The Gentlemen’s Agreement was an informal set of executive arrangements between the United States and Japan in 1907–08 that defused a hostile standoff over the results of Japanese labor migration to California. President Theodore Roosevelt persuaded the San Francisco school board to rescind an order segregating Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students in return for a promise to halt the flow of Japanese laborers into the United States.
Japan’s emergence as an important East Asian power following the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) heightened tensions between the United States and Japan. In the wake of the war, Japanese immigration to the United States exploded, reaching up to 1,000 a month by 1906. Japan also posed a potential threat to the Philippines, an American colony since 1898. Tensions were to some extent alleviated with the signing of the Taft-Katsura Agreement (1905), by which Japan agreed not to invade the Philippines in return for recognition of Japanese supremacy in Korea. In the same year, however, both houses of the California legislature urged their Washington, D.C., delegation to propose formal limitations on Japanese immigration. The crime and uncertainty following the San Francisco earthquake in April 1906 led to increased hostility toward Japanese immigrants. The mayor and the Asiatic Exclusion League, with almost 80,000 members, pressured the San Francisco school board to pass a measure segregating Japanese students (October 11). The resolution not only violated Japan’s most-favored nation status but deeply offended the Japanese nation and led to talk of war between the two countries.
Not wishing local affairs to undermine international policy, Roosevelt sought a diplomatic solution. In his annual address, on December 4, he repudiated the school board’s decision and praised Japan. Between December 1906 and January 1908, three separate but related agreements were reached that addressed both Japanese concerns over the welfare of the immigrants and California concerns over the growing numbers of Japanese laborers. In February 1907, immigration legislation was amended to halt the flow of Japanese laborers from Hawaii, Canada, or Mexico, which in turn led the San Francisco school board to rescind (March 13) its segregation resolution. In discussions of December 1907, the Japanese government agreed to restrict passports for travel to the continental United States to nonlaborers, former residents, or the family members of Japanese immigrants. This allowed for the continued migration of laborers to Hawaii and for access to the United States by travelers, merchants, students, and picture brides. Japanese foreign minister Tadasu Hayashi agreed to the terms of the discussions in January 1908. With the dramatic decline in the numbers of Japanese laborers, Filipinos were increasingly recruited to take their place. To demonstrate that America’s East Asian policy was not made from a position of weakness, Roosevelt followed the Gentlemen’s Agreement with a world tour of 16 American battleships, with a symbolic stop in Japan.