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Book Review : ‘Issei’: A Look at Japanese Immigrant Experience

The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885-1924 by Yuji Ichioka (The Free Press/Macmillan: $22.95; 310 pages)

“Come, merchants! . . . Come, artisans! . . . Come, students!” exhorted an 1887 Japanese guidebook for would-be immigrants to the New World. “America is a veritable human paradise, the No. 1 mine in the world. Gold, silver and gems are scattered on her streets. If you can figure out a way of picking them up, you’ll become rich instantly to the tune of 10 million and be able to enjoy ultimate human pleasures.”

The same siren song has lured many millions of immigrants to America from all over the world. But the destiny of the Japanese immigrant community has been a troubled one. We may be tempted to think of Japanese-Americans as an affluent and upwardly mobile community that was only briefly, if tragically, victimized by the dislocations of World War II. But Yuji Ichioka insists on reminding us that Japanese immigrants in the United States were always the victims of racial bigotry, exploitation by growers and mine owners, hostility on the part of labor unions, cynical diplomacy by the government of their native Japan, and, perhaps most important, the crippling legal disabilities imposed on them by American law.

Struggle to Survive

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“The early history of Japanese immigrants in the United States, far from being a success story, is, above all, a history of a racial minority struggling to survive in a hostile land,” Ichioka writes in “The Issei,” his study of Japanese-American history “from the perspective of the excluded.”

What distinguished the Issei (or first generation) Japanese from European immigrants was the hard fact of legalized racism--the right of naturalization, and thus the right to vote, were available only to white immigrants, at least during the early decades of the 20th Century. As a result, even after the flow of immigration from Japan was cut off by a series of harsh exclusionary laws, the Japanese who remained in America were denied an important tool of self-assertion and self-improvement that was available to every other immigrant community.

“Japanese immigrants never had the option of entering the political arena to defend themselves,” Ichioka says. “They either had to depend upon the diplomacy of Japanese government officials, seek redress of injustice through the court system, or appeal to an abstract American sense of fair play and justice. Excluded from the political process, Japanese immigrants were political pariahs who had no power of their own to exercise.”

Anxious to Conform

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The fate of the Issei was all the more ironic--and tragic-- because the community struggled so hard to demonstrate its worthiness to be American citizens. Community organizations and their leaders conducted “moral reform campaigns” to drive out gamblers, prostitutes, and other undesirable elements. “The Stockton Japanese Assn. had such persons picked up regularly by the local police,” Ichioka writes. “To ensure that they would not return the association maintained a list of names and photographs and warned all those who had been banished that it would have them rearrested if they dared to come back to Stockton.”

Perhaps the greatest outrage of the Japanese-American immigrant saga is the failure of the American courts to offer any relief from the lynch-mob spirit that animated the labor unions and the lawmakers. In 1923, Ozawa Takao, selected by the Pacific Coast Japanese Assn. Deliberative Council to challenge the laws against naturalization of Japanese immigrants, took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he was held to be ineligible for citizenship because he was “a mongolian.” Later, the U.S. Supreme Court also approved a California law against land ownership by aliens. Ichioka concludes: “By upholding their ineligibility, the high court guaranteed that the powerless political status of Japanese immigrants would remain unchanged.”

In Meticulous Detail

Ichioka recounts the history of the Issei in meticulous and scholarly detail, often drawing on obscure 19th-Century census data, land ownership records and actuarial information, both from Japan and the United States. Although Ichioka provides the occasional anecdote that makes “The Issei” come alive for the lay reader--for example, he describes the favored forms of gambling among early Japanese immigrants in intimate and colorful detail--his book is intended to be (and succeeds as) the work of a professional historian.

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“The Issei” is largely a story of California and the West, although an unsuspected and shocking one. (Ichioka, a historian at the Asian-American Studies Center at UCLA, acknowledges the importance of the libraries and archives at Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA and the California State Library in Sacramento, as well as other collections in the United States and Japan.) The drama of “The Issei” is played out amid the beet fields of Oxnard, the vineyards of Fresno and the back alleys of Stockton and San Francisco and Los Angeles.

And it is recounted by a revisionist historian whose scholarship is enlivened by an unmistakable tone of anger and indignation. The ordeal of the Issei, he argues, is the dark side of the American dream. His case is so well documented, and so well argued, that we come to see that his anger and indignation are fully justified.


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