Coming to America

Arriving at the turn of the century to America, Japanese immigrants known as Issei became part of society.
Photo by Yoshio Okumoto


The first Japanese immigrants to the United States of America were known as Issei, or “first generation.” A group of colonists arrived in California from Japan as early as 1869, and by the mid-1800s the first major influx of immigrants was recorded as Japanese laborers began working in Hawaii sugarcane fields and California farms.

According to the 1900 U.S. Census, 24,326 Japanese were living in America, primarily on the West Coast. The first Japanese to come to America were male. In fact, the 1900 census shows that only 410 of 24,326 Japanese immigrants were female. Of that total number, 393 were listed in Wyoming. By 1910, the total population of Japanese in America had grown to 72,157, with more than 1,596 of that number living in Wyoming.

New laws reflected growing anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. Among these was the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement aimed at curtailing immigration from Japan. Instead, the Japanese population of California increased. Women were still permitted to enter the U.S., and the steady arrival of “picture brides” from Japan resulted in an increase in the Japanese population in America, both through new immigration and through childbirth. Anti-Japanese groups, citing the picture brides, complained that the Gentlemen’s Agreement was being violated.

Subsequently in 1913, the California Alien Land Law barred Issei from owning land.

A movement to totally exclude Japanese immigrants eventually succeeded with the Immigration Act of 1924. That legislation significantly reduced immigration from Japan until 1952 when an allotment of 100 immigrants per year was designated.

As Japanese communities, or nihonmachi, began to emerge, Issei built businesses, and Buddhist and Japanese Christian churches were established. Opportunities to work as laborers for the railroads, oil fields, canneries and farms drew Japanese away from the cities. Fishing industries also developed. Many Japanese moved to the San Joaquin Valley and were successful in growing potatoes, asparagus, onions, and other crops in areas that had been barren.

In the area of agriculture, the Japanese immigrants employed a system of organizing their produce and flower industries vertically in a system of Japanese-owned operations, from raising the plants to retail sales. Cooperatives were organized to improve the growing, packing and marketing of crops. They experimented with different strains of rice, which they farmed, distributed, and sold.

People from the same areas in Japan formed kenjinkai, or regional affinity clubs, designed to support and aid members and encourage mutual understanding. Financial aid, informal counseling and care for the sick or injured were functions of these groups. Later, the groups placed more emphasis on social events, such as family picnics. Kenjinkai clubs still convene today and many have existed for more than 100 years. There are 35 such clubs in Southern California alone.

Around 1930, the Nisei wanted to create their own organization and formed the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). The JACL’s willingness to cooperate with the government’s plans to remove all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast would become a source of conflict between the immigrant Issei and the U.S.-born members of the JACL , but like the kenjinkai, the JACL has continued to survive as a national organization dedicated to civil rights and other issues of importance to Japanese Americans.