Our Experience

Japanese Americans began immigrating to the United States in the late 1800s. Among the first immigrants were 153 Japanese laborers who sailed to the Territory of Hawaii aboard the Scioto from Yokahama in 1868. The first "official" immigration of Japanese to Hawaii, then an "independent" country, was in 1885. More than 944 Japanese laborers arrived in Honolulu aboard the Tokio as contract laborers destined for work on the island's sugar plantations. These workers were soon followed by thousands more contract laborers, craftsmen, businessmen and their families.

Immigration to the American mainland was slower to develop. Between 1880 and 1890, only 3,475 passports were issued for purposes of immigration, with nearly half of those going to students. Between 1891 and 1907, after which Japanese immigration was severely limited by a "Gentlemen's Agreement," an additional 69,000 passports were issued. The passports were primarily for businessmen and laborers, with the peak year of 1900 seeing 10,501 such issuances.

Poor economic conditions in some regions of Japan were a factor in the emigration of men and women between the late 1890's and early 1900's. Unlike their European counterparts who were lured to America by promoters, most Japanese emigrants left to improve their economic condition. They had heard that America was a rich land where wages were high and jobs were plentiful. Immigrants took jobs in agriculture, aquaculture, and in the timber industries in California, Washington, and other western states. Accidents on the job and health problems were among the risks that they took to start a new life in America.

A young, single man could go to America, find a job, and eventually save enough money to return home to live a good life. With passports in hand, many young men undertook the long, expensive, and unpleasant boat trip to America, leaving their family, friends, and loved ones behind. Some men who wanted to come to America were unable to obtain passports. A few of them decided to take a chance as stow aways on ships bound for America. Once in American waters, they would swim to shore and hope to avoid being caught. This risky tactic was called "smuggling in." When they arrived in America, the Issei quickly learned that not all of the stories they had heard about America were true. Although wages were higher than in Japan, working hours were long and working conditions were poor.