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The Legacy of Japanese Immigration: Three things to Know

The Legacy of Japanese Immigration to the United States 


It’s Cherry Blossom Season! Did you get a chance to check out the cherry blossoms down by the Tidal Basin? Or have you tried Immigrant Food’s latest cocktail creations to ring in Cherry Blossom Season? Either way, the beautiful cherry blossoms should be celebrated! 

But let’s test how much you really know about the cherry blossoms. 

The cherry blossoms weren’t originally from the US; they were a gift from Japan! But Japan has gifted us more than the cherries.  Japanese-Americans have given us significant contributions to culture and society. From art, science, sports, and food, America has been enriched by Japan’s influence.  

But the history of Japanese immigration to the United States is long, complex, and, at some points, very grim. That’s why, this month, we take a deeper look into not only the cherry blossoms themselves, but also the legacy of Japanese American immigration as a whole.  


1. The Cherry Blossoms were a gift from the Japanese to the United States.  


The Cherry Blossoms were given by the mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington, DC, following the Treaty of Portsmouth, which marked the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. The United States also has Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore to thank for the cherry trees. After returning to DC from her first trip to Japan, Scidmore advocated for cherry trees to be planted along the Potomac. Despite initial rejections for her proposal, Scidmore continued to work hard to achieve her goal, even writing to First Lady Helen Taft! The first cherry blossoms to arrive were around 2,000 trees from Tokyo to Washington, DC. Unfortunately, they were infested with bugs and had to be destroyed. The second time around, the Japanese donated 3,000 trees. As a thank you, President Taft sent a gift of dogwood trees to Japan. 

The first trees were planted in 1912 by First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Ambassador of Japan, Viscountess Chinda. Other First Ladies have continued to participate in cherry blossom festivities including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt,  First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, and First Lady Michelle Obama! You can find the original cherry blossom trees still standing just several hundred yards from the John Paul Jones Memorial. Be on the lookout for a large bronze plaque that pays tribute to the original planting. 

The first Cherry Blossom Festival was celebrated in 1935, and it has bloomed into such a huge success! Each year, festivities are hosted, performers are asked to come, and there is a large celebration of Japanese culture. The Cherry Blossom Festival brings in around 1.5 million visitors to the Nation’s Capital. Were you one of them? 


2. Japanese immigrants have been coming to the United States since 1860.  


Japanese immigration to the United States began in the 1860s, with the first immigrants arriving to Hawaii and California. By the 1880s, the Japanese population in the United States had reached the thousands. The first Japanese migrants were employed as farm labor, in canneries, lumber mills, mining camps, and working on the railroads.

As the Japanese American population began to grow, so too did exclusion campaigns. Media reports and political campaigns painted the Japanese as antithetical to American ways of life and a “threat” to American women, and many called for their exclusion. Japanese Americans were barred from membership in one of the country’s largest unions. 

These harmful anti-Japanese sentiments were not only held personally by individual citizens, but were enacted into tangible policy measures. The most prominent of which was the Gentlemen’s Agreement. In this agreement, the United States offered to allow Japanese immigrants already living in the United States the chance to bring their wives, children, and family members to the US. In exchange, however, Japan agreed to severely limit emigration to the US. California also passed the Alien Land Law which established that all foreign nationals who were ineligible for citizenship (namely, Asian immigrants) were also unable to own land. This effectively rendered the Japanese unable to own their land in the United States. In addition, the 1921 and 1924 Immigration Acts enacted highly restrictive immigration quotas based on immigration from previous years — which severely limited the number of Asian (and therefore Japanese) migrants.


3. During World War II, America imprisoned 75,000 Japanese American citizens and 45,000 Japanese nationals living in America simply for being of Japanese descent. 


American history is full of examples of immigrant groups who have experienced xenophobic hatred on the basis of ethnicity and nationality. The Chinese Exclusion Act. The Immigration Act of 1921. The Immigration Act of 1924. But there’s never been government policy that imprisoned immigrant groups. That’s what the US did to Japanese-Americans in the 1940s. 

At the height of World War II, tensions were incredibly high. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, resentment against Japanese Americans rose exponentially. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the forcible incarceration of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals living in the U.S. They were sent to internment camps in inland, remote locations in California, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Arkansas. 

Tens of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes and abandon everything as they were sent to camps.  Their only “crime” was being of Japanese descent. The intention of the Order was to “curb espionage efforts”, but let’s call it what it is: racist, xenophobic fearmongering. The camps existed for around four years, and the conditions were terrible. In these remote locations, those imprisoned were forced to live enclosed within barbed wire fences and under constant surveillance by guards. 

In total, 45,000 Japanese nationals living in the United States were sent to these internment camps and 75,000 American citizens were removed from their homes. Think about that! Our own citizens were subjected to such horrible treatment. 

The camps were closed down in 1946. Since then, Japanese American activists have pushed for America to acknowledge this dark stain on our history and fought for a way to rectify these wrongs. In 1976, President Gerald Ford rescinded Executive Order 9066, and in 1992, President George Bush authorized the creation of the National Japanese American Memorial. The Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II now stands just north of the Capitol. Be sure to check it out!

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