The Alien Contract Labor Law passed by Congress in 1885 banned the importation of foreigners and aliens under contract to perform labor in the United States. That the law had not been strictly enforced was revealed in the 1890s in the Pacific Northwest when railroad companies, in urgent need of manual labor, spurred the massive importation of Japanese crews under contract, in direct violation of the 1885 law.
On May 2, 1892, the Idaho Daily Statesman reported, “Japanese in Nampa — A carload of immigrants arrived in Nampa Thursday, but they proved to be Japs, and at present are all stopping with Tanaka, a fellow Jap who runs a chop house and employment bureau.” Tadashichi Tanaka had arrived in Seattle in 1885 and was now importing Japanese laborers for the railroads. “Thursday being a holiday with them, quite a number took on more ‘O-be-joyful’ than is their custom,” the Statesman said.
The use of the term “Jap” is highly offensive today but wasn’t in 1892 or even 1942, and it was no worse than the derogatory names applied to others from foreign nations — calling Germans “Krauts” and those from France “Frogs,” for instance. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the term was used for the rest of World War II.
In July 1892, carloads of Japanese workers began to arrive in Idaho regularly. On July 2 the Statesman noted that “194 direct from Japan” got off at Nampa “to be distributed among mines and lumber camps.” In fact, most of these men came here to work on Idaho railroads. The paper reported on July 9 that some Japanese people had been run out of Mountain Home “as people try to abate the nuisance. The action of the Mountain Home people will not excite condemnation, as it may influence the Japanese to keep out of the state.”
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By the end of the month, Japanese people and a few local Chinese had been forcibly put on westbound trains at Nampa and Caldwell. Those who were left “obeyed the injunction and are now encamped in the sagebrush two miles from town. They will not be allowed to return.” A few who found their way to Boise were ordered to leave for fear they were carrying an epidemic of smallpox.
When Chinda Sutemi, the Japanese consul at San Francisco, wrote to Idaho Gov. Norman Willey asking for information about the recent expulsion of his countrymen from Idaho, the Statesman said, “The fact is they have been run out with orders not to return.” In September, Consul Chinda came to Boise to investigate the situation for himself. He found that those expelled had since returned and were working on the Oregon Short Line, the part of the Union Pacific system that crossed Southern Idaho.
The Statesman reported that Consul Chinda was a graduate of De Pauw University in Indiana with an advanced degree. He was also a Methodist minister. He would go on to a brilliant diplomatic career that included serving as his country’s ambassador to Germany, 1908-11; the United States, 1912-16; and the United Kingdom, 1916-20.
On Sept. 21, 1892, the Statesman noted that the Japanese crews at Montpelier were on strike over low pay. The foreman couldn’t interpret, and the Japanese were at a loss to know what to do. They anxiously awaited the arrival of an interpreter. These men far from family and friends in Japan were sending most of their earnings home, so fair pay for their hard work preparing gravel road bed and laying and spiking steel rails was imperative.
The commissioner of immigration at San Francisco reported that for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1892, an average of 115 Japanese per month had entered the United States, and 130 had been returned. The Alien Contract Labor Law was being enforced, but many thousands of Japanese were still working on railroads across the West.
The 1900 U.S. Census revealed where Japanese men were at work on Idaho’s railroads that year and interesting facts about them that we’ll share next week.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.