,000 in Hawai‘i rushed to enlist. On the Mainland, however, only 1,208 volunteered in the initial recruitment efforts, falling far short of the 3,000 the U.S. Army had expected. (Honolulu Star- Bulletin photo)

A Question of Loyalty

The comparative difference in the experiences of people of Japanese ancestry in Hawai‘i as opposed to the Mainland is perhaps best exemplified by what occurred during World War II. As most of you know, unlike the 120,000 Japanese Americans who lived on the West Coast of the continental U.S. — two-thirds of whom were American citizens — people of Japanese ancestry in Hawai‘i were not forcibly removed from their homes en masse and incarcerated for the duration of the war following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

My own family was incarcerated in Rohwer, Arkansas. When the camps finally closed in 1945, they were one of only 10 families that decided to settle in Arkansas, where they farmed in Little Rock. I documented my Issei mother’s experiences in my book, “Through Harsh Winters: The Life of a Japanese Immigrant Woman.”

In Hawai‘i, the cost of transporting nearly 158,000 Japanese to the Mainland and housing them would have been exorbitant. Moreover, their forced removal would have crippled Hawai‘i’s economy, as they made up 40 percent of the civilian workforce. Furthermore, Hawai‘i was only a U.S. territory at the time, so xenophobia had not taken hold in the Congress as it had on the West Coast.

The main reason, however, can be attributed to the spirit of aloha that prevailed in the islands’ ethnically diverse population and with many of the territory’s non-Japanese friends and leaders who vouched for the community’s loyalty and spoke on their behalf against their wholesale removal.

In 1943, when the Nisei were finally allowed to volunteer to fight for America in the U.S. military, close to 10,000 in Hawai‘i rushed to enlist, while on the Mainland, only 1,208 volunteered in the initial recruitment efforts, falling far short of the 3,000 the U.S. Army had expected. Among Mainland Japanese Americans, many expressed resentment, humiliation and outrage at the military’s volunteer recruitment efforts while being stripped of their rights as American citizens and while their families were imprisoned behind barbed wire. Others willingly volunteered as a way of demonstrating their loyalty, seeing military service as a pathway to resettlement once the war ended.


In summary, the key difference between the Ja-panese American experience in Hawai‘i and that of the Mainland lay in how they were perceived and treated. Generally speaking, Hawai‘i’s Japanese were welcomed and integrated into the Hawaiian economy, culture and society. On the Mainland, however, they faced racism, segregation and discriminatory laws that held a tight grip on their social and economic status and mobility.

However, the common theme that prevailed throughout the centuries — from the Gannenmono to the present, whether in Hawai‘i or on the Mainland — was the commitment to democratize our nation in order to create a more perfect union for our children, our nation and ourselves. Never were the sacrifices greater than during World War II when the Nisei soldiers gave their lives fighting for democracy both abroad and at home.

A key victory on the Mainland was the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, which resulted in a formal letter of apology for the wartime incarceration of Americans of Japanese ancestry. That letter was signed by U.S. President George H.W. Bush and sent with a nominal $20,000 redress check to each survivor of the wartime concentration camps. For many Japanese Americans, the formal apology represented so much more than the redress payment itself. As President Reagan remarked, “no payment can make up for those lost years. . . . For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law. . . . the ideal of liberty and justice for all — that is the American way.”

The passage of this act and the establishment of the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund spawned the creation and growth of many projects and institutions throughout the United States committed to educating the public about the fragility of democracy and the importance of participating in the democratic process — of standing up and speaking out for those whose civil rights and liberties are being denied based on their race, religion, national origin or sexual orientation.

The late U.S. Representative Robert T. Matsui of California was only 6 months old when his family was forcibly removed from their home in Sacramento and incarcerated at the Tule Lake internment camp. The painful scars of incarceration followed him throughout his adult life, and the importance of “righting a wrong” served as a driving force in the crucial role he played in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. In Matsui’s foreword to “Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress” the 1999 book by Mitchell Maki, Harry Kitano and S. Megan Berthold, he wrote:

“The power of the redress story surely lies in its telling and retelling of the great themes of the history of Japanese Americans and of the United States itself. Through this study and other historical endeavors a permanent record will be established that will chronicle not only what went wrong but also what went right so that future generations of Americans will know of the national victory and the personal triumphs achieved in the passage of the redress legislation.”

In closing, I would like to thank the Gannenmono Planning Committee, especially Dr. Dennis Ogawa, for inviting me to be a part of this special celebration to commemorate the arrival 150 years ago in Hawai‘i of the Gannenmono, the first group of Japanese immigrants in America. They have left us an amazing and proud legacy.

Dr. Akemi Kikumura Yano is an anthropologist, curator, playwright and author. She curated the Japanese American National Museum’s traveling exhibition, “The Kona Coffee Story: Along the Hawai‘i Belt Road,” which traveled to Hawai‘i, Brazil and Los Angeles. Kikumura Yano has also authored numerous books, including: “Issei Pioneers: Hawai‘i and the Mainland, 1885-1924”and the best-selling book, “Through Harsh Winters: The Life of a Japanese Immigrant Woman.”


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