The Immigration Act of 1924 Ruined American Cuisine

This is the first of a series of posts on the Japanese-American internment.

Okay, this post is not really about American cuisine, but it is a bit of a thought experiment on what the US would look like if not for a series of xenophobic policies enacted in the early 20th century. The policies targeted at Japanese immigration—the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 and the Immigration Act of 1924 (a.k.a Asian Exclusion Act)—were in fact effective at limiting immigration and the growth of the Japanese-American population.

My ancestral homeland (prison): Topaz, UT

Much like investing in a Roth IRA in your 20s, permitting more immigration in the early 20th century would have had noticeable—and perhaps dramatic—effect on the demographics of today’s Western US. These policies nipped the “Japanese problem” in the bud and prevented an exponential growth of the Japanese-American community. Indeed, my grandfather kept editorials from the San Francisco Examiner that described the Japanese-Americans as “breeding like rabbits.” Without the Immigration Act of 1924, the editors at the Examiner would have seen a lot more rabbits in the 1930s and 40s.

Rabbits who cook delicious Japanese food. See where this is going?

Data

The Japanese-American internment/relocation/imprisonment was a massive government effort that required detailed record keeping for each internee/prisoner. This resulted in a number of comprehensive and detailed datasets on the Japanese-American population, including immigration and birth years. The US National Archives and Records Administration thankfully has made the information available, and it has been complied and cleaned by Densho.org. I was able to use these data to look at Japanese immigration by year, estimate the number of adult, non-senior women, and then estimate birthrates.

To simulate immigration and population without the policies, I modeled immigration as an AR(1) (autoregressive) process with normal errors, estimated from the period before the policies were enacted. Then I took a pseudo-Bayesian approach by taking random draws from a normal distribution to estimate birthrate. Despite the stats jargon, this was a simplistic approach meant to capture the general trends. Precision was not an important part of the exercise.

Immigration

Looking at the historical record (solid lines), it is immediately obvious that the Gentlemen’s Agreement and Immigration Act of 1924 had dramatic and immediate effects on immigration. The first Japanese immigrants to the US were predominantly men. The Gentlemen’s Agreement put an end to immigration for workers; however, family members of existing immigrants were still permitted to immigrate. This led to many brothers coming over to the US, as well as “picture brides” who would claim to be married to an existing immigrant. But in reality, many men would select a bride using pictures and then the marriage would be arranged by the families in Japan. My great-grandparents were one such couple (it worked out for them).

It’s hard to say what would have happened without the Gentlemen’s Agreement. If the linear trend in immigration had continued, the West Coast of the US would look a lot different.

The Immigration Act of 1924 put a hard stop to Japanese immigration. But before 1924, immigration from Japan had already begun to dip. I can only speculate that this may be because of improving economic conditions in Japan, informal immigration restrictions imposed by the US, animosity experienced by Japanese immigrants, or a realization that prosperity may not be easy to come by in America.

There are many echoes of 1924 today.

The Immigration Act of 1924 did not only target non-whites, all of whom were excluded from immigration (with the exception of black African immigrants). According to Wikipedia, the law was “primarily aimed at further decreasing immigration of Southern Europeans, especially Italians; and, to a lesser extent, immigrants from countries with Roman Catholic majorities, Eastern Europeans, Arabs, and Jews.” Countries with Roman Catholic majorities included Spain and France.

So a list of the targeted countries included:

  • Spain

  • France

  • Italy

  • Japan

  • China

  • Thailand

  • India

  • Greece

What do all these countries have in common? They represent eight of the top eight food cultures.

It seems safe to conclude that American cuisine would be in a better place without the Immigration Act of 1924. I can only imagine that amount of constipation that could have been prevented (Source: my one week eating sausage and potatoes in Germany).

Japanese-American Population

With immigration curtailed more than 90 years ago, the Japanese-American population has slowly dwindled over time largely due to intermarriage with other ethnic groups. As a fourth-generation Japanese-American, I am incredibly distanced from my ethnic roots. While we maintain some traditions and a few institutions such as ethnic churches, the Japanese-American identity is now essentially an American identity with a few twists—and hopefully, a deepened appreciation for history and civil rights.

It’s abundantly clear that the Japanese-American population would have continued growing at an exponential rate without the Immigration Act of 1924. It would have likely been twice as large as the actual pre-war population.

History may have been very different. Some possibilities:

  • A much larger Japanese-American population would have been more difficult to forcibly relocate into internment camps, affecting the nature of that decision.

  • A larger Japanese-American and Asian population in general may have encouraged further immigration from Japan and other Asian countries post-war.

  • Regardless, this would have meant more, and larger, Japanese-American cultural institutions post-war.

  • This would make it a lot less likely that I was the only Japanese-American in my graduating high school class and the only Japanese-American male in my graduating college class.

And we already know that this would mean more delicious Japanese food in markets and restaurants.

NO SUSHI FOR YOU, AMERICA!