A 1949 parade was Los Angeles’s first post-World War II event to celebrate Japanese-American culture. It honors the Nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans, who descended from the Issei, the first generation of Japanese to come to America. Japanese immigration to America began in 1882 with the Meiji Restoration.
The Meiji Restoration in Japan marked a time of Westernization and change. For the first time in two centuries, foreigners could enter Japan and Japanese citizens could leave. So, when America’s Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese from providing America with cheap labor, the Japanese arrived to fill the void.
Many rice farmers in southwestern Japan were heavily taxed and hoped to make their fortunes in America. Also, jobless veterans from the Russo-Japanese War came to America when that war ended in 1905.
More than 30,000 Japanese went to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations between 1885 and 1894. In the 1890s and continuing until 1924, there was large-scale Japanese immigration to America’s mainland. The Japanese call their first-generation immigrants “Issei.”
Unlike the Chinese who first went to California to work on the railroads, many Japanese went directly to the Pacific Northwest where a huge fishing and timber industry needed their labor. Unlike the Chinese, Japanese immigrants included more women, so families could be started. Some women came with their husbands, others arrived as “picture brides,” met by unknown future husbands on America’s wharves. Their children, the second generation, are called “Nisei.”
Independent Japanese started their own farms on unwanted pieces of land, turning them into productive truck gardens. They sold the produce at local markets. The Japanese were not competing with Anglo-Saxon farmers who tended row crops, such as wheat and fruit trees, that required no stoop labor. During the 1920s, Japanese farmers supplied 75 percent of Seattle’s vegetables.
The 1924 Immigration Act cut the flow of Japanese immigration. Those already in America became educated and began to get prosperous jobs. Eventually Japantowns emerged. Most Japanese continued to practice the Buddhist religion of their ancestors.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, plunging the United States into war and dismantling the success of the Japanese-Americans. Responding to panic over security by America’s military and anti-Japanese sentiment in the press, President Roosevelt signed into effect a document entitled “Executive Order 9066.”
This order gave Issei and Nisei 10 days to sell their businesses, homes, and belongings. Then about 120,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up into holding areas, and shipped to “relocation centers.” These relocation centers were in desolate parts of America, such as Idaho and the barren eastern slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Sometimes families were separated in the process.
Starting in 1943, Japanese-Americans were freed from the centers, but most had difficulty restarting their lives. Those who had served in America’s military benefited from the GI Bill of Rights and got an education. Third-generation Japanese-Americans, Sansei, also got an education and citizenship thanks to the 1952 Walter-McCarran Act.
Many of those who were incarcerated were politically vindicated when Congress voted in 1988 to apologize and make cash payments to Japanese-Americans for America’s treatment of them.
Today, Japan is a strong economic power and many Japanese businesses have done well in America: Honda and Sony among them. Vibrant Japanese-American communities exist, especially in Pacific Coast cities like Seattle and Los Angeles, where Nisei Week celebrations like the one pictured here continue.