Gentlemen’s Agreement

The Gentlemen’s Agreement limited immigration from Japan to the mainland United States to nonlaborers, laborers already settled in the United States, and their families.

Summary of Event

From 1638 to 1854, Japan maintained a policy of isolation from the rest of the world, both to preserve peace, which it had not enjoyed for several hundred years, and to protect Japanese cultural values and feudal institutions from foreign influence. This long period of seclusion changed in 1852, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Yedo, Japan, to deliver a letter from U.S. president Millard Fillmore to the emperor. Diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States began on March 31, 1854, when a treaty was signed opening two Japanese ports to U.S. ships and permitting the United States to receive any future concessions that might be granted to other powers. For the next thirty years, trade flourished between the two countries. A treaty of commerce and navigation in 1884 retained the most-favored-nation clause in all commercial matters. Gentlemen’s Agreement (1907)[Gentlemens Agreement]
Immigration;Asia to U.S.
Diplomacy;Gentlemen’s Agreement[Gentlemens Agreement]
Japanese Americans, discrimination
[kw]Gentlemen’s Agreement (Mar. 14, 1907)[Gentlemens Agreement (Mar. 14, 1907)]
Gentlemen’s Agreement (1907)[Gentlemens Agreement]
Immigration;Asia to U.S.
Diplomacy;Gentlemen’s Agreement[Gentlemens Agreement]
Japanese Americans, discrimination
[g]East Asia;Mar. 14, 1907: Gentlemen’s Agreement[01890]
[g]Japan;Mar. 14, 1907: Gentlemen’s Agreement[01890]
[g]United States;Mar. 14, 1907: Gentlemen’s Agreement[01890]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 14, 1907: Gentlemen’s Agreement[01890]
[c]Business and labor;Mar. 14, 1907: Gentlemen’s Agreement[01890]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Mar. 14, 1907: Gentlemen’s Agreement[01890]
Hayashi Tadasu
Roosevelt, Theodore
[p]Roosevelt, Theodore;Gentlemen’s Agreement[Gentlemens Agreement]
Root, Elihu
Aoki Shuzo
Wright, Luke E.

Until 1868, Japan prohibited all emigration. Without obtaining their government’s permission to leave Japan, a group of Japanese laborers, the gannenmono (first-year people), arrived in Hawaii on May 17, 1868. Japan was in transition during the 1870’s and 1880’s. During the Meiji Restoration period following the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867), Japan’s economy and government had been modernized extensively. However, rapid industrialization in urban areas was not accompanied by similar developments in agricultural areas. By 1884, overpopulation, compounded with high unemployment, conditions of drought, crop failure, and famine, had engendered political upheaval and rioting. These changed circumstances led to the legalization of emigration in 1885.

The first Japanese immigrants who arrived in California in 1871 were mostly middle-class young men seeking opportunities to study or improve their economic status. By 1880, there were 148 resident Japanese in the United States. Their numbers increased to 1,360 in 1891, including 281 laborers and 172 farmers. A treaty between the United States and Japan in 1894 ensured mutual free entry, although it allowed limitations on immigration based on domestic interests. By 1900, the number of Japanese recorded in the U.S. Census had increased to 24,326. They arrived at ports on the Pacific coast and settled primarily in the Pacific states and British Columbia.

An increase in the demand for Hawaiian sugar in turn increased the demand for plantation labor, especially Japanese labor. Hawaii;Japanese laborers An era of government-contract labor began in 1884, ending only with the U.S. annexation of Hawaii in 1898. Sixty thousand Japanese in the islands then became eligible to enter the United States without passports. Between 1899 and 1906, it is estimated that between forty thousand and fifty-seven thousand Japanese moved to the United States via Hawaii, Canada, and Mexico.

On the Pacific coast, tensions developed between Asians and other Californians. Although the Japanese immigrant workforce was initially welcomed, antagonism increased as the immigrants began to compete with U.S. labor. The emerging trade union movement advocated a restriction of immigration. An earlier campaign against the Chinese had culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States for ten years. This act constituted the first U.S. law barring immigration based on race or nationality. A similar campaign was instigated against the Japanese. On March 1, 1905, both houses of the California state legislature voted to urge California’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., to pursue the limitation of Japanese immigrants. At a meeting in San Francisco on May 7, 1905, delegates from sixty-seven organizations launched the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, known also as the Asian Exclusion League and as the Japanese Exclusion League. Japanese Exclusion League

President Theodore Roosevelt, who was involved in the peace negotiations between Japan and Russia, observed the developing situation in California. George Kennan, Kennan, George who was covering the Russo-Japanese War, wrote to the president:

It isn’t the exclusion of a few emigrants that hurts here. . . it’s the putting of Japanese below Hungarians, Italians, Syrians, Polish Jews, and degraded nondescripts from all parts of Europe and Western Asia. No proud, high spirited and victorious people will submit to such a classification as that, especially when it is made with insulting reference to personal character and habits.

Roosevelt agreed, saying he was mortified that people in the United States should insult the Japanese. He continued to play a pivotal role in resolving the Japanese-Russian differences at the Portsmouth Peace Conference.

Anti-Japanese feeling waned somewhat until April, 1906, when, following the San Francisco earthquake, an outbreak of crime occurred that included many cases of assault against Japanese. A boycott of Japanese restaurants was also organized. The Japanese viewed these acts as especially reprehensible. Their government and Red Cross had contributed more relief for San Francisco after the earthquake than all other foreign nations combined.

Tensions escalated. The Asian Exclusion League, membership in which was estimated to be 78,500 in California, together with San Francisco’s mayor, pressured the San Francisco school board to segregate Japanese schoolchildren. On October 11, 1906, the board passed its resolution. A protest filed by the Japanese consul was denied. Japan protested that the act violated most-favored-nation treatment. In Tokyo, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Luke E. Wright, reported Japan’s extremely negative feelings about the matter to U.S. secretary of state Elihu Root. This crisis in Japanese-American relations brought the countries to the brink of war. On October 25, Japan’s ambassador, Aoki Shuzo, met with Root to seek a solution. President Roosevelt, who recognized the justification of the Japanese protest based on the 1894 treaty, sent his secretary of commerce and labor to San Francisco on October 26 to investigate the matter.

In his message to Congress on December 4, President Roosevelt paid tribute to Japan and strongly rebuked San Francisco for its anti-Japanese acts. He encouraged Congress to pass an act that would allow naturalization of the Japanese in the United States. Roosevelt’s statements and request pleased Japan but aroused further resentment on the Pacific coast. During the previous twelve months, more than seventeen thousand Japanese had entered the mainland United States, two-thirds coming by way of Hawaii. Roosevelt recognized that the basic cause of the unrest in California—the increasing inflow of Japanese laborers—could be resolved only through the limitation of immigration.

Negotiations with Japan to limit the entry of Japanese laborers began in late December, 1906. Three issues were involved: the rescinding of the segregation order by the San Francisco school board, the withholding of passports to the mainland United States by the Japanese government, and the closing of immigration channels through Hawaii, Canada, and Mexico by federal legislation. The Hawaiian issue, which related to an earlier Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1900, was the first resolved through the diplomacy of Japan’s foreign minister, Hayashi Tadasu, the American and Japanese ambassadors, and Secretary of State Root.

Before Japan would agree to discuss immigration to the mainland, it was necessary for the segregation order to be withdrawn. In February, 1907, President Roosevelt invited San Francisco’s entire board of education, the mayor, and a city superintendent of schools to Washington, D.C., to confer on the segregation issue and other problems related to Japan. On February 18, a pending immigration bill was amended to prevent Japanese laborers from entering the United States via Hawaii, Mexico, or Canada. Assured that immigration of Japanese laborers would be stopped, the school board rescinded its segregation order on March 13.

An executive order issued by the president on March 14, 1907, put into effect the restrictions on passports. Subsequently, the Japanese government agreed to conclude the Gentlemen’s Agreement. In January, 1908, the Japanese foreign minister agreed to the terms of immigration discussed in December, 1907. On March 9, Secretary of State Root instructed Ambassador Wright to thank Japan, thus concluding the negotiations begun in December, 1906.


As reported by the commissioner general of immigration in 1908, in accordance with the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, the Japanese government issued passports for travel to the continental United States only to nonlaborers; laborers who were former residents of the United States; parents, wives, or children of residents; and “settled agriculturalists.” A final provision prevented secondary immigration into the United States by way of Hawaii, Mexico, or Canada.

Because of the Gentlemen’s Agreement, new supplies of Japanese labor were cut off, and many employers in Hawaii and California recruited Filipinos to take their place. Filipinos were also recruited to work in the Alaskan fishing industry. As U.S. nationals, Filipinos could not be prevented from migrating to the United States.

Aside from the issue of labor supplies, the events that led up to the signing of the Gentlemen’s Agreement, in particular the San Francisco school board’s actions, contributed to long-term tensions between Japan and the United States. Gentlemen’s Agreement (1907)[Gentlemens Agreement]
Immigration;Asia to U.S.
Diplomacy;Gentlemen’s Agreement[Gentlemens Agreement]
Japanese Americans, discrimination

Further Reading

  • Boddy, E. Manchester. Japanese in America. 1921. Reprint. San Francisco: R&E Research Associates, 1970. An account of Japan’s emergence from a feudal state. Discusses Japanese immigration and U.S. prejudice toward the Japanese.
  • Esthus, Raymond A. Theodore Roosevelt and Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967. Extensive, detailed examination of Roosevelt’s relationship with Japan.
  • Herman, Masako, ed. The Japanese in America, 1843-1973. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1974. An extended chronology and collection of documents.
  • Kikumura, Akemi. Issei Pioneers: Hawaii and the Mainland, 1885 to 1924. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 1992. A brief but well-researched text, with photographs that accompanied the first exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum.
  • Lauren, Paul Gordon. Power and Prejudice: The Politics and Diplomacy of Racial Discrimination. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Examines the impacts of racial prejudice on international relations, immigration policies, and military conflict. Includes discussion of immigration exclusion laws.
  • Nimmo, William F. Stars and Stripes Across the Pacific: The United States, Japan, and the Asia/Pacific Region, 1895-1945. New York: Praeger, 2001. Examines economic, diplomatic, and military relations between the United States and Japan, as well as other Asian nations, from late in the nineteenth century to World War II.
  • U.S. Department of State. Report of the Hon. Roland S. Morris on Japanese Immigration and Alleged Discriminatory Legislation Against Japanese Residents in the United States. 1921. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1978. Correspondence regarding the Gentlemen’s Agreement.

Japan Protests Segregation of Japanese in California Schools

Passage of the First Alien Land Law

Immigration Act of 1917

Ozawa v. United States