Finding Your Ancestors in Japanese Immigration and Emigration

May 7, 2021  - by 
a photo of an airplane flying past mount fuji in japan.

The history of Japanese immigration and emigration is interesting and complex. Immigration to the island nation has historically been limited, partly because of the country’s isolation over long periods. Emigration, or leaving one’s home country for another, has also been minimal throughout much of Japan’s history. In recent years, however, both immigration to and emigration from Japan has become more common.

Many people of Japanese heritage now live throughout the world, bringing with them unique traditions and food. Over the past half century, many people have also moved to Japan to experience the distinct culture and natural wonders the country has to offer.

If you have Japanese heritage, your ancestors could fall into either one of these categories. Knowing the history of Japanese immigration and emigration can help you discover more about your own family.

a boat that transported immigrants from japan.

Immigration from Japan

Beginning in 1639, Japan isolated itself from the outside world. Prior to this time, limited numbers of Japanese people immigrated to the Philippines and other parts of Asia. 

When Japan ended its isolation in 1853, many farmers, feeling dissatisfied with the changes brought about by industrialization, emigrated from the country. A number of these people moved to Japanese colonies in Korea, Taiwan, and China. 

Early Japanese immigrants to hawaii.

The most popular destinations for Japanese immigrants were the Philippines, Hawaii, Brazil, and the west coast of the United States.

The Japanese government also actively chose men, based on merit, to participate in temporary immigration to countries in the Americas and Europe, with the goal of working or studying and then later returning home.

Japanese Immigrants in Brazil

Japanese immigration to Brazil began in the early 20th century, with many immigrants working as farmers on coffee plantations. Despite the value of their labor, these men, women, and children faced prejudice and discrimination in their new homeland. In response, Japanese immigrants formed communities that helped protect their heritage and culture, even as efforts were made to strip these things away. Immigration from Asia to Brazil was limited by law in the 1920s; however, the arrival of immigrants from Japan remained steady until World War II.

a stamp commemorating japanese immigration to Brazil.

People of Japanese heritage were strongly mistrusted in Brazil during the Second World War, and they faced many unwarranted restrictions and persecutions by the government. Japanese immigrants and Japanese Brazilians were unable to travel without paperwork or drive a vehicle, and they often had their property seized. They also faced the risk of arrest or deportation if they were suspected of working with Japan, whether or not these suspicions were proven.

In the final decades of the 20th century, attitudes changed toward people of Japanese heritage living in Brazil. Today, Japanese Brazilians are respected as valued members of the community, with many still working as farmers and farm owners. They are free to be proud of the heritage that their ancestors worked so hard to protect.

Japanese Immigrants in the United States

In the United States, Japanese immigrants mostly found work as laborers, filling gaps left by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. 

Portions of cities along the west coast, such as San Francisco, began to see a major influx of Japanese immigrants. Between the opening of Japanese borders and the beginning of the First World War, roughly 400,000 Japanese immigrants came into the United States. While this number was a relatively small percentage of the total immigrant population, it was still a significant number. 

Japanese children hold their hands over their hearts and pledge allegiance to the united states during ww2.

This number may have continued to grow, but prejudice against the Japanese soon began to arise. Laws were passed that prevented Japanese immigrants from owning land, denied them citizenship, and even revoked the citizenship of those who married a person of Japanese heritage.

This unfair treatment quickly discouraged immigrants from Japan from coming to the United States. Immigration from Japan was later put on indefinite hold in 1924, with the Immigration Exclusion Act, which banned all immigration from Asia, except from the Philippines. 

During World War II, descendants of the first wave of Japanese immigrants faced further discrimination. Many Japanese Americans were displaced from their homes and lost their livelihoods when the United States government forced them to move from the coasts or placed them into internment camps after Japan entered the war. 

a japanese exclusion order poster from World War 2.

Photo provided by National Archives and Records Administration

After World War II, many Japanese war brides moved to the United States with their husbands. With Japan now allied with the United States, a new era of immigration and emigration between the two countries began. Today, tens of thousands of people move between Japan and the United States every year.

Immigration to Japan

Japan has had limited immigration throughout its history. Prior to the end of World War II, three major waves of immigration took place between periods of isolation.

The first wave of immigration to Japan was in the 8th century by Korean immigrants, who were mainly artisans. The second was in the 1600s; this time the country of origin was China, with the population being mainly refugees. The third came from both China and Korea. These immigrants were forced laborers during World War II and did not remain in Japan after the war ended.

In post-war years, the Japanese government has been more open to international workers immigrating to the country. Japan has also granted permanent residence to a large number of foreign nationals. Despite these changes, the country today still sees relatively little immigration when compared to other nations.

Do you have Japanese heritage? Discovering when and why your ancestors emigrated from Japan can help you learn more about your family history and potentially overcome some obstacles you may have encountered in your research. Make sure to record in your FamilySearch family tree whatever you discover!

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