“I will let the world see sir what justice there is when it is govern by the Race prejudice men!!!”

The class on the Silk Road that I took during my first year at Smith College was my first non-Euro or American-centric history course. My final paper was on the history of Jewish settlement in Kaifeng China during the Song dynasty (960-1279).

In my junior year, following my Narratives of Interment course the previous year, I took an Asian American Literature course that broadened the scope of literature from World War II era Japanese-American literature to Asian-American literature that spanned over two centuries. We read everything from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Sui Sin Far’s (pen name of Edith Maude Eaton, who was half-Chinese, half-English) short stories, Le Thi Diem Thuy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For, and Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart. This class was only the second time that I was immersed in non-white authors. Even my Japanese history classes included books such as Memoirs of a Geisha and Liza Dalby’s Geisha were by white authors. This class was the reason I won a trivia contest naming Asian-American writers while I was a student at UMass Amherst several years later. The hosts had to look up several names on my list. During that class, my professor explained that Chinese had pretended to be Mexican to get into the United States. I didn’t learn details until graduate school.

While getting my Masters, I studied U.S. imperialism, foreign relations and race relations, including US-China relations, though with more of a focus on Chinese immigration and anti-Chinese sentiment. The negative portrayals of Asians goes back to Samuel Gorge Morton’s pioneer work on cranial measurements became crucial to biological determinism. In 1839, Morton wrote that the Chinese “have been compared to the monkey race whose attention is perpetually changing from one object to another.” Morton was not the only one to use such descriptions. Missionaries, diplomats and traders described the Chinese as “deprived and vicious,” and “on a level with the rudest tribes of mankind.” They were “pagan savages,” “idolatrous savages,” and “almond-eyed heathens”; a nation of “children or idiots” who lived in “imbecile world”; “a poor, miserable, dwarfish race of inferior beings.”

Diplomatic relations between the US and China began in 1846, when Commodore James Biddle negotiated a “treaty of amity and commerce” with China, shortly before attempting to do the same with Japan. The amity between the two countries would be short-lived. A century after Captain Cook and his crew became the first Europeans to have contact with native Hawaiians, missionaries who had flocked to the island were looking for a way to profit off the land. They decided to cultivate sugar, which the native population had been growing. Amos Starr Cooke and Samuel Castle, former missionaries created Castle & Cooke which would grow to become one of the world’s largest sugar producers. However, to protect American growers, the US government  levied tariffs on imported sugar. Hawaiian planters urged the government to make Hawaii part of the United States so that they would not lose money. The government refused to do so and also did not agree to the planters’ next proposition of a free-trade agreement. The Hawaiian planters eventually came up with a solution: grant the United States exclusive rights to create commercial and military bases in Hawaii. President Grant approved the treaty in 1876, turning Hawaii into an American protectorate. Native Hawaiians protested the treaty, but the United States military put down the protest.

The sugar industry quickly exploded, from 21 million pounds in 1876 to 225 million pounds in 1890. However, as neither the white nor native Hawaiian population wanted to work in the fields, the plantation owners had to look elsewhere. Eventually they began importing Japanese and Chinese laborers who came by the thousands after a reciprocity treaty was signed. The 1890 census, recorded 40,612 native Hawaiians, 27,391 Chinese and Japanese laborers and 6,220 Americans, Britons, Germans, French, Norwegians, and Hawaiian-born whites.

Things were completely different on the mainland. By the mid-nineteenth century, anti-Asian sentiment, mainly directed at the Chinese, was rising, especially in California, which by the end of the 1860s was “violently anti-Chinese”. Anti-Japanese sentiment had was not very high, as one newspaper editorial declaring that, “‘the objections raised against the Chinese…cannot be alleged against the Japanese…They have brought their wives, children and…new industries among us.’”


Eventually, anti-Chinese sentiment led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. To circumvent the law, Chinese began entering through Canada or pretending to be Mexican or Native, or claimed birthright citizenship after 1898. The American government imposed many other restrictions on incoming Chinese, even those who were returning American citizens, often detaining them for weeks upon arrival, including young children. Not only that, but Chinese immigrants were subjected to lengthy questioning by three sets of officials which would be prolonged if the answers did not match. No other national group was treated so harshly by immigration authorities, and some Chinese referred to U.S. immigration officials as “gestapo.” In 1879, in the midst of a fear of Yellow Peril, the new state constitution of California denied suffrage to “all natives of China, idiots, and insane persons.” Three years later, all further Chinese immigration to the US was prohibited. These restrictions would last well into the twentieth century.


Anti-Chinese laws extended even to children as they grew to school age. In 1858, as calls for segregated began in San Francisco. The following year, thirty Chinese parents petition the Board of Education to open a primary school. Rev. William Speer offered the basement of the Chinese Presbyterian Mission House, which became the Chinese School. The school closed four months later for lack of funds, and over the next decade would re-open several times, due to lack of funds and poor attendance, but ultimately failed. 

In 1860, the California Legislature passed a law that “Negroes, Mongolians and Indians shall not be allowed into public schools.” Any school that allowed non-white students to attend would be penalized, but there was no requirement to provide public schools for non-white children. The attitude toward the Chinese, on one hand was that they were unassimilable, but on the other hand, educating Chinese children would allow them to assimilate and become permanent residents. In 1870, the law changed once more, to only segregate schools for Native American and black children. As a result, the following year, the San Francisco school board ended its support for the Chinese School, after the superintendent James Denman cited the law as a reason that the Chinese School was no longer needed. However, the law made no mention of Chinese students who were not allowed to attend public schools.

In the 1880s, California passed a law that entitled all children to a public education, but the San Francisco School Board prevented Chinese children from attending until Mamie Tape’s family went to court. Their attorney, William Gibson argued that Mamie’s exclusion violated the 1880 California school law and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. Judge Maguire agreed, as did the California Supreme Court when the school board appealed. 

But their victory was short-lived. Superintendent Mouldertook advantage of the fact that the ruling did not undermine the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, and therefore, Chinese students could still be prevented from attending all-white schools. The Chinese Primary School opened in April, 1885. Despite the law, most Chinese-American students were attending integrated public schools in San Francisco by 1920, the law was not repealed until 1947.

After World War I, China was part of the Paris Peace Conference. During the meeting, the Japan proposed three additions to the League’s draft Covenant, known as the Racial Equality Bill. The proposals “concerned racial equality, the nature of territorial mandates, and international labor regulations.” Many Japanese immigrants, including 49,000 in southern California appealed to the delegation that “‘the abolition of discrimination based on racial differences is vital to the establishment of permanent world peace,” and they pleaded for the delegation to “take appropriate action upon this matter.’ ” Predictably, the Japanese delegation met with significant resistance, especially from Great Britain and the United States, which saw the proposal as “an unspoken demand for increased Japanese immigration…[which would] immediately motivate other Asian nations to demand that their immigration restrictions likewise be eased… [leading to] grave domestic political problems”. When the sixteen votes were tallied, eleven were in favor, including France and Italy with two, and Greece and China with one vote each. However, Wilson, Chair of the Commission, rejected the proposal because it had not had unanimous support, despite the fact that unanimity had not applied to any other decision made during the conference, including Wilson’s proposal to protect the Monroe Doctrine which had been passed by a majority vote shortly before. 

Although Wilson had voted against the Racial Equality Bill, it was the US government that brought up the issue of its anti-Chinese laws and regulations, shortly after Pearl Harbor. The debate lasted for over a year, emphasizing the prevalence of anti-Asian sentiment which pervaded American society, including its laws. While Congress praised China for its resistance against the Japanese, the Chinese government and its citizens had been conspicuously discriminated against by the American government. Unequal treaties from over a century before prevented Americans and British nationals from being tried in Chinese courts for crimes committed on Chinese soil and Chinese immigration had been severely restricted since 1882. And, while the American and British governments repealed the unequal treaties in 1942, it was a symbolic gesture and it was not until the end of 1943 that the immigration issue was resolved.

“I wanted to write stories about human beings, not the stereotypical Asian”

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was originally a week long, when President Jimmy Carter signed the proclamation in 1978. The week beginning on May 4 was chosen so that it would include May 7 and May 10. The first date was when Nakahama Manjiro1 (John Mung) arriving in New Bedford harbor in Massachusetts in 1843, aboard the John Howland as the first documented Japanese immigrant to the United States. He eventually returned to Japan and was instrumental in the negotiations between Commodore Perry and the Japanese government. Manjiro’s story is still relatively unknown but there is now a ballet. The second date marks when the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Most of those who worked on it were Chinese immigrants. In 1990, the week-long celebration turned into a month.

I learned more about Japanese-American history in two semesters of college and two years of graduate school than I had all through high school, though mostly through my own reading and research. As a child, I read Yoshiko Uchida’s Journey to Topaz and Journey Home without realising that these fictional stories were based on true events until I read her autobiography Invisible Thread some time later. Invisible Thread would be my first exposure to my alma mater, Smith College, which Uchida attended for her Masters program while her parents were incarcerated at Topaz, in Utah.

During my sophomore year of college, I took a course called “Narratives of Interment” where we studied poetry, autobiographies, novels and other literature written by Japanese-Americans about their and their families experiences in the concentration camps in the United States during World War II. While most writings were autobiographical, some, such as John Okada’s No-No Boy, were fictional, but based on historical events. I chose my final paper topic on multi-racial Japanese-American families after reading Jeanne Wakatsuki-Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar about her family’s experiences at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California. One of the couples there, was a Japanese man and his black wife. I had thought interracial marriage was illegal and decided to do some research. I found that, it was only illegal in some states and that many couples circumvented the law by marrying in other states. I found that the government was meticulous in finding anyone who was Japanese, including those with 1/16th (one great-grandparent) Japanese ancestry. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, my research was only superficial and it would be several years before I returned to the topic.

It was also while discussing Farewell to Manzanar that one of my classmates asked if we could visit the site. Our professor promised to look into it. We left class, doubtful that such a thing would happen, only to find out that the American Studies department had funds left over and was going to pay our way. As it was nearing the end of the semester, only about half of my classmates could attend. We arrived in LA at 8 PM PST, 11 PM EST and woke up at 5 AM the next day. But it was all worth it when we realised that we had inadvertently come on the date of the annual pilgrimage and would be riding the bus with former inmates, who shared their stories with us on the long ride.




That year’s ceremony was dedicated to Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who had worked to make Manzanar a National Historic Site and had died the previous year. It was a sobering experience for me, as a bi-racial Japanese-American, knowing that had I been born sixty years earlier on the east coast, I would have been incarcerated here as well. But unlike most, my family would have been allowed to leave camp and return to the east coast. Despite the solemnity, it felt like a family reunion, with everyone catching up on the news. I was amazed at how eager everyone was to talk to us after they learned who we were and why we were here. It was an extraordinary, moving experience. I had hoped to return, this year, after hearing about the restoration and to see how it had changed since I had been there. But I was unable to attend and hope to do so next year, for the 50th anniversary of the pilgrimage.

In my senior seminar, I used the Sophia Smith archives to write a paper about Japanese and Japanese-American Smith College students. During my research, I discovered that Ninomiya Tei who attended Smith from 1906 to 1910, was not the first Asian-American student to have attended Smith. That distinction went to Inokuchi Akuri, who attended Smith’s graduate school for a year to study physiology and sports science, before transferring to the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics. Inokuchi eventually returned to Japan to teach at her alma mater, the Tokyo Women’s Higher Normal School and later taught dance and physical education to Emperor Meiji and his family. My research paper ended World War II, during which time, six Japanese and Japanese-American students attended Smith College as undergraduate and graduate students, several of whom had families in the camps.

It was not until graduate school that I embarked on a broader study of Asian-American history. In addition to my courses on American imperialism and U.S.-Japan relations, I read widely about modern Asian-American and Japanese-American history, from Chinese-American immigration to diplomatic and cultural relations between the United States and Japan. I also learned about Nakahama Manjiro and Commodore James Biddle, who arrived in Japan in June, 1846, in the last years of Japan’s two hundred year seclusion. Biddle wanted to negotiate a treaty with Japan, but was refused. It would not be until 1854, a year after Commodore Perry first arrived that the U.S. and Japan would negotiated their first treaty. Commodore Biddle was a distant relation to Francis Biddle, U.S. Attorney General during World War II, who initially opposed but later authorized the Japanese-American incarceration. He would also serve as a judge during the postwar Nuremberg trials.

It was during my U.S.-Japan relations course that I returned to studying multi-racial Japanese-Americans. I wrote my final paper on Japanese women who married black GIs during the American Occupation (1945-1952), which has only recently begun to be studied. I was surprised by the amount of racism that the couples faced from all sides, Japanese, blacks, whites, and Japanese-Americans.

That same semester, I took Writing History and History Communication, in which I continued my study of interracial Japanese and American couples, but also expanded it to include all interracial relationships. In History Communication, we explored various means of bringing history to the public, from podcasts to infographics and other visual and audio. I used graphics to show the history of anti-miscegenation laws, based on Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America to non-academic audiences. I expanded on Pascoe’s conclusion about a “color-blind” society in the wake of Loving v. Virginia, which overturned bans on interracial marriage, citing everything from movies to current events in the on-going preoccupation with and negative attitudes toward interracial couples.

In Writing History, we learned how to craft a narrative, write character studies and set a scene. Initially, I wanted to write a book proposal about multi-racial Japanese-Americans who had been incarcerated in the Manzanar Children’s Village orphanage and the Manzanar concentration camp during World War II, but found the source material lacking. The history of the Children’s Village turned out to be far more complicated than I had initially thought, and in the end, I wrote a book proposal about the Manzanar Children’s Village. My trip to Manzanar ten years earlier helped both frame my narrative and imagine, however superficially, the hardships that Japanese-Americans had faced during that time. I also using camp newspapers, interviews and documentaries to augment my research, ending, as I had with my History Communication project, on the current state of research about the Children’s Village, which, while still mostly a taboo subject among many former inhabitants, several are working to spread their story.

1I have rendered the names of Japanese individuals using the surname first.