Anti-Japanese exclusion movement

One of the many challenges Japanese immigrants faced when they arrived in the United States was the efforts of politicians, intellectuals, and community leaders to label Japanese an "undesirable race." Known collectively as the "anti-Japanese exclusion movement," these efforts ranged from introducing discriminatory legislation that discouraged further Japanese immigration, encouraging and enforcing boycotts of Japanese businesses, and spreading propaganda that offered a multitude of reasons to justify the exclusion of Japanese from the United States.

Anti-Chinese Beginnings

The Anti-Japanese Exclusion Movement came on the heels of the earlier Chinese Exclusion Movement. When Chinese laborers began immigrating to the U.S., especially the West Coast, in the mid-nineteenth century in pursuit of work, other groups (some of which consisted of European immigrants) sought to exclude Chinese on the premise that as "Asiatics" or "Mongolians" they were inherently unassimilable. In particular, these exclusionists objected to the class background and what they argued was the questionable morality of these immigrants who were mostly laborers and (in the case of women) prostitutes, arguing that as "non-Christians" these immigrants lacked basic morals and as such would be detrimental to American society. Using tactics ranging from brute violence to more subtle legal means—particularly the Page Law and 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act —these groups succeeded in barring most Chinese immigration. By identifying Chinese as inherently undesirable and therefore not worthy of being allowed into the U.S., and by laying the groundwork for associating Asia with a paranoid vision of the impending onslaught of Asian invaders (also known as Yellow peril), the anti-Chinese exclusion movement established a foundation for rendering all immigrants from Asia morally suspect and politically nefarious, and provided an ideology that was easily adopted and adapted to render Japanese immigrants similarly undesirable and even dangerous.

Ironically, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants, especially laborers, prompted interest in recruiting Japanese immigrants by the end of the nineteenth century. However, as Japanese laborers began arriving in greater numbers to the continental U.S. and especially San Francisco, groups that had formed to oppose Chinese immigration now accused the Japanese of being similarly degenerate and immoral, and therefore similarly requiring exclusion.

The anti-Japanese exclusion movement was not limited to California, but was perhaps most organized there because of San Francisco's growing importance as a key port in the U.S.'s new realm of influence in the Pacific, and because the state's growth attracted immigrants from Europe and migrants from the rest of the U.S. who resented the socioeconomic competition posed by the Japanese. Exclusionists included a wide range of individuals and organizations, but progressive labor groups were particularly aggressive in mounting political and propaganda attacks on Japanese immigrants, scapegoating them as the cause for a lack of jobs for white laborers, many of whom were also immigrants. James Phelan, one-time mayor of San Francisco and congressman, made "keeping California white" a consistent and defining aspect of his political platform until his death in 1930. The Asiatic Exclusion League, formed in 1905 in San Francisco, was the first organized effort to exclude Japanese from the United States. Following World War I, other groups, such as the Native Sons (and Daughters) of the Golden West , the American Legion, the California State Federation of Labor, and farm-related organizations such as California State Grange also took up the cause of agitating against Japanese immigration.

Targeting the "Yellow Peril"

Economic competition served as the practical basis for exclusionists' platforms, but activists and agitators deployed a broad range of arguments to highlight the unsuitability, criminality, and deviance of Japanese immigrants, fanning the flames of popular suspicions with the most vivid and creative images of the specter of an eventual invasion of "Asian hordes." Newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle supported the claims of exclusionists by printing inflammatory reports that depicted Japanese immigrants as morally degenerate and criminal, and drawing on existing white fears about "racial mixing" by suggesting that Japanese men could not be trusted with white women, or that Japanese schoolchildren would morally and culturally contaminate white children in public schools. Especially after 1905 when Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, the exclusionists drummed up fears that Japanese immigrants were but a vanguard for an impending Japanese invasion of the Pacific coast. Also referred to as "yellow peril," this fear of racial obliteration of whites by nefarious and devious "Asian hordes" became a popular image for exclusionists to evoke as they attempted to convince their fellow white countrymen that further Japanese immigration threatened the very survival of their race.

Exclusionists did not represent the entire white population of California (or other western states where similar movements emerged) nor were they even able to successfully shape legislation as much as they'd hoped. On a national level, they were often seen as fear-mongers who put local or state's interests before national interests and diplomacy, and were occasionally criticized by East Coast media for their sensationalist and overwrought propaganda. Japanese immigrants responded to these accusations and attacks in numerous ways, ranging from moral education campaigns, seeking out alliances with potential political allies who could lobby on their behalf at local, regional, and national levels, or refuting such claims in the media. Nonetheless, between 1900 and 1924, exclusionists—and the politicians they elected—helped to shape a number of critical diplomatic decisions and legislation, especially in California, that significantly hampered the growth of the Japanese immigrant community. For example, they played a key role in the controversy over the enrollment of Japanese American children in San Francisco public schools that prompted the 1907–08 Gentlemen's Agreement . They also aggressively advocated for the passage of the Alien Land Law , first in 1913 and then in 1920, that outlawed the purchase of land by "aliens ineligible for citizenship." Similar "copy cat" laws were passed in states across the western U.S. in rapid succession. Their final triumph was the 1924 Immigration Act because, while it applied to all immigrants, the complete exclusion of all Asian immigrants (including Japanese) finally accomplished their decades-long goal.

The exclusion movement was focused on eliminating immigration from Japan, but the legislation they helped to pass, the opinions they formed through their sensationalist propaganda, and the often violent tactics they used to intimidate Japanese immigrants and their sympathizers, ultimately cultivated an environment in the West Coast states where the systematic scapegoating of Japanese Americans, their virtual disenfranchisement, and their ultimate removal from homes, businesses, and communities, could seem acceptable. Additionally, some of the same people who had aggressively and persistently advocated the exclusion of Japanese Americans were among the most vocal in urging to remove Japanese Americans in 1942. Thus the exclusion movement is a critical aspect of pre-World War II history that paved the way for the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Authored by Emily Anderson , Washington State University

For More Information


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Response to Movement

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Last updated April 30, 2024, 3:19 a.m..