The “Unintentional” Destination of an Extraordinary Journey

By: Sarang Patel

Case File: 53632/60

Immigrants: Hasataro Kawanaka, Hicaraku Makino, Kamekiti Uasaki, Lakeyoshi Sakai, et al.

Immigration officials posing with eight of the nine Japanese immigrants.

The nine Japanese immigrants of this case file came into the U.S. from Japan on a fishing boat. After arriving, they abandoned their boat and were in the wind. Tipped off about their arrival, Inspector Nicholls set out to find the immigrants. He did not find all of them at once, however: he arrested one and found three others 90 miles away. To catch the remaining immigrants, he noted in annoyance that he “had to cover considerable territory with an automobile.” After all nine were apprehended on August 1, 1913, they were placed in immigration jail and taken to San Francisco within four or five days.

The nine immigrants’ journey was a remarkable one—so much so that it surprised even the immigration officials, who had likely witnessed a wide range of attempts at illegal entry. Upon seeing the boat, Inspector Nicholls remarked, “I can hardly make myself believe that [this boat] has sailed across the Pacific Ocean.” The nine immigrants had, indeed, traveled nearly 5,000 miles on a small fishing boat without the support or experience essential to such extensive travel. During their interrogations, the men shared with fascinated officials that they had been at sea for 46 days. As their prolonged trip was nearing an end, “there [were] no provisions left in the boat, [and] only a little water was left;” thus they were likely overwhelmed with desperation and fatigue.

The nine immigrants were of a lower economic class and had no passports to allow them entry into the United States. To gain entry, they hatched a scheme to illicitly enter by sailing over the Pacific in a small, unnoticeable boat. In their interrogations, the immigrants, perhaps in an attempt to adhere to a pre-planned and rehearsed story, insisted that they had intended to go to Mexico, but while en route, they “were blown to the north” by rough winds.

From a historical perspective, their story is problematic because during this time period, emigration from Japan had shifted away from North America. With this said, it is still important to notice that the underlying reason for their scheme, and their lack of passports, was a diplomatic deal between the U.S. and Japan termed the Gentlemen’s Agreement, which compelled the Japanese government to allow only the wealthy to emigrate. This agreement was significant because it was much more of an informal deal with the Japanese government than the Chinese Exclusion Act; it upheld Japan’s dignity by allowing it to bar emigration, instead of the U.S. enforcing debarment as it did with the Chinese.

The outcome of this case was an unsurprising one: all nine immigrants were deported from San Francisco to Japan. Given the absence of passports, immigration officials found little difficulty in deporting them. As noted, though, the men had no means of gaining passports due to the measures instituted by the Gentlemen’s Agreement. An immigrant specifically referenced this in his interrogation: “I was denied a passport because I did not have money to engage in business and they would not grant passports to laborers.” Thus, like many other potential Japanese emigrants, these nine, though surpassed the initial barrier in Japan, were denied entry into the United States principally due to efforts by the U.S. government to curb immigration of laborers.

Document Analysis: Picture of their Boat
This image from the case file depicts the small fishing boat on which the nine immigrants endured an extensive journey spanning nearly 5,000 miles.

Whereas Japanese immigrants generally traveled on larger ships during their journey to the United States, these immigrants crossed the Pacific on a small boat with little support or means. The significance of their journey is worth noting, but also important to consider are speculations explaining the presence of such an image in their case file.

Immigration officials at Angel Island believed that Asian immigrants would resort to any means to enter the U.S.; they were expected to use wide-ranging legal and political tactics. As noted, though, it was still rare and dangerous to travel on such a small boat. Thus, immigration officials may have found the feat fascinating enough to document. A notation on the image— “Freeman Photos”—suggests that a professional photographer captured the image. Considering that the price of cameras was relatively affordable during this time, it is especially telling of the officials’ fascination that a photographer was specifically hired to take an image of professional quality. Alternatively, though, the photographer may have been a contractor who handled all such photography; nevertheless, that the image was taken still reveals the officials’ keen interest and fascination regarding the boat.

In the image, an official appears to be standing on the boat as if to flaunt the immigration service’s triumph in preventing the latest “outrageous” attempt at entry by Asian immigrants. The image was likely used by the officials to informally share the happening amongst themselves in a self-congratulatory manner: praising their successful efforts against attempts at illicit entry. In this vein, it could have also served as a document that further validates their stereotypes of Asian immigrants. It is important to consider, though, that these attempts were largely a result of the U.S.’s immigration policies: in the case of Japanese immigrants, since they were prevented from acquiring passports, they had little choice but to resort to illicit means of entry.

Recurring Anti-Immigrant Sentiment

The nine immigrants of this case file were deported largely due to measures instituted by the Gentlemen’s Agreement. It is important to consider the gratuitously disparaging sentiments of those in the U.S. that compelled the Roosevelt administration to enact the diplomatic deal, as they mirror those prevalent in present times.

As the Japanese began to fill the growing need for a cheap labor force, thereby leading to an increase in their numbers, they upset anti-Asian exclusionists and white laborers. The exclusionists speciously declared that the Japanese were stealing employment opportunities from white laborers and were unassimilable like Chinese immigrants. They began to urge Congress to restrict Japanese immigration and formed the Asiatic Exclusion League, whose constitution championed a xenophobic dogma: the “preservation of the Caucasian race upon American soil.” Significantly and surprisingly, all three political parties of the time propagated an anti-Japanese sentiment.

These unsubstantiated sentiments that deride immigrants as those who are unassimilable, deceitful, and stealing jobs from ‘Americans’ are very much prevalent today. Their prevalence is evinced by a statement of President Donald Trump, which depicts the disturbing extent of his overtly bigoted outlook on immigration: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” This narrow-minded myth, which, considering Trump’s successful campaign, seems to resonate with many Americans, silences the vital and unmistakable role that immigrants have and continue to serve in the U.S. economy; historically, immigrants have been repeatedly and eagerly invited into the U.S. due to a demand for labor that only they could satisfy. Thus, an important facet of immigration reform may involve grassroots efforts focused on eradicating perennial misconceptions that misrepresent the role of immigrants.

Questions for Future Consideration

1) Given the risks of such attempts, why may immigrants be motivated to make unauthorized attempts at entry to the U.S.?

2) How can we work to eradicate misconceptions and unsubstantiated sentiments about immigrants?

3) What direct or indirect roles do immigrants play in our lives?

Other Works Cited

Peddie, Francis. “The Welcome Asians: the Japanese in Mexico, 1897–1910.” Japan Forum, vol. 28, no. 3, September 2016, pp. 320-336. EBSCOhost.

Tigner, James L. “Japanese Immigration into Latin America: A Survey.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, vol. 23, no. 4, 1981, pp. 457-82.

Washington Post Staff. “Full Text: Donald Trump Announces a Presidential Bid.” The Washington Post, June 16, 2015.