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Borderlands: Japanese Immigrants Came Slowly to Borderland 26 (2007-2008)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Japanese Immigrants Came Slowly to Borderland

Article first published in Vol. 26 (2007-2008)

By Beverly Ramirez, Kenneth Kurita III and Elvi Nieto

Our region is a rich cultural mix. Many different societies have lived in the borderland and left their distinctive mark on it – from the Indians who first lived here to the Spanish who came later. By looking at our city’s Spanish name, the varying surnames, customs and skin tones of our people, and the design of the Lower Valley missions and the Tigua Reservation, it is easy to see that the Southwest has never been a homogenous area.


Image caption: The Yabumoto family began farming in Chamberino, N.M. From left to right are Riuhei Yabumoto, his wife Koharu and their children Ayako, Jodo and Yokiko. Front row from left to right are Nanako, Toshiko and Katsumi Yabumoto.   Photo courtesy of the Rio Grande Historical Collection, NMSU, © 2007

One group that called our region home, however, did not leave an easily recognizable trail: the Japanese. Though many prospered and succeeded in the borderland despite huge obstacles, their stories of courage in the face of adversity have rarely been heard.

The Japanese had been forbidden to leave their country since 1638 when the Tokugawa shogunate (the term “shogun” refers to a military ruler of Japan) expelled all foreigners after Japanese Christians led a violent uprising against the shogun. Tom Walls, author of The Japanese Texans, wrote that it took Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailing four U. S. warships into what is now Tokyo Bay and establishing contact with the Japanese leader in 1853 to penetrate the isolation of more than 200 years. In 1854, Perry returned; Japan and the United States signed a treaty of peace and friendship, beginning the modernization of Japan. By 1868, the shogunate had lost power to the heretofore ceremonial emperor.

The emperor at the time was named Mutsuhito, but for his reign he chose the name “Meiji,” meaning “enlightened rule.” Walls noted that between 1868 and 1884, Emperor Meiji encouraged Japanese students to study abroad. Several hundred young Japanese came to the United States, including 13 women. In 1884, the Emperor allowed ordinary workers to emigrate, and over the next decade, roughly 28,000 Japanese arrived in the United States, filling jobs on the railroad and in agriculture, as well as in mining and the service industry.

Almost 110,000 Japanese immigrants came between 1900 and 1907, most settling on the West Coast. The apparent influx alarmed many Americans, especially in California, where the Japanese were accused of taking “American jobs.” This fear prompted the United States` Congress to consider exclusionary legislation. Emperor Meiji entered into what was called a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with President Theodore Roosevelt to halt the immigration of laborers, and Japanese immigration fell dramatically in 1908. Walls wrote that there were about 72,000 Japanese in the United States in 1910. After quotas came into effect, those who couldn’t enter the United States by way of family relation attempted to come in through Mexico and Canada.

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In two articles about the Japanese in the borderland published in volume 42 of Password , journal of the El Paso Historical Society, Christie C. Armendariz described the reasons behind the migration of the Japanese to our region, highlighting several individuals and their accomplishments. Ellwyn Stoddard used these sources, as well as Walls and numerous others in his book U.S.-Mexico Borderlands as Multi-Cultural Region, in which he discusses Japanese immigrants.

The first Japanese came to Texas in the late 1880s. Two Japanese men, quite possibly the first in El Paso, lived in the Chinatown area of the city. According to Stoddard, Tsuchiya, a bamboo craftsman, was here in 1885 and is the first known Japanese immigrant in the area. The 1890 census recorded one Japanese man living in El Paso, Lu Ne Shu, who worked at a Chinese restaurant and had taken a Chinese name.

In the early 1900s, small numbers of Japanese immigrants began to settle in Texas, most seeking opportunity to farm and to own land. By 1910, 340 Japanese were recorded living in the state, according to Walls, up from 13 in 1900. Early on, the Japanese government encouraged their people to emigrate by publicizing success stories of those who had already gone. Most Japanese in Texas were concentrated in the Houston and Beaumont areas, engaged in rice farming.

El Paso was home to 44 Japanese immigrants in 1916, that number growing to 125 in the next 10 years. Although these aren’t sizable numbers, those who did emigrate made a small but noticeable impact in the communities in which they lived. The majority of Japanese immigrants were literate, and some were wealthy. Marilyn Dell Brady in her book The Asian Texans wrote that about one-fifth of all Japanese immigrants at this time were second or third generation Samurai (hereditary warrior class) families who had ruled Japan before its reorganization. Most were experienced farmers. Most importantly, perhaps, unlike the Chinese who came as temporary workers and resided in colonies of single men, the Japanese came as permanent immigrants. Most were married and had families who also came with them, or they married and began their families once settled here.

One of the Japanese that Armendariz wrote about who lived in Juárez was a doctor by the name of Tenesubura “Ging” Hasekawa. In May 1903, Hasekawa presented El Paso civic leaders with a plan for silkworm cultivation. The plan was approved and encouraged by the El Paso Chamber of Commerce. Dr. Hasekawa partnered with Felix Martinez, whose farm grew mulberry trees, the silkworms’ natural food plant. Hasekawa and El Paso city officials encouraged Japanese farmers to come to what they hoped would become the only silk-producing center in the United States.

The El Paso Chamber of Commerce gave Hasekawa 3,000 mulberry trees cultivated from Martinez’s farm. Hasekawa realized that mulberry trees not only grew faster here than they did in Japan, but they also grew bigger. The USDA gave the silkworm project a grant in 1907 that paid for shipments of silkworm eggs from Japan. Unfortunately, Hasekawa was in Albuquerque conducting a similar experiment when the shipment arrived, and all of the eggs hatched and the worms died. In the midst of the silkworm experiment, he began helping transport illegal Japanese into the United States and served a year in the penitentiary for his actions. Many of those who came in anticipation of participating in this project, however, remained in the area and became farmers.

Besides becoming farmers and businessmen, some Japanese immigrants came to the El Paso region because they were looking to escape growing anti-Asian sentiments. Stoddard recorded that by 1909, the Japanese owned or leased 150,000 acres of the most fertile land in California. In 1913, the state of California enacted the Alien Land Law which prohibited immigrants “ineligible for citizenship” from owning property. This literally included all Asian immigrants, including the Japanese. A 1790 federal law allowed only “free white persons” to be naturalized. While laws changed over the years allowing other races and even other Asians to become citizens, the Japanese were not included until 1952. The anti-Asian sentiment which helped produce the California law eventually made its way to Texas as well.

On July 15, 1920, the El Paso Herald reported that two Japanese men from California had purchased irrigated land near San Elizario. Tsutomo Dyo and F. Shiraishi came to El Paso to start a cotton farm. They purchased 938 acres from Julian L. Bassett for $107,000. Stoddard wrote that upon hearing of the pending sale, an anti-Japanese activist from California, G. R. Fowler, came to El Paso to speak against the sale. The land sale went through anyway, but some realtors wanted restrictions on land purchases by the Japanese. Others welcomed the new money to the area. In this same year, 20 percent of the fertile farm land in El Paso’s Lower Valley was owned by Japanese investors or families, so the attempts to whip up anti-Japanese sentiment in El Paso apparently failed. Among the Japanese-owned land were properties in San Elizario, Ascarate and Tornillo.

Brady tells of how the anti-Japanese sentiment did make its way to Austin. By 1921, Texans, much like the Californians before them, began to get alarmed by the Japanese expansion. Instigated by pressures from the American Legion, on April 1921, the Texas legislature passed a law restricting the Japanese from purchasing land. Even though the protests from the Nihonjin Kai Association, a local El Paso Japanese group, went largely unheard, Saburo Arai, a Houston area entrepreneur, did command attention. His insistent lobbying, along with that of his newly-formed group, the Japanese Association, succeeded in having the bill amended to exempt those Japanese who already lived in Texas. Then Japanese immigration halted completely when Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924.

The prejudice that was directed toward the Japanese in California in the first decades of the 20th century had spread throughout the country. It would only get worse, however, in the 1930s and during World War II.

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