Yellow Peril

The idea that Asia and Asians posed a threat to Europe and Europeans, the “yellow peril” served to unite previously competing European powers on the bases of race, religion, and civilization. Although the term “yellow peril” was probably coined by Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1895, the notion that Asia and Europe formed irreconcilable oppositions, East and West, is an ancient idea derived from the Greeks and their 5th century B.C. battles against Persia and the Mongol invasions of Europe during the 13th century A.D.

In 1895, Kaiser Wilhelm II commissioned a painting that showed Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and other European nations represented as women all looking at an approaching calamity. Leading the group of women is the archangel Michael who stands pointing to the approaching horror. The vast plain of “civilized” Europe extends before them, and in the distance burning cities in the path of the invaders send smoke billowing to the heavens. From the threatening clouds emerge the figures of the Buddha and a Chinese dragon, representing the powers of darkness. Beneath the painting, the Kaiser inscribed the legend: “Nation of Europe, defend your holiest possession.”

Despite national rivalries during the late 19th century at the height of European expansions in Africa and Asia, Kaiser Wilhelm II warned, Asian religion and civilization threatened to overwhelm Europe's “holiest possession,” Christianity and European civilization. Put another way, the “yellow peril” or a common enemy served to cohere the divided nations of Europe. Moreover, named the “yellow peril,” the danger involved race or the struggle between white or European and yellow or Asian.

Germanys Kaiser Wilhelm II commissioned this painting in 1895, depicting the threat posed by the Yellow Peril to European Christianity and civilization. (The Carnegie Library of Pennsylvania State College)

Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II commissioned this painting in 1895, depicting the threat posed by the “Yellow Peril” to European Christianity and civilization. (The Carnegie Library of Pennsylvania State College)

Intellectuals like the British Charles H. Pearson blamed white expansions into the tropical band for invigorating its colored peoples and teaching them to emulate white civilization. Having learned the lessons of science and industry, Pearson predicted in his National Life and Character (1893), those black and yellow peoples will rise up against their white masters and conquer them. Their numbers alone, he wrote, which far exceeded whites, were sufficient to overrun the world's minority race. Japan's victory over Russia in 1905, the first defeat of a white nation by a nonwhite nation in modern warfare, seemed to confirm Pearson's rendition of the “yellow peril.” The American Lothrop Stoddard, in his The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy (1920) saw colored immigration to the United States as the inundating flood, threatening white purity and survival. Newspapers, novels, comics, and films took up the theme during the first half of the 20th century.

The U.S. federal government joined the “yellow peril” chorus following the 1920 sugar plantation strike on the island of O'ahu in the Territory of Hawai'i. Led by Filipino and Japanese workers, the strikers demanded higher wages for men and women, a nonracial wage scale for white and nonwhite workers alike, an eight-week paid maternity leave for women workers, and improved health-care and recreational facilities. The sugar planters claimed the strike was “an attempt on the part of the Japanese to obtain control of the sugar industry” and “a dark conspiracy to Japanize this American territory.” A federal labor commission sent

to investigate the strike, in a secret report, concluded, “Hawaii may have its labor problems … but we believe that the question of National Defense and the necessity to curtail the domination of the alien Japanese in every phase of the Hawaiian life is more important than all the other problems combined.” The commission called that danger “the spectre of alien domination,” which could “sweep everything American from the Islands” (Okihiro, 65–81, 95–97).

In addition to Hawai'i's labor situation, the West Coast was endangered by the numbers of Japanese migrants and their reproduction. In a 1921 report, the Bureau of Investigation, forerunner of the FBI, described “Japan's program for world supremacy” as beginning with the “peaceful invasion” of its migrants into California. If immigration was left unchecked, the report cautioned, “the white race, in no long space of time, would be driven from the state, and California eventually become a province of Japan …, further, that it would be only a question of time until the entire Pacific coast region would be controlled by the Japanese.” Japan's plans involved all of the earth's colored peoples, the report continued. “It is the determined purpose of Japan to amalgamate the entire colored races of the world against the Nordic or white race, with Japan at the head of the coalition, for the purpose of wrestling away the supremacy of the white race and placing such supremacy in the colored peoples under the dominion of Japan” (Okihiro, 113–18).

The military in Hawai'i planned and prepared for the coming war with Japan at least as early as 1921 when the U.S. war secretary approved a plan to intern all enemy aliens. Two years later, Colonel John L. DeWitt, who would become the head of the Western Defense Command and a key figure in the mass removal and detention of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, argued for the establishment of martial law in Hawai'i in the event of war with Japan. Thus, on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the military declared martial law and forcibly detained some 1,400 Japanese Americans, both aliens and citizens, in Hawai'i. Fear of the “yellow peril,” which had its beginnings in European expansions in Africa and Asia during the late 19th century was influential in the removal and detention of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Gary Y. Okihiro


Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865–1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.