Chapter 1 –  Arrival

Aside from a few early ventures to Hawaii and California in the late 1860s, most Issei arrived in the United States between 1885 and 1924. To escape the deeper rural poverty that resulted from Meiji-era land and tax reforms, young Japanese men made the journey to America, only to encounter harsh working conditions and lonely lives in bachelor work camps. The intial immigrants, distinguished from the following generations, are called Issei. The Japanese government and, later, private recruiters brought laborers to the sugar plantations of Hawaii and to mainland canneries, lumber mills, railroad crews, and farms. Others immigrated independently to seek work in western states. Labor unions vehemently objected to the presence of Japanese workers.  Farmers were also threatened by the hardworking Issei, and they pushed to pass alien land laws that prevented Japanese and other Asians from owning or leasing farmland. The Japanese government objected to the alien land laws and other discrimination directed toward the Issei.

Although immigrants from Japan represented only 1.5 percent of the Pacific Coast population in 1910, the press, politicians, and nativist groups warned that a racially alien “yellow peril” was invading the country. Discriminatory federal law did not permit the Issei to become U.S. citizens, meaning they could not vote and therefore remained politically powerless.  Anti-Japanese exclusion leagues pressed for the government to stop all immigration from Japan. In 1908 the Gentlemen’s Agreement between the United States and Japan halted the influx of laborers, but relatives of Japanese immigrants could still enter the country.

Picture brides being processedIssei men traveled to the home country to bring back wives. In addition, thousands of “picture brides” arrived to join husbands they knew only from photographs. With the wives came the arrival of a new generation, the Nisei.  This shift in the make-up of the Japanese American population set off another wave of animosity.  The Immigration Act of 1924 stopped further immigration from Japan, representing a triumph for the exclusionists.



Family immigrating to the United States(1909)
Location unknown
Courtesy of Densho, the Magden Collectioon"

Excerpt from Densho Archive

My father and his siblings were orphaned during a great flood in Japan, and so all of them were farmed out to different families. And of course, with the Meiji Restoration there was heavy industrialization, so they taxed the farms very heavily, which caused a strain on the farm family. And so a lot of the young men that lived in Japan could not find work, especially orphaned men, so they discovered that they could seek their riches in this grand, great country called America. I think my father and brother arrived in Bainbridge Island because of the Port Blakely mill, which was the largest mill in the world at one time. The virgin timbers were well over 6 feet in diameter. It was a great source for lumber. And ships from all over the world would come in, including ships from Japan. They became disenchanted with the working conditions and the wages, and so they started to farm.

Junkoh Harui

Nisei who helped restore his father’s nursery business on Bainbridge Island, Washington, after World War II

Picture brides being processed(1910)
Angel Island, California
Courtesy of California State Parks