Japanese Americans before World War II
Due in large part to socio-political changes stemming from the Meiji Restoration—and a recession caused by the abrupt opening of Japan's economy to the world market—people began emigrating from the Empire of Japan in 1868 to find work to survive. From 1869 to 1924 approximately 200,000 immigrated to the islands of Hawaii, mostly laborers expecting to work on the islands' sugar plantations. Some 180,000 went to the U.S. mainland, with the majority settling on the West Coast and establishing farms or small businesses. Most arrived before 1908, when the Gentlemen's Agreement between Japan and the United States banned the immigration of unskilled laborers. A loophole allowed the wives of men already in the US to join their husbands. The practice of women marrying by proxy and immigrating to the U.S. resulted in a large increase in the number of "picture brides."
As the Japanese-American population continued to grow, European Americans on the West Coast resisted the new group, fearing competition and exaggerating the idea of hordes of Asians keen to take over white-owned farmland and businesses. Groups such as the Asiatic Exclusion League, the
California Joint Immigration Committee, and the Native Sons of the Golden West organized in response to this "Yellow Peril." They lobbied successfully to restrict the property and citizenship rights of Japanese immigrants, as similar groups had previously organized against Chinese immigrants. Several laws and treaties attempting to slow immigration from Japan were introduced beginning in the late 19th century. The Immigration Act of 1924, following the example of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, effectively banned all immigration from Japan and other "undesirable" Asian countries.
The 1924 ban on immigration produced unusually well-defined generational groups within the Japanese-American community. The Issei were exclusively those who had immigrated before 1924; some desired to return to their homeland. Because no new immigration was permitted, all Japanese Americans born after 1924 were, by definition, born in the U.S. and automatically U.S. citizens. This Nisei generation were a distinct cohort from their parents. In addition to the usual generational differences, Issei men had been typically ten to fifteen years older than their wives, making them significantly older than the younger children of their often large families. U.S. law prohibited Japanese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens, making them dependent on their children to rent or purchase property. Communication between English-speaking children and parents who spoke mostly or completely in Japanese was often difficult. A significant number of older Nisei, many of whom were born prior to the immigration ban, had married and already started families of their own by the time the US joined World War II.
Despite racist legislation that prevented Issei from becoming naturalized citizens (and therefore from owning property, voting, or running for political office), these Japanese immigrants established communities in their new hometowns. Japanese Americans contributed to the agriculture of California and other Western states, by introducing irrigation methods that enabled the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and flowers on previously inhospitable land.
In both rural and urban areas, kenjinkai, community groups for immigrants from the same Japanese prefecture, and fujinkai, Buddhist women's associations, organized community events and charitable work, provided loans and financial assistance and built Japanese language schools for their children. Excluded from setting up shop in white neighborhoods, nikkei-owned small businesses thrived in the Nihonmachi, or Japantowns of urban centers, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.
In the 1930s the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), concerned by Imperial Japan's rising military power in Asia, began conducting surveillance on Japanese-American communities in Hawaii. From 1936, at the behest of President Roosevelt, the ONI began compiling a "special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble" between Japan and the United States. In 1939, again by order of the President, the ONI, Military Intelligence Division, and FBI began working together to compile a larger Custodial Detention Index. Early in 1941, Roosevelt commissioned Curtis Munson to conduct an investigation on Japanese Americans living on the West Coast and in Hawaii. After working with FBI and ONI officials and interviewing Japanese Americans and those familiar with them, Munson determined that the "Japanese problem" was nonexistent. His final report to the President, submitted November 7, 1941, "certified a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." A subsequent report by
Kenneth Ringle, delivered to the President in January 1942, also found little evidence to support claims of Japanese-American disloyalty and argued against mass incarceration.