Issei Life

By Mayumi Tsutakawa

Japanese newcomers to the United States, arriving via the Pacific Northwest port city of Seattle, found blocks of familiar grocery stores, cafes, and professional services in their home language, as well as labor, cultural, and prefectural clubs in Japantown.

Japanese contract laborers began to arrive in earnest in the 1880s, after the Chinese Exclusion Act reduced the number of Chinese workers. At first, young single male Japanese came for jobs as loggers, then railroad workers, then salmon cannery and agricultural workers, mostly second or third sons, unable to inherit family land back home. Their homelands were in Okayama, Fukuyama, Hiroshima, Wakayama, and Kyushu, Japan.

In 1906 the U.S. government came to an agreement with the Government of Japan so that the male workers could bring their spouses, even if they married by correspondence, thus opening the door for “picture brides,” a practice that ended by governmental agreement in 1920. But the marriages caused a natural growth in the Japanese population.

The picture brides were brought to marry workers and help make new homes, albeit in an unfriendly Seattle and in inhospitable frontier lands outside Seattle. But the Japanese-dominated Main Street of the Japantown area grew, with its hotels, businesses, and clubs on the northern edge of the International District, providing shelter, sustenance, and familiarity.


Besides the social and language incentives to join together, punitive real estate covenants and employment discrimination had the effect of creating a large and lively ghetto called Nihonmachi or Japantown. As early as 1891, Dearborn Street, further south, was called Mikado Street on a city map due to early businesses like bawdy houses catering to transient and rough workers contracted from rural Japan. Some early Japanese businesses also were found in Pioneer Square, the city’s birthplace. Later, the Japanese concerns moved eastward up Yesler Way and Jackson Street, after the street was regraded to make it less steep. Eventually, Japantown became recognized as the area bounded by Yesler Way on the north, 4th Avenue on the west, Dearborn Street on the south, and 14th Avenue on the east.

Japanese settlement and business development in the International District followed on the heels of Chinese establishment in the same area. Logically, the Chinese and Filipinos held some animosity toward Japanese as their homelands had been the victims of growing Japanese imperialist aggression in Asia in the first half of the 20th century. But day-to-day ethnic clashes were few here. Sometimes ethnic based Chinese and Japanese business organizations differed over some turf issues of land use, but they knew that eventually they had to work together to preserve the International District from mainstream commercial development.

Community Development

The Japanese Issei (first generation) built a lively community. Japanese trading companies imported Japanese foods. They sold confections, ice cream, tofu, and some Japanese restaurants even made a specialty of serving Chinese foods, especially for big banquets. Other businesses included excellent florists, with flowers from Japanese greenhouses. And other multiservice businesses like the Furuya Company offered real estate sales, construction services, mailing, printing, and banking. In 1930, the Japanese population in Seattle was 8,448. During the Depression, some Japanese left Seattle for other parts of the state, or moved to California, or returned to Japan. The 1940 census reported 6,985 Japanese in Seattle.

Early Japanese workers from outlying areas flocked to Japanese baths on weekends, ate their favorite familiar foods and stayed in Japanese-owned hotels. By 1900, there were six Japanese-owned hotels. By 1925 there were 127 Japanese-owned or managed hotels, mainly in the downtown area. Even after the Depression decimated businesses all over Seattle, the Japanese entrepreneurs survived. By 1940, when Japanese were 2 percent of the population, they owned 63 percent of produce greenhouses, 63 percent of hotels and apartments, 15 percent of restaurants, 23 percent of dry-cleaning shops, and 17 percent of groceries in Seattle. Many of these were centered in Japantown and represented by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce. Real estate redlining meant that they could not buy or rent in any neighborhood they chose. Thus, they kept to the Japantown, International District, and somewhat in the Central Area, eastward up Yesler Way or Jackson Street.

This highly literate community supported several Japanese language newspapers and the Japanese American Courier, the first community newspaper in English, edited by James Sakamoto, a key player in forming Japanese sports leagues for baseball and basketball. Sakamoto, a former boxer, became blind but was able to keep the newspaper going with the steady support of his wife, Misao Sakamoto. Youth sports teams provided excitement and identity affirmation in the absence of other mainstream social outlets. They had competitions with Japanese teams from other cities and even from Japan, largely organized by Sakamoto. But besides the American sports, the practice of Japanese traditional martial arts promoted allegiance to the Japanese Imperial ideal. Judo, kendo (swordsmanship fought with bamboo staffs) and kyudo (archery) were taught by traditional masters from Japan.  

The Japanese Association, funded in part by the Emperor of Japan, served as official agency for immigration matters. It supported the Japanese language schools, which many American-born Nisei (second generation) were made to attend after school or on weekends. Kenjinkai (prefectural people’s associations) mainly represented Okayama, Hiroshima, Wakayama, and Kumamoto prefectures in Seattle. They served as welcoming committees and social service organizations.

Churches, including Buddhist, Catholic, and other Christian denominations, organized to serve the Japanese community, provided spiritual guidance and more chances for social solidarity. Often the Issei preferred Buddhist temples, and the American-born Nisei attended Christian churches. As well, arts organizations and the Japanese school provided cultural anchors for many community activities. In the prewar period, Fujinkai (women’s organizations) promoted church events and also supported Japan’s soldiers in their wars of expansion into Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria. For hard-working women, the Fujinkai provided a bit of refuge in fellowship and a sense of purpose through charitable work.

The Japanese quickly enriched their cultural life through poetry, Shigin (chanting), Kabuki drama, and traditional dance and music performances. Most of these cultural events found a home in the Nippon Kan Theatre on Washington Street, next to Yesler Way. Indeed, touring artists from Japan could perform for a welcoming audience at the Nippon Kan.

David Takami writes in Executive Order 9066: Fifty Years Before and Fifty Years After, “The center of Nihonmachi was 6th and Main. During the Bon Odori festival, a bandstand for musicians was constructed in the blocked off intersection . . . the neighborhood could have been any town in Japan.”

In 1921 the Japanese Progressive Citizen’s League was formed, which became the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) when a national convention was held in Seattle in 1930.


In 1907, at the time Fujitaro Kubota came to Seattle, the Japanese community in the region numbered a few thousand. Like other newcomer Japanese immigrants, he worked as a laborer until entering the landscaping business, which he had no previous training for. Japanese farms dotted the Seattle areas of South Park (west of Georgetown) and Green Lake (north end of Seattle), and nearby Vashon and Bainbridge islands. Across the lake, Bellevue had many Japanese farms. The Japanese farms spread south to the White River Valley, Auburn, Fife, Puyallup, and Sumner. Also, Eastern Washington’s Yakima, Wapato, and Toppenish had as many as 100 Japanese farms before the war. (Up to 90% of these farmers did not return to the area after internment took them out of state during World War II).

The lives of farmers were dreary indeed. At first lacking mechanized equipment, and no horses until many years later, they cleared land of first-growth stumps with dynamite, a very dangerous enterprise. They ploughed and weeded and sowed by hand. The entire family worked from sunup to sundown and more. In Fife in 1917, there were only three trucks among the more than 50 Japanese farms. Wives did not escape hard work, but children were encouraged to attend the public schools. Once the produce was grown and gathered, it was transported to wholesale distributers, or to a major outlet such as the Pike Place Market in Seattle. The Pike Market, established in 1907, was an important sales outlet for Japanese farmers. As many as four-fifths of the farm stands in the Market were run by Japanese by the time they were forcibly expelled by the World War II Executive Order 9066 incarceration order.

At the time of the state government’s consideration of the Anti-Alien Land Law in Washington, a survey conducted indicated there were 427 farms operated by Japanese in Washington State, with a value of $1,408,962 (in 1920 dollars). Many of these farms had to be given up with the enactment of the Anti-Alien Land Law by the Washington State Legislature. Some Issei were able to transfer title to their American-born children, but some of these actions were lost in court battles. Many farmers had to revert back to manual labor when they lost their farms.

Hate Legislation

The federal Anti-Immigration U.S. law said “aliens ineligible for citizenship” could not enter the U.S. In 1922, this law caused the cutoff of Japanese immigrants, and, if already here, they could not become citizens.

Just before, the Anti-Alien Land Law was passed in 1921 in Washington, so that noncitizens of Japanese ancestry could not own land (or enter into a lease longer than three years). Some purchased land or real state in the name of their American-born children.

From 1919 through 1923, state legislatures throughout the western United States bowed to renewed pressure from anti-Asian and anti-immigrant groups, labor unions, granges, and politicians to close loopholes in alien land laws. Anti-Japanese groups made wild claims about the “threat” that Japanese immigrants represented in terms of economic competition and their alleged inability to assimilate fully into American society. California passed its own amendment to its alien land law in 1920, prohibiting even short-term leases of land to aliens ineligible for citizenship. It also prohibited stock companies owned by aliens ineligible for citizenship from acquiring agricultural lands. Washington revised its law with the Alien Land Bill of 1921, and like California, further refined the law again in 1923. One section passed in 1923, for example, was designed to limit the rights of U.S. born children to hold land in trust for an alien parent in an effort to end the well-known practice of purchasing land in the names of Nisei children. [Densho Encyclopedia)

Other West Coast laws restricted Japanese in the areas of fishing licenses, and an attempt was made to promote anti-miscegenation laws outlawing interracial marriages. The Anti-Japanese League, founded in Seattle to support restrictive legislation, spread to the entire West Coast. It was headed by Miller Freeman, grandfather of successful Bellevue businessman Kemper Freeman (his properties include the current Bellevue Square, placed exactly where Japanese farmers previously farmed, then lost, their strawberry fields). They supported racist legislation citing economic competition and the complaint that the Japanese were “breeding like rabbits,” an allegation that was statistically untrue.

In 1921 the Japanese Progressive Citizen’s League was formed among Niseis. It became the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) when a national convention was held in Seattle in 1930. The JACL was to become one of the key proponents of Japanese community cooperation with the U.S. government in the World War II exclusion and incarceration. But much later, the Seattle JACL became a national leader in the push for federal reparations payments in the 1980s for those who had been forcibly sent to prison camps during World War II.

Indeed, the active Japanese and Japanese American communities in many parts of Washington state, limited by redlining and restrictive laws based on racism and economic competition, still flourished and gave birth to many talented individuals and longstanding family businesses. They proved their loyalty to an adopted nation despite being branded “aliens ineligible for citizenship.”

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