Press Coverage of Japanese Immigration during the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907–1908 across the Pacific
The history of Asians in the United States reflects their eternal immigrant status as unassimilable “forever foreigners.”[i] After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (the first and only major federal anti-immigration law to target a specific nationality) and subsequent legislation effectively reduced Chinese immigration,[ii] the number of Japanese immigrants increased steadily to fill the U.S. economic needs for cheap labor.[iii] Fearful of Japanese immigrants’ economic competition and racial mixing, white Californians intensified their anti-Japanese racist rhetoric and movement to stop Japanese immigration.[iv] As a result, the San Francisco Board of Education passed a resolution on October 11, 1906, to order Japanese and Korean children to transfer to the newly named “Oriental Public School” and learn with Chinese children.[v] While the United States had to placate both working-class whites and Japanese people simultaneously, Japan needed to save face by avoiding the same path as the official exclusion of Chinese by treaty.[vi]
An eventual compromise achieved between Japan and the United States was the so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement, which narrowly refers to a series of eleven letters with memoranda exchanged between Tadasu Hayashi, Japanese minister for foreign affairs, and Thomas J. O’Brien, U.S. ambassador to Japan, from November 16, 1907, to March 25, 1908.[vii] At the conclusion of this agreement, Japan pledged not to issue passports to emigrants to the United States with some exceptions, and President Theodore Roosevelt, who both admired and feared Japanese people as a race, promised to prevent the passage of discriminatory immigration laws.[viii] Although most Japanese thought “America was a friend” in 1900, the Gentlemen’s Agreement was “the first step in the long decline in relations between the two nations which culminated in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the devastating war that followed.”[ix]
This project is a rare cross-cultural comparison between Japanese and U.S. newspapers in their coverage of Japanese immigration to the United States during the period of the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907–1908. By examining how the press reported on this issue in the historical contexts of the pro-Japanese Roosevelt administration and the honor-sensitive Japanese culture, we attempt to shed light on how the agreement contributed to restricting diversity in the United States, which is also reflected in present-day anti-Asian rhetoric.
The Asahi Shimbun and the New York Times were used because of their availability. Although the Asahi used the term 日米紳士協約 (Japan-U.S. Gentlemen’s Agreement) in its keyword list for each article, the Times did not. Therefore, we instead searched articles that contained “Japan” and “immigration,” as well as “Japanese” and “immigration,” between November 8, 1907, and April 1, 1908, to included one week before and after the agreement, resulting in 267 Asahi and 64 Times articles. Redundant and irrelevant articles were excluded from analysis.
“Bad Apples” and Acculturation in the Asahi Shimbun
Although many articles, whether partially or exclusively, discussed Japanese immigration issues involving Canada, this analysis focused on Japanese immigration in the United States.
One conspicuous theme was that the anti-Japanese movement emerged out of misunderstandings or agitation by some individuals, such as labor union leaders and opportunistic politicians. Kikujiro Ishii, the director of Japan’s international trade bureau, argued that anti-Japanese violence was due to the working class incited by labor unions’ misunderstandings and did not reflect true American feelings, that both the U.S. government and public had been welcoming to dependable, honest Japanese immigrants because of their contributions to the United States, and that U.S. workers had exerted undue influences on authoritative figures because of the country’s freedom.[x] For example, before Everis A. Hayes, U.S. representative from California, submitted a Japanese exclusion bill on December 2, 1907, “to achieve the goal of restricting undesirable Japanese immigrants,” President Theodore Roosevelt had attempted to dissuade him from it in vain. “Although he (Hayes) argued that he was merely representing Californians’ anti-Japanese feelings, rumors had it that his real motive was to get the Japan-U.S. anti-immigration treaty passed quickly.”[xi]
At the same time, Japanese were recommended to be sensitive to sentiments of the U.S. public and make cultural adjustments to blend in. Sakue Takahashi, who held a doctorate in laws, stated, “First, Japan and Japanese people should look far ahead and await the opportune time for immigration, which is eventually to come. . . . Second, immigrant Japanese should make effort to shake hands with white people and assimilate into the white community,” as well as to refrain from engaging in activities that would offend white people, such as getting together on their national holidays, holding a drinking party, or exhibiting their strange customs.[xii] Underlying this recommendation for good-faith effort was Japanese people’s fundamental belief in friendly Japan-U.S. relations and peaceful resolution to immigration issues despite repeated mentions of a coming war between the two nations.[xiii]
Fear and Fairness in the New York Times
One of the main themes of the Times’s coverage was the fear of war with Japan and increasing Japanese power in Asia. The Times saw Japan as a major economic competitor to the United States and Western countries. An editorial on November 22, 1907, warned that Japan would not even need a shooting war with the United States because it was winning economically. The editorial cited a Japanese businessman who had started a condensed milk factory, based on Western design, that was so successful it had created a monopoly in Asia, ousting U.S. and European businesses. The same thing was happening in many other businesses as Japan created better weapons than battleships to fight the West.[xiv]
But fear of a shooting war was all too real. An analysis of Japan’s military expenditures and attitudes toward foreign policy showed Japan to be a formidable adversary if the two countries clashed. The story quoted a Japanese economist as saying that the country in recent years had a major war every ten years and could expect another war in the not-to-distant future. The U.S. reaction to this threat was in some cases extreme. The Times reported that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Marshall Harlan gave a speech warning that Japan might someday have a large enough military to conquer Europe. “I don’t think they have any such idea now,” Harlan said, calling for the construction of a dominant U.S. Navy. “But there will be a conflict between the yellow race and the white race that will shake the world.”[xv]
On the other hand, the Times played its traditional role of rational argument, editorializing that people in both countries were at fault, and that reasonable leaders would find a solution. It attributed some of the war scare to rumors and to the hope of other countries that would benefit from a war between Japan and the United States. Extremists and labor unions in the United States and fanatics and jingoes in Japan were appealing to race pride and racism to stir up trouble in their respective countries. “It would be criminal folly for the responsible governors of either Japan or the United States to think of war save as an alternative to wanton aggression, and in the nature of the case, this is impossible, unless some sudden and inconceivable madness should seize them.”[xvi]
Whereas the Asahi described the anti-Japanese movement as caused by some “bad apples” in the United States and thus recommended Japanese immigrants stay calm and try their best to become assimilated to white people, the Times used mixed messages of using incendiary sources and applying calm logic to suppress the possibility of war between Japan and the United States. In the end, the Gentlemen’s Agreement was later superseded by the Immigration Act of 1924 to ban all immigration from Asia. Furthermore, although approximately 70,000 out of more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent who were sent to internment camps held a U.S. citizenship, the same fate of this magnitude did not befall German or Italian Americans due to the size of their populations and the degree of their social integration as “Americans.”[xvii] Present-day anti-Asian rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic strikes the same chord as the exclusion of Japanese more than 100 years ago: “You don’t belong here.”[xviii]
Featured images: Tadasu Hayashi, from Page 7 of The Secret Memoirs of Count Tadasu Hayashi, G.C.V.O., published in 1915 by G. P. Putnam’s sons, Library of Congress; Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/secretmemoirsofc00haya/page/n7/mode/2up. Thomas J. O’Brien, U.S. ambassador to Japan (1907–1911); Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, George Grantham Bain Collection, reproduction number LC-DIG-ggbain-00673; https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014680669/.
About the authors: Koji Fuse is associate professor of public relations in the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, Denton, Texas. His research interests include cross-cultural media representations, media ethics, and public relations practices. James E. Mueller is professor and associate dean in the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, Denton, Texas. Mueller, who specializes in the press and the presidency and war reporting, is the author of four books and numerous articles.
[i] Claire Jean Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” Politics and Society 27, no. 1 (March 1999): 105-138, https://doi.org/10.1177/0032329299027001005; Yuko Kawai, “Stereotyping Asian Americans: The Dialectic of the Model Minority and the Yellow Peril,” Howard Journal of Communications 16, no. 2 (2005): 109–130, https://doi.org/10.1080/10646170590948974.
[ii] John Soennichsen, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011), 67–90; Morrison G. Wong, “Chinese Americans,” in Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues, ed. Pyong Gap Min, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2006), 112–15.
[iii] Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1982), 30; Daisuke Akiba, “Japanese Americans,” in Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues, ed. Pyong Gap Min, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2006), 149.
[iv] Commission on Wartime Relocation, Personal Justice, 31–33; Paul Finkelman, “Race, Federalism, and Diplomacy: The Gentlemen’s Agreement a Century Later,” Osaka University Law Review, no. 56 (February 2009): 8–16, http://hdl.handle.net/11094/9499.
[v] Yuki Obayashi, “Gentlemen’s Agreement between the United States and Japan, 1907,” in 25 Events That Shaped Asian American History: An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, ed. Lan Dong (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2019), 100–101.
[vi] Obayashi, “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” 101–2.
[vii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Shinshi kyoyaku (Gentlemen’s Agreement),” annex no. 17 in Taibei imin mondai keika gaiyo fuzokusho [Annexes to summary of the course of negotiations between Japan and the United States concerning the problem of Japanese immigration in the United States] (1933; repr., 1973), 35–112, https://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/annai/honsho/shiryo/archives/pdfs/imin_fuzoku_02.pdf; Toshihiro Minohara, Amerika no hainichi undo to nichibei kankei [The United States’ anti-Japanese movement and Japan-U.S. relations] (Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Shuppan, 2016), 45–46.
[viii] Minohara, America no hainichi, 46; Finkelman, “Race, Federalism, and Diplomacy,” 1.
[ix] Finkelman, “Race, Federalism, and Diplomacy,” 3.
[x] “Ishii tsusho kyokucho dan [Ishii international trade bureau director’s remark],” Asahi Shimbun, November 30, 1907; “Ishii kyokucho no danwa [Ishii bureau director’s talk],” Asahi Shimbun, December 1, 1907.
[xi] “Nihonjin haisekian izu [Japanese exclusion bill submitted],” Asahi Shimbun, December 6, 1907. All direct quotes from Asahi Shimbun articles are the first author’s translation.
[xii] Toyomichi Seki, “Takahashi hakase no mitaru hainichi mondai 3 [Dr. Takahashi’s view on the issues of Japanese exclusion, part 3],” Asahi Shimbun, February 23, 1908; Toyomichi Seki, “Takahashi hakase no mitaru hainichi mondai 4 [Dr. Takahashi’s view on the issues of Japanese exclusion, part 4],” Asahi Shimbun, February 24, 1908.
[xiii] “Ishii kyokucho,” December 1, 1907; “Aoki taishi shosetsu [Ambassador Aoki’s statement],” Asahi Shimbun, January 7, 1908.
[xiv] “Japan’s War with the West,” New York Times, November 22, 1907.
[xv] Thomas F. Millard, “Japan’s Preparations for ‘Eventualities,’” New York Times, March 29, 1908; “Harlan Prophecies a Great Race War,” New York Times, January 12, 1908.
[xvi] “The Japanese Immigration Question,” New York Times, November 21, 1907; “Facts About Japan,” New York Times, January 6, 1908.
[xvii] Wendy Ng, Japanese American Internment during World War II: A History and Reference Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 15; Sandra C. Taylor, Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), 47, 50, 67.
[xviii] For example, see Rocco Parascandola, “Asian Woman Slapped by Teenage Stranger on Brooklyn Subway Train Who Tells Her, ‘You Don’t Belong Here,’” New York Daily News, May 5, 2021, https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/ny-asian-hate-crime-brooklyn-subway-slap-teen-suspect-20210505-lmbt2isxaraijln63qskr75hme-story.html; and Khaleda Rahman, “Man Hurls Racist Abuse at Asian Family in Video: ‘Trump’s Gonna F*** You!’,” Newsweek, July 7, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/man-hurls-racist-abuse-asian-family-1515898.