Japan is a 152,200-square-mile archipelago situated in the Pacific Ocean about 100 miles east of Korea and 500 miles east of China. The Russian island of Sakhalin is Japan’s nearest neighbor to the north. In 2002, the population was estimated at 126,771,662, more than 99 percent of whom were ethnic Japanese. The major religions are Buddhism and Shintoism. A mountainous country with few natural resources, Japan is among the most densely populated countries in the world, a factor largely contributing to its immigration history. Japan borrowed heavily from Chinese culture between the 5th and 10th centuries but generally adapted Chinese models to its own culture patterns and transformed them into a unique Japanese culture. After a brief period of trade and contact with Portuguese, Dutch, and English merchants and missionaries, Japan largely closed itself off from the world during the Tokugawa era (1603–1868). During the 1850s, the United States forced Japan to open its ports to trade, much as Britain had done in China during the 1830s. Unlike China, however, Japan was relatively successful in modernizing without sacrificing its culture. Borrowing heavily from Western models, after 1868, Japan created a parliamentary democracy, eliminated many elements of its feudal social system, and modernized its military. After defeating China (1894–95) and Russia (1904–05), Japan became the principal regional power in East Asia. During the 1920s and 1930s, the fragile and limited Japanese democracy was heavily influenced by the Japanese army and navy, which sought military solutions to overpopulation and a lack of natural resources. Japan’s occupation of Manchuria (1931) and northern China (1937) led into World War II (1939–45), which ended with the destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by U.S. atomic bombs in August 1945. With the aid of U.S. reconstruction, Japan became an important cold war ally and developed one of the world’s strongest economies from the 1970s on.
Patterns of Japanese immigration were similar in both the United States and Canada. Significant Japanese migration to the American West began in the 1880s in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Prohibited from hiring Chinese laborers, plantation owners in Hawaii brought Japanese, many of whom had been displaced by the demise of the old Tokugawa regime: Between 1885 and 1904, more than 100,000 Japanese were brought to work in Hawaii, making them the largest ethnic group in the islands. At the same time, many Japanese students and other travelers were venturing to the mainland. By 1900, they had been joined by laborers, making a Japanese population of almost 30,000 in California. Between 1890 and 1910, a similar number landed in British Columbia, though many continued on to the United States. As thousands of Japanese migrated to North America annually in the wake of U.S. annexation of Hawaii in 1898, Americans and Canadians in California and British Columbia protested strongly. Between April and June 1900, almost 8,000 Japanese laborers arrived in British Columbia (due in part to the pent-up demand), alarming local citizens. Though the Japanese government agreed to stop immigration by the end of July, the provincial legislature feared it would only be a temporary decision and thus passed “An Act to Regulate Immigration into British Columbia,” requiring Japanese to complete an application for entry in a European language. Clearly in violation of the Anglo- Japanese Treaty of 1894, the measure was disallowed by the Canadian government, leading to a constitutional impasse. A Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration recommended that anti-Japanese legislation be allowed only if the Japanese government lifted its ban on laborers. Although almost no Japanese entered British Columbia between 1901 and 1907, American prohibitions on laborers in 1907 and a rapidly growing economy in British Columbia combined to encourage a return of Japanese laborers, between 5,000 and 10,000 in 1907–08. Once again alarmed, Canada secured a Gentlemen’s Agreement that the Japanese government would issue no more than 400 passports annually to laborers and domestic servants bound for Canada.
Californians were similarly afraid of the “yellow peril,” especially with the economic uncertainty following the San Francisco earthquake in April 1906. 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), violating Japan’s most-favored-nation status and deeply offending the Japanese nation. U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt repudiated the school board’s decision and praised Japan. At the same time, between December 1906 and January 1908, he negotiated three separate but related agreements 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) their 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. While the U.S. Gentlemen’s Agreement helped the two countries move past the crisis, the whole matter left an indelible impression of the strength of American nativism.
Japanese immigration to the United States was almost totally halted with passage of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. During the 1930s and 1940s, fewer than 200 Japanese immigrated to the United States annually, and less than half that number to Canada. Relations worsened following Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. When the navy of imperial Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians were widely suspected of sympathy with their homeland. Despite the absence of any evidence of sabotage or espionage, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the forcible internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were born in the United States. In the same month, the Canadian government ordered the expulsion of 22,000 Japanese Canadians from a 100-mile strip along the Pacific coast (see Japanese internment).
Provisions of the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952, in conjunction with the rapid development of the Japanese economy, led to a steady but unspectacular immigration starting in the 1950s, averaging almost 5,000 per year between 1961 and 1990. With a healthy Japanese economy through the 1980s, most Japanese preferred to remain at home, but the economic downturn of the 1990s led to increased migration in search of economic opportunities. Between 1992 and 2002, Japanese immigration averaged about 7,500 per year. Between 1910 and 1970, Japanese were the largest Asian ethnic group in the United States but by 2001 had dropped to sixth, behind Chinese, Filipinos, Asian Indians, Koreans, and Vietnamese.
Between 1900 and 1937, between 25,000 and 30,000 Japanese entered Canada, mostly as fishermen or laborers. These numbers are misleading, however, as many immigrants of this period used Canada as a backdoor for entry to the United States as a result of the restrictions of Canada’s Gentlemen’s Agreement. Between 1937 and 1952, fewer than 200 Japanese entered Canada, most as a result of family reunification or for humanitarian reasons. As the Japanese economy began to boom in the 1960s, immigration rates to Canada remained low, averaging about 500 in most years, a little higher in times of economic uncertainty. Most of these immigrants were young, well-educated professionals. Of 17,630 Japanese immigrants in Canada in 2001, almost 8,000 came between 1991 and 2001, the largest decade of immigration in the post–World War II era.