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Alanna Russell

May 18, 2016

History 301-02

Community History Research Paper

Early Twentieth Century Japanese Americans in Los Angeles

Discrimination against Japanese and Japanese American born people has a long and

distressing history in the United States of America. The focus will be on Japanese and Japanese

American people’s discrimination because of their race in early twentieth century Los Angeles.

Japanese and Japanese American people were discriminated against specifically because of their

race pre-World War II through alien land laws, less immigration allowed from Japan, which

effected Japanese and Japanese American owned businesses, and the overall attitude of Asian

exclusion that was especially prevalent in Los Angeles. A racist attitude existed and sought to

bring down the agricultural and business success Japanese people had worked so hard for in the

United States. Alien land law letters sent from the Dominguez Estate Company to Japanese

people showcased the words written making sure that there were no people they defined as

“aliens” from Japan owning and leasing land. There is also a picture displaying the attempt of a

revival of Little Tokyo after the decline of immigration following the Alien Land Law of 1920.

Japanese and Japanese American people do have a harrowing history in Los Angeles, but they

displayed great perseverance despite all of the obstacles thrown at them because of their race.

The discrimination Japanese and Japanese Americans experienced in the early twentieth

century would set the tone for their treatment following World War II. A grim tone of

discrimination based on the mere motivating factor of race. The public policy called the 1920

Alien Land Law explicitly singled out Japanese people from owning land in California unless

they could prove they were born in the United States of America. This anti-Japanese stance

discriminated against Japanese people specifically and was enacted for a hope that less Japanese

immigrants would flow to California. The article analyzed strives to decide whether the policy

was more economically or racially motivated, or both equally. Either way, it was the hope of the

elite Anglo policy makers that Japanese people would not prosper in the state of California after

this law was enacted. The United States as a whole has had a history of discrimination against

minority groups and preying on what they consider to be their weaknesses. The California Alien

Land Law of 1920 was not the first public policy enforced against Asian people and Asian

American people. It followed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which sought to stop Asian

immigration into the United States as well. The Chinese Exclusion Act restricted all immigration

of Chinese laborers. There had been several attempts prior to the 1920 Alien land law act as well

in twentieth century California to confine the human rights of Japanese Americans and their

rights to own land.

The goal of policy makers and heads of state was racially or economically motivated and

ultimately what was in their and only their best interest. Passing the California Alien Land Law

of 1920 was both racially and economically motivated by voters. The racial aspect came from the

attitudes of white voters having “racial animosity” towards people descended from East Asia.

The attitude that a lot of Californian people had in the nineteenth century towards Chinese

Americans definitely carried over into the twentieth century towards the Japanese Americans and

was equally as hostile. This attitude included absurd allegations that made Japanese immigrants

seem like they were “disease ridden” and “immoral” people. These false allegations towards

Japanese people proved that Anglo’s and Anglo elites were threatened by people they thought of

as “different”. Race was a huge motivating factor in shunning Asian Americans and creating

laws that only worked against them. An attitude that excluded minority groups from prospering

as much as the majority is something that the United States has seen time and time again.

The other motivation of passing the California Alien Land Law of 1920 was of course the

economic one. Anything that might interfere with the competition of the Anglo elites, white

business owners, and white farmers from owning more land may have been a threat to them.

Enacting this public policy may have been a way for them preventing Japanese Americans

having more prosperous businesses than them. Voters across the state may have been more

inclined to vote the law through if they felt their competition for business was coming from

Japanese American land owners. The motivations of racially discriminatory policy are not

completely straightforward. “For most of its history, the United States has had serious internal

contradictions in its pubic policies regarding race. The nation was founded on principles of

equality, and yet an array of public polices has sanctioned racial discrimination” (Gaines, 271-

272). The factors motivating each individual voter may have been different but what is

uncomplicated was the fact that this racial hostility did exist. The California Alien Land Law of

1920 was both racially and economically motivated and it followed a history that the United

States had and would continue to have well into the rest of the twentieth century of

discriminating against Asian Americans.

Because of all of this animosity in the early twentieth century, which may have been

caused in part by the tense foreign relations brewing between the United States and Japan,

Japanese immigrants were being subjected to discrimination based on their nationality. The

Alien Land Law of 1920 indicated that Japanese people could not own or lease farmland unless

they provided a certified copy of their birth certificate, and it was created in hoping it would

cause a decline in Japanese immigration into the United States. As a result of the revised law,

Japanese immigrant agriculture did weaken and decline for a while. Letters were written and sent

to Japanese and Japanese American people referring to the Alien Land Law making sure that

they were abiding by the new law. The Dominguez Estate Company specifically wrote many

letters to Japanese tenants in order to make sure they were abiding by the Alien Land Law.

William S. Martin wrote this one specific letter on behalf of the Dominguez Estate Company.

The letter was written on May 8, 1937 in Compton, California. Martin was writing the letter to

Japanese American tenant Mr. K. Kingu Kato. The letter has a relatively short message, it is

written to ensure that the tenant is an American citizen and asking that he provide proof of his

citizenship in order to keep leasing the land from the Dominguez Estate Company. The

Dominguez Estate Company was just abiding by the law but it says a lot that this new law was

only targeting people of Japanese descent.

Many more letters, requests, and affidavits were written and sent specifically targeting

people of Japanese descent in order to either get them to comply with the new law or to prevent

them from further leasing or owning farmland. The fact that the government and the citizens who

voted the law through felt threatened by the Japanese people shows that there was a degree of

racism going on regarding new laws like this one. Targeting only a certain group of people based

on where they are from in order to prevent them from coming to the United States shows the

amount of threat that the government felt from Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants

successes in the agricultural industry. Specifically identifying the people of Japanese descent in

order to limit the number of Japanese land owners and leasers was a tactic used by the

government to slow down the number of Japanese immigrants coming into the United States.

Writing letters and asking for proof of only Japanese Americans proved that the state of

California felt threatened by the success of Japanese farmers and this was a way for them to

lessen the amount of them from owning and leasing land. Whether the motivations were more

racial, economic, or both equally, either way, innocent Japanese Americans and Japanese

immigrants were being targeted because of where they descended from.

As a result of the Alien Land Law of 1920, Japanese immigration declined, Japanese

agriculture declined immensely, and Japanese and Japanese American owned businesses

struggled greatly as a result of the lack of immigration. Anglo elites got what they wanted from

the law and Japanese people struggled, but they fought to make the most of their situation. With

the lack of immigration coming from Japan, not only did Japanese struggle agriculturally but

business in Little Tokyo also hit a decline. In order for Little Tokyo to survive and thrive again,

the leading association of Japanese immigrants in Los Angeles agreed to a “Nisei” or second-

generation festival, which would celebrate and honor their American born children. It was

created in hopes of bringing in new business, new customers, and a fresh attitude despite the

decline from the past. “To attract second-generation customers, Shimizu advised Issei shop

owners and managers to cut

prices, enlarge merchandise

displays, and hire clerks who

spoke English and could cater

to the younger generation’s

taste. The challenge of the

Nisei Festival, he maintained,

was to disabuse Japanese

American youth of the notion

that “American [department] stores” offer “better quality and less expensive goods of the same

type found in Japanese stores” (Kurashige, 1632). Japanese people wanted to appeal to people of

other races because they knew that business was declining.

The Nisei Week Festival began a decade before the World War II internment of Japanese

and Japanese American people. It soon became Southern California’s most distinguished and

longest running Japanese festival. Biculturalism was definitely a motivating factor among some

Japanese American leaders. They wanted to not only appeal to the younger Japanese American

born people but they wanted to appeal to white people as well so they would be more inclined to

purchase from Little Tokyo. Appealing to the people who tried and succeeded in bringing them

down was ironic but Japanese people did what they had to in order to have business prosper

again. The theme of the first Nisei Week was “Buy in Lil’ Tokyo” and there was a promise that

Little Tokyo would have the lowest prices with the highest quality products.

The exclusion of Asian people in the United States has a long past. It is just one of the

many examples of an attitude of white supremacy that was used against the immigration of Asian

people into the United States. Although the United States was seen as the land of abundance,

wealth and opportunity, it seems that it was only reserved for the select few. Despite this racial

animosity and laws created in order to stop Japanese immigration, Japanese people did continue

to fight to have success in America. With the decline of businesses in all arenas, the only way for

Japanese people to continue on was to try to revive what was taken from them. The tone of the

early twentieth century towards Japanese people was just a preview of they horrible treatment

many innocent people would receive following World War II.

Japanese American people and Japanese immigrants experienced extreme discrimination

in the early twentieth century through Alien land laws, which resulted in the decline of their

immigration and business. Despite there being a decline in agricultural business and retail

business, Japanese Americans prevailed and tried to make the most of their opportunities while

fighting to have their culture be known all while bringing in businesses and attracting shoppers

to Little Tokyo. The animosity and terrible treatment would continue on following World War II

through interment camps and an overall racist attitude. Japanese people brought their rich and

hard-working culture as a means of fighting against this attitude but the pain of all that they have

endured stays with their people and their history forever. This treatment the Japanese and

Japanese American people received throughout the twentieth century can definitely be related to

what is going on in the United States today. More strict immigration laws and an anti-

immigration attitude have been around forever, but those attitudes continue to grow at an

astonishing rate today. As a nation it is our duty to not repeat the past mistakes and to not

discriminate against someone just based on their race. It is important to educate the minds of

individuals who do not know of this past and to take into account the incredible culture and

diversity our nation is provided today because of its many immigrants from all over the world.


Secondary Sources

Gaines, Brian J., and Wendy K. Tam Cho. “On California's 1920 Alien Land Law: The

Psychology and Economics of Racial Discrimination”. State Politics & Policy Quarterly

4.3 (2004): 271–293.

Kurashige, Lon. “The Problem of Biculturalism: Japanese American Identity and Festival Before

World War II”. The Journal of American History 86.4 (2000): 1632–1654.

Suzuki, Masao. “Important or Impotent? Taking Another Look at the 1920 California Alien Land

Law”. The Journal of Economic History 64.1 (2004): 125–143.

LEE, ERIKA. “the “yellow Peril” and Asian Exclusion in the Americas”. Pacific Historical

Review 76.4 (2007): 537–562.

Primary Sources

Letter from [William S. Martin] to Mr. K. [Kinju] Kato, May 8, 1937. 1937. CSU Dominguez

Hills Department of Archives & Special Collections, Carson. By William S. Martin and

Dominguez Estate Company. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Web.

Letter from Geo.[George] H. Hand, Chief Engineer, Maria De Los Reyes D. De Francis to Mr.

[William] J. Tachibana, January 10, 1925. 1925. Rancho San Pedro Collection, California

State University Japanese American Digitization Project, CSU Dominguez Hills

Department of Archives and Special Collection, Carson. By George H. Hand and Maria E

Los Reyes D. De Francis.

Killon, Earl D. Letter from Earl D. Killion, Attorney, to Dominguez Estate Company, Re:

Legality of Leasing Agricultural Lands under the Alien Land Act, May 3, 1937. 1937. CSU

Dominguez Hills Department of Archives & Special Collections, Carson.

Mukaeda, Katsuma, and Dave Biniasz. An Oral History with Katsuma Mukaeda. Los Angeles:

Center for Oral and Public History, CSU Fullerton, 28 Nov. 1973. Mp3. Chairman of

Japanese American Cultural Center and former president of Japanese Chamber of

Commerce recounts conditions of prewar Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, its wartime

conversion into a black community, postwar reestablishment as a Japanese-American

cultural and commercial center. Includes comments on discriminatory legislation, prewar

Japan-American relations.