Anti-Japanese propaganda attained its goals owing to its ability to make use of diverse arguments in favor of exclusion. Instead of focusing all its powers exclusively on the question of racial hierarchy, exlusionists managed to make their fellow citizens feel threatened by immigrants. Most of these purported dangers were linked with the situation in the work market and later also with the fear of Japanese expansion. When the immigrants began to purchase land of their own, this fear was reinforced. Despite the fact that at the break of the century only some 10,000 of 500,000,000 acres of Californian farmland were owned by the Japanese, it was claimed that immigrants were sent to the West coast in order to prepare the way for a future military conquest and “were seizing control of the state´s food supply” (Robinson 15). Consequently, any activities that hinted a possibility of Japanese expansion were condemned and then used as arguments against unrestricted immigration. For instance, Japanese victories in the Russo-Japanese War, although supported by leading politicians, were presented as undesirable because once the war would be over “the brown stream of Japanese immigration would become a raging torrent” (Solomon 2).
Moreover, there was a body of literature used in support of the negative attitude toward Japanese Americans. Initially, these books did not necessarily need to stress the differences between races. For instance, the immensely popular The Valor of Ignorance by Homer Lea argued that Japanese immigrants were dangerous due to the perceived vulnerability of the West Coast toward potential Japanese attack. Written shortly after Japanese victory over Russia, the book expressed concern over the future of international relations which it predicted to be defined by states with military supremacy. Observations such as that “the transport by sea of Japanese troops to America would involve that nation in no greater difficulties than did the carrying of them to Manchuria” (Lea 33) soon resonated among the readership. For that reason, Japanese Americans who mostly settled on the West Coast appeared more suspicious than other minorities since the notion of immigrants being sent as a vanguard of military conquest seemed plausible in this context. Popular literature of the time reinforced this suspicion by observing that there remained little space for Japan´s expansion to Asia (Lea 135-136) and orientation toward the Pacific therefore was a logical next step:
How unreasonable is it . . . that Japan, possessed of two-thirds the population of this nation and a military organization fifty-fold greater, shall continue to exist on her rocky isles that are, inclusive of Korea, but one-two-hundred-and-fiftieth of the earth´s lands. (Lea 106)
The fact that Japan also had a larger navy and continued its military build-up did not help to sooth the anxiety either.
Certainly, the question of race also played an increasingly important role in shaping of public opinion on immigration, especially when the victory in World War I resulted in a wave of positive nationalism. Ideas of so called scientific racism already quite popular in the 19th century kept spreading rapidly owing to the circulation of literature focused on the topic:
Adapting and distorting the work of Charles Darwin and his followers, some social scientists asserted that human life was governed by the evolutionary competition for resources between opposing 'races' and that therefore the Japanese were innately hostile to people of European descent. Prominent Americans, drawing on elements from all these sources, warned that Japanese expansion represented a 'yellow peril,' an Asian challenge to 'Anglo-Saxon' and Christian civilization. (Robinson 9)
The question of whether the Japanese were assimilable was usually provided with
a negative answer highlighting assumed differences between races as the reason why. Demands for restriction of immigration were thus especially strong and also successful in the interwar era. The cut of the influx of Japanese laborers initiated by Gentleman´s Agreement in 1907 was not enough to satisfy exclusionists and their unrelenting lobbying for a total ban in the end resulted in the Immigration Act of 1924. The fact that the law was passed, even though it was apparently going to cause major deterioration of relations between Japan and the United States, proves how strong and influential the opposition against immigrants was.
Even though Americans joined the peace-promoting activities ensuing from the World War I and were generally careful to avoid conflicts with Japan on the level of state in the interwar period, anti-Japanese sentiment was actually growing stronger in the United States. Although in remission, fears of attack on the West Coast were still present and supplemented by increasingly important notions of racial incompatibility between Japanese and Americans. Interestingly, the desire for economic gain was even then the main motivation of the most influential exclusionists:
Using racial incompatibility as justification, labor provided leadership for
a political movement that portrayed Chinese and Japanese immigrants as different. Consistently, the writings of labor leaders denied that these specific immigrants could assimilate as part of the melting pot. (Solomon 5)
Although there surely were people opposed to immigration strictly on the grounds of alleged racial superiority of Anglo-Saxons, concerns over the living standard of American workers and security of their workplaces were still the priority in the
anti-immigration discourse. This was manifested for instance during the 1920s congressional hearings held by the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. The president of the Anti-Japanese League, Miller Freeman, based his testimony in support of restricting immigration almost entirely upon economic rationalizations claiming that “Japanese were taking jobs away from World War I veterans returning from Europe” (Blair). Evidently, the pattern of economy as
a motivation and racism as a means of propagation was still popular and also very effective as the passage of restrictive legislation proves.
Japanese Americans did not remain passive and struggled to cope with the limitation of their rights and possibilities. The more pressure was pushing them from the outside, the stronger ties inside the ethnic group were formed as a result of greater reliance on self-help networks (Jones 18). The process gradually led to the establishment of an isolated self-reliant society which was comprised almost exclusively of Japanese owing to the fact that there was a large proportion of women among the immigrants. Inside these ethnic enclaves Japanese immigrants employed other Japanese immigrants thus creating parallel societies with independent economy (Jones 21-22). On one hand, this strategy enabled the issei to overcome obstacles created by anti-Japanese propagandists and legislators, on the other hand it provided another argument for the claim that the Japanese were not assimilable. To outsiders, these communities probably appeared more as an attempt to establish a colony than
an effort to blend into the American society.
Then in the last decade before Pearl Harbor, the warlike atmosphere between Japan and the United States helped to further spread the hate felt toward Japanese Americans to the point that the highest political figures focused on their community. This shift of focus was later fateful to the Japanese Americans on the West Coast as it eventually led to the relocation and internment. Since the immigration question had already proved to be an important topic not only for the West Coast, but the whole United States, the federal government realized they needed to get more involved. Thus, in the 1930s President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself sought to gather information on the situation. Although he of course was not the only person responsible for the subsequent treatment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, it was mainly through his actions, opinions, and misunderstandings that the fate of the community was decided. Unfortunately for the immigrants, Roosevelt´s opinion on the Japanese did not bear enough contrast to the sentiments prevalent on the West Coast. Despite being pragmatic in politics and more moderate in judgment based on a racist prejudice than many of his contemporaries, he nevertheless adhered to the “conventional wisdom of the time” (Robinson 42):
FDR´s thesis was that people of Japanese ancestry remained innately Japanese no matter where they lived—even if they were born and raised entirely in the United States, spoke only English, and absorbed American customs—and this made them undeserving of equal citizenship rights. (Robinson 43)
Moreover, he was under the influence of ideas expressed by Homer Lea and Alfred Mahan which caused his suspicion toward the Japanese. While he considered nativists to be “troublemakers” who spread unnecessary hate toward Japan which affected relations between the countries (Robinson 40), he himself believed the Japanese to be incapable of adapting to the life in the United States.
These beliefs led to a series of investigations on Japanese Americans and especially their contact with the Japanese Empire performed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Despite the fact that resulting FBI and ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) reports stated that Japanese Americans would be loyal to the United States in case of conflict, Roosevelt remained unconvinced by their conclusions and kept arranging for new evaluations (Robinson 72). Increasing anxiety about Japan and its aims also resulted in an intensive examination of purported espionage activities. Consequences of these investigations were grave. Since the president regarded both issei and nisei as adjuncts of Japan and therefore potential enemies, he extended the legitimate steps to be taken against agents of Japan, virtually all of whom were Caucasians, to the entire Japanese American community (Robinson 71-72). The successful braking of Japan´s
highest-level diplomatic code one year before the war had similarly significant impact on the lives of Japanese Americans:
The messages decoded by these efforts, code-named in the USA 'Magic', appeared to reveal widespread Japanese espionage networks along the West Coast of the United States. But the exaggeration of the original was often further twisted by problems of translation, and then the climate of espionage fear gave added credence to the worst-case interpretation of a massive security threat. The 'Magic' intercepts, in appearing to support both the suspicion of widespread Japanese espionage and international evidence from the British security authorities, were decisive for Roosevelt´s authorization of the internment of Japanese Americans. (Everest-Phillips 261)
The perception of Japanese immigrants as fifth-columnists was so deeply engraved in Roosevelt´s mind that the possibility of espionage, although not certain and definitely not involving the whole minority, was enough to make him consent to the idea of relocation camps. His resolution was not shaken even by the fact that the majority of both issei and nisei had repeatedly been deemed loyal to the United States by all previous investigations.
The whole process of opinion shaping that the President underwent in the 1930s then approached its climax after the sudden Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The beginning of the war with Japan immediately provoked a strong reaction which influenced the relationship between Americans and the Japanese American community. Whatever the motivation of various anti-Japanese propagators had been before, the Japanese attack enabled them all to unite and press for evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast in the name of national defense. Moreover, their demands directed at the President and the government now enjoyed the support of the Army which undoubtedly raised their importance in the eyes of the addressees.
For instance, the head of the West Coast Defense Command, General John DeWitt “expected a possible Japanese invasion of the West Coast, and he repeatedly insisted to the War Department that West Coast Japanese Americans were communicating with the enemy and plotting sabotage” (Robinson 84). Nevertheless, Roosevelt did not begin to concern himself with the problem until January 1942 because he had been focused on the wartime strategy planning in the first weeks after the attack.
The debate over Japanese Americans came to the fore owing to the release of The Roberts Commission´s report on Pearl Harbor to the public on January 24. Regardless of the fact that “the report´s only discussion of subversive activities was
a brief comment in the text that espionage had been conducted by Japanese spies in Hawaii in the period before Pearl Harbor” (Robinson 95), it resulted in a great stir of emotions in the society. Newspapers all across the United States contained articles about the subversive activities and espionage of the Japanese, and media and politicians on the West Coast urged the government to take action against Japanese Americans. In addition, letter-writing campaigns were organized in order to persuade political leadership of the need for control over Japanese Americans. Many of the letters “were addressed directly to the President” and warned him that the Japanese “could not be trusted” and thus represented a real threat from which the country had to be protected (Robinson 91). Undoubtedly, the content of these letters gave Roosevelt the impression that both, the public and their political representatives were strongly in favor of resolute action against Japanese American minority.
All the various objections to the residence of the immigrants previously expressed were now supplemented with new significance owing to the fact that Japan and the United States were at war. The suspicion regarding the Japanese community on the West Coast that Roosevelt had already borne before the attack was further encouraged by the hysteria contained in the letters and the media. When his own inclination to regard Japanese Americans as potential fifth-columnists met with the support of the public, he was predisposed to adhere to the lobbyists´ demands and transform the future treatment of issei and nisei into a question of national security and thus a responsibility of the Army. Japanese military successes then once again played
a crucial role in the fate of Japanese Americans. On February 11, 1942, the Japanese invaded Singapore and “were also poised to take over the Philippines. . . . Roosevelt´s frustration and anger at the Japanese over these events undoubtedly made him less concerned about the rights of Japanese-Americans” (Robinson 106). Thus, on February 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066 was issued granting the military leaders the right to exclude any person from regions that were transformed into a military area. Although the Order did not specifically mention people of Japanese ancestry and their removal, it directly led to the establishment of internment camps and the relocation of more than 100,000 people from the West Coast.