Emerging Opportunities in Dark Times: Japanese Americans in the Northwest, 1933-1934

by Yukio Maeda


Four Japanese American boy scouts, Seattle, August 1935. (Image courtesy Wing Luke Museum and University of Washington Library Digital Collections.)

Starting in the early 1930s, people in America were hit hard by the Depression as stocks continued to dwindle downward, unemployment rose, savings disappeared overnight, and bankruptcy drove children and adults alike out on the streets. Efforts by federal and local government to help those in need provided some relief, but were often not enough to help all the needy masses. However, for the Japanese American citizens residing in the Northwest, these bleak times provided an excellent opportunity to establish a Japanese cultural identity within their new country as well as obtaining basic civil rights in order to be treated as equal citizens. Thus, from 1933 to 1934, many Japanese Americans began to embrace both Japanese and American cultures, nurtured cross-cultural social life, carved out economic sectors for themselves, and created political organizations with active participation in local cities and towns.

Prior to the 1930s, Japanese immigrants faced pressure and discrimination within average American communities and neighborhoods. During this time, many Americans harbored some distrust and resentment towards the Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants), maintaining the idea that they were tricky and “harbored evil designs against their American neighbors.”[1] Many white Americans were prejudiced by the economic competition from Japanese companies and by the influx of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants within the past few decades. To counter this, the Issei undertook small efforts to promote themselves. Many established Japanese Associations, local committees run by a group of elite Japanese immigrants, to collectively manage and direct all Japanese political and social activities in order to promote themselves as a strong and unified group.[2] Issei even tried various political campaigns to increase their “American” image, such as using “government-backed educational films”[3] to educate Japanese people in American ways and creating the Committee for the Eradication of Gambling, which actively passed “resolutions to prohibit gamblers and other undesirables from entering the Japanese section.”[4] Despite these efforts, Sinification—the generic grouping of Asian immigrants into one category—prevailed, as Issei were associated with derogatory stereotypes of Asian immigrants. Issei and most Asian migrants were associated with prostitutes, Chinese gamblers, and “backward gumim, or ignorant masses, who…prowl about the city with only shabby clothes and straw sandals.”[5]

This image of the Japanese began to show in legal, political, and social exclusion, as many them were exploited within or excluded from certain institutions of white communities. Many states along the Pacific Coast increasingly passed anti-alien laws, such as the 1913 Anti-Alien Act, a law that “limited Issei land leases to three years in addition to banning their land ownership,”[6] and the federal 1924 National Origins Act, banning free immigration from Japan and establishing quotas of 100-200 people per year. Threats of expulsion and violence directed at Japanese communities in the Los Angeles region ranged from an arson attack on a Japanese home, the propagation of “Japs Keep Out” billboards, opposition from neighborhood communities against the creation of a Japanese Methodist Church, and “anti-Japanese signs, placards, and banners when [an immigrant family] moved into a new house.”[7] Overall, many Issei were subject to harsh and restrictive laws that prevented them from making America their “new” home.

During the 1930s, however, Japanese American citizens increased their civil rights and achieved the approval of other Americans by delicately fusing the culture of their Japanese homeland with that of America. During this time, it was reported that the number of Japanese who were American citizens and resided within the Northwest (e.g. Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska) was “estimated at 53 per cent… 9,768 out of about 18,300 Japanese.”[8] Also during this time, the distrust between Americans and the Japanese began to increase as “Japan’s dominance of the Manchurian region undermined the interests of other imperialist powers…[and] Japan’s puppet Manchukuo in 1932 antagonized the West,” drawing condemnation from the League of Nations as well as the anger and dissatisfaction of many nations involved in the Open China policy (including America).[9] Thus, many of the Issei, who could not be naturalized as citizens, increasingly pushed the second-generation Nisei to try and mix the two traditions in order to provide themselves and future generations opportunities in America that they themselves couldn’t achieve. The Issei also hoped to expose the best of their culture to other Americans, creating a mutual understanding and harmony between Japan and America. To accomplish this, Nisei children were taught both the English and Japanese language as well as the customs of both cultures in art, music, popular culture, fashion, and etiquette.[10]


Children at a Japanese American Buddhist ceremony, 1930. (Image courtesy of the University of Washington Library Digital Collection .)

This proved to be a challenge, as many of the Nisei children saw themselves incapable of blending two diverse cultures with hostile international relations, and encountered enormous opposition from Americans unwilling to accept the Asian culture. One such example included an incident in Arizona where the Anti-Alien Association demanded that Japanese “‘get out or be put out,’” and threatened to pillage Japanese homes.[11] Also, many of the Nisei became fully engrossed in the American culture themselves, eventually distancing themselves and completely sacrificing their old or awkward Japanese heritage in order to appear “American.”[12]

Nevertheless, many were highly encouraged to take pride in their heritage while socializing with Americans in order to increase their presence within the American neighborhoods. Throughout the year, Seattle neighborhoods held local picnics, dances, races, and other events where all citizens were invited, white or non-white.[13] These activities were ideal places for friendly interaction between Japanese Americans and white Americans, allowing them to promote themselves and represent their ethnic background, as well as raise money for local causes.[14] If such events weren’t available, local events were created and hosted by various Japanese neighborhoods in order to promote interaction between residents.[15] In addition, the Japanese helped out these communities by volunteering for service. For example, within the Seattle and King County Districts, the number of Japanese Americans who volunteered in the Red Cross exceeded normal amoounts, “making it possible for the Red Cross to be on the scene” in times of trouble.[16] Also, Japanse Americans helped out in local benefit drives, such as the Seattle Community Fund campaign, in order to prove their value to American society.[17]

Many Japanese American citizens also upheld the notion of staying on the right side of the law. During this time, it was reported that the Juvenile Court only dealt with 41 out of 6,850 delinquents who were of Japanese descent and that “the amount of real delinquency was so small as to be practically nothing.”[18] Lastly, various programs designed to promote Japanese culture and traditions (such as flower arrangement and judo) were created within schools and neighborhoods, providing an increased knowledge and respect of Japanese cultural traditions.[19] As a result of these factors, argued an article in a 1933 issue of Seattle’s Japanese-American Courier, many Americans began to view the Japanese as an asset to their culture and began integrating some of the Japanese customs with their own.[20] In addition, a mutual respect between the two races began to present itself within many communities as Americans and Japanese came together during festivals or local events several times. This even developed to a point where Japanese and whites both looked out for each other through neighborhood watch programs, protecting themselves against any threats and dangers from radical or violent persons.[21]

Another way the Japanese undertook to increase their civil rights and their cultural identity was through economic prosperity and unity of Japanese businesses and companies. For a multitude of Asian Americans, finding adequate jobs was very hard as they were discriminated, could not understand English, and lacked the proper education needed to enter professional jobs.[22] Despite all of that and the fact that many businesses and homes went bankrupt due to the Depression, many Japanese still went out to seek better jobs. Many of the Issei took to blue-collar jobs such as nursing or farm labor. Many Issei found success within the Northwest region as they turned unwanted land into flourishing farms with Japanese irrigation and cultivation techniques.[23] However, restrictive laws, like the Alien Land Laws, blocked non-citizens from enormous profits and enterprises, as whites forcibly took over Japanese farms and profits, exploiting the fact that the Japanese couldn’t own land. The Nisei, who were American citizens, bought land from white owners and became apprentices within the farms or nurseries of the Issei, allowing businesses to remain alive and expand throughout generations. On the other hand, many saw education not only as a way to becoming good citizens but also as a major factor to obtaining high-paying jobs.[24] Thus, a good majority of the Nisei stayed in school longer, studying intensely through high school or college in order to earn their degrees and, ultimately, to take up professional white-collar jobs such as dentistry or banking.[25]

In addition, many of the Japanese businesses worked together to stimulate production and to improve their economic positions. While local businesses did compete against each other for customers and providers, the Japanese supported each other’s businesses and held friendly rivalries for the sake of the customers as well as the owners. Also, many of the businesses represented themselves in specific trade groups (such as the Japanese Produce Association or Japanese Barbers Association), which not only advocated for better conditions, wages, and hours, but also unified the businesses within the Japanese community.[26] This not only produced financial stability for the Japanese but also created new opportunities and jobs throughout the regions for all peoples in farm labor, advertising, or even in packaging companies (such as the Seattle Northwestern Packing Company).[27] As these businesses flourished, relations between the Japanese American and other communities increased as these populations began to see the Japanese as hard-working and opportunistic people, making them an essential part of the Northwest’s economic system.[28]

Lastly, Japanese Americans and immigrants worked to increased their rights by establishing various organizations designed to amplify Japanese efforts in local political and social frameworks. Many Japanese American citizens began creating local clubs and organizations up and down the Pacific Coast as social centers and regional networks.[29] Even students began to create similar clubs within schools and established clubhouses specifically designed for gatherings, parties, and hosted events.[30] Gradually, as Japanese Americans began to increase their political and social scope, these clubhouses became vital in providing a place for club meetings and conventions as well as symbolizing a growing movement by an “ethnic minority.”

However, it was the Japanese American Citizens’ League (J.A.C.L.), an organization for the Nisei that aimed “to build individual character on a firm foundation of Americanism,” that gave the Japanese community an opportunity to stand up for themselves and fight for certain rights.[31] From 1933 to 1934, the J.A.C.L. saw a significant increase in membership as well as active participation in events and regular meetings not only in Seattle but also in Portland, Oregon; Yakima, Washington; and even in San Francisco, California. At the same time, a small but progressive group of Japanese American citizens, including George Ishihara, Toshio Hoshida, and Takeo Nogaki,[32] led the J.A.C.L. in centralizing the whole organization. As a result of these two factors, the J.A.C.L’s overall mission was reshaped, broadening their work to cover problems and issues pertaining to the Japanese within American politics and economics as well as focusing on promoting closer relations between the Issei and the Nisei.

One of the things the new J.A.C.L. leaders immediately undertook was an immense political restructuring of the club. In order to make the club more political in nature, they began holding conventions in addition to meetings where local leaders and guest speakers would speak to the Japanese audience.[33] They also began adding new elements to the organization to accommodate all peoples, young and old. Soon after the 1933 elections, the J.A.C.L. adopted a plan to incorporate a speakers’ body, made up of several young Nisei, in order to give the youth a voice and to drive the meetings forward.[34] Also, in conjunction with this new council, the J.A.C.L. created a deputation committee which was responsible for overseeing the youth as well as gathering information regarding the League’s accomplishment in their aims and overall effort.[35]

Another thing the J.A.C.L. did was increase the overall political awareness of the Japanese American community by undertaking several initiatives which, despite their trivial appearance, helped increase their political base and educated ordinary citizens on the importance of politics. An example was the “uniform election week plan,” a plan to hold club elections at the same time local and district elections were held which made it easier for citizens to remember to vote and eliminated any interruptions in business or meetings.[36] In the same spirit, the J.A.C.L. held “registration parties,” social gatherings where Japanese American citizens were aided by helpers through the voter registration process to get the Japanese community involved in local and federal politics. [37]

Finally, the J.A.C.L. was vital to the Japanese community in influencing many legislators and politicians and affecting the outcomes of local legislation. Sometimes, the J.A.C.L. wrote letters to high-ranking officials that praised their work or offered support of their actions. One example includes a letter sent to Hugh S. Johnson, the National Recovery Act Administration Head, which pledged the J.A.C.L.’s support of the N.R.A. and the Roosevelt government.[38] Often times, these letters were sent in order to inform officials of, or promote action to eliminate, certain injustices or problems Japanese citizens faced in politics or society.[39] On some occasions, the J.A.C.L. was able to reverse laws that were unfair or discriminatory toward Japanese Americans. One such case was the Alien Beer Law, a piece of legislation that prohibited hotels, restaurants, or any establishments that either employed or were owned by aliens from obtaining beer licenses. With the recognition and action of the J.A.C.L., council members were able to defeat the bill after winning the case in court.[40] Another piece of legislature they were able to defeat was an amendment to the Dickstein Bill, a legislative bill proposed by Californian Representative Kramer Dickstein, proposing denial of partial citizenship of those born to U.S. citizens outside U.S. jurisdiction due to race. While this case was outside of the Northwest region, the Northwest J.A.C.L. became personally involved, standing up for fellow Japanese citizens by sending telegrams and representatives to California in order to achieve racial fairness.[41] Unfortunately, the J.A.C.L. wasn’t always successful in their efforts: in dealing with the immigration problem, the J.A.C.L. sought to increase the quota of Japanese immigrants set forth by the 1924 National Origins Act and, to some extent the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.[42] However, their efforts obtained few results, and gained them much backlash from political legislators.[43]

For Japanese Americans, the years of 1933 and 1934 were not as bleak as the Depression might have foretold, as they were able to build fragile bridges with mainstream American culture and also carve out spaces for political and social action. Many were able to find new jobs, earning an increased respect from their American neighbors. They also began politically mobilizing and actively participated in local affairs. The creation of many local clubs offered a way for Japanese Americans to represent themselves in large numbers as a unified ethnic minority in politics. Their display of citizenship and respect for their American neighbors allowed them to not only partially integrate within the Northwest region but to also feel like U.S. citizens. Unfortunately, this friendship and understanding was still fragile, and the newfound respect that Japanese Americans had worked hard to achieve vanished soon after the start of WWII and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as the Japanese were incarcerated and assembled into concentration camps under Executive Order 9066. This sobering event underscores how tenuous the position  of Japanese Americans in the Northwest was, but should also highlight the achievements Japanese Americans made in economic, politics, and cultural identity in the mid-1930s.

Copyright (c) 2009, Yukio Maeda
HSTAA 105 Winter 2009


[1] “Jingoistic Utterances.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 06 May 1933: 3.

[2] Azuma, Eiichiro. 2005. Between Two Empires. New York. Oxford University Press. P.43-44

[3] Ibid P.51

[4] Ibid P.49

[5] Ibid P.38

[6] Ibid P.65

[7] Ibid P.78

[8] Kanazawa, Tooru. "U.S. Assimilating Japanese Youth." The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 06 May 1933: 1.

[9] Azuma. P.171

[10] Oyama, Molly. “Forum Discusses Youth Problems.” Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 09 September 1933: 1+.

[11] “Anti-Japanese Move Develops.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 25 August 1934: 1.

[12] “4 Indictments Laid Up Against Japanese Youth.” Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 17 March 1934: 1.

[13] “20,000 Coupons Issues For Japan Day; Musical Entertainment Set.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 21 July 1934: 4.

[14] “Community Is To Make Merry.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 21 April 1934: 1.

[15] “Reception Tonight For Ship Students.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 26 May 1934: 1.

[16] “Japanese Roll Call Goes Over Quota.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 01 July 1933: 1.

[17] McLaughlin, Frank. “Community Fund Aids Dependents.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 30 September 1933: 1.

[18] Vann, Harold. "Japanese Cases of Delinquency Here Negligible." The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 03

June 1933: 1.

[19] “Program Begun Toward Saving Japanese Culture.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 03 February 1934: 1.

[20] Dekuzaku, Mary. “Japan’s Culture Noted As Asset.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 01 July 1933: 5+.

[21] “Wapato Citizens Against Vandals.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 15 April 1933: 1.

[22] Steiner, Dr. Jesse F. “Youth Trained For U.S. Careers Handicapped By Discrimination.” Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 08 April 1934: 1.

[23] Rademaker, John. “Farming Specialties of N.W. Japanese, Whites Found Complementary In Study.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 03 February 1934: 1.

[24] “Facing Reality.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 10 June 1933: 3.

[25] Kanazawa, Tooru. “55 Per Cent Of Youth In School Or Apprentices.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 10 June 1933: 1.

[26] “Japanese Groups To Support NRA.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 05 August 1933: 1.

[27] Sanjin, Hakugyoku-. “Japanese Farms Aid Employment, Create Wealth.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 15 July 1933: 1.

[28] “Japanese Found As Integral Part Of Puget Sound Organization.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 27 January 1934: 1.

[29] “Seattle Club Is Organized Here.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 19 August 1933: 1.

[30] Natori, Edwin. “Students’ Club Represents Japanese As United Group.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 14 April 1934: 1.

[31] “Individual And Society.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 11 August 1934: 3.

[32] “New Vote Plan Proves Success In N.W. District.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 28 January 1933: 1.

[33] “National, N.W. Groups Map Convention Plans.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 18 March 1933: 1.

[34] “Speakers’ Group To Push League.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 22 April 1933: 1.

[35] “Citizens Create Deputation Body.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 24 June 1933: 1.

[36] “New Vote Plan Proves Success In N.W. District.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 28 January 1933: 1.

[37] “Social Saturday Will Open Drive.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 23 September 1933: 1.

[38] “Citizens League Wires S. Johnson Backing N.R.A.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 09 September 1933: 1.

[39] “J.A.C.L. Committee Hits Discrimination.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 09 September 1934: 1.

[40] “Council Defeats Alien Beer Law.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 08 April 1933: 1.

[41] “Congress Kills Kramer Clause.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 24 February 1934: 1.

[42] “U.S. Quota Move Cheers Japanese.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 07 October 1933: 1.

[43] “Arguments Told By U.S. Leaders For Asia Quota.” The Japanese-American Courier [Seattle, WA] 14 October 1933: 1.