In September 1896, Ota Masayoshi, called by the Idaho Statesman “one of the best known Japanese on the coast,” arrived in Boise to serve as interpreter in a murder case in which a Japanese man was the defendant. While in Boise, Ota impressed the paper by sharing his translations of Japanese proverbs into English. He had been sent to Idaho by the Japanese consul at San Francisco, always diligent in investigating mistreatment or crimes against Japanese workers in the West. When a Japanese man was shot by a policeman in Idaho Falls in September 1897, the consul contacted Idaho Attorney General Robert McFarland with a request for further information. The district attorney of the 5th District was asked to make a thorough investigation of the shooting and to prosecute the constable if the facts were found to warrant it.
When their wages were cut from $1.25 per day to $1.15 in August 1897, Japanese laborers on the Oregon Short Line went on strike. Manager Harry Kumamoto of the Japanese track labor department negotiated for them against the company’s action. The Statesman, in reporting the news, noted, “Short Line section men are very generally Japanese now.” When the strike ended two days later, the paper thought it was because “the riot act had been read to them.”
In Mountain Home in January 1898, eight masked men chased a crew of Japanese section hands 2 miles out of town. The Japanese returned later and were placed under the protection of the Elmore County sheriff.
The 1898 Legislature passed an anti-alien labor law forbidding the employment of aliens by corporations in the state of Idaho, aimed directly at Japanese railroad workers. In August 1899, the Mountain Home Bulletin reported that Pat M. Sullivan, section foreman of the Idaho Short Line at King Hill, had been arrested and charged with violating the law. “The trial resulted in a conviction, the offense being a misdemeanor. An appeal was filed and the case will be taken to the district court and the fight will be made on the constitutionality of the act. This is the first trial under the anti-alien law in this state, and it will be doubtless carried to the Idaho Supreme Court. The issue involved in this suit is important to the labor element, as it will decide whether or not American laborers can be displaced by Asiatic coolies or European contract slaves. The prompt manner in which the case has been handled shows that Elmore County has officers who are not swayed by corporate influence and do not falter in line of duty.”
The act was tested again in 1899 when several section foremen of crews working on the Great Northern Railway at Bonners Ferry were arrested for employing Japanese labor in violation of the anti-alien law. They were found guilty and fined $50 each, which was appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court on the grounds that the law was unconstitutional. The United States Census for 1900 listed 53 Japanese railroad workers in Bonners Ferry with the year they arrived in America — the earliest was one man who came in 1890; 30 came in 1900. Other Idaho towns with Japanese listed in the census as “railroad worker” were Post Falls, 16; Naples, 10; Priest River, 15; Cocolalla, 14; Harrison, 6; Bliss, 12; Mission, 20; Rexburg, 11; St. Anthony, 11; Rathdrum, 4, listed as “prisoner and railroad worker.” (There is surely a story there.) Sandpoint had 99 Japanese at work on the Great Northern Railway. Only Boise had more with 200, 136 of whom had arrived in 1900.
A few of the Japanese who had planned to go home after their contracts with the railroads expired were able to lease farmland in Idaho and settle down, marry and raise families. Some had found women in Japan willing to marry them after having seen only their photographs. Among these Japanese pioneers were my friends Henry and Fumiko Fujii, who farmed south of Nampa and became valued members of the community. It was a privilege to have known them.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.