In Ozawa v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Japanese aliens did not qualify as “white” and therefore could not be naturalized as citizens.

Summary of Event

In the early twentieth century, naturalization in the United States was under the effective control of local and state authorities. In California and other Pacific states, fears of the “yellow peril” or “silent invasion” of Asian immigrants were deeply entrenched and politically exploited. In these states, citizenship had been repeatedly denied to both Chinese and more recent Japanese settlers, although there were some rare exceptions. The prevailing belief among the nativist majority was that such settlers should be ineligible for U.S. citizenship. Ozawa v. United States (1922)
Immigration;Asia to U.S.
Supreme Court, U.S.;citizenship laws
Citizenship laws
[kw]Ozawa v. United States (Nov. 13, 1922)
[kw]United States, Ozawa v. (Nov. 13, 1922)
Ozawa v. United States (1922)
Immigration;Asia to U.S.
Supreme Court, U.S.;citizenship laws
Citizenship laws
[g]United States;Nov. 13, 1922: Ozawa v. United States[05630]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 13, 1922: Ozawa v. United States[05630]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Nov. 13, 1922: Ozawa v. United States[05630]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Nov. 13, 1922: Ozawa v. United States[05630]
Ozawa, Takao
Sutherland, George

Partly to test the Alien Land Act Alien Land Act (1913) —a California law passed in 1913 that barred noncitizens from owning land in that state—Japanese immigrant Takao Ozawa sought U.S. citizenship in defiance of a 1906 law that limited naturalization to “free white persons,” “aliens of African nativity,” and “persons of African descent.” Although he was born in Japan, Ozawa had been educated in the United States. He had graduated from high school in Berkeley and attended the University of California for three years. He was aware that some Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) had been naturalized, even in California.

Specifically, Ozawa may have known of Iwao Yoshikawa, Yoshikawa, Iwao the first Japanese immigrant to be naturalized in California. Yoshikawa had arrived in San Francisco from Japan in 1887. A law clerk in his homeland, he had studied U.S. law and served as a court translator in his adopted country. In 1889 he began the naturalization process, which, presumably, was completed five years later, although there is no extant record of his naturalization. His case was publicized because it broached such issues as mandatory citizenship renunciation and the legality of dual citizenship.

Regardless of Ozawa’s knowledge of Yoshikawa, on October 16, 1914, Ozawa applied for U.S. citizenship before the district court for the territory of Hawaii. He argued that he had resided in the United States and its territory of Hawaii for a total of twenty years, had adopted the culture and language of his host country, had reared his children as Americans in heart and mind, and was, by character and education, wholly qualified for naturalization.

The district court ruled against Ozawa on the grounds that his Japanese ethnicity denied him access to naturalization. Ozawa then took his case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which passed it to the U.S. Supreme Court for instruction. In turn, the Supreme Court upheld the laws that in effect declared Ozawa ineligible for citizenship.

Rather than questioning the justice of the racial restrictions on naturalization, the Court’s opinion, written by Associate Justice George Sutherland, focused on clarifying the meaning of the term “white persons” and distinguishing between “Caucasian” and “white person.” The Court determined that the latter term, although more inclusive than the former, is not so inclusive as to encompass persons of Asian extraction. The opinion concluded that “a person of the Japanese race” is not a “free white person” within the meaning of the 1906 law, and therefore is not eligible for naturalization as a U.S. citizen.

In tracing the history of the naturalization laws, the Court attempted to demonstrate that all statutes preceding the 1906 act contested by Ozawa had the same intent: the selective admission to citizenship based on the interpretation of “white,” not as a racial appellation but as a reflection of character. It argued that the words “free white persons” do not indicate persons of a particular race or origin, but rather describe individuals who are fit for citizenship under the policy of the United States. According to that doctrine, any non-African alien, if desired by Congress, might be deemed “white.”

Regardless of this race disclaimer, however, the Court, in reasoning through its arguments, distinguished between “whites” (all Europeans, for example) and “nonwhites” (such as the Chinese) on ethnic grounds pure and simple. In addition, the decision clearly sanctioned the seriously flawed assumption that character and racial heritage are inextricably interrelated.


The Supreme Court’s ruling in Ozawa v. United States reflected the prevailing nativist bias against Asian immigrants, an attitude that was reflected in both law and policy throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In fact, no more formidable barriers to citizenship were erected than those devised to prevent the naturalization of Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian immigrants. In 1924, an isolationist Congress enacted an immigration law that placed numerical restrictions on immigrants allowed into the United States based on national origin. One provision of the Immigration Act of 1924, Immigration Act (1924) also known as the Johnson Act, excluded immigrants who were ineligible for naturalization. The law’s obvious aim—to bar entry of Japanese aliens—quickly led to the deterioration of diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States.

The plight of Japanese already in the United States also worsened in this anti-Asian climate. In separate rulings, the Supreme Court went so far as to revoke citizenship that had been granted to some Issei. In 1925, the Court even ruled that service in the U.S. armed forces did not make Issei eligible for naturalization, overturning a policy that had previously been in effect. Not only were Issei barred from naturalization, but also in many states “alien land laws” prohibited them from owning land and even from entering some professions.

This sort of codified prejudice partly accounts for the terrible treatment Japanese Americans were subjected to during World War II, when 112,000 of them, including 70,000 Nisei (persons of Japanese descent born in the United States), were rounded up and incarcerated in detention centers that bore some grim similarities to the concentration camps of Europe. It was not until the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952 McCarran-Walter Act (1952)[Maccarran Walter Act] that the long-standing racial barriers to naturalization finally came down. Ozawa v. United States (1922)
Immigration;Asia to U.S.
Supreme Court, U.S.;citizenship laws
Citizenship laws

Further Reading

  • Curran, Thomas J. Xenophobia and Immigration, 1820-1930. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Traces the origins of anti-immigrant movements in the United States and relates the xenophobic tradition to exclusionist laws and practices.
  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill & Wang, 2004. Examines trends in and influences on U.S. immigration policy from late in the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Includes tables and charts, bibliography, and index.
  • Hosokawa, Bill. Nisei: The Quiet Americans. Rev. ed. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002. A good general study of Japanese Americans and their struggle against legal and social discrimination. Includes photographs.
  • O’Brien, David J., and Stephen Fugita. The Japanese American Experience. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Scholarly study focuses on the legal and social problems that confronted Japanese Americans before World War II and the rapid acculturation this group experienced after the war.
  • Takaki, Ronald. Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Provides insight into the origins of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States and its connection to legislation such as the alien land laws.
  • _______. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Rev. ed. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1998. Excellent and sensitive overview of Asian American history. Includes extensive notes and photographs.
  • Wilson, Robert Arden, and Bill Hosokawa. East to America: A History of the Japanese in the United States. New York: William Morrow, 1980. General history of Japanese migration to North America. Appendixes provide census statistics, the text of an exclusionist law, and a letter to President Woodrow Wilson pleading the Issei cause.
  • Yuji, Ichioka. “The Early Japanese Immigrant Quest for Citizenship: The Background of the 1922 Ozawa Case.” Amerasia 4, no. 2 (1977): 12. Brief account of the reasons for Ozawa’s legal action and his desire for citizenship.

Japan Protests Segregation of Japanese in California Schools

Gentlemen’s Agreement

Passage of the First Alien Land Law

Immigration Act of 1917