Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

From Welcomed Coolies to Resented Japs

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3.1 From Welcomed Coolies to Resented Japs

Immigration of Japanese to the United States could be considered a subsequent level following the immigration to Hawaii, since the island eventually became part of the American territory. By that time, Japanese American community had already been well established there as a result of the steady influx of Japanese laborers. Ever since its beginnings the immigration was monitored by the Japanese government which anxiously guarded the image of the state abroad. For instance, review boards were established for the purpose of screening the immigrants to ensure that “they were healthy and literate and would creditably maintain Japan's national honor” (History of Japanese American Immigration to the Northwest). However, over the years its concern shifted more and more from securing good behavior of its subjects overseas towards guaranteeing their safety. This shift was probably triggered by the gannenmono incident in 1868 when 153 Japanese workers traveled to Hawaii sugar plantation without the government´s authorization. After their arrival, they were submitted to a harsh treatment which convinced the Japanese government that overseas migration was dangerous for the laborers. The incident thus resulted in a seventeen years long pause in the organized emigration (Endoh 61) and also in the passing of the Emigration Protection Law which sought to protect the “imperial subjects from the profit-driven emigrant enterprises

that committed illegal activities in both Japan and the destination country” (Mason and Lee 62).

However, as the demand for Japanese workforce remained high and the government gradually changed its attitude toward emigration, overseas transfer was

re-initiated. Most workers were headed for Hawaii where work was still nearly sure to be found, but at the end of the 19th century immigration to the American mainland, either directly or via Hawaii, was pursued by an increasing number of workers.
“The 1890 census recorded only 2038 Japanese in the United States, half of whom lived in California doing agricultural work, but by 1910 the number of Japanese in the US amounted to 130,000” (Bjorklund 3). Unfortunately for the newcomers, by the time of their arrival to the West Coast local society had already been infested with the notion of “yellow peril”. Although initially welcomed as substitutes for the Chinese coolie labor excluded in 1882, Japanese soon began to be seen as a threat to living standard of American workers who thus started to resent them (Solomon 2). Ironically, it was the fact that the Japanese worked diligently and managed to succeed in the new homeland that made their new neighbors hostile.

Anti-Japanese rhetoric was thus based not only on racism, but also on jealousy stemming from the fact that the immigrants adapted to the unfavorable conditions quickly. As they rose from the position of inferior laborers to the level equal or in some cases even preferred to the white workforce, the latter recognized them as a hindrance. Consequently, organized opposition against Japanese immigration was formed and quickly gained support among the public, politicians, and in the media. While racism indeed played an important role in the rhetoric of organizations such as the American Federation of Labor or the Anti-Japanese League that spread anti-Japanese sentiments on the West Coast, it was not its main motivation. This position was occupied by efforts to secure workplaces for American citizens who feared that their chances were being taken away by immigrants. Racism then served as an effective tool in the process of gaining support for restrictions of immigration or total exclusion of the Japanese.

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