Japanese Immigrant Exclusion: 100 Years Later

Dillingham Immigration Commission, 1924.

One hundred years ago, Congress passed, and President Calvin Coolidge signed, a new immigration bill. While relatively uncontroversial in the United States — it had passed the Senate 69-9 and the House 308-62 — the Immigration Act had a global impact.

The bill’s genesis was a study completed by the Dillingham Commission, formed by President Theodore Roosevelt to study and identify which immigrants would contribute most to the social fabric of America.

The commission unfortunately embraced various theories combining racial superiority, social Darwinism, and eugenics, so, to no one’s surprise, the resulting profile of an ideal American immigrant looked remarkably like members of the committee.

The panel would ultimately adopt standards of suitability ranging from physical details like posture, head size, and facial features, to grades on literacy tests that focused more on aptitude for learning than the ability to read or write.

Scientists and academics nationwide embraced these outward intentions to divide the “desirable” immigrants from those more susceptible to crime, disease, and incompetence. The popular acclaim for the commission’s findings followed as they were incorporated in the Act as a basis for excluding certain immigrants. 

Prior to passage of the federal law, immigration issues were handled at points of entry, as typified by the Ellis Island experience. Huddled masses from faraway nations were processed and generally only a tiny percentage turned back for obvious reasons like contagious illness. 

The 1924 law required those seeking entry to America to first secure a travel visa, allotted on a quota system that severely limited immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. Because immigration from Asia was expressly prohibited, the law has been commonly known as the “Japanese Exclusion Act.”

Labor unions particularly supported the new law as it eliminated cheap immigrant labor and allowed for union workers to maintain their hegemony in America’s expanding industries.

While limiting immigration on the basis of country of origin, the Act did not limit immigration from the Western Hemisphere, so those from Canada and Mexico were welcomed without the need for a visa, literacy test, or proper eugenic profile. Mexican laborers, however, were charged a $10 tax to enter the United States.

Sensing that the borders with our neighbors might be a source of problems, the Border Patrol was established to make sure that the prohibitions of the federal law were respected, and immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere could not sneak across.

The 100th anniversary of the 1924 Immigration Act is also the centennial of the US Border Patrol. Creating this federal agency demonstrated that Congress was correct in assuming that immigrants from outside Latin America enter over the southern border to avoid the immigration limitations assessed at ports.

Perhaps the most significant impact of the law was the humiliating effect it had on Japan. America had previously limited immigration from China specifically, but Japan’s immigration was limited by an unwritten and covert “gentlemen’s agreement.” The 1924 immigration law removed any pretense: Japanese émigrés were not wanted.

It is not a stretch to say that the Immigration Act planted some seeds of anti-Americanism that would create open hostilities between the counties. Prior to this time, Japan admired the young country of America and saw many benefits in becoming a trading partner and friend. The Japanese people even adopted aspects of American culture.

Japan was a bona fide world power and had entered World War I as an ally, believing its interest more aligned with the United States and Great Britain. There was a strong sentiment in Japan to reform its government to be more like its Western allies, and its representatives attended the Versailles Conference to voice concern about the future of the world. 

Specifically, Japan advocated for loosening restrictions on immigration and ending restrictions based on race and religion, which was a quite progressive view for 1919. Unfortunately, President Wilson worked to make sure these proposals were not incorporated into the final agreement to form the League of Nations.

Even so, Japan’s pride at having a place at the conference and the honor of its diplomats joining the League of Nations boosted national morale. In imitation of its new allies, Japan created a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected parliament. In short, Japan had achieved world-wide recognition as a geopolitical leader and actor on the world stage following World War I.

After the immigration law was enacted, Japanese-American relations soured. As news of the Act’s limitations reached Japan, a young citizen set himself on fire in front of the US Embassy in Tokyo. Tariffs on American businesses and industries doubled, and Japanese embassies in America and other countries lodged protests as some ambassadors resigned. 

No one in Japan could understand why they would be singled out. They needed no sophisticated interpreter to explain the Act; For all the pretexts and explanations, one could not escape the simple fact that the immigration law deemed Japan an unworthy, second-class country.

The Act was demeaning, implying the inferiority of Asian culture in general and Japanese people in particular. The earlier honors of equality and recognition as an ally were diminished, if not forgotten.

And among those in Japan who resisted changes to constitutional government and the embrace of American culture, the Act allowed them to question the shift toward democracy. Recalcitrant Japanese nobility used the Act to show American deceit and urged a rejection of American culture, economy and institutions.

Instead of incorporating Japan into its sphere of influence, the Act alienated Japan from the United States and shifted our paths to confrontation and ultimately, a second world war.