In the 19th century, Japan was worried about the encroachment of Western colonialism. As a result, the Japanese restored the emperor and pursued extensive industrialization and militarization, financed by steep taxes. Unable to pay their taxes, thousands of farmers were forced to sell their land, and sank into debt, poverty, and starvation. Having heard tales about how much money could be earned in the US, many young Japanese men begged their parents to let them go. Between 1885 and 1924, almost half a million Japanese migrants came to the US, most of them to Hawaii.
Takaki’s stories of exploitation, debt, and starvation from around the world highlight a sad commonality: across hugely different countries and cultures, poor people are often oppressed in similar ways. As a result, immigrants coming to the US from completely different parts of the world often had similar reasons for leaving their homelands.
Although both Japanese and Chinese immigrants came to the US in hope of economic prosperity, the two groups were very different in most other ways. For example, there were significantly more women among the Japanese immigrant population. Indeed, the Japanese government had encouraged this in order to prevent Japanese men from falling into vices thought typical of bachelors. The 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement allowed Japanese women to emigrate as family members, which led to many thousands of women coming to the US as “picture brides,” in arranged marriages to Japanese-American men. Back in Japan, women already participated in wage labor, including in industries like mining and construction. Female education was also a prominent and valued part of society.
It is also important to remember that there are huge differences between cultures, and therefore between the immigrants who arrived on the US’ shores. The comparatively independent role women occupied within Japanese culture is a key example of this. Of course, when different ethnic groups mixed in the US, some of these cultural differences came into contact or conflict with each other, which in turn shifted norms.
Most male Japanese immigrants were younger sons, as custom dictated that the eldest son in a family would inherit his parents’ land. In 1900, Hawaii was made a territory of the United States, and planters on the islands brought in Japanese laborers along with their families in the hope that this would make the workers stay permanently. On the mainland, Japanese women provided support to their families through unpaid store and farm work. In Hawaii, planters were keen to import workers of different ethnicities in order to prevent strikes from occurring. They deliberately imported workers from different East Asian countries in order to “pit them against” each other.
One aspect of this section of A Different Mirror that is somewhat curious is Takaki’s lack of attention to the distinction between Hawaii and the US mainland, and correspondingly, to the indigenous population of Hawaii. This is particularly intriguing considering that Takaki devotes so much time to the experience of indigenous people on the mainland, but hardly mentions Native Hawaiians.
This policy was thwarted when the Korean government banned immigration to Hawaii after hearing of the abuses suffered by Korean workers there. Planters rushed to import Filipino workers instead. They also “stratified tasks according to race,” with white people once again being given higher-status jobs. In 1904, a resolution passed that restricted skilled work to (white) American citizens on the Hawaii plantations. Life on the plantation was highly regimented. The workers were divided into gangs, each of which was controlled by a white overseer. Women worked on the plantations too, and were paid 55 cents a day, compared to 78 cents for the men.
The decision of the Korean government to ban immigration to the US stands out as the only time in the book when a national government made the effort to prevent its citizens from going to America. Considering that the abuses suffered by immigrant workers in the US were hardly unique to Koreans, one might wonder why other governments did not take similar action in attempting to prevent migration.
The work was “punishing and brutal.” The overseer would crack his whip if he saw anyone talking, and every worker was called by their number, never their name. Harvesting sugarcane was physically exhausting and painful, and the workers often had to suffer extreme heat and humidity. Although the Japanese, like the Chinese, were stereotyped as passive and obedient, in reality they regularly went on strike in protest against their harsh working conditions. In 1909, they organized a strike to demand an end to differential wages based on ethnicity, which left Portuguese workers paid at a higher rate than Japanese. They argued that their labor was worth just as much as a worker of any other race.
These passages invite readers to compare life on the sugarcane plantations in Hawaii to plantations in the South under slavery. Some similarities emerge, for example in the highly regimented nature of the workers’ existence, and the difficult, exhausting, and dangerous nature of the work. At the same time, the second half of this passage is an important reminder of the rights and freedoms available to sugarcane workers—including, crucially, the right to organize—that enslaved people were denied.
The strike represented the Japanese workers’ desire to settle permanently in the US. They employed American rhetoric and ideals to demonstrate that they deserved equal pay for equal work. In response, the planters attempted to get the leaders arrested, and brought in workers of other ethnicities as “scabs,” or strikebreakers. The strike lasted four months, and eventually the strikers surrendered. However, they won in the long term, as shortly after the planters installed equal wages across ethnic difference, raising Japanese wages.
This is the first instance of a pattern that appears several times in the book: after brutally forcing striking workers to return to work seemingly without capitulating to their demands, employers will then quietly meet these demands after the fact. This is because they did not want to seem lenient even when they realized the necessity of improving worker conditions.
In the years to come, workers in Hawaii began to realize that they would have to work in solidarity with those of other ethnicities in order to have any power. In 1919, Filipino workers went on strike, hoping the Japanese would join them, and eventually they did. Together, the strikers represented 77% of the total plantation workforce on Oahu. Although a Filipino union leader was successfully bribed by employers and called off the strike, many Filipino workers kept striking anyway. The planters mounted pressure on the strikers, eventually forcing them to give in. However, once again the strikers actually won, as six months later the planters increased wages by 50%.
Once again, this passage demonstrates the impressive power of interracial solidarity. When strikes incorporate workers of more than one ethnic group, there is less of a chance for scabs to be brought in to break the strike. Perhaps even more importantly, interracial strikes are an important demonstration to the white elite that workers will not let themselves be divided and conquered.
The housing system on the plantation remained racially segregated. Conditions were cramped and unhygienic; however, as more families arrived, cottages were built to replace the barracks. The workers took care to make these little houses more beautiful and homey. There was an effort to make the camp more like a community, with everyone feeling like “one big family.” Japanese immigrants established Japanese-language schools and Buddhist temples. To the annoyance of the planters, these workers took days off to celebrate Japanese holidays. They would also share the food of their homeland with workers of other ethnicities.
The fact that housing was racially segregated helped the planters to stoke ethnic divisions and prevent workers of different ethnicities from acting in solidarity and organizing together. At the same time, this passage highlights that there were also positive benefits to segregation, including the opportunity to build a sense of community and family based on shared culture.
At first, communication across ethnic origin was difficult, as everyone spoke different languages. However, soon the workers began speaking pidgin English, which allowed them to communicate with one another. Hawaii was beginning to feel more and more like home to the Japanese workers, who had come with the intention of returning home, yet who largely decided to stay. While Japanese workers sought out educational opportunities for their children, planters opposed this. They wanted to limit the opportunities available to the children of planters in order to ensure that there would be another generation of planters ready to succeed their parents. In school, Japanese-American children learned about freedom and democracy, which was a stark contrast to the reality of life on the plantation.
One of the American myths Takaki seeks to expose is the idea that the children immigrants who came to the country were encouraged to gain an education in order to achieve upward social mobility. In reality, even where immigrants and their children enthusiastically wished to dedicate themselves to education, this might be discouraged and shut down. Planters (and related classes of people) often wanted workers and their children to remain uneducated in order to keep them doing low-skilled, low-paid, undesirable labor.
The prevalence of anti-Japanese racism on the mainland could prove shocking to those visiting from Hawaii. In Hawaii, Japanese people represented 40% of the population, but on the mainland they were only 2%. Japanese immigrants had four options for accessing land: contract, share, lease, and ownership. They entered the agricultural industry quickly, due to the fact that, at the end of the 19th century, there was a sharp increase in demand for produce in urban areas. Meanwhile, the completion of the national railroad and the invention of the refrigerated railway car meant that farmers could send fresh produce across the country with ease. Benefiting from these advancements, Japanese farmers flourished.
It would be easy to assume that in areas where a particular ethnic group was more populous, they might experience more racism. After all, surely these groups would be considered more of a threat to white society. At the same time, Takaki has made it clear that racism does not operate according to any real logic. Rather, it is a way of exercising power—and it is far easier to exercise power over a small minority than a large one.
All farmworkers toiled tirelessly, but women faced the extra burden of housework in addition to field work. Although some Japanese farmers managed to grow rich, they still faced vicious racism. For instance, George Shima, a man who built a massive fortune from potato farming, moved to a wealthy neighborhood in Berkeley and insistently stayed even after he faced extreme opposition from the community there.
One of the book’s most important lessons is that wealth is not enough to transcend racism. This makes sense considering that race and class work together, such that one is never truly independent of the other.
Another successful Japanese immigrant, Kyutaro Abiko, put his sharp business skills to use as one of the founders of the Japanese American Industrial Corporation. Abiko was concerned by the future of Japanese immigrants in the US. He believed that it was important that they did not think of themselves as temporary sojourners in the country, but permanent members of American society. His newspaper encouraged Japanese immigrants to go into agriculture, work hard, and “put down roots in America.” He purchased 3,200 acres of land to sell to Japanese farmers, naming the settlement, which was in the San Joaquin Valley in California, “Yamato Colony.”
Although wealthy members of immigrant communities usually could not gain acceptance within elite white society, they still remained powerful as advocates of their own ethnic group. In this case, Kyutaro Abiko managed to improve the conditions of poorer Japanese immigrants by retaining a commitment to his own ethnic community even after he grew rich.
Although the colony flourished, Abiko’s belief that the Japanese would be accepted by white American society through their success in agriculture underestimated the power of racism. In 1913, the state of California passed the Alien Land Law, which restricted land ownership to naturalized citizens and was deliberately designed to prohibit Japanese land ownership. A Japanese man named Takao Ozawa petitioned for US citizenship, but was denied because—although he was an upstanding person who had totally assimilated into American society—he was not white. In 1924, Congress passed a law further prohibiting the immigration of those who were not eligible for US citizenship, which was “code […] for Japanese.” No matter how hard they tried, Japanese immigrants could not make themselves be seen as American.
This passage further dispels the myth that with enough hard work and ingenuity, anyone can find success in the US. As Takaki makes clear, it did not matter how hard Japanese immigrants worked or how much they assimilated into American society: legal discrimination flatly prevented them from exercising their rights as residents of the US, let alone flourishing as fully embraced members of society.
The first generation of Japanese immigrants came to believe that their only route to American identity would be via their children, who were American citizens by birth. Parents emphasized the importance of education, but again, despite the educational success of the second generation, racism persisted, making it difficult for young Japanese Americans to get jobs. Although they had the potential to do highly skilled, blue-collar professions, these individuals found themselves having to take jobs in stores, laundries, and fruit stands. The second generation struggled with the “duality” of being both Japanese and American, particularly considering the level of anti-Japanese sentiment in the US. They did not want to completely assimilate, but the dream of retaining both Japanese and American identity became even more impossible during the Second World War.
What is undeniably tragic about this passage is the fact that first-generation immigrants in Japan largely had to give up hope of being accepted into American society themselves, and instead deferred this dream to their children. This is particularly sad considering how much this generation sacrificed and how hard they worked to become part of the US.