Road to the Camps

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Testimony about a boycott of Chinese and Japanese business establishments in Butte, Montana, 1898. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society Research Center via Big Sky Digital Network

In the 1860s, a devastating recession in Japan sent thousands of men and women heading toward the United States in search of new jobs and opportunities. Of the approximately 200,000 who first relocated to Hawaii, nearly all later moved to the West Coast of the US mainland to do agricultural work and operate small businesses. A pact between Japan and the United States in 1908 put a ban on unskilled immigrant laborers, slowing the influx of Japanese men and women relocating. These first-generation Japanese immigrants (known as Issei) and their American-born children (known as Nisei) still thrived in the face of a climate of racism and distrust that permeated US culture.

From the time of their arrival in the United States, Japanese immigrants, and other Asian immigrant groups, faced systematic discrimination from the American government and public. The Japanese and Korean Exclusion League (which later became the Asiatic Exclusion League) was established in May 1905. Other organizations followed, like the Anti-Jap Laundry League in 1908, which was formed by laundry worker unions with slogans asserting their need to maintain “the white man's standard in a white man's country” by boycotting Japanese-run laundries. Other organizations, like the Native Sons of the Golden West, would take anti-Japanese stances throughout the early 1900s, asserting that they needed to protect a California “given by God to a white people.” Legislation banned Japanese Americans from owning land or property, and laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924 banned "undesirable" immigration from Asian countries, including Japan.