The boom of the Hawaiian sugar industry in the 1870s and 1880s, in contrast to Japan's painful transition to a modern economy that produced large-scale unemployment, bankruptcies, and civil disorders, contributed to a much larger portion of Japanese emigrants moving to Hawaii. Thus as of 1900, the majority of half of all the Japanese immigrants in the world living in the U.S. lived in Hawaii. From 1885 through 1894, over 28,000 Japanese migrated to Hawaii, the vast majority being single men. Opposed to the first Japanese from Yokohama, these Japanese were farmers and farm laborers, immigrating as sojourners rather than settlers. Initially, around three-quarters of them returned to Japan, though as years passed, this figure declined to only one-quarter. Anticipating the legislation of American laws against contract labor to Hawaii in 1900, after the American takeover of the islands, Hawaiian plantation owners imported more than 26,000 contract laborers from Japan in 1899, in order to beat the ban- the largest number ever admitted in a single year. The contracts were then voided under American laws, however, leaving thousands of Japanese free to migrate to the U.S mainland. But Hawaii remained the principle are of concentration for Japanese in the U.S. for many years. Even up to 1910, four times as many Japanese lived in Hawaii than on the mainland. Among other reasons, race relations were better in Hawaii. The difference was significant enough for the government of Japan to cease issuing passports for Japanese to go to the U.S. mainland, while continuing to authorize passports for Hawaii. However ineffective it was at controlling the ultimate destinations of Japanese emigrants, the policy at least demonstrated that differences in the treatment of Japanese had become known back in Japan.
At a time when such people were virtually non-existent on the mainland, a small but significant group of native-born Japanese ancestry arose in the nineteenth-century Hawaii. By 1910, the native born were about one-third as numerous as the foreign-born among the Japnese in Hawaii, while remaining less than 7 percent on the mainland. By 1930, native-born Japanese Americans exceeded those born in Japan by 80 percent. Back on the mainland, the number of native-born still hadn't caught up to those bon in Japan. As years passed, the regional distribution of the Japanese shifted from two-thirds of the 85,000 Japanese in the U.S. living in Hawaii at the turn of the century, to just over half of the 220,000 Japanese living on the mainland in 1920.
The Japanese relations with the larger society were to some extent shaped by the fact that they followed in the wake of the Chinese. Both in Hawaii and on the mainland, the Chinese had started as unskilled laborers and many had worked their way up to become small businessmen- and were resented and rejected for their advancement and competition. The Japanese began in the same fashion, and were initially welcomed as substitutes for the Chinese as coolie labor. Their rising advancement and success, however, soon lumped them together with the Chinese as the "Yellow Peril" that threatened the living standard of American workers, businessmen, and American society in general. Though the reaction was more prominent in the mainland, it was still present in even Hawaii. Laws were passed in Hawaii to block the movement of Japanese into skilled occupations, and on the mainland to stop their purchase of land in California.
When they first arrived, the Japanese gained their initial foothold in agriculture by working as agricultural laborers for lower wages than whites, and then acquiring farms by paying more than whites for the land. Once established, it became clear that they were formidable competitors. On farms where laborers were paid by the amount they collected (half were), the Japanese earned substantially more through harder work and longer hours. As their reputation spread, the hourly pay of Japanese rose, and soon overtook that of the whites.
On December 9, 1941, Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor set the stage for a traumatic landmark in the history of Japanese Americans. In retaliation to the attack, which occurred in the midst of negotiations seemingly aimed at peace, anti-Japanese feeling ran high, especially on the mainland. In Hawaii, where the attack occurred (killing many Japanese-Americans, among others), fewer than 1,500 Japanese Americans were taken into custody as enemy aliens, compared to the 100,000 on the mainland hat were interned. The economic impact of this was devastating,- Businesses built up over many years had to be liquidated in a matter of weeks, with incriminating losses. And after the, many shattered careers could not be readily resumed.
The wartime internment of Japanese, and its lasting economic after-effects reflected themselves in occupational declines among Japanese Americans after the war. The number of first-generation business owners dropped to half of what it had been in prewar years, with the number of house servants of the same generation more than doubling. Those who became farm laborers in the postwar years was more than triple the prewar percentage and the number of Japanese professionals also declined. But while disastrous economic retrogression struck the first-generation Japanese Americans (Issei), the second generation (Nisei) steamed along at an accelerated rate. As American citizens, American educated- with more years of schooling than whites- the Nisei sought lucrative professions, resulting in the Japanese seldom majoring in liberal arts. 1959 saw the Japanese American income reach the family income of whites, and by 1969, it surpassed the national average in family income by 32 percent. The trend continued, with the 1990 census showing the median family income of Japanese Americans to be 45 percent higher than the median family income of native-born, non-Asian Americans. Along with this economic progress came acculturation and social acceptance, including rising rates of intermarriage; by 1980, three-quarters of all Japanese Americans spoke only English.
In an ironic twist, the Japanese on the mainland, who historically dealt with more discrimination and wartime internment, achieved higher incomes and occupational levels than those in Hawaii. Though the Japanese in Hawaii were much more active politically, and were more accepted, they still did not surpass those on the mainland. Historically, the Japanese who immigrated to the mainland were of higher social class and wealth than those who went to Hawaii. This social difference seems to have had an enduring impact economically, more so than the difference of treatment or political clout that Hawaii has always offered.