California and the Japanese


[ALTHOUGH dealing with the same subject, Professor Treat’s paper is quite independent of Senator Phelan’s, which appeared in the March Atlantic. — THE EDITOR.]

AFTER six years of almost complete quiescence, the anti-Japanese agitation in California has again erupted, with the white heat and dense smoke-clouds of a typical volcano. The occasion was a measure, placed by initiative upon the ballot at the last election, designed to strengthen the force of the alien land law passed by the legislature in 1913. Briefly, the initiative act proposed to deny to ‘aliens ineligible to citizenship’ the right to lease agricultural land; to prohibit corporations in which they were interested from owning such land; and to prevent their native-born children from acquiring land, by removing them from the guardianship of their parents in such cases.

For the election of November 2, 1,374,184 voters were registered, and 987,632 votes were cast. On the Alien Land Act the votes were 668,483 in favor, and 222,086 opposed. Thus the measure was carried by a minority of the registered voters, and by a threeto-one vote of those who expressed an opinion on the measure. The large minority vote, which deprived the victory of any ‘overwhelming’ significance, was a surprise to many who had opposed the measure, and an understanding of it is of value in any discussion of the Japanese problem in California.

In brief, the opposition vote was largely cast by those Californians who could distinguish between the real and the alleged questions at issue. The advocates of the measure spoke largely in terms of ‘immigration’; the opponents realized the ‘discrimination’ involved; and, comprehending perfectly that the state could in no way interfere with the immigration laws or policy of the national government, they were unwilling to support a measure that was openly discriminative against Orientals who had come to this country in the past, in good faith, and in accordance with our national laws.

This point must be clearly borne in mind. With few, if any, exceptions, all Americans are agreed that, for the present, at least, there should be no mass immigration of Asiatic peoples to our shores. And I believe the leading Japanese and Chinese statesmen recognize the wisdom of this policy. That it is a national policy is evident from the several Chinese exclusion laws, the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with Japan of 1907, and the barred zones erected in almost all the rest of Asia by the general immigration act of 1917. There should be no occasion for alarm lest this policy be reversed and our Western coast be flooded with immigrants from Asia. It is true that the Japanese would be desirable immigrants from every point of view save two. They are industrious, thrifty, and law-abiding; they are literate in their own tongue; they would go on the land, where labor is so much needed in these days of the drift to the cities; and they are quick to grasp new ways and methods. But they would come from a country of much lower economic development than our own, where wages are often ten times less than those paid in California; and so, unrestricted immigration might mean mass immigration in numbers too great to be assimilated, and productive of serious disturbance in our economic life. And they would be representatives of a race, different in color and culture, with which white people are not yet prepared to deal on its merits. It would be equally unfortunate for the white settlers of the West and for the Japanese immigrants if any appreciable immigration were permitted until our people are ready and willing to receive these aliens. But, on the other hand, the passage of legislation discriminating against Oriental subjects already resident among us has been in the past, and will hereafter be, if persisted in, the occasion of difference of opinion among our own people, and of bitterness on the part of our Asiatic neighbors.

All this seems so elemental, that one may well wonder why there should be any problem at all in California. It is necessary, therefore, to examine the reasons for the heated discussions of the past few months.

Antipathy to Oriental immigrants is an old story on the Pacific Coast. In some ways the Japanese have suffered because of the anti-Chinese traditions, but in other ways they have gained. Few people, for example, would repeat concerning the Japanese, the wild charges that were current about the Chinese forty or fifty years ago. Nor have the Japanese suffered any of the personal mistreatment which the Chinese settlers experienced in the old days. In fact ‘the many admirable qualities of the Japanese people,’ as Governor Stephens has said, are generally admitted. And during the recent agitation no Japanese, to my knowledge, suffered the slightest harm.

In spite of attempts to disguise the real situation, the fundamental objection to the Oriental is racial, and not economic. The proof of this lies in the recurrent use of the term ‘unassimilable,’ and in the reliance upon the phrase ‘aliens ineligible to citizenship.’ The economic objections to the Japanese are trivial; the racial objections are fundamental in the minds of most Californians. Yet in the past twenty years much of the old antipathy to the Chinese settlers has passed away; this affords one of the most hopeful signs of a better understanding of the Japanese problem.


As the fundamental question is one of immigration, so the problem is essentially an American and not a Californian one. The national government, while maintaining the national policy of restricted immigration from the Orient, must also bear in mind the wisdom and expediency of maintaining friendly relations with the great peoples of Eastern and Southern Asia. It is only when California, or any other state, endangers these friendly relations by means of discriminatory laws designed to meet some local problem, that the national and the Californian points of view differ. It is now necessary to consider whether conditions in California justify a local policy at variance with the national policy of friendship with the Asiatic peoples.

In such an examination we are confronted with the great difficulty of divorcing facts from opinions. Certain statements are capable of proof, others are supported by opinion alone. Of those concerning which one can speak with a fair measure of assurance are (1) the number of Japanese in California; (2) the number of Japanese immigrants; and (3) the natural increase of the resident Japanese.

In considering the number of Japanese in California, we must remember that, down to the summer of 1908, there was unrestricted immigration from Japan and the Hawaiian Islands. The present local problem is a legacy of t hose days of free immigration. In 1908 the ’gentlemen’s agreement’ was in effective operation; and since that time there has been little increase in the number of Japanese laborers admitted to this country. The census of 1910 reported a Japanese population in California of 41,356, or 1.7 per cent of the total. In 1920 the census showed 70,196 Japanese, or 2 per cent of the population, an increase of 28,840 in the decade. The latter figures, it may be said, are warmly disputed by opponents of the Japanese. An unofficial census made by the Japanese themselves in March, 1920, estimated their number at 78,628, and the estimate of the State Board of Control, not based however on an enumeration, was 87,279. But in any case the numbers are not alarming for a state with a population of 3,426,861, which has shown an increase of 1,049,312 in the past decade. Unofficial estimates, often cited without proof, assert that the Japanese population ranges between 100,000 and 150,000.

When studying the figures of Japanese immigration, it must be remembered that a considerable allowance has to be made for the departures of travelers, merchants, students, and officials, as well as for the movement back and forth of Japanese settlers who return home for a visit between harvests. Thus the number of arrivals on the Continent, between July, 1908, and July, 1919, was 79,738, while the number of departures in the same period was 68,770, leaving a net increase in eleven years of 10,968. Of the total arrivals, 30,883 were women and female children; and they comprise the larger portion of the net increase. In spite of these official figures testifying to the small net increase through immigration, there is a general belief that Japanese laborers are pouring into California.

Another matter which has received much prominence in the recent discussions is the question of the Japanese birth-rate. In 1908, the Japanese births in California were 455, or 1.6 per cent of the total; in 1917 they were 4108, or 7.87 per cent. This has furnished the basis for the estimate that in ninety years there would be more Japanese than white persons in California. But anyone who had made the slightest study of the Japanese population would have understood these figures, and would have realized that the birthcurve, which rose so rapidly between 1912 and 1917, would soon reach its height, and as speedily decline. The maximum was, as a matter of fact, reached in 1917, for in 1918 the percentage was 7.54 and in 1919, 7.82. That the percentage was not lower in 1919 is simply due to the effect on the number of white births of the absence of young Californians in military service in 1918.

The explanation of the Japanese birth-rate is very simple. The Japanese immigrants between 1900 and 1908 were chiefly young men — laborers who came up from the Hawaiian plantations after the annexation of Hawaii and before the restrictive measures of 1908. Few brought wives with them. In 1910, the census reported 35,116 male and 6240 female Japanese in California. Of those numbers, 29,423 men and 4140 women were between the ages of twenty and forty-five. Naturally, as the men established themselves in positions where they could support a wife and family, they desired to do so. Unable to find Japanese women in this country, they sent home for them in many cases, and these women became the much-discussed ‘picture brides.’ Some 5749 of these brides arrived at San Francisco between July, 1911, and March, 1920. Other Japanese returned and found wives of their choice in Japan; so that in 1920 the census reported 44,364 Japanese males and 25,832 females.

Of course, many of these young married people had children; and as the Japanese population was made up of an abnormal number of young men and women, the birth-rate, per thousand, was much higher than it would be in a population containing the average number of children and aged people. But in a few years, when most of the men have married, and when all the early settlers have advanced in years, the proportion of Japanese births will steadily decrease. The figures for 1920 and 1921 may be awaited with little anxiety.

In addition, most of the Japanese families are settled on the land, and the birth-rate is apt to be high among agriculturists; also, most of them occupy a relatively low economic status, which has the same effect. It would seem that, in dealing with reproduction, we are in the presence of a human rather than a national or a racial phenomenon. Social and economic factors are more important than questions of color.1

The number of Japanese and the increase by immigration and by birth are subjects that can be discussed in terms of fairly accurate figures, which would give no reason for alarm, were it not for the fact that they apply to Japanese. And this leads to the consideration of a fundamental question of opinion, which colors the whole discussion.

The opponents of the Japanese and other Orientals base their objections on the sweeping charge that they are unassimilable. Assimilation, of course, may be of two kinds, physical and cultural. Few would allege to-day that the physical assimilation of a white and a yellow race is impossible. The difficulties in the way are social, rather than biological. The point need not be argued, however, because the Japanese have as highly developed a sense of race as have the white peoples, and only in the remote future can we think of these social barriers breaking down. And it is well to remember that we number among our most useful and prominent citizens the representatives of an Asiatic race which has kept its blood remarkably pure through centuries of persecution and exile.

When, however, it comes to cultural assimilation, we have the right to demand that the objectors prove their negative. And this, of course, they cannot do. It is thoughtless, to say the least, to denounce the Japanese as unassimilable, when there are so few facts on which to base an opinion. In the first place, the bulk of the Japanese in California were born in Japan. The children, in spite of their proficiency in the public schools, have been reared by parents of Japanese culture. A Japanese of the third generation is rarely found in this country. After we have a considerable number of young Japanese with American-born parents, then, and only then, shall we have some slight basis for an opinion as to whether the Japanese can absorb American ways and ideals. As a matter of fact, we know that the Japanese school-children are eager for education, and are apt pupils. Few of them would endeavor to master the difficult language of their parents were it not for parental pressure. Many of them, where the parents are conversant with English, have made no attempt to study Japanese; and I believe it to be very doubtful if many of the third generation in this country will have any acquaintance with the language of their ancestors. Furthermore, the Japanese settlers are themselves eager to adapt themselves to American ways; and I have been informed that the only racial group which is making any effort to carry out an Americanization programme in California is the Japanese.

But while we are waiting for the evidence of the third generation, I would venture to hazard an opinion that, if the Japanese were given a fair opportunity, they would prove unusually assimilable. No people, in all history, has shown equal ability in the absorption of alien ideas. The rise of Japan from feudal impotence to wealth and power is mainly the story of the acquisition of Western culture. The Japanese governmental organization, the schools and universities, the courts and codes, the industrial development, the merchant marine, the army and navy, all testify to the open-mindedness, the adaptiveness, and the versatility of the Japanese. To say that such a people is unassimilable is merely to confess that you will not permit it to be assimilated.

Racial antipathy or prejudice has led to the widespread belief in the unassimilability of the Orientals. And this in turn has led to the discriminatory measures that have been taken against them, presumably for the purpose of discouraging their residence among us. The late Carleton Parker, in one of his suggestive addresses on ‘Motives in Economic Life,’ mentioned, as one of them, the hunting instinct. ‘Historic revivals of hunting urge make an interesting recital of religious inquisitions, witch-burnings, college hazings, persecution of suffragettes, of the I.W.W., of the Japanese, or of the pacifists. All this goes on often under naive rationalization about justice and patriotism, but it is pure and innate lust to run something down and hurt it.’

Although this may seem to be a very strong indictment, it may help to explain the point of view of many of the active anti-Japanese agitators. Thus California has recently imposed an alien poll-tax, which, if it can be enforced, will be collected largely from Orientals, for the other aliens can become citizens and escape it. A measure is now pending in the legislature, similar to one which almost passed in 1919, for the segregation of Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian children in special schools. A demand is made that Congress specifically debar the Japanese from naturalization; for at present their disability is due solely to judicial interpretation in lower courts, which may at some time be set aside by the Supreme Court of the United States. And, in addition, an amendment to the Federal Constitution is proposed, to deny citizenship to the native-born children of ‘aliens ineligible to citizenship.’ The alien poll-tax is mainly a punitive measure; for it will bring in little revenue to the state because of the heavy cost of collection. The segregation of Oriental school-children is most unwise, unless the people prefer to have unassimilated alien colonies in their midst; for the strongest factor in Americanization is, of course, the public school. And to debar native-born Orientals from citizenship means the perpetuation of racial minorities after the fashion of the old Dual Empire. Now, these measures, and others of similar character, are aimed at aliens who have entered our country in accordance with our laws, and who are entitled to justice and a ‘square deal.’


This is why opinions differed, even in California, regarding the wisdom of the proposed alien land law. In 1913, an international controversy was created by the passage of such a law. The terms were not considered severe enough by persons opposed to the resident Japanese. Under it, agricultural land might be leased for three years, and land might be purchased by corporations in which Orientals were interested, or by the native-born children of alien parents. As the governor refused to call a special session of the Legislature to pass a measure designed to block up these loop-holes, a petition was circulated by the Oriental Exclusion League, to place an initiative act on the ballot in 1920. The report of the State Board of Control, which was used to support the movement, showed that Japanese owned 74,769 acres of farmland, and worked under lease or contract 383,287 acres more. The total acreage owned or worked by Orientals amounted to 623,753 acres.2

The first thing to note is the small amount of land owned by the Japanese. The land worked by them under lease or contract belongs, of course, to Americans: the Japanese can hardly be said to control it. The next fact of importance is that there are not enough Japanese laborers in California to work the land that they occupy. In other words, the white laborers employed by Orientals are more numerous than the Orientals employed by white farmers. If immigration were unrestricted, so that thousands of Chinese, Japanese, and Hindus could enter the state, work for a time as laborers, then become small landowners or tenants, there would be a serious agrarian problem. But with Immigration rigidly controlled, the Orientals can hardly play a large rôle in the agricultural life of the state. In certain branches of farming, in which they excel, or in which conditions of labor are distasteful to white farmers, the Japanese have done remarkably well. In 1919 their farm-products were valued at $67,145,730, out of a total production of $507,811,881. But the great crops of the state are hay, grain, and fruits, while the Japanese raised vegetables, berries, grapes, fruit and nuts.

In view of all the facts, the opinion of Professor Millis regarding the law of 1913 holds true to-day: ‘The present prohibition of land-ownership is unjust, impolitic, and, with a restricted immigration, unnecessary. The proposed prohibition of leasing would be still worse. It is more unjust, more impolitic, and more objectionable on social grounds, than prohibition of ownership, and on the plea of necessity has still slighter excuse.’

But if the economic objections to Oriental land-holding are greatly exaggerated, the fact remains that many of the white farmers of California seriously object to having these strangers, whom they sincerely believe to be unassimilable, enter their communities and take up land. The objection again is racial, rather than economic. A somewhat similar condition has prevailed in the farming districts of New England where, in recent years, immigrants from Southern Europe have taken up many of the abandoned farms. An illiterate Slavic immigrant, in a Connecticut township, presents an immediate social problem almost parallel to that of a Japanese farmer in California. But the New Englanders try to meet the problem by Americanization, rather than by prohibitive legislation.

The initiative measure carried, as we have seen, by a vote of three to one. Many votes were cast in favor of it as an expression of protest to strengthen the demand for more rigid immigration restrictions, by those who did not know that immigration is now very effectively controlled. But the effect of the law, so far as any reduction in the quantity of land worked by Orientals is concerned, will probably be small. Much of the acreage which they now work is held under labor or crop contracts, and this form of tenure will probably be used in the future. In fact, it is often better for a Japanese tenant-farmer to work on shares than to assume the risks of a lease. So a great amount of agitation has been provoked, with small result. It was the late Theodore Roosevelt who said that, in dealing with the Japanese question, we should endeavor to secure the maximum of efficiency with a minimum of friction. Immigration restriction means efficiency; discriminations result only in friction.


It is frequently said, when Eastern publicists express disapproval of certain manifestations of anti-Oriental feeling in California, that they are not familiar with local conditions and so are not qualified to hold opinions. But the facts in the case are easily accessible; only the prevalent opinions are hard to grasp when remote from the scene. If any Americans fail to recognize the importance of rigorous restrictions upon Oriental immigration, for the present and for an indefinite time in the future, they certainly need enlightenment. But to understand the attitude of many Californians toward the resident Orientals, some knowledge of local conditions is necessary.

The methods used by the opponents of the Japanese to-day have come down, in great part, from the days of the more violent anti-Chinese agitation. One will have a better understanding of the present situation if he will read Chinese Immigration, the scholarly investigation of Mrs. Mary Roberts Coolidge, Professor of Sociology in Mills College. And no one who reads it could countenance a repetition of its events in these enlightened days. Politics early became enmeshed in the anti-Chinese agitation, so that no man could hope for political preferment who did not take a decided stand against the Orientals. This holds true to-day, and the recent agitation was brought to a head during the last political campaign. Between campaigns, certain special organizations keep alive the discussion. Formerly the Oriental (now Japanese) Exclusion League carried this burden; but more recently such powerful organizations as the American Legion and the Native Sons of the Golden West, largely under the influence of certain of their members who were associated with the Exclusion League, have gone on record in determined opposition to the Japanese.

In addition, the local press, with few exceptions, instead of trying to study the problem in all its aspects, has given its readers only one side of the question, rarely giving space to any moderate views. Thus the opponents of the recent land-legislation had to buy advertising space in order to present their views to the voters. Through San Francisco there flows a stream of travelers from the Orient. No report which they may bring, derogatory to Japan, seems too absurd to find space in the metropolitan journals. Thus we were told that Japan was about to spend $50,000,000 for propaganda in this country, largely through the purchase of country newspapers in California. Another traveler solemnly alleged that the Japanese were responsible for the present lamentable famine in China; and so it goes. Now the people, fed upon such information, cannot help but absorb it. If you hear a statement often enough, it begins to sound plausible. So a city superintendent of schools assured me that in ninety years California would be occupied by more Japanese than white people; one of my colleagues believed that Japanese immigration was absolutely unrestricted, and that California was being flooded with laborers; and a usually well-informed editor could print without comment a statement that the ‘survival’ of Japanese births over deaths in California was twenty-six times as great as that of the whites!

The attitude of the average Californian toward the Japanese is not, therefore, due primarily to personal knowledgeof the situation; for only relatively few of our people have any intimate contact with the seventy or eightythousand Japanese in the state. It is due to the fact that, for certain local, traditional, and political reasons, the people of California are periodically presented with a mass of partisan, often misleading, and frequently absolutely false statements about the Japanese. I am ready to confess that, if my opinions on the subject were formed from the newspapers, I should feel it my duty to take some part in arousing our people as a whole against the Japanese ‘menace.’ And that is why so many Californians are absolutely sincere in their beliefs. But, happily, I am in a position where I can gather my own information, check up the alarming statements as they come out, and form my own opinions. Just as time has proved the falsity of many, if not most, of the charges against the Chinese of a generation or two ago, so I firmly believe that the historian of the next generation will read with amazement the statements which have been implicitly accepted concerning the Japanese of to-day.


Can no solution be found for this distressing situation? Is California — and the Pacific Coast eventually—to be thrown into a turmoil at every session of the state legislatures and in every political campaign? And are the people of Eastern Asia to become more and more convinced of the discrepancy between American ideals and American practice? If no drastic action is taken in the immediate future, I am hopeful of the outcome. The present Japanese question in California is the result of the unrestricted immigration of these Orientals before the summer of 1908. The conditions that to-day afford any occasion for alarm will soon be removed. The number of Japanese will become relatively smaller and smaller. Two per cent of California’s population in 1920, they will be even less in 1930 and in the following decades, until a Japanese laborer will be as rare a sight in California as a Chinese laborer is to-day. The birthrate, which rose so rapidly between 1912 and 1917, will rapidly subside. The immigration of women will also decline, as the single men secure wives. The land-holdings, which increased rapidly as the original immigrants changed their status from laborers on the ranches, the railroads and mines, to farm-owners and tenants, will gradually stabilize. Each year will see less basis in fact for an anti-Japanese agitation. But — the fact might just as well be faced — so long as any Orientals are domiciled within our borders, we may expect a certain type of agitator to hurl denunciations upon them.

Turning to the national aspects of the case, we found that the fundamental question was that of immigration. It is the duty of the nation to the people of the west coast to see that the immigration of Oriental laborers is rigidly controlled. At present, Japanese immigration is regulated by the ‘gentlemen’s agreement.’ This was the contribution of President Roosevelt and Secretary Root to the effective solution of the problem. Under the terms of this agreement, Japan promised to give no passports to laborers, and we in turn announced that no Japanese could enter our ports from Japan or Hawaii without a proper passport. No one can charge that Japan has failed to keep the letter and the spirit of this agreement with absolute integrity. In fact, the Japanese Foreign Office has at times leaned backward in its endeavor to keep the faith. I believe that persons well informed in immigration matters will testify that more Chinese enter this country fraudulently under the exclusion law, which we enforce ourselves, than do Japanese under the ‘gentlemen’s agreement.’ In order to avoid complications, Japan has applied a similar system to Mexico; and last year, when criticism of the ‘picture brides’ was acute, she voluntarily agreed to give no passports to women who had been married, in absentia, to Japanese in this country.

The ‘gentlemen’s agreement ’ should, in my opinion, be maintained, until a general law, applying to all immigrants of every race, can be passed. It is an honorable way of meeting the problem of selective immigration, for it is based upon the coöperation of Japan. If there are minor defects in the understanding, — in the matter of adopted children, let us say, — these could easily be remedied, for I believe the Japanese government is sincere in its desire to remove every cause for friction. And it is certainly the duty of the Federal government to police adequately the Mexican border, so that Japanese without proper passports cannot enter the country. To blame Japan because a few of her nationals smuggle themselves in from Mexico is, to say the least, unfair.

As soon as it is well understood that there is practically no immigration of Orientals, save of the exempt classes, — the officials, tourists, merchants, students, and families of residents, — then there should not be the slightest toleration of measures designed to discriminate against the Orientals who are lawfully resident among us. They should enjoy every privilege conferred upon aliens of other races. Furthermore, they should be entitled to naturalization, if they can meet the general requirements of the law. President Roosevelt recommended this in a special message to Congress in 1906, and his reasoning is good to-day. And the proposal that the native-born children of ‘aliens ineligible to citizenship’ be denied citizenship, should receive the condemnation it deserves.

In addition, we must visualize the greater Asiatic problem, and prepare to meet it wisely. Across the Pacific are some nine hundred millions of people. Their descendants, in ever-increasing numbers, will be our neighbors for all time. The past half-century has seen an amazing development in our commercial relations with these peoples, and our prosperity will be more and more closely linked with theirs. Improvements in transportation and communication have almost wiped out the old barriers of time and space, that formerly kept peoples apart. What improvements the future holds, no man dare say. Kipling uttered a truism when he said, ‘transportation is civilization.’ The whole course of human history has moved toward the breakingdown of barriers, at first between clans and tribes, then between nations, and finally between the great racial groups. To believe for a moment that, in the ages to come, the present races will remain apart in separate regions, is to believe that human progress has reached its high-water mark to-day, and will steadily recede.

We can, in some measure, prepare for these new conditions by studying them carefully as they develop. And at the present moment we seriously need a thorough, scholarly, unbiased study of the present effects of the contact of East and West along their frontiers. The material is available in Hawaii; but of more immediate value would be a study of conditions in California. This might well be considered a proper function of one of the great educational and scientific foundations in this country which possess the means to secure the ablest available experts for such a study. But the work must be done by trained men, devoid of fixed opinions. The results of such a study would be of the greatest value to our people, in formulating sound opinions on these controversial subjects, and to our statesmen, in developing the national policy.

  1. These forces are at work in Japan as well. In 1915 the estimated increase in population was about 800,000; in 1918, it was 600,000; and in 1919, it was reported at 308,794. The influenza was partly responsible for this decline, but other factors were the high cost of living, the increase in urban industrial population, and the tendency to postpone marriage. —THE AUTHOR.
  2. The total area of farm lands was 27,931,444 acres, of which 11,389,894 acres were improved. The Japanese owned or leased one in sixty of the total acreage, or one in twenty-five of the improved land. — THE AUTHOR.