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Japanese Immigrants

Japanese immigrants experienced a different path in the first decades of the 20th century largely because they were under the protection of a growing military power. The Meiji regime in Japan, established in 1868, soon extended its sphere of influence through territorial expansion Okinawa and Taiwan in the late 19th century; Korea and China in the 20th century, until the fateful clash with the U.S. in 1941. Japan's "concern" for her subjects overseas included demands that Japanese women be allowed to immigrate, so that families would develop and communities would be formed. One result was the emergence of Japanese Americans as the single largest ethnic group in Hawai'i as early as 1900. They were significantly present on many of the sugar and pineapple plantations that dotted the islands and were increasingly important urban dwellers in the capital, Honolulu, as well as significant towns on neighbor islands.

Because most of the early Asian immigrants arrived to join the labor force, issues dealing with the status of workers quickly rose to critical prominence. Indeed, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act had been instigated by white unions and labor organizations which alleged that the Chinese were undercutting white workers struggling for better pay and working conditions. But in most cases, Asian Americans and Pacific Islander workers themselves sought better wages and conditions through organization, negotiation, public relations, legal action, and work stoppage or sabotage. The case of Asian workers on Hawaii's sugar and pineapple plantations was a classic example.

To fill the need for cheap labor, several hundred thousand Japanese immigrated to Hawai'i largely as sugar plantation workers and to the mainland as migrant agricultural workers, railroad laborers, fishermen, and miners. When anti-Japanese sentiment resulted in the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907-8, restricting laborers from immigrating to the U.S., a new wave of Japanese women began arriving as "picture brides" whose families had arranged marriages with Japanese bachelors in the U.S. This practice took advantage of a section of the Agreement which allowed direct family members to enter the country. By 1920, Japan faced increasing pressure from the U.S. and agreed to prohibit these arrangements.

The sugar industry took off in Hawai'i after the American Civil War disrupted the shipment of Southern sugar to the more industrialized North. A burgeoning pineapple sector added to the plantation work force in the 1900s. Japanese immigrant labor formed the majority of the plantation labor force, joined by small numbers of Koreans [along with immigrants from Portugal, Puerto Rico, and a few, including European Americans and African Americans, from the American mainland] and larger groups of Filipinos. Until the arrival of organizers from the California-based International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union [ILWU] in the 1930s, the spontaneous uprisings and organized strikes on the plantations were largely based on single ethnic/nationality bonds. These strikes were broken by planters who temporarily hired workers from other groups until the perpetrators surrendered.

World War II was a turning point in global history; it certainly marked vastly different social and political terrains for Hawai'i and the U.S. One of the war's distinguishing ironies or contradictions was the international crusade to liberate oppressed peoples and the domestic imposition of concentration camp conditions on Japanese Americans. Approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them American citizens, were forcibly removed from their homes and businesses on the West Coast and incarcerated in ten War Relocation Centers as well as dozens of other prisons, internment camps, military prisons, and holding pens, including livestock areas.

In Hawai'i, only about 1,000 people of a total of nearly 160,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated after individual hearings, but none of them, in Hawai'i or on the mainland, was ever accused or charged with any wrongdoing or tried or convicted of any crime against the US.

In 1943 and 1944 the government assembled a combat unit of Japanese Americans for the European theater. It became the 442d Regimental Combat Team and gained fame as the most highly decorated of World War II. Their military record bespoke their patriotism. As the war drew to a close, the relocation centers were slowly evacuated. While some persons of Japanese ancestry returned to their home towns, others sought new surroundings. For example, the Japanese American community of Tacoma, Washington, had been sent to three different centers; only 30 percent returned to Tacoma after the war. Japanese Americans from Fresno had gone to Manzanar; 80 percent returned to their hometown.

On August 10, 1988, nearly one-half century later, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation to apologize for this unconstitutional action and to provide $20,000 in reparations to more than 80,000 surviving Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated during the war.

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Page last modified: 26-09-2017 18:49:44 ZULU