Japan Protests Segregation of Japanese in California Schools Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The San Francisco Board of Education’s decision to segregate Japanese from other students in city schools exacerbated tensions between the United States and Japan.

Summary of Event

On October 11, 1906, scarcely six months after Japan had magnanimously donated more than $246,000 in aid (exceeding the combined donations of the rest of the world) to help alleviate the suffering caused by the San Francisco earthquake, the San Francisco Board of Education repaid Japan’s kindness by voting to segregate Japanese children from “white” children in its schools. San Francisco Board of Education Segregation;Japanese in California Discrimination;racial Minority rights;California Japanese Americans, discrimination [kw]Japan Protests Segregation of Japanese in California Schools (Oct. 25, 1906) [kw]Segregation of Japanese in California Schools, Japan Protests (Oct. 25, 1906) [kw]Japanese in California Schools, Japan Protests Segregation of (Oct. 25, 1906) [kw]California Schools, Japan Protests Segregation of Japanese in (Oct. 25, 1906) [kw]Schools, Japan Protests Segregation of Japanese in California (Oct. 25, 1906) San Francisco Board of Education Segregation;Japanese in California Discrimination;racial Minority rights;California Japanese Americans, discrimination [g]United States;Oct. 25, 1906: Japan Protests Segregation of Japanese in California Schools[01730] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 25, 1906: Japan Protests Segregation of Japanese in California Schools[01730] [c]Education;Oct. 25, 1906: Japan Protests Segregation of Japanese in California Schools[01730] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Oct. 25, 1906: Japan Protests Segregation of Japanese in California Schools[01730] Aoki Shuzo Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;diplomacy Root, Elihu Saionji Kimmochi Schmitz, Eugene E.

The Japanese government was at first stunned by this blatant expression of racial bigotry. The Japanese hoped that cooler and wiser heads would prevail in California and that the order would quickly be rescinded. After waiting for two weeks, Japanese prime minister Saionji Kimmochi instructed his ambassador to the United States, Aoki Shuzo, to deliver a note of protest into the hands of American secretary of state Elihu Root on October 25, 1906. The note reminded the government of the United States that Japanese citizens were guaranteed equal rights by treaty and that the “equal right of education is one of the highest and most valuable rights.” Saionji went on to say that even if the “oriental schools” provided for Asian children were to be equal to other schools, the segregation of Japanese children “constitutes an act of discrimination carrying with it a stigma and odium which it is impossible to overlook.”

The Japanese government cautioned its citizens against any anti-American retribution in Japan and counseled the Japanese in San Francisco to bear the insults and discrimination “with equanimity and dignity.” Japanese newspapers, although outraged at the school board’s blatant racial insult, generally suggested that the wisest course for Japan to take would be to appeal to the American sense of honor and fair play.

President Theodore Roosevelt was both embarrassed and outraged at the San Francisco action and promised Aoki and the Japanese government that the matter soon would be resolved. Roosevelt began a propaganda campaign in the press to try to marshal national pressure against San Francisco and to give the Japanese the impression that he was actively engaged in resolving the issue. Much to his horror, however, several southern congressmen sprang to the defense of their fellow racists in California. They interpreted the issue as being one of states’ rights and reminded Roosevelt that the recent Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) Supreme Court ruling allowed the individual states to maintain “separate but equal” public education facilities.

For their part, the members of the San Francisco Board of Education were somewhat at a loss to understand the extent and importance of the international crisis they had caused. At that time, Chinese had been excluded as immigrants to the United States for nearly thirty years, and those Chinese who happened to be residents of California had been denied virtually all political and civil rights as a matter of course. Native American, African American, Mexican, Chinese, Korean, “Hindoo,” and other children routinely had been segregated from white children. The school board members did not understand why their action should cause such an uproar.

The anti-Japanese bigotry was the result of a series of unfortunate coincidences. First, Japanese immigration to California previously had been but a minor irritant compared with the problems posed by the influx of Chinese laborers in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Fewer than ten thousand Japanese had come to California before 1900, and perhaps only half of them remained as residents. California labor contractors, however, discovered the industrious Japanese laboring in Hawaiian sugar cane fields after the Hawaiian Revolution of 1894. The contractors lured thousands of these workers to California, where they found ready employment in the developing agricultural sector. As their numbers increased, so did their economic influence at nearly every level. By 1905, organized labor in California had mounted a campaign against Japanese immigration based on the fact that Japanese workers undercut American workers by working longer hours for less money.

Second, the 1906 earthquake had contributed to the general malaise and sense of anomie in San Francisco San Francisco earthquake in much the same irrational way that citizens of Tokyo would later turn against helpless, innocent Koreans in the aftermath of the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. White San Franciscans who lost their homes in the earthquake were outraged, quite irrationally, that a handful of Japanese had survived with their homes and businesses intact. Even worse, a few enterprising Japanese set up thriving cheap restaurants that catered to the workers involved in the urban recovery. In the eyes of the bigots, the Japanese seemed to be prospering at the expense of the suffering whites.

Third, the San Francisco Chronicle, perhaps in an attempt to outdo the sensationalism of William Randolph Hearst’s Herald, chose that time to mount an irresponsibly provocative campaign against Japanese immigration. It published unsubstantiated and patently absurd charges that Japanese were spying on American coastal defenses for Japan and that they were acquiring huge tracts of land in the Central Valley, not only for its rich farmland but also for strategic military purposes. Without question, the worst fear they dredged up was the horror of racial miscegenation. They claimed that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of adult Japanese men were routinely placed side by side with young, innocent “white maidens” in the city’s schools. Actually, some twenty-three Japanese males, none older than sixteen years of age, were dispersed throughout the city schools, placed temporarily in lower grades until their English-language skills improved.

In response to the increasing anti-Japanese sentiment, the Japanese Exclusion League Japanese Exclusion League was formed during the late summer of 1906; the organization was led, ironically, by four recent European immigrants to the city. Pickets in front of Japanese restaurants handed out matchboxes printed with the message “White people, patronize your own race.” Gangs of thugs assaulted lone Japanese in the streets and threw stones at the windows of Japanese residents. Petitions were circulated urging the exclusion of Japanese immigrants.

A final factor in the bigotry directed against the Japanese was the rabidly racist campaign of San Francisco’s mayor, Eugene E. Schmitz. Schmitz was facing an imminent indictment for bribery and corruption by a reformist movement and hoped to use the growing anti-Japanese hysteria to gain political support. He joined the Japanese Exclusion League at a series of outdoor public meetings. Before long, this unprincipled political opportunist had further inflamed the already irrational bigots. The result was that the school board yielded to the demands of the rabble and voted to establish a separate school for all “orientals,” including the Japanese. After a few months, the more responsible citizens of the city managed to bolster enough support to force another vote in the school board, but not before many Japanese children were denied the right to an education in their neighborhood schools and not before many Japanese adults were assaulted, threatened, and coerced to pay “protection money” by the local police.

President Roosevelt met several times with city and state leaders and reached a tacit agreement that the school segregation crisis could be resolved if some agreement could be reached to restrict the immigration of Japanese laborers. Ambassador Aoki was receptive to Roosevelt’s invitation to discuss the issue but reminded him that Japan already restricted the number of passports granted to persons wishing to emigrate to the United States. He suggested that it would be better if the United States would restrict immigration from Hawaii and Mexico, because apparently most Japanese who came to California arrived from those countries. After months of discussion, Roosevelt and the Japanese arrived at what came to be known as the Gentlemen’s Agreement, Gentlemen’s Agreement (1907)[Gentlemens Agreement] which severely limited the number of Japanese immigrants.

For the time being, ninety-three Japanese children returned to their neighborhood schools, and San Francisco and California settled down to await nervously the next wave of xenophobic hysteria. Unfortunately, they did not have long to wait.


The effect of the San Francisco school segregation incident was most directly felt by the ninety-three children who had their education interrupted for a year. Their required travel to the “oriental school”—in some cases, from one side of the city to the other—was at least inconvenient and at times dangerous. The greatest impact came from the denial of these children’s human and civil rights. To be singled out for discrimination on the basis of race was a demeaning insult. The only thing that ameliorated and stopped the discrimination was the fact that Japan, by 1906, had become a powerful military world power. Japan could not be insulted with impunity.

Regrettably, the Japanese Exclusion League did not simply evaporate with the hysteria. Like the irrational xenophobia that fed the crisis, the league continued, nurtured by fear and resentment. It surfaced again in 1913, when the California legislature passed the Alien Land Act, Alien Land Act (1913) which denied landowning to people (such as the Japanese) who could not become citizens. It flourished again in 1921 and 1924, when the U.S. Congress passed immigration acts favoring immigrants from northern and western Europe and restricting the number of Japanese immigrants to fewer than one hundred per year. Some historians have argued that the discriminatory tendencies evident in the San Francisco school segregation crisis of 1906 were precursory to the xenophobia that would sanction the incarceration of loyal Americans of Japanese ancestry in 1942 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged the two countries into a battle for control of the Pacific during World War II.

Curiously, within the so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement that resolved the school segregation crisis was the basis for a somewhat different but perhaps more dangerous problem. That agreement allowed for those Japanese already resident in the United States to bring their families to join them. The citizens of California were startled to discover that male Japanese residents used this rule to bring their parents and sometimes women whom they had married “by proxy” to live with them. The children born to Japanese immigrants in the United States were natural-born citizens. The state of California could deny political and civil rights to aliens, but it could not deny such rights to their citizen children. San Francisco Board of Education Segregation;Japanese in California Discrimination;racial Minority rights;California Japanese Americans, discrimination

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bailey, Thomas A. Theodore Roosevelt and the Japanese-American Crisis: An Account of the International Complications Arising from the Race Problem on the Pacific Coast. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1934. Solid account places the crisis within the context of the greater history of U.S.-Japan foreign relations. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boddy, E. Manchester. Japanese in America. 1921. Reprint. San Francisco: R&E Research Associates, 1970. Brief monograph written to counter the arguments of the Japanese Exclusion League. Examines and refutes each argument with California and federal census and immigration statistics. Dated, but valuable for its glimpse of the visceral quality of the debate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniels, Roger. The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion. 1974. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Masterful treatment of the politics of racial bigotry depicts the leaders of the “nativist” movement in California with chilling clarity. Includes valuable bibliography of primary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Iriye, Akira. Pacific Estrangement: Japanese and American Expansion, 1897-1911. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. Brilliantly written examination of the mutual animosities between two imperialist states. Of particular interest are chapters 5 and 6, “Confrontation: The Japanese View” and “Confrontation: The American View.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neu, Charles E. An Uncertain Friendship: Theodore Roosevelt and Japan, 1906-1909. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. Solid revisionist interpretation uses Roosevelt’s extensive personal correspondence to portray him as a shrewd politician whose own racial prejudices made him more sympathetic to the Japanese Exclusion League than to the Japanese. Good use of primary documents. Solid bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Penrose, Eldon R. California Nativism: Organized Opposition to the Japanese, 1890-1913. San Francisco: R&E Research Associates, 1973. Sophisticated examination of the exclusionist movement uses newspapers and correspondence of the principal participants to examine the politics of the movement and the background of its leaders. Includes appendixes containing the text of various anti-Asian exclusion acts.

Gentlemen’s Agreement

Passage of the First Alien Land Law

Immigration Act of 1917

Ozawa v. United States

Categories: History