Passage of the First Alien Land Law Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

California became the first U.S. state to pass a measure depriving resident Japanese Americans of property rights.

Summary of Event

Immigration from Japan to the United States increased significantly during the final decade of the nineteenth century, with most of the immigrants settling in the Pacific states. In California, the agricultural skills of the Japanese enabled them to transform land that was previously thought to be unusable for farming into fertile soil that supported crops of vegetables and fruits. As the number of Japanese laborers arriving in California increased substantially, however, strong anti-Japanese sentiment developed. The success of the newcomers threatened and antagonized the emerging labor unions. The Asian Exclusion League Japanese Exclusion League was formed in 1905, and a campaign to bar Japanese immigration was launched. Negotiations begun in 1906 between the United States and Japan resulted in the so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement Gentlemen’s Agreement (1907)[Gentlemens Agreement] of 1907, which limited immigration from Japan to nonlaborers and to families who were joining previously settled laborers. In 1907, a federal immigration bill was amended to prevent Japanese laborers from entering the United States through Hawaii, Mexico, and Canada. Alien Land Act (1913) Discrimination;racial Immigration;Asia to U.S. Anti-immigration legislation[Antiimmigration legislation] Japanese Americans, discrimination [kw]Passage of the First Alien Land Law (May 20, 1913) [kw]First Alien Land Law, Passage of the (May 20, 1913) [kw]Alien Land Law, Passage of the First (May 20, 1913) [kw]Land Law, Passage of the First Alien (May 20, 1913) [kw]Law, Passage of the First Alien Land (May 20, 1913) Alien Land Act (1913) Discrimination;racial Immigration;Asia to U.S. Anti-immigration legislation[Antiimmigration legislation] Japanese Americans, discrimination [g]United States;May 20, 1913: Passage of the First Alien Land Law[03410] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 20, 1913: Passage of the First Alien Land Law[03410] [c]Economics;May 20, 1913: Passage of the First Alien Land Law[03410] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 20, 1913: Passage of the First Alien Land Law[03410] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;May 20, 1913: Passage of the First Alien Land Law[03410] Bryan, William Jennings Chinda Sutemi Johnson, Hiram Warren Wilson, Woodrow

The California state legislature’s attempts to pass alien land bills began in 1907. Although President Theodore Roosevelt’s personal intervention, in the form of the Gentlemen’s Agreement, prevented the enactment of such bills, the legislature appropriated funds to investigate Japanese agricultural involvement. When the California State Labor Commission submitted a report to the legislature that was favorable to the Japanese, the labor commissioner was publicly reprimanded and the report remained unpublished. By 1910, about 70 percent of California’s strawberries were produced by Japanese immigrants, and in 1910, twenty-seven anti-Japanese proposals were introduced in the state legislature. Enactment of the proposed anti-Japanese legislation was prevented that year by influence from the White House and, in 1911, by the direct intervention of President William Howard Taft.

On April 4, 1913, in reaction to a proposed California bill that would prohibit Japanese and other foreigners who were ineligible for citizenship from holding or leasing land in California, the Japanese ambassador to the United States, Chinda Sutemi, made an informal protest to the U.S. Department of State, where he spent two hours with Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. Regarding the incident, The New York Times warned that it could “prove to be the beginning of a serious international difficulty.”

The proposed California bill was modeled on an 1897 federal law barring ownership of land by aliens ineligible for citizenship. The federal law, however, contained a proviso that it would not be applicable where treaty obligations conferred the right to own and hold land. The California bill included a clause prohibiting the leasing of land to Japanese, but the Japanese contended that this right had been conferred previously by the treaty of 1894 and reenacted in the treaty of 1911, which provided that citizens of the United States and citizens of Japan would have the right to “own or hire houses . . . and lease land for residential or commercial purposes” in the country of the other.

In Washington, D.C., the introduction of the 1913 California alien land bill was viewed seriously. The prevailing opinion was that its effects could be sweeping and that it could lead to talk of war. When Secretary Bryan and Ambassador Chinda exchanged mutual assurances of continuing friendship between the United States and Japan on April 4, the Department of State expressed confidence that the matter would be resolved amicably. The following day, Bryan met with the members of the California congressional delegation, who emphasized the necessity of the proposed legislation. They noted that in many parts of California more than half the farms were operated by Japanese, and neither U.S. nor Chinese workers could compete with Japanese labor. They asserted that despite the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, which included the withholding of passports from “coolie laborers,” such laborers were arriving continuously from Japan. The anti-Japanese feeling in California was so strong, they reported, that individuals who leased land to any Japanese person were ostracized by their neighbors. The members of the delegation intimated that violent protests against the increase in Japanese competition were imminent.

The development of the proposed California legislation was largely the result of the influence of labor unions and farmers from districts in which the Japanese had acquired land. The labor unions reportedly hated the Japanese because their presence reduced the value of adjacent land and because Japanese laborers worked for low wages. It was fear of the labor unions that impelled members of the legislature to vote for the bill; Californians as a whole did not support the legislation.

In Japan, the Tokyo press vehemently opposed the legislation. An editorial in the Asahi, a leading independent newspaper, referred to the “hollowness of American advocacy of equality” and stated, “This anti-Japanese agitation will impress us with a keen sense of humiliation, which will require many years to efface.” The National Liberal Party urged the governments of Japan and the United States to prevent passage of the bill. The Japanese government filed a formal protest on April 7, but President Woodrow Wilson’s position was to remain outside the conflict. He believed that the proposed legislation lay within California’s rights as a state. On April 10, it was reported that if California made no attempt to violate treaty obligations, the administration would not oppose the bill. President Wilson had concluded that the precise limitations of federal and state jurisdictions in the matter should be determined by the courts.

The final draft of the new law was adopted by the California Senate on April 12. Ambassador Chinda presented his government’s formal protest against the bill to the U.S. Department of State. Secretary of State Bryan delivered a complete copy of the Alien Land Act to the Japanese ambassador on April 14, after it passed its second reading in the California legislature and so became properly eligible for diplomatic consideration. Because of agitation in Tokyo, where the bill was denounced by the press and where demonstrators were calling for war, the California legislature, despite overwhelming margins in favor of passage in both houses, delayed further action until May 20, 1913. On that date, the Alien Land Act, known also as the Webb-Henley bill, was signed into law by Governor Hiram Warren Johnson. The statute barred all aliens who were ineligible for citizenship, as well as all corporations with more than 50 percent ineligible alien ownership, from the legal right to own agricultural land in California. It also limited the duration of land-leasing contracts in the state to three years.


After passage of the California law, antialien agitation began in Michigan following announcements that Japanese laborers from California were going to settle in Michigan’s Alger County. During 1917, alien land laws were introduced in the state legislatures of Oregon and Idaho, but, because of the crisis in Europe at the time, they were subsequently withdrawn. An alien land law was enacted in Arizona, however.

California’s 1913 statute was not entirely effective. To prevent Japanese residents from circumventing the law, the California legislature introduced a more restrictive alien land bill in 1920 to forbid the Issei (first-generation Japanese—that is, immigrants to the United States from Japan) from buying land in the names of their U.S.-born children, the Nisei. It also prohibited the transfer of land to noncitizens by sale or lease and established criminal penalties for aliens caught attempting to bypass the 1913 law. In a statewide ballot, California voters passed the 1920 Alien Land Act by a three-to-one margin. Japanese residents of California instigated a number of cases to test the constitutionality of the new law, and in 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Issei in four of these cases. Further restrictions also were passed in a 1923 amendment, which, together with the federal 1924 Immigration Act, effectively denied further immigration and determined the status of Japanese immigrants in the United States. California’s alien land laws were not repealed until 1956.

In 1921, Washington, Texas, and Louisiana enacted alien land laws based on the California act, as did New Mexico in 1922 and Oregon, Idaho, and Montana in 1923. These laws differed from the California statute only in small details. Other states followed: Kansas in 1925; Missouri in 1939; Utah, Arkansas, and Nebraska in 1943; and Minnesota in 1945. Although alien land laws were eventually declared federally unconstitutional, not all states had officially rescinded these laws by the end of the twentieth century. Alien Land Act (1913) Discrimination;racial Immigration;Asia to U.S. Anti-immigration legislation[Antiimmigration legislation] Japanese Americans, discrimination

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chuman, Frank F. The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese-Americans. Del Mar, Calif.: Publisher’s Inc., 1976. Includes good coverage of the alien land laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curry, Charles F. Alien Land Laws and Alien Rights. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1921. A contemporary account of the alien land laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ichioka, Yuji. The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885-1924. New York: Free Press, 1988. Includes discussion of the labor-contracting system and the exclusion movement. Comprehensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kim, Hyung-chan, ed. Asian Americans and Congress: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Covers all major immigration laws passed by the U.S. Congress since 1790. Discusses the legislation and its impacts; includes the texts of the laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGovney, Dudley. “The Anti-Japanese Land Laws of California and Ten Other States.” California Law Review 35 (1947): 7-54. Detailed discussion of alien land laws in relation to state, federal, and English common law up to the time of publication.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nomura, Gail M. “Washington’s Asian/Pacific American Communities.” In Peoples of Washington: Perspectives on Cultural Diversity, edited by Sid White and S. E. Solberg. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989. Provides specifics of Washington and Texas land laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Takaki, Ronald. Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Provides insight into the origin of anti-Asian sentiment and its connection to legislation such as the alien land laws.

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Gentlemen’s Agreement

Immigration Act of 1917

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Categories: History