Immigration and the Pacific War
At the end of World War I, Japan emerged from a militaristic, Emperor based governmental system and began to adopt a liberal democracy that favored the rights of the people and wanted to take it’s pace as a leading industrial power in the peaceful world.
You may or may not have known about this. I know that I didn’t.
I’ve been spot re-reading Samuel Elliot Morrison’s “History of the United States Naval Operations In World War II,” a 15-volume set that I read voraciously as a freshman in high school, and now is available on Amazon in a paperback form, and I have been slowly purchasing new volumes every month. In the first chapter of Volume 3 – The RISING SUN IN THE PACIFIC 1931-April 1942, I learned about this interesting idea that war between Japan and America was a remote idea in the early 1920’s. The two nations were friendly and indeed, had multiple mutual interests, including economic. Even the London Naval Treaty which established the 5-5-3 ratio for British-American-Japanese capital ships was designed to allow Japan, with her strategically advantageous interior lines of communication, to be in a VERY strong position to defend herself against any aggressive move by the Western powers, not that they ever contemplated such a thing.
Additionally, the lower ratio gave Japan an economic advantage, in that she only had to spend 60% of what America spent to build her Navy, which by the by, was considered a “lower caste” than the Japanese Army was in any case.
By 1923, it appeared that the Militarists in Japan had been permanently relegated to the back benches, and that Japan would soon become, if she hadn’t already, a major player for good on the World Stage.
On September 1, 1923, the massive Kantō earthquake stuck Japan, killing hundred of thousands of Japanese and leaving millions homeless. So devastating was this earthquake that ocean currents were created and shifted around the Pacific, leading to a navigation error (no satellites or GPS in 1923) that resulted in the loss of several US Navy Destroyers off California’s Honda Point, killing 23 US Sailors. The damage from the quake eerily presaged the coming destruction of Japan in 1944 and 1945.
In the aftermath of the quake, US aid poured into Japan. One of the few structures to survive the quake had been designed by an American, Frank Lloyd Wright. Americans opened their hearts and wallets and supported the Japanese people as they had Europe in the aftermath of the Great War. The good will and friendship between the two countries was stronger than ever and seemed to promise a new tomorrow.
So how did Japan go from a liberal democratic government to a militaristic dictatorship hell bent on achieving “peace” – as it defined the word – by conquering China and the western Pacific? There in lies a tale of politics and propaganda.
In the aftermath of the Earthquake, the United States began to debate a new law, the Johnson-Reed Act, otherwise known as the Immigration Act of 1924. In the United States, there was a fear in the post- World War I world that the revolutionary fervor of Eastern Europe would come to the shores of the United States. Furthermore, there was a belief in the US that Judaism was a hot bed for economic control, and much anger in the US that “richest 1% are getting richer at the expense of the middle class.” The 1924 Act would strictly limit immigration from Eastern, Southern and Central Europe, but made immigration from northern Europe much easier. People coming from Germany, Great Britain and even Ireland would be increased, while Russians, Italians, Greeks and Jews would be cut back to a mere trickle. In fact, at one point after the law was signed into effect, more Italians LEFT the country than immigrated to the United States.
On the left coast of the United States, the fear wasn’t as much the Bolsheviks as it was cheap labor, taking American jobs in the industries and farms. Acting on that concern, the 1924 act also banned ALL immigration from China, the Philippines and lastly, Japan. Oddly enough, immigration from Central and Southern America was not limited at all.
The Japanese, who up to that point had found themselves being treated as equals with the great European powers by the US, were suddenly hit with the idea that they were not welcome to become Americans or to even work here. Japans government protested the Act, but over his own concerns and loud objections from some in Congress, President Coolidge signed the Act.
In Japan, the combination of what was perceived as a national slight and the 5-5-3 ratio now portrayed as a “limit” rather than a “balance,” the Japanese militarists were able to shift public opinion away from the ideas of liberal democracy and towards the Bushido and Koda-Ha codes by which the middle class military members lived. By 1931, the last vestiges of anything resembling democracy had been assassinated, intimidated and removed. Japan had shifted herself to an oppressed “have not” nation, treated as a loser of the War as opposed to a valued Ally.
“Looking backwards,” writes Samuel Elliot Morrison, “the only hope of preserving peace in the Pacific was to encourage and support the liberal elements of Japan responsible for these agreements and concessions (the London Treaty). A very wise, understanding and tactful attitude was called for by all the Western Powers.”
Clearly that didn’t happen. So the question that we have to ask ourselves today is why not? While the blame for the Pacific War lies fixed with the the Japanese militarists who were determined to achieve “peace” – as they defined it, peace was not the absence of conflict, it meant the control of the eight corners of the Earth by the Japanese, the Hakko Ichiu – is it possible that US immigration policy in the Post Great War era contributed to the ability of the militarists to convince the Japanese people that the US hated them and meant to prevent “peace?”
The situation today, of course, does not involve two world powers, but there are many similarities in the sense that the use of the policies as political weapons. Today, the concerns over “cheap labor” remain, although the pro-immigration side believes that cheap labor is an advantage, not a detriment. The same accusations of racism and of preventing others from achieving their ruling of the parts of the planet they desire are similar.
In all of history, there are lessons to be learned. Hindsight is not always 20/20, usually it is clouded by victory bias and the same nationalistic emotions that existed prior to the events. But perhaps it is time to take a look at the courses set by the past and the end results. There is no guarantee that in the 1920-30’s Japan would not have slipped into militarism in any case. But is it possible that the US treating Japan as equal to our Ally’s and even our former enemies in northern Europe and allowing some 150 Japanese to immigrate annually may have helped avoid the carnage of the Pacific War?
While there are critical and important debates and discussion to be had over modern immigration policy, can we take the time to be certain that such policies as are developed are ” very wise, understanding and tactful?” We cannot see the future, but we can learn from the past.