The reasons for immigration to the United States from Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s were varied but occurred during Japan’s transition to a modern economy with its accompanying upheaval. Most of the Japanese immigrated for work and economic opportunities. The Hawaiian sugar industry boom brought many Japanese to Hawaii and in 1910; Hawaii had four times as many Japanese as the U.S. mainland. Between 1882 and 1908, 150,000 Japanese moved to Hawaii and about 30,000 to California. On the mainland, economic opportunities were primarily found in domestic and unskilled labor employment such as in the logging industry, mining, or railroads. During this time, the Issei started families and by 1930, native-born Japanese Americans (Nisei) exceeded those born in Japan by eighty percent. Many worked as contract laborers and as the opportunity arose, the Japanese Americans acquired land or established businesses.
Mainland Japanese Americans, in particular due to their minority status, encountered institutional racism and discrimination. This prejudice came in many forms such as the Naturalization Act which denied citizenship to Asians (1870-1952); segregated schools (San Francisco, 1906); antimiscegenation laws which forbid intermarriage; the Gentlemen’s Agreement which limited immigration of Japanese laborers (1908); and the California Alien Land Law which prohibited non-citizens from owning land (1913). In 1942 during World War II, Executive Order No. 9066 ordered the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans on the U.S. West Coast into inland relocation camps, which had a devastating effect on families and their economic circumstances. Businesses built over a lifetime and personal possessions had to be sold or liquidated within a few days resulting in substantial monetary losses. However, in spite of these great setbacks, many Nisei later advanced economically by pursuing an education and careers in white-collar professions.
A second wave of immigration occurred after World War II when Japanese-born wives of U.S. servicemen entered the United States (sometimes referred to as “war brides”). It is estimated that over 30,000 Japanese women were in this cohort, however, very little is known about them.