Issei History, Part 1 — The Social and Economic Impetus for Migration

Note: The following is based on the works of Daniels (1988), Geiger (2011), and Ross (2009). See below for bibliographic details.

The Meiji period of Japan (1868-1912) saw one of the most rapid and pervasive attempts at intentional modernization and industrialization in history. Spurred by a desire to avoid the kinds of exploitation suffered by other Asian countries at the hands of Western powers, the Japanese government instituted a wide variety of reforms designed to incorporate what they perceived to be the “civilized” and “modern” aspects of Europe and America. Thus began a period of rapid industrialization, social change (including the formal abolishment of the Tokugawa-era caste system), and adoption of a variety of Euro-American cultural practices that Japanese elites and authorities believed were associated with modernity. This process took on two forms: internal changes to Japanese society, and external actions, pressures, and “public relations” maneuvers to convince Western nations that Japan was their ally and equal. As one might imagine, not all such attempts were successful—while beef consumption was adopted by some Meiji officials, it took time for the rest of Japanese society to overcome its previously negative perception of the practice. I should also note that these practices were often interpreted through the lens of the cultural and historical backgrounds of the various groups of Japanese that encountered them. This was not some sort of whole-sale assimilation, but a selective hybridization of cultural and social norms.

The changes brought about by Meiji officials helped create the economic impetus for migration. Perhaps the most powerful of these was the effect of industrialization on Japanese society. In promoting industrialization, the Meiji government provided their citizens with an increasing amount of cheap goods, negatively affecting artisans and farmers who relied on handicraft manufacture to supplement their income. Railroads designed to improve transportation and trade undermined the economic foundation of villages located along roads and rivers, and carried rural laborers away from the countryside while simultaneously opening up said countryside to mass-produced goods. Furthermore, new tax laws designed to make taxation easier ended up pushing the burden of poor harvests onto workers; instead of taxing a percentage of the annual rice harvest, the Meiji government chose to require fixed payments based on the value of the farmer’s land. This inevitably led to a shift in land ownership, with more land owned by fewer, wealthier people. As a consequence of these changes, many farmers found themselves displaced from their original line of work and in need of money.

Social factors are also relevant for understanding Meiji-era migration. Not all areas that had low wages or economic problems experienced high migration; Geiger has suggested that areas where Japanese had the greatest concern that their family’s social position might suffer from the changing economic climate saw the greatest migration. Migration offered opportunities to enhance status in home villages, as migrants could and commonly did send money home to support their families. Migration also offered a chance to escape the restrictions of Tokugawa-period caste and status, which despite the Meiji government’s efforts remained a social reality in Japan. For these migrants, the United States offered a (perceived) plethora of social and economic opportunities. Granted, once they arrived on American shores, Issei1 quickly realized the limitations they faced as a racialized minority. However, even with this pervasive racism, many were still able to make a better living than in Japan.

1Issei refers to first generation Japanese American immigrants. Nissei refers to their children, the second generation, and Sansei the third.

Daniels, Roger
1988    Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Geiger, Andrea
2011    Subverting Exclusion: Transpacific Encounters with Race, Caste, and Border, 1885-1928. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Ross, Douglas
2009    Material Life and Sociocultural Transformation among Asian Transmigrants at a Simon Fraser Salmon Cannery. PhD. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.