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Conflicts Between Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans During the 1920s-1940s Period Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 16th, 2021

Introduction

As they approached their curio shops on Grant Avenue (San-Francisco) early in the morning on the next day after the Bowl of Rice event in 1937, the Japanese-born owners saw “This is a Japanese store” stickers applied to the doors and windows. The members of the city’s Chinese community, responsible for having done it, expected that this would discourage people from purchasing things from Issei (first generation Japanese Americans).1

It is needless to say, of course, that there is a clear parallel between this specific event and the desecration of the Jewish-owned businesses that used to take place around the same time in Nazi Germany. As such, the issue of the rapid rise of tensions between Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans through the 1920s-1940s period does deserve to be researched at a further length. After all, there is a good reason to believe that while investigating the subject matter, one will gain a better understanding of what causes American society to be affected by racial/cultural conflicts as time goes on.

The author expects to find evidence in support of the systemic outlook on the significance of Sino-Japanese animosity throughout the specified historical period, which presupposes that there are many forces (often invisible) at play behind the making of just about every historical phenomenon. Hence, the paper’s hypothesis: the worsening of the relationship between both peoples in pre-war America was planned at a governmental level. The reason why this plan was fulfilled with apparent ease is that it correlated well with how a human mind assessed the threats and opportunities within the surrounding social reality.

Analysis

Probably the most notable aspect of the issue in question is that it has not been well-researched. Nevertheless, it did not prove too challenging to gather factual information regarding the events that have led to the rise of the anti-Japanese public sentiment in the US through the 1920s-1940s period, in general, and the deterioration of the relationship between Chinese Americans and their Japanese counterparts, in particular. As one can infer from the discursively relevant literature, it was specifically Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria that resulted in causing the public discourse in America to become explicitly anti-Japanese.

This simply could not be otherwise, as the rapid worsening of the US-Japanese diplomatic relations naturally caused many policy-makers in this country to suspect Issei (first generation of Japanese immigrants) and Nisei (second generation of Japanese immigrants) of being Japanese spies. Such a suspicion, on the part of America’s ruling elite, served as the main justification behind the government’s 1942 decision to keep Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps en masse until the end of the war. As Adams noted, “In February 1942… President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066… this order forced over 120,000 Japanese Americans – Issei, Nisei, and Sansei, or third-generation – into inland ‘evacuation camps’”.2

When assessed from today’s perspective, the state-endorsed discrimination of American “Japs” that had reached its peak in 1942 would appear clearly anti-constitutional and strongly immoral. However, most Americans at the time did not object to the policy’s enactment. Partially, this had to do with the fact that throughout the 20th century’s twenties, thirties, and forties, the ideology of Eurocentrism/White superiority continued to enjoy a quasi-official status in the US.

To exemplify the validity of this statement, one can mention the journalistic practice of referring to Americans of Asian descent in terms of the “yellow peril,” as if there was indeed nothing wrong with it. What is particularly notable about this practice is that it became widespread long before America had any reasons to complain about Japan’s imperialism. Moreover, its affiliates used to refuse to acknowledge that there is much difference between the Chinese and Japanese, in the first place, “The Chinese and Japanese were said to make inferior citizens, to be unassimilable, and to be a threat to the jobs of labor.”3 The strongly collectivist lifestyle of both peoples used to be referred to as yet another indication of their lessened humanity.

Partially, this explains why prior to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, there have not been any objective reasons to believe that the members of the Chinese and Japanese communities would end up acting intolerant towards each other in the next few years to come. At the time, many Chinese and Japanese Americans believed that they were in the same situation concerning the realities of their exposure to anti-Asian institutionalized discrimination. Hence, the commonly overlooked fact of the conductance of war by imperial Japan – this country succeeded in ensuring the effectiveness of its wartime propaganda aimed at the Chinese.

The example of the Yokohama Chinese community supports this suggestion. As Han’s article demonstrates, throughout the war, most of the community’s representatives were willing to adopt a collaborationist stance without having been coerced to do it in any forceful manner. According to the author, “The Japanese government left the Chinese community intact and largely in peace… In return, they (the Chinese) participated in collaborationist parades, celebrations, and propaganda broadcasts”.4 In turn, this indirectly suggests that contrary to what most people assume was the case, there were not any irreconcilable differences between the Japanese and Chinese that would cause both peoples to regard each other as a natural enemy, especially on American soil.

Nevertheless, as the American media continued to cover the atrocities committed by the Japanese invaders in China (such as the Nanking massacre), the public discourse in the US progressed to acknowledge that there was indeed much difference between the Chinese and Japanese and that the former deserved to be favored above the latter. A number of American journalists contributed to the process rather substantially. The history of the XGOY radio station that used to broadcast from the Chinese city of Chongqing exemplifies this suggestion.5 Apart from the earlier mentioned one, there were also a few deeper reasons that predetermined this development.

The most obvious of them is that the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War naturally prompted Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans to side with China and Japan, respectively. After all, both the Confucian and Shintoist cultural traditions do encourage their adherents to think “communally” when it comes to addressing life challenges.6

Therefore, there is nothing incidental about the fact that, as some authors indicate, during the thirties, the majority of Japanese Americans believed that the war effort of imperial Japan was thoroughly justified. Moreover, many of these people were willing to adopt an active stance while defending the legitimacy of Japan’s decision to invade China. For example, according to Brooks, in the year 1938, the San-Francisco-based “Japanese Association” has gone as far as publishing a booklet “What Is Japan Fighting For? The Truth about the Sino-Japanese Conflict”, which promoted the idea that while waging war in China, Japan was, in fact, trying to help the Chinese to put an end to the legacy of Western colonialism in their country.7 Consequently, this provided the government with a legitimate reason to consider keeping Japanese Americans under control.

Predictably enough, Chinese Americans took an active part in encouraging the rest of Americans to think of Japanese Americans as the representatives of a “fifth column” on the mission of sabotage and subversion. The sheer brutality of Japan’s way of waging war strengthened the willingness of Chinese Americans to continue applying much effort in this regard.

After all, the reports about the Nanking massacre helped to convince the latter that being supportive of Japan’s war effort, their Japanese fellow residents had lost their dignity, or as the people of Asian descent say, “lost their face.” According to Moore, “both Japan and China are cultures that place a great deal of emphasis on “face.” At a basic level, this manifests itself in a formality and propriety when Japanese and Chinese meet and interact.”8 Having been deprived of “face,” Japanese Americans ended up being the subjects of irrational hostility from more and more people in the US.

Nevertheless, even though the endorsement of the anti-Japanese public sentiment on the part of Chinese Americans appears to have been motivated by moral considerations alone, there were many economic undertones to it as well. Nothing substantiates the full soundness of this suggestion better than the already quoted article by Brooks. According to the author, by the late twenties, the most profitable businesses in San-Francisco’s Chinatown (such as the Oriental curio shops) were overwhelmingly owned by Chinese Americans.

Nevertheless, as time went on, more and more Japanese Americans were finding their way into the business of selling “oriental curiosities” to the city’s white residents. Eventually, this led to the creation of the situation where, as of the late thirties, Japanese Americans began to dominate in the traditionally Chinese curio business. As Brooks states, “by 1939, Japanese Americans owned at least thirty curio shops on Grant Avenue (in San-Francisco), but Chinese Americans operated just fifteen”.9

The main reason for this was that the goods imported from Japan were of better quality than those imported from China. Nevertheless, the described trend did not result in anything else but in intensifying interpersonal animosity between both peoples even further. Once assessed from the Chinese perspective, it served as additional proof that Japanese Americans had a clearly expansionist agenda and that some active measures had to be taken to address the situation. One of the measures undertaken in this regard was the distribution of anti-Japanese booklets in front of the Japanese-owned curio shops mentioned in the introduction.

Contrary to the expectation of Japanese Americans, the government did not do anything to defend them from being subjected to the campaign of public ostracism by the Chinese American community. Instead, the government became an active contributor to it. Within the matter of a very short time, the term “yellow peril” had ceased denoting Asians in general and began to be used exclusively with respect to the Japanese – “the Chinese, once regarded as subhuman, were now fellow sufferers from Japanese aggression; the Japanese, once seen as charming and noble, were now regarded as treacherous and despicable.”10

This brings up a question of what used to account for one of the most widely used justifications behind the governmentally endorsed practice of preparing public ground (by the media) for the eventual internment of Japanese Americans: the assumption of these people’s inborn wickedness. For example, through the late thirties and early forties, it became a common practice in the US to blame Japanese Americans for being “Asian racists.”

According to those who peddled such accusations, the Japanese considered themselves “Asian Aryans” and believed that the Chinese and Filipinos are racially inferior. Such a stereotype remains alive even today, despite the fact that there are plenty of indications that it has been created artificially within the Office of War Information following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The conducted literature review implies that the rapid deterioration of the relationship between Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans through the 1920s-1940s period has not been quite as irrational and sporadic as many people tend to think of it. Quite to the contrary, it appears to have been organized by the same individuals within Roosevelt’s administration who were doing their best to trigger the outbreak of war between Japan and the US.

After all, America’s entry into WW2 was the best guarantee that the economic recession of the thirties was gone for good. The American public needed to be shown an “enemy” to divert its attention from the issues of social and economic importance. Being ethically visible and deprived of the right to apply for citizenship, Japanese Americans suited well for this role. The only problem in this regard was that the Japanese and Chinese often look indistinguishable to the eye of a white person. Therefore, this explains why in 1939, it suddenly became a widespread practice among Chinese Americans to wear “I am Chinese, not Japanese” lapel pins.

Because of the mentioned successes of Japan’s wartime propaganda in East Asia, the US government was naturally interested in inciting hate between “Chinks” and “Japs” so that they would not unify and thus represent a threat to America. This suggestion also provides a partial answer to the question about how it was possible for the warring factions within the nativist movement in America to become solely concerned with exposing the “evilness” of Japanese Americans even before the Pearl Harbor attack had taken place. Such a seemingly odd development could have only occurred with the government in control.

Once assessed from the moral perspective, the governmentally instigated discriminative treatment of Japanese Americans through the late thirties and early forties can hardly be deemed appropriate. After all, it was reflective of the racist idea that one’s physical appearance reveals the workings of the concerned person’s mind. As contemporary scientists are aware, however, nothing could be further from the truth.

At the time, there were many Japanese Americans who remained thoroughly loyal to the US and who did not understand why the members of the country’s Chinese community began to mistreat them. On the other hand, there were also a number of Chinese Americans who refused to think of their Japanese-born neighbors in any lesser regard. Therefore, the worsening of relations between the US and Japan during the thirties and the consequential social disfranchisement of the residents of Japanese descent in this country resulted in triggering numerous personal dramas, especially within the Japanese American community.

Evidently, many Issei and Sensei could not help experiencing the “split of loyalties” type of psychological anxiety. The already referenced article by Adams contains the testimony of a young Japanese American woman about how it felt to be a Sensei in the US during the thirties, “I used to criticize Japan’s aggressions in China and Manchuria while Father and Mother condemned Great Britain and America’s superior attitude towards Asiatics… During these arguments, we had eyed each other like strangers, parents against children”.11 Nevertheless, the explicit and implicit ostracism of Japanese Americans proceeded unopposed until the year 1952, when these people became eligible to apply for US citizenship.

Even though it was not rare among Chinese Americans to dissent from the practice of blaming their Japanese counterparts for all the evils of the world, the Chinese community in America proved itself supportive as a whole. Among the most contributive factors in this respect, the main functional principle of just about living organism in this world can be named: the preservation of energy. That is, living creatures are biologically predetermined to use the least amount of energy possible while aspiring to take hold of a particular resource.12

People are no different: the most effortless ways of social advancement appeal to us the best. The above-stated explains the sheer popularity of drug trafficking as the way to make a living, for example. It also helps to explain the willingness of most Chinese Americans to collaborate with the government in the latter’s attempt to dehumanize “Japs” through the thirties and forties. Evidently enough, most of the Chinese community members were driven by a simple biological consideration: the fewer there are of those who claim a share in a particular resource, the larger will the actual shares be.

The more Japanese-owned stores would close down due to intimidation, the more Chinese-owned stores (specialized in selling the same goods) would open their doors the next day. As Brooks wrote, “In 1940, the number of Chinese-owned curio stores rebounded, growing to more than forty… For the first time in years, Chinese American tourist bazaars outnumbered Japanese American ones on Grant Avenue”.13

This implies that there is indeed nothing mysterious about the roots of racial and cultural intolerance in this country. Even though such intolerance is rather despicable, the governmental officials in high offices often resort to inciting it deliberately as the instrument of remaining in full control of socioeconomic dynamics within society.

Conclusion

The author of this paper believes that the collected insights into the analyzed issue and the sub-sequential discussion of what should be deemed their significance is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, it is inappropriate to think about the conflicts between the country’s Japanese and Chinese residents during the historical period in question as having been entirely irrational. Because historical developments tend to recur on a cyclical basis, there can be very little doubt about the discursive relevance of the conducted research. The next time we hear of racial riots taking place in our country, we will need to ask ourselves a question about who would be in the position to benefit from such development the most.

Bibliography

Adams, Bella. “We Are America, 1930s–50s.” In Asian American Literature, 50-71. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Braun, Claude. “Biological Costs of the Evolution of Adaptive Behavior and Consciousness.” Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice 2, no. 4 (2015): 377-403.

Brooks, Charlotte. “The War on Grant Avenue: Business Competition and Ethnic Rivalry in San Francisco’s Chinatown, 1937-1942.” Journal of Urban History 37, no. 3 (2011): 311-330.

Han, Eric. “A True Sino-Japanese Amity? Collaborationism and the Yokohama Chinese (1937-1945).” The Journal of Asian Studies 72, no. 3 (2013): 587-609.

Lascher, Bill. “Radio Free China.” Boom 4, no. 1 (2014): 11-17.

Moore, Gregory. “History, Nationalism and Face in Sino-Japanese Relations.” Journal of Chinese Political Science 15, no. 3 (2010): 283-306.

Yamato, Alexander. “Racial Antagonism and the Formation of Segmented Labor Markets: Japanese Americans and their Exclusion from the Work Force.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 20, no. 1 (1994): 31-63.

Footnotes

  1. Charlotte Brooks, “The War on Grant Avenue: Business Competition and Ethnic Rivalry in San Francisco’s Chinatown, 1937-1942,” Journal of Urban History 37, no. 3 (2011): 320.
  2. Bella Adams, “We Are America, the 1930s–50s,” in Asian American Literature, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 52.
  3. Alexander Yamato, “Racial Antagonism and the Formation of Segmented Labor Markets: Japanese Americans and their Exclusion from the Work Force,” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 20, no. 1 (1994): 35.
  4. Eric Han, “A True Sino-Japanese Amity? Collaborationism and the Yokohama Chinese (1937-1945),” The Journal of Asian Studies 72, no. 3 (2013): 588.
  5. Bill Lascher, “Radio Free China,” Boom 4, no. 1 (2014): 12.
  6. Gregory Moore, “History, Nationalism and Face in Sino-Japanese Relations,” Journal of Chinese Political Science 15, no. 3 (2010): 281.
  7. Brooks, “The War on Grant Avenue,” 318.
  8. Moore, “History, Nationalism and Face in Sino-Japanese Relations,” 297.
  9. Brooks, “The War on Grant Avenue,” 314.
  10. Adams, “We Are America, the 1930s–50s”, 50.
  11. Ibid., 62.
  12. Claude Braun, “Biological Costs of the Evolution of Adaptive Behavior and Consciousness,” Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice 2, no. 4 (2015): 380.
  13. Brooks, “The War on Grant Avenue,” 321.
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IvyPanda. "Conflicts Between Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans During the 1920s-1940s Period." July 16, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/conflicts-between-japanese-americans-and-chinese-americans-during-the-1920s-1940s-period/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Conflicts Between Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans During the 1920s-1940s Period." July 16, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/conflicts-between-japanese-americans-and-chinese-americans-during-the-1920s-1940s-period/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Conflicts Between Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans During the 1920s-1940s Period'. 16 July.

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