Counting the Uncounted: Japanese Undocumented Immigration to the United States Before World War II

Masao Suzuki, Mills College

This summary represents a work in progress and is preliminary. Please do not cite or quote from this summary. Complete papers will be available from the author after December 1, 1995.


America has long been of two minds concerning its immigrant population. As children, we were raised on stories of the Pilgrim Fathers and of successful immigrants who came to the United States penniless and wearing ragged clothing but were able to pull themselves up "by their own bootstraps" so to speak. Yet at different times in our history, the immigrant bogeyman, whether it be the Chinese "Coolie," the European "Bolshevik," or the Mexican "Illegal," has loomed large as an enemy both within and without our nations borders.

Americans of Japanese ancestry have worn both hats so to speak. In the early decades of the twentieth century the anti-Japanese movement, with California politicians and newspaper publishers in the lead, organized boycotts of Japanese-owned businesses, fought to segregate Japanese students in our public schools, outlawed Japanese immigrants from buying farms, and convinced the Federal government to exclude Japanese from further immigration to the United States. Yet little more than a generation later, politicians and the media were congratulating Japanese Americans for their successes and had elevated them to a semi-mythic status along with the heroes of Horatio Alger's stories. At a time when the demands of the Civil Rights Movement were challenging the government to redress the racism ingrained into American society, Japanese Americans were often held up as a "model minority" who had overcome discrimination through their own efforts and without aid from the government laws or service programs.

These idealized conceptions about Japanese and other Asian Americans are not limited to the popular media or local politicians. Even within many scholarly circles, the prevailing view is that discrimination against Japanese Americans had virtually ceased by the 1960s, that Japanese had attained a middle-class stature, and that their economic achievements reflected both cultural values and the workings of a competitive market economy.1 At best, this view cannot reflect the complexity of the Japanese American experience nor combat the stereotypes about Japanese Americans in the media and halls of government. At worst, Japanese and other Asian Americans have been used as "intellectual brickbats" against the demands of African Americans and others for social and economic equality.

While few Japanese Americans would subscribe to the view that racial discrimination is a thing of the past, other idealized views of our own history continue. One example of this was during the debate over Proposition 187 in California, which sought to restrict public services to undocumented immigrants and their children. The Japanese American community split over this proposition, with supporter expressing the view that "we are not against immigration, but it should be done legally like we did."

But this view embodies a very mistaken view of Japanese American history: that our ancestors came here "legally." In fact, large numbers of Japanese, like the Chinese before them, had to evade laws restricting Asian immigration, and thus entered the United States "illegally." While the cases of Chinese "paper sons" and other means of entering the United States unlawfully was more common, thousands of Japanese also entered the United States surreptitiously. Within the Chinese American community and in the historical literature their is wide acknowledgment of this fact, but this is not the case in the among scholars of Japanese American history and in the community.

This paper addresses this gap by examining the undocumented immigration of Japanese to the continental United States between 1920 and 1940. The focus of study are immigrants to the continental United States because of the different political and economic conditions on the mainland and in Hawai'i which affected immigration flows. For example, during the 1930s this paper finds that there was a net undocumented emigration of Japanese from Hawai'i, while there was a net undocumented immigration to the mainland.

The paper begins with a brief review of the history of Japanese immigration to the United States. This is followed by an attempt to grasp the quantitative dimension of the undocumented immigration of Japanese to the United States by estimating the number of undocumented immigrants between 1920 and 1930. While both the Japanese and United States government put restriction on the migration of Japanese, this estimate will only be for those who evaded U.S. controls. Using data on population, deaths, and immigration, the paper estimates that there was a net inflow of more than 9,000 undocumented Japanese immigrants during this period of time.

While this is small compared to the entire United States population, it is surprisingly large compared to the total Japanese immigrant population in 1930 which was 70,477. Further this net inflow stands in contrast to the large net return migration of documented Japanese of some 15,000 over the same decade. The paper then goes on to explore two possible explanations for such a large estimate: that there were errors in the data and that many of these undocumented immigrants left during the Depression of the 1930s. Taking these factors into account, this paper concludes that it is very possible that there were relatively large numbers of undocumented Japanese entering the United States before World War II.

Japanese Restrictions on Emigration to the United States

Japanese migration to the United States was restricted by both the Japanese and the US governments. During the most of the period of Tokugawa rule (1603-1867) trade and other forms of contact were severely limited, and emigration was banned. Emigration was legalized in 1866, but until 1885 only students, diplomats and businessmen could travel abroad.

In 1885 the Japanese government agreed to allow emigration to the Kingdom of Hawai'i. The first boatloads of Japanese contract laborers to work on Hawai'ian plantations were organized by the Japanese government. Transport of Japanese workers to and from Hawai'i were later turned over to emigration companies which were still regulated by the Japanese government.

The Japanese government screened emigrants to prevent the poorest classes of laborers from leaving. The Japanese government was very conscious of the indignities suffered by China and overseas Chinese laborers. The Japanese government wanted to avoid having common laborers go abroad who might reflect poorly on their mother country.

In 1900 the Japanese government further restricted emigration by instituting a strict quota for each prefecture, and later that year banned the emigration of laborers to the continental United States and Canada out of concern with the growing clamor against Japanese immigrants.

The emigration of Japanese women was also restricted by the Japanese government. Until 1915 laborers in the United States were prohibited from bringing their wives over, while farmers and businessmen had to show substantial income and savings in order for their wives to emigrate. After 1915 these restrictions were relaxed so that any Japanese in the United States could bring their wives provided that they could show $800 in savings, which was a fairly sizable sum in those days.

These restrictions on Japanese emigration were circumvented in a number ways. In 1900, Japanese labor contractors in the United States evaded the quota system by falsifying residency documents in Japan. One company which supplied Japanese labor to the Pacific Northwest claimed that they were able to get 3,000 to 4,000 laborers into the United States illegally. After the total ban on labor emigration to the continental U.S., labor recruiters turned to Hawai'i, where many Japanese who had been contract laborers took the opportunity to go to the west coast. Between 1900 and 1907 some 38,000 Japanese came to the continental United States via Hawai'i. Thousands of Japanese who went to Mexico as laborers also ended up in the United States.2

U.S. Government Restriction of Japanese Immigration

This flow of Japanese laborers passing through Hawai'i and Mexico was cut off in 1907 by the "Gentleman's Agreement" between the United States and Japan which closed the U.S. borders with Canada, Mexico, and Hawai'i to Japanese laborers coming to the United States. The average number of Japanese entering the (continental) United States each year dropped by one-third after 1907 while the numbers of Japanese returning to Japan more than doubled, so that there was a net inflow of only 1,500 Japanese per year. There was also a shift in the gender composition of the immigrants, with much larger numbers of women coming who husbands had gone without them to America or who were engaged as so-called "picture brides."

The immigration of Japanese women became a new target for restriction, as anti-Japanese forces predicted a tide of Japanese babies overwhelming (Anglo) America. One anti-Japanese publication claimed that the Japanese birthrate was three times that of whites. Another academic article called the Japanese a "marvelously prolific race" and that "by 1949 they [Japanese Americans] will outnumber whites in California."3 These views helped pass a stronger version of the Alien Land Laws in California, which banned Japanese and other Asians who were barred from naturalization from buying or leasing farmland.

In 1924 the Congress passed a new immigration law which established quotas based on countries of origin. While the immigration of eastern and southern Europeans was severely restricted, Japanese and other Asians were excluded from immigration. The only exception was for Filipinos who were considered American nationals because of the U.S. conquest of the Philippines 1898-1902.

However, many Japanese were still able to enter the United States after 1924. Most of the Japanese who came were former residents who had returned to Japan and were reentering the United States. There were also a number of Japanese who were exempted from the exclusion because they were diplomats, students, merchants, or professionals such as priests and professors. However, spouses and children of Japanese residing in the United States were not exempt from the exclusion act, forcing many Japanese immigrants to choose between returning to Japan and living out their lives without any family in the United States. With the drop in Japanese entering the United States and a continuing return migration, there was actually a net outflow of Japanese immigrants from the United States after 1924.

Undocumented Immigration to the United States

As immigrants found ways around the Japanese government's restrictions on emigration that were not lawful, one would expect to find Japanese coming to the United States despite the exclusion law. Anecdotal evidence found in the stories of friends and relatives of how their grandparents came to the United States by jumping off boats and sneaking across the border with Mexico. But one cannot expect immigrants coming by unlawful means to carefully document their presence here!

Today, the number of undocumented immigrants is estimated by the difference between the Census Bureau's count of immigrants, and the Immigration and Naturalization Services records of immigrants entering and leaving the United States, adjusting for the expected number of deaths. The same estimate can be done for Japanese immigrants in 1930.4

The number of Japanese immigrants in 1930 (P30) will equal the number in 1920 (P20), less the expected deaths of Japanese in the US in 1920 (D), less emigrants who left the United States (E), plus documented immigrants entering the United States (Id), plus undocumented immigrants entering the United States (Iu) or: Iu = P30 - P20 + D + E - Id.

However, the estimated number of deaths is too high because many of the older Japanese immigrants, who would be more likely to die, were among those returning to Japan. This biases the estimate of the number of undocumented upwards, by in effect "double counting" Japanese immigrants who left the United States and then died in Japan between 1920 and 1930. This can be partially accounted for by putting in an adjustment fact d(E - Id). The formula then becomes: Iu = P30 - P20 + D + E - Id - d(E - Id). These calculations are explained more fully in the appendix, and give an estimate of some 9,156.

Analysis of the Estimate

This estimate of more than 9,000 undocumented Japanese immigrants in 1930 is very large in comparison with the Japanese immigrant population in 1930 which was only 70,477. This implies that 13% or nearly one out of seven Japanese immigrants in the United States in 1930 were undocumented. This raises the question, could there have been an error in the data on which the estimate is based?

One possible source of error would be in the INS records which give the number of Japanese entering and leaving the United States. Japanese government records generally show a larger number of Japanese leaving the United States than U.S. records. An undercount of the number of Japanese leaving the United States would also lead to an undercount of the number of undocumented and cannot explain the high estimate. This undercount of Japanese emigrating from the United States is not surprising since the INS should have been more concerned with tracking the entry of foreigners than their departure.

Another source of error could be in the estimated number of deaths, which is based on the death rate of whites in the United States during the same period. In 1919-1920 the death rates for Japanese Americans were higher than that of whites and more similar to the death rates for African Americans, but by 1939-1941 the mortality rate of Japanese Americans had dropped and was more similar to whites. If the Japanese death rates were higher than that of whites during the 1920s, the estimated number of deaths would be too low, which would lead to an underestimate of the undocumented immigrants. I also underestimated the death rate by including younger, American-born Japanese in my estimate. So here again, errors in the data cannot account for the size of the estimate.

Finally there is the question of the accuracy of the population counts. It is safe to assume that the Census population figures undercount the actual number of Japanese. If b is the rate of undercounting and was the same in both years, then the actual total (1 + b)(P30 - P20) is more negative than our estimate, which means an overestimate of the number of undocumented immigrants.

Another possibility is that if there was a significant undercount of the 1920 Japanese immigrant population, and the 1930 figures were more accurate, then what appears to be an inflow of undocumented would actually be the Census counting immigrants in 1930 that were not counted in 1920. Some of the literature on Japanese Americans does suggest that there was a significant undercount of Japanese Americans in earlier Census counts.5 However, there do not seem to be the same questions about the 1920 Census. Even the accuracy of the Census is suspect, one would have to offer evidence and/or an explanation of what could possibly lead to a more accurate count in 1930 than 1920.

If the Census population counts are at least undercounts to the same degree, then the other biases in the data would argue that the estimate is an undercount. One possibility is that there was an undercount of Japanese immigrants who left the United States during the 1930s and that many of the undocumented individuals in the United States in 1930 were among those who left without being counted.

Doing the same calculation for the years 1930-1940 (see the Appendix) gives an estimate of 3,684 net departures not counted by the INS. Since it is unlikely that the INS overcounted entries, this is an estimate of undocumented departures. Even if all of these were individuals who entered the United States uncounted by the INS, this would leave some 4400 undocumented immigrants in 1940 (after accounting for deaths) or about 9% of the total immigrant population in 1940.

This large swing in undocumented immigration, from +9,000 to -3700 could be expected given the Great Depression in the United States. Economic conditions in Japan were somewhat better because of their military build-up and war with China.

Conclusions and Further Questions

To conclude, this paper concludes that there was a significant number of undocumented Japanese immigrants entering the continental United States prior to World War II. While the quantitative evidence argues for a very large number, in the neighborhood of 10% of the total immigrant population, there needs to be more investigation.

The completed paper will include an analysis of pre-World War II studies of Japanese immigration, which either overlook the phenomenon of undocumented immigration, or have much smaller estimates.

Another path of research would be to investigate other evidence of undocumented entry of Japanese to the United States from non-quantitative sources: oral histories, Japanese language press, etc.


1. See for example, Higgs, "Landless by Law," JEH 38 (1), (March 1978), and Sowell: Economics and Politics of Race.

2. For this citation and previous information on Japanese immigration, see Ichioka, The Issei, especially pp. 63-64, 69-70 and 165.

3. Chambers, "The Japanese Invasion," Annals, American Academy of Political and Social Science, 93 (January 1921).

4. Population figures based on the decennial Census, immigration figures on the INS, and deaths on rates in Thomas, The Salvage, pp. 585-86.

5. Millis, The Japanese Problem in the United States, p. 24, argues that the Census undercounted the Japanese American population by as much as 20,000 in 1910.