Ozawa v. United States

Landmark Supreme Court case that denied eligibility for citizenship to the Issei . Along with the passage of California's Alien Land Law in 1920, the Ozawa decision (1922) spurred the anti-Japanese cause and set the stage for the Immigration Act of 1924 that barred all further immigration from Japan. It was not until the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 that the Issei were allowed to naturalize.

Under the Nationality Acts of 1790 and 1870 , the federal law had restricted the right of naturalization to aliens who were either "free white" or of "African nativity and descent." The ambiguity of the former category, if interpreted widely, left open the possibility for Japanese immigrants to become naturalized citizens. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 declared the Chinese ineligible for citizenship, but the Nationality Acts left unclear where the Japanese fit in the black-white racial classification. [1] President Theodore Roosevelt's remarks in response to the San Francisco School Board Segregation Order of 1906 also seemed to support naturalization of the Issei. [2] As a matter of fact, according to the 1910 census, some 420 had naturalized. [3] When the U.S. Attorney General moved to close the loophole in 1906, Issei leaders searched for diplomatic and legal means to dispute and challenge existing qualifications for citizenship. Following Takao Ozawa's unsuccessful petition and appeal to naturalize, the Pacific Coast Japanese Association Deliberation Council intervened and brought the lower court ruling to the Supreme Court in 1922.

Ozawa's was an ideal test case to bring to the Supreme Court, meeting all non-racial qualifications for naturalization set by the Act of 1906, whereby an applicant had to file a petition of intent to naturalize at least two years prior to formal application. He had filed his petition of intent on August 1, 1902, in Alameda County, California, and filed for naturalization on October 16, 1914. He also satisfied the five-year continuous residency requirement. He had lived in the United States and Hawai'i for more than twenty years. [4]

Ozawa was born in Kanagawa, Japan, on June 15, 1875, and immigrated to San Francisco in 1894. As a schoolboy, he worked his way through various schools and graduated from Berkeley High School in California. He attended the University of California for three years until 1906, when he moved to Honolulu and settled down. He was fluent in English, practiced Christianity, and worked for an American company. He was married to a Japanese woman who was educated in the U.S., not Japan, with whom he had two children. In his own legal brief, he argued that his skin was as white as or whiter than the average Caucasian's, but more importantly, he underscored his personal beliefs. "My honesty and industriousness are well known among my Japanese and American friends. In name Benedict Arnold was an American, but at heart he was a traitor. In name I am not an American, but at heart I am a true American," he wrote. [5] In every sense of the word, he was a model citizen, if being fully assimilated were the test.

When Ozawa's petition to naturalize was rejected, he took his case to the U.S. District Court in Hawai'i, where it was again disqualified. His appeal was passed on from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to the U.S. Supreme Court on May 31, 1917. Having found their ideal test case, the Pacific Coast Japanese Association Deliberation Council hired former U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham as Ozawa's chief counsel. One potential problem was the 12-year gap between Ozawa's petition of intent and his petition to naturalize; technically, a maximum of seven years was allowed. They sought a second case, Yamashita v. Hinkle , in the event the Ozawa case was thrown out on procedure. [6]

The Supreme Court was slow to take up the Ozawa case, due to changing political circumstances after the outbreak of World War I. During the war, Japan had sided with the Allied Powers, whose victory brought Japan to the negotiating table at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Although Japan gained some German territories in the Pacific, it failed to convince the Allied victors to insert a racial equality clause into the League of Nations Covenant. The Japanese delegation had walked out of the conference in response. An unfavorable decision to the Japanese side in the Ozawa case would have caused further damage to U.S. relations with an already humiliated Japan. The case was delayed once again in the fall of 1921, when the Washington Naval Conference was held to limit Japan's naval expansion in the Pacific in a growing rivalry between the U.S. and Japan. The prospect of embarrassing Japan at this critical time, should Ozawa lose in court, was a pressing concern for the U.S. in their attempt to extract a compromise from Japan. It did not help that California had just passed the Alien Land Law of 1920, prohibiting Japanese from owning land or leasing it long term. [7]

The Supreme Court ruling came on November 13, 1922. Justice George Sutherland who presided over the case upheld the lower court ruling and declared Ozawa racially "ineligible for citizenship." While acknowledging that "the color test alone would result in an overlapping of races and a gradual merging of one into the other, without any practical line of separation," it declared that the word "white" was synonymous with "what is popularly known as the Caucasian race." The court concluded that the Japanese could not be white, since they were "clearly of a race which is not Caucasian." [8] It also denied Takuji Yamashita's naturalization case on the same day. The rulings not only cemented the citizenship status of the Issei, but also gave anti-Japanese advocates the justification for their exclusionist cause, culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924. [9]

Authored by Shiho Imai , State University of New York at Potsdam

For More Information

Ichioka, Yuji. "The Early Japanese Immigrant Quest for Citizenship: The Background of the 1922 Ozawa Case." Amerasia Journal 4:2 (1977): 1-22.

Ichioka, Yuji. The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885-1924 . New York: Free Press, 1990.

Takao Ozawa v. U.S. , 260 U.S. 178 (1922). http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=260&invol=178 .


  1. Mae M. Ngai, "The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924," The Journal of American History 86:1 (June 1999): 81.
  2. Brian Niiya, ed., Encyclopedia of Japanese American History: An A-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present , (New York: Facts on File, 2001), 332.
  3. Yuji Ichioka, The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885-1924 (New York: Free Press, 1990), 211.
  4. Ibid., 220-221.
  5. Ibid., 219-226.
  6. Niiya, Encyclopedia of Japanese American History , 332.
  7. Ichioka, The Issei , 224-225.
  8. Ngai, "The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law," 81.
  9. Izumi Hirobe, Japanese Pride, American Prejudice: Modifying the Exclusion Clause of the 1924 Immigration Act (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 6-7.

Last updated Feb. 6, 2024, 3:42 a.m..