Brief Historical Overview of Japanese Emigration, 1868-1998


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National Museum

The overseas migration of Japanese started with the opening of the island nation to the rest of the world and its entry into modernity in 1868. Becoming a part of the international network of labor, capital, and transportation, Japan suddenly found itself in the middle of rapid socio-economic change, which created a rural population ready for domestic and international migration.

In 1868, an American businessman, Eugene M. Van Reed, sent a group of approximately 150 Japanese to Hawai'i to work on sugar plantations and another 40 people to Guam. This unauthorized recruitment and shipment of laborers, known as the gannenmono, marked the beginning of Japanese labor migration overseas. However, for the next two decades the Meiji government prohibited the departure of "immigrants" due to the slave-like treatment that the first Japanese migrants received in Hawai'i and Guam. Instead of going abroad, many people were involved in the development of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island.

It was not until 1885 that the massive emigration of Japanese began. In that year, the governments of Japan and Hawai'i concluded the Immigration Convention under which approximately 29,000 Japanese traveled to Hawai'i for the next nine years to work on sugar plantations under three-year contracts. In the meantime, thousands of Japanese departed for Thursday Island, New Caledonia, Australia, Fiji, and other South Pacific destinations for similar contract work. In essence, these "immigrants" were not settlers, but they were dekasegi laborers planning to return home with money after a few years of work in a foreign land.

In 1893, a group of Japanese government officials, politicians, and intellectuals organized the Colonization Society, calling for the overseas development of Japanese "colonies." Like other modern nation-states, they argued that Meiji Japan would need to expand externally, in order to obtain larger markets to export its "surplus" population and commercial goods. The Society's pet project of 1897 attempted to establish an agricultural colony in Mexico. It did not succeed, but it marked the beginning of Japanese immigration to Latin America, followed by the departure of 790 people to Peru for contract work in 1899.

Around the turn of the century, many young men left Japan to get an education in the United States, for the opportunities in Japan were limited. Some had suffucuent funds to go to prestigious universities on the East Coast, but most congregated in cities like San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. Often known as "school boys," they attended school while performing domestic work in exchange for room and board from white families. Meanwhile, there were many common laborers who entered along the Pacific Coast, both in the United States and Canada. Japanese immigration to the United States became a political problem during the 1900s. Anti-Japanese agitation on the West Coast eventually led to severe restrictions on Japanese entry to Canada in 1923 and the termination of Japanese immigration to the United States in the following year.

With North America shutting its door to people from Japan, other countries and areas absorbed the growing numbers of Japanese immigrants. First and foremost, Brazil became a main destination of Japanese labor migration. In 1908, the year in which Japan voluntarily restricted the issue of passports to new labor immigrants for the U.S., the first group of Japanese left for Brazil, and others for Peru. Many contract laborers also went to the Philippines, where they were involved in construction of major highways. Other Southeast Asian regions attracted Japanese laborers and business people as well.

Meanwhile, Imperial Japan started to acquire colonial territories in the surrounding regions and Micronesia after a series of foreign wars, including World War I. Taiwan became a formal colony in 1895 after Japan's victory over China, while Korea was officially annexed in 1910 as a result of the Russo-Japanese War. The empire took over Micronesia from Germany in 1914, which became a Japanese protectorate. These regions, combined with portions of Manchuria, became a locus of "Japanese development" where tens of thousands of "immigrants" settled and displaced local populations. Though many of these so-called "immigrants" shared similar socioeconomic backgrounds with their counterparts in the Americas, the former group was essentially colonizers protected by the military power of Japan, whereas the latter tended to become targets of social and legal discrimination in the countries where they settled.

In the mid-1930s, after the establishment of a puppet government in Manchuria, Japan made overseas emigration a state policy. Previously, except for the government-contract labor migration to Hawai'i, the Japanese government was not directly involved in the recruitment and management of emigrants. Instead, emigration companies played a central role in the departure of many Japanese immigrants, while others left the country on their own. The colonization of Manchuria in the 1930s, however, involved the state-sponsored emigration of impoverished farm families from Central and Northern Japan to this region. Although the Pacific War stopped Japanese migration to the Americas, other areas like Micronesia, Manchuria, and Japan's colonial and newly occupied territories drew a large number of Japanese until the end of World War II.

In the years following the end of the war, there was a massive reverse migration of former colonial settlers, soldiers, and repatriates back to Japan, which involved tragedies of family separation, starvation, and death. Many children were left in Manchuria, Micronesia, the Philippines, and other Asian regions, where some were taken in by local people. At the same time, the Japanese who remained in the settlement countries also had to start over after forced removal, incarceration, and/or severe restrictions on daily activities.

War-devastated Japan needed to disperse its growing population that exceeded the domestic supply of food and other limited resources. Therefore, after the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 that granted Japan independence, the country made special arrangements with the governments of Latin America to send immigrant settlers for agricultural development. The first postwar immigrants went to Brazil in 1952, Paraguay in 1954, Argentina in 1955, Dominican Republic in 1956, and Bolivia in 1957. However, by the 1960s, the economic recovery of Japan, stagnated large scale emigration of Japanese. Ironically, since the 1980s, many second and third generation Nikkei have migrated from the Latin American countries to Japan, where they could earn much better wages than in their economically-troubled homelands.

Though the era of mass immigration is over, many Japanese still leave Japan to live all over the world because of temporary work assignments, marriage, education, or business ventures. New Japanese communities are thus emerging in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. The United States has also attracted many Japanese after repealing its ban on Japanese entry, first allocating an annual national quota of 185 immigrants in 1952 and abolishing restrictions based on national origin in 1965. After the war, a large number of so-called "war brides" have entered the country with their American husbands. In 1972, there was a total of 1,356,030 Nikkei and Japanese permanent residents in countries other than Japan. Among them, 561,137 resided in North America, while 788,937 lived in Latin America. Asia had a population of 3,698; Europe 1,649; Oceania and the Pacific region 586. Wherever they have settled, the Nikkei have established communities and contributed to the development of the unique histories and cultures of these countries.

-- Eiichiro Azuma

Historical Timeline of Japanese Emigration

-Meiji Restoration marks the beginning of Modern Japan.
*Eugene Van Reed, an American businessman, sends 153 Japanese to Hawai'i for work on a sugar plantation without government permission. They are commonly known as the gannen mono.
+Van Reed also sends 40 Japanese for work in Guam.
*Edward Snell, a Dutch businessman, takes some 40 Japanese from Fukushima to Gold Hill, California to establish an agricultural colony known as the "Wakamatsu Colony." The project fails in a year, and the members disperse.
*The first group of 943 government-sponsored Japanese immigrants (Kan'yaku Imin) enters Hawai'i under the treaty between the governments of Japan and the Hawaiian Kingdom. They work on sugar plantations under three-year contracts. In total, there are 26 groups until the termination of the government-sponsored immigration practice in 1894.
+An English businessman sends 40 Japanese laborers to the Thursday Island in the Pacific.
+A group of 100 Japanese departs for a sugar plantation in Queensland, Australia.
*There are 2,039 Japanese living in the continental United States. They are mostly students and political activists.
+A total of 600 Japanese leaves for New Caledonia to work in a nickel mine.
**About 130 Japanese workers in Hawai'i enter Guatemala.
-The Colonization Society is formed in Tokyo under the leadership of ex-Foreign Minister Takeaki Enomoto.
+305 Japanese go to Fiji.
-The Japanese government issues the Emigrant Protection Ordinance (Imin Hogo Kisoku), which relegates the basic function of emigrant recruitment to emigration companies.
+The Sino-Japanese War begins. Many Japanese enter Korea and Manchuria.
-The Japanese government enacts the Emigrant Protection Act (Imin Hogoho), which regulates the activities of emigration companies and protects the interests of emigrants. This law does not attempt to promote emigration, however.
**The first group of 28 Japanese enters Chiapas, Mexico, to establish an agricultural colony. It is often called "the Enomoto Colony," since it is organized by the former Foreign Minister Takeaki Enomoto.
**The first group of 790 Japanese immigrates to Peru. Among this group, ninety-one immigrants along with two immigration supervisors migrate to the rubber forest of Bolivia.
+Over 3,000 Japanese go to the Philippines to engage in a highway construction.
**Over ten dozen Japanese leave for Chile to work as coal miners.
+Some 150 Japanese enter Davao, in the Philippines. The settlement later becomes the largest Japanese community in the Islands.
+The Russo-Japanese War begins, which results in the virtual control of Korea and Manchuria along the South Manchurian Railroad. Subsequently, thousands of Japanese enter the region.
*The Gentlemen's Agreement between Japan and the United States in 1907-1908, and the Hayashi-Lemiuex Agreement between Japan and Canada in 1908 decrease the entry of Japanese laborers into these countries. Instead, thousands head for Mexico, through which they attempt to illegally migrate into the United States. Others seek alternative destinations, including South America, and East and Southeast Asia.
**The first emigrants leave Japan for Brazil.
**Some 160 Japanese re-migrate from Brazil to Argentina. In 1914, the first group of Argentina-bound emigrants leaves Japan.
-Japan officially colonizes Korea, which prompts the displacement of Korean farmers.
-World War I begins.
+Japan occupies Micronesia after defeating the German naval fleet there. The region becomes a de-facto colony of the empire where thousands of Japanese migrate until the mid-1940s.
*The termination of Japanese immigration into the United States prompts many Japanese to head for South America--particularly Brazil.
**The Japanese government starts to subsidize transportation for the emigrants bound for Brazil.
-The Japanese government enacts the Overseas Emigration Cooperatives Act, which provides a background for the formation of the Overseas Emigration Cooperatives Federation. This organization promotes the establishment of Japanese agricultural settlements in Brazil and other countries.
*Severe restrictions are put into effect on the entry of Japanese to Canada.
-The Ministry of Colonial Affairs (Takumusho) is established within the Japanese government.
**A group of 25 Japanese enters Columbia.
-The Manchurian Incident marks the beginning of the Japanese invasion of China.
+The establishment of "Manchukuo." The Japanese Colonial Ministry sends the first group of armed immigrants to the region for the establishment of Japanese agricultural settlements.
-The Society of Manchurian Emigration (Manshu Imin Kyokai) and the Manchurian Colonization Company (Manshu Takushoku Kabushiki Gaisha) are set up in the capitals of Japan and "Manchukuo" for the purpose of facilitating the migration of Japanese colonialists there.
**The first Japanese immigrants enter Paraguay.
+The Japanese government starts the five-year program to promote the Japanese migration into Manchuria, which marks the beginning of the state-sponsored emigration policy. Under the first-year plan, a total of 6,000 agricultural families are to enter the region. Thousands of others depart mainly from impoverished farm regions in Central and Northern Japan until the defeat of Japan.
**Brazil enacts a new immigration law which severely restricts the entry of Japanese.
**Anti-Japanese riot erupts in Lima, Peru.
-The Pacific War begins. Until the defeat of Japan, thousands of Japanese move from their homeland to Southeast Asia, Micronesia, and China, while the immigration to South America ends.
-Japan surrenders.
*Japanese "war brides" are allowed to enter the United States under a special law.
-A total of 6,249,000 Japanese, including soldiers, returns to Japan, mostly from former colonial territories and occupied areas.
-San Francisco Peace Treaty ends the occupation of Japan by the Allied powers.
**Government of Brazil authorizes a plan to bring 9,000 families for agricultural development in Northern and Central Brazil. The first group of 54 Japanese leaves for the South American country, marking the beginning of postwar Japanese immigration to South America.
*The United States allows the entry of 185 Japanese per year under the Walter-McCarran Act.
**The first postwar immigrants (18 people) to Paraguay leave Japan.
**Japanese Foreign Ministry establishes the new Emigration Bureau, which oversees the departure and treatment of Japanese immigrants in host countries.
*Under a new refugee act, a total of 1,006 Japanese are granted entry to the United States by October 1956. Most of them are from Kagoshima Prefecture.
**The first immigrants (185) to Dominican Republic leave Japan.
+Short-term mining laborers leave for West Germany under the bilateral treaty.
**The first postwar immigrants (159) to Bolivia leave Japan.
**A total of 595 Japanese return to Japan from the Dominican Republic, while many others re-migrate to other South American countries. News of their miserable living conditions in the host country, in combination with the general growth of Japanese economy, prompt the end of mass Japanese immigration to South America.
-A semi-government agency affiliated with the Foreign Ministry takes over the function of recruiting and sending emigrants to Latin America, which later becomes the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
*The new immigration law of the United States, which abolishes the national quota system, becomes effective.
*The emigration of Japanese professionals and skilled laborers to Canada begins.
+Australia repeals the White Australian policy by opening the door to Asian immigrants.
+Venezuela repeals its white-only immigration policy.
+The Japan International Cooperation Agency starts sending Japanese professionals and skilled laborers to Australia.
**The dekasegi migration of Japanese Brazilians to Japan becomes a conspicuous social phenomenon. Subsequently, many Nikkei workers also come to Japan from other Latin American countries, including Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
-The Japanese government amends the immigration law, which enables Nikkei laborers to stay and work legally in Japan. Combined with the "bubble" economy of Japan, this change prompts more Japanese Latin Americans to come to Japan.

*United States and Hawai'i
**Central and South America (including Mexico)