Issei is a Japanese term used to describe the first generation of migrants from Japan most of whom left Japan between 1868 and 1924. During this period approximately 275,000 migrants arrived in the United States and settled mostly in Hawai'i and on the West Coast. Japanese migration to the United States can be roughly divided into two waves: those who came between 1885 and 1907, and those who arrived between 1908 and 1924. Prior to this a small number of Japanese had arrived in the United States. For example, on May 17, 1868, the Scioto carried the first group of Japanese American laborers to Hawai'i, and on May 27, 1869, a small number of Japanese arrived in San Francisco on the S.S. China as political refugees. Comprised of mostly men, and one or two women, the political refugees came with the hope of establishing a successful farming colony. However, the land proved inhospitable to the plants that they brought, and the colony soon fizzled out. Through the 1880s, Japanese migration to the United States comprised mainly of small isolated communities of work-study students. In 1880, the census reported the total Japanese American population as 148.
The history of the issei in Hawai'i is different. The 1868 group of Japanese migrant laborers, including two women and one child, were brought to Hawai'i to supplement and displace Chinese workers on sugar plantations whose contracts were running out and who preferred self-employment. The Japanese, as contract laborers, were bound to 36 months of work. However, the experience of the first migrant laborers went badly, and the Japanese government was skeptical about authorizing more labor contracts. After 1868, they refused to grant further requests for Japanese migrant laborers.
By the late 19th century, three significant events led to a dramatic change in the pattern of Japanese migration. First, Congress passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; second, Hawai'i's need for cheap laborers to work the sugar plantations grew; and third, economic shifts in Japan brought on rapid industrialization and militarization. Those factors led to a revision of Japan's prior position on migration and opened the door for the first large-scale wave of migration of Japanese contract laborers. The exclusion of Chinese workers in 1882 heightened the need for another source of cheap labor, which the Japanese supplied. U.S. employers recruited Japanese workers for the express purpose of replenishing the labor force on farms, railroads, mines, and other businesses. Between 1885 and 1894, over 30,000 issei arrived in Hawai'i as contract laborers, and many of those, because of West Coast labor recruiters and the prospect of earning more wages, left the sugar plantations for opportunities on the continent.
Unlike European immigrants, Asian and Japanese American workers had to navigate racist laws and practices, in large part, because they were classified as
“aliens ineligible to citizenship” as specified by the Naturalization Act (1790), which limited naturalization to “free white persons.” Restrictive statutes like the California Alien Land Law (1913) were written as such, preventing “aliens ineligible to citizenship” from owning land. Subsequent acts in California systematically excluded issei from owning, leasing, and sharecropping land, thus limiting their upward mobility in agriculture.
Because they were recruited as migrant laborers like the Chinese before them, Japanese American migrants were overwhelmingly men. Women were a mere 9 percent of Hawai'i's Japanese in 1890, and they increased to 22 percent in 1900, 31 percent in 1910, and 41 percent in 1920. Women constituted only 4 percent of the U.S. continental Japanese Americans in 1900, but they rose to 13 percent in 1910 and 35 percent in 1920. Most of that increase was due to the migration of so-called “picture brides,” who escaped the restrictions of the Gentlemen's Agreement. Despite the employers' desire that Japanese Americans work for a period and return to Japan after the completion of their contracts, Japanese Americans formed roots in Hawai'i and on the West Coast. The infusion of women was one indication of that desire to form permanent communities in the United States.
Women, through their labor and reproductive powers, led to the growth in communities and families. Importantly, their children, the nisei, were U.S. citizens by birth as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The second generation added stability to a formerly migrant population, and they,
when of age, could claim the rights of citizenship such as land ownership. Yet in the years before World War II, the issei still faced large-scale racism and labor discrimination as they were forced into the lowest rung of labor with exploitative and low-paying jobs.
In 1924, the Asian Exclusion Act brought Japanese migration to a screeching halt and therewith any change in the numbers of issei. Importantly, during the years leading up to World War II the issei were the primary targets of investigations and anti-Japanese racist sentiments. Civilian and military intelligence saw the issei as essentially Japanese and hence “pro-Japan,” a characterization especially critical during World War II when Japan became the enemy. In addition, the United States saw the issei as detrimental to its efforts to “Americanize” the nisei. So although useful as laborers, according to the government and employers, the issei comprised “aliens” and thus constituted a potentially threatening presence within the United States.