History of Japanese American Immigration to the Northwest
Idaho has a rich Asian heritage- Chinese miners and laborers helped establish and settle the Idaho Territory during the 1860s and 1870s. Idaho's landscape is dotted with the remains of Chinese settlements and mining sites. Anti-Chinese exclusion laws effectively ended Chinese immigration during the 1880s but the demand for labor remained high and it was at this same time that Japanese immigration to America began.
Following the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Japan began a massive and ambitious program of modernization. Industrialization was financed by taxing the farmers, which resulted in severe economic hardship for the rural prefectures of Kumamoto, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi in southwest Japan. At the same time, Japan began to loosen its restrictive emigration policies. Internal pressures on Japanese society, brought on by the Meiji push to modernize, were partly alleviated by allowing more Japanese to migrate to Hawaii and the United States. Seattle and Tacoma were the primary ports of entry for the Nikkei migration to the United States mainland.
Most of the Japanese born immigrants, or Issei, who came to Idaho were from rural areas in the Kumamoto prefecture located on Kyushu, and the Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and Okayama prefectures located in the southwest region on the main island of Honshu. Barely 2000 Japanese came to America in 1890, but the numbers increased steadily to 24,000 in 1900 and over 72,000 in 1910. Between the years 1885 and 1924, 180,000 Japanese migrated to the United States with Idaho being one of the first states to receive significant numbers of Japanese immigrants, primarily as railroad construction workers.
The Japanese government "viewed overseas Japanese as representatives of their homeland... Review boards screened them to ensure that they were healthy and literate and would creditably 'maintain Japan's national honor.'" (Takaki 1998: 46). The Japanese government also closely monitored working and living conditions for the Japanese emigrants.
The Nikkei established productive farms and businesses throughout the Pacific Northwest; in Idaho Japanese workers helped build the Union Pacific's Oregon Short Line. Like the Chinese, the Japanese had to contend with severe anti-Asian prejudice, the Nikkei could not become U.S. citizens and were not permitted to own or lease land. But unlike the Chinese, the Nikkei immigrants brought their wives and children and were able to establish viable and thriving communities; "... together with their children they were ushering Japanese America into the teiju - the era of settlement" (Takaki 1998: 181).
Takaki, Ronald. 1998 Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Co. New York.
Sims, Robert C. 1978 "The Japanese American Experience in Idaho". Idaho Yesterdays, Spring 1978:2-10.
Go on to the Pioneers & Settlers page