In 1921, a Harvard government professor warned that “There has never been a time of such uneasy and hostile feeling between the two nations” of the U.S. and Japan. 20 years later came Pearl Harbor.
Albert Bushnell Hart noted that the animosity was a relatively recent development:
Can two countries be found with a longer record of international friendship? For half a century Japan has welcomed Americans, while the United States has been a land of pilgrimage for Japanese. The two countries have also been bound together by eight successive commercial treaties, and the United States in 1804 was the first nation to accept Japan as a full member of the family of nations.
The tension in 1921 primarily related to certain U.S. states’ restrictions on Japanese immigrants’ rights:
California by statute, and also by a recent referendum, has prohibited aliens who are not capable of becoming citizens (that is, in effect, Chinese and Japanese) from holding land directly or through forms of trust. Whether a State may legally thus discriminate between aliens is not yet settled by the courts, though there are precedents.
Here then is the case in a nutshell. The National Government prohibits Chinese immigration but not Japanese. It restricts Japanese immigration by a roundabout and makeshift method which allows thousands to sift through. The Pacific States are powerless to shut these people out, but are alarmed at their acquirement of lands, as an evidence of intention to form a permanent settlement. The Japanese Government dislikes any restriction, and formally protests against treatment of Japanese which is not precisely the same as that of other immigrants.
The issue wouldn’t be resolved legally for 27 years, until 1948’s case Oyama v. California — and even then, it would only be partially resolved.
Kajiro Oyama, a Japanese citizen living in the U.S., became de facto owner of California land which had technically been purchased in the name of his six-year-old son Fred, a U.S. citizen through birthright citizenship. The California Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state’s law, declaring Oyama’s purchase an illegal evasive maneuver intended to circumvent the state’s ban on Japanese immigrants owning land. The Harry Truman administration disagreed and appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 6-3 in Oyama’s favor, finding that California’s law indeed violated the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause rights of six-year-old Fred, an American citizen.
However, there was a catch. The Court’s stances on issues related to the Japanese back then was firmly rooted in an antagonist World War II-era sentiment. Four years earlier, in 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Japanese internment in Korematsu v. U.S., which the Court didn’t formally overrule until 2018.
So in a sly bit of legal maneuvering, while the Court ruled in Oyama’s favor for this specific case, they declined to actually invalidate or overturn California’s law outright. That wouldn’t occur until the California Supreme Court — which, keep in mind, had found against Oyama back in 1946 — reversed itself and declared the state law unconstitutional in a subsequent unrelated 1952 case. The California government itself formally repealed the law in 1956.
On a federal level, it wasn’t until Congress enacted 1952’s McCarran-Walter Act that Japanese immigrants were allowed to become U.S. citizens. The law also simultaneously upheld America’s quotas for immigration based on nation of origin, which weren’t discontinued until the Immigration Act of 1965.
To be fair, while all this did contribute to escalating tensions between the U.S. and Japan, none of this directly caused the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. Instead, the preemptive assault on a major U.S. naval base intended to hobble America’s potential deterrance capabilities in the Pacific, paving the way for Japan to carry out its planned aggressions against Pacific territories of the United Kingdom and Netherlands.
Still, these other tensions probably didn’t help matters. You don’t go to war against your friends.
Our Japanese Question
Published: Sunday, January 16, 1921
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