Japanese Emigration

The History of Japanese Emigration

The History of Japanese Emigration

by Vinh Phung

Early Japanese emigrants' luggage.

In 1853 American war ships - the 'Black Ships' - arrived unannounced in Shimoda, Edo Bay (present-day Tokyo Bay), under Admiral Matthew C. Perry demanding that Japan abandon its closed country policy.

The policy of 'sakoku', so called in Japanese, restricted foreigners from entering the nation as well as limiting Japanese citizens from traveling abroad.

Given the outmoded state of Japan's military technology compared with the iron steam-powered fleet of the Americans, the Japanese had no real option as the Americans left but to heed their departing promise to return the following year for a response.

And so on March 31 1854, Japan under the Shogun reluctantly signed the Commercial Treaty of Kanagawa and entered, for better or worse, the family of nations.

The First Emigrants

Even with the treaty, no Japanese set foot on foreign ground for another 14 years. This did not, mean, however, that the government dishonoured the treaty, and in subsequent years some 190 people travelled as far as Hawaii and Guam.

Until 1885 only students, traders, and a few menial laborers or acrobatic performers employed by foreigners went abroad. Leaving their village and journeying away from the islands was a tremendously courageous decision. Everything beyond the shores of Japan was unknown. No one could predict what lay ahead.

Most of the emigrants, who went to Hawaii and later the Pacific coast of the United States, worked on sugar plantations. Villagers from the prefectures of Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Hiroshima, and Yamaguchi were considered well suited for this kind of overseas work and quickly came to dominate the migration statistics.

Between 1885 and 1894 over 96.1% of the roughly 29,000 emigrants came from these four areas. The biggest group of migrants were the shosei (working students) and dekasagi (those who aspired to make money).

The shosei hoped to learn unique skills from the West and use their knowledge back in Japan, while the dekasagi wanted to work in order to earn enough money to be able to live comfortably after having returned to the ancestral village. None of them really intended to stay overseas.

JapaneseLanguageSchool, in a plantation in Hawaii, 1898.

Those who returned told stories of great opportunities in the far lands. The local newspapers often printed stories of successful emigrants. Agents and emigration companies would distribute emigration leaflets and enticing brochures, and the number of emigrants to Hawaii and North America grew rapidly.

The emigrants received considerable help and assistance from the emigration companies and hotels that they stayed at prior to their departure.

Here they received information about what to bring and how to prepare for the long journey, assistance with buying tickets and information about quarantine procedures.

Steam boats would carry the Japanese from either Kobe or Yokohama Bay across the Pacific to Honolulu or San Francisco.

The 'Oriental Invasion'

Anti-Japanese books.

The hard working Japanese who could farm and produce quality vegetables from the insignificant plots of stale soil they were given came to be regarded with jealous eyes.

As with most countries, a noticeable accumulation of foreigners leads to ethnic conflict, and the Japanese abroad were no exception.

Numerous egregious incidents occurred between the Japanese and American xenophobes. Most conspicuous, and most galling to Japan, was the decision by the school boards of San Francisco to segregate its schools and thus exclude Asian children from contact with American' children an act Roosevelt lambasted as "a wicked absurdity." The resentment being felt by the Japanese nation was threatening America-Japan relations.

So in 1907 and 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt worked out a solution with the Japanese government known as the Gentlemen's Agreement'. Japanese immigrants in Hawaii were prevented from entering mainland America. Passport-holding Japanese in Hawaii were thus to remain there. At the same time, San Francisco schools were prevailed upon to desegregate.

Japanese American farmers' festival float

For its part, the Japanese government announced that no labourers, except for the family members of those who are already residing abroad, would be granted a passport. But none of these attempts could mollify the anti-Japanese element.

Conflicts continued and 16 years later the exclusionists managed to influence the United States Congress to prevent the entry into the United States of any aliens ineligible to citizenship in practice this meant a total block of all Japanese immigration into the county.

Destination: South America

At this time the Japanese government faced a different problem: the modernization of Japan led to explosive population growth. As government officials worried about coping with the rapid increase of population,

Japanese laborers were sent to Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Bolivia, Dominican Republic and Colombia. In total, more than two-thirds of the Japanese who migrated went to Brazil.

Trainee emigres graduating, and on their way overseas, 1960.

The migration was only stopped by the outbreak of World War II, and resumed in 1952. During this period most of the migrants were settlers, and young single men only made up just 6 percent of the group. In the 1960s emigration slowed down as Japan's economy boomed.

More than a hundred years after the treaty was signed, the last steamer, SS Nippon Maru, left Japan on February 14, 1973 from Yokohama. Today more than 761,000 Japanese live in the United States and a total of 620,000 in Brazil.

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