The Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907-08 was an informal arrangement between the United States and Japan to ease growing tensions between the two countries, particularly pertaining to immigration. It called for U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to force San Francisco to repeal its Japanese-American school segregation order in exchange for Japan agreeing to deny emigration passports to Japanese laborers, while still allowing wives, children and parents of current immigrants to enter the United States.
Japanese Tensions Rise
Following the Japanese government's easing of isolationist emigration policies in 1868, Japanese began immigrating to the U.S. Pacific Coast, landing primarily in California, with a spike at the start of the 20th century following an 1894 treaty granting Japanese immigration rights. Finding migratory labor jobs and often working farms, railroads and mines for low wages, the Japanese soon found themselves as a target for discriminatory campaigns, an echo of those made after the Chinese immigration Gold Rush boom of 1852.
Among other tactics, this included exclusion from joining the American Federation of Labor, the largest union in the country, and the 1905 launch of the Asiatic Exclusion League, founded with the goal of putting a stop to Japanese and Koreans immigration. Additionally, in 1905, the San Francisco Chronicle launched an 18-month anti-Japanese newspaper campaign that warned of an invasion of “little brown men” and headlines like “The Japanese Invasion, the Problem of the Hour.”
“Chinese and Japanese … are not the stuff of which American citizens can be made,” San Francisco Mayor James D. Phelan, a future U.S. Senator, said.
Prompting particular outrage by the Japanese government was the October 11, 1906, regulation passed by the San Francisco Board of Education calling for all Japanese and Korean students, along with Chinese students, to be sent to segregated “Oriental School,” despite the fact that just 93 Japanese students, 25 of whom were born in America, lived in the district.
"To shut (Japanese students) out from the public schools is a wicked absurdity," Roosevelt told Congress in December 1906.
To work around the agreement, many male Japanese immigrants engaged in arranged marriages to so-called "picture brides." If a man married a woman who was in Japan, he could bring his new wife into the country legally. While becoming a picture bride (so-called because husbands selected them by their photos) provided some women with opportunity to start new lives in America, it could also entail risk since the women didn't know their husbands—or the condition of their future homes.
More than 10,000 Japanese women entered the United States until 1924, and 15,000-plus immigrated to the territory of Hawaii. At the time, Japanese immigrants made up approximately 1 percent of the population of California.
Teddy Roosevelt’s Foreign Policy Agenda
A positive relationship with Japan was key to Roosevelt's foreign policy agenda. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) with the Treaty of Portsmouth, Roosevelt also arranged the Great White Fleet tour, which sent 16 battleship fleets on a 14-month global goodwill tour that included a stop in Japan.
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On the heels of the Gentlemen’s Agreement, on November 3, 1908, the Root-Takihira Agreement was entered between the U.S. and Japan, stemming a potential war. Negotiated by Secretary of State Elihu Root and Japanese ambassador Takihira Kogoro, it was a pledge to maintain "the existing status quo" in the Pacific, according to the Theodore Roosevelt Center, as well as China's Open Door policy and independence. Critics, however, charged that Roosevelt was "sacrificing Chinese interests in Manchuria and Korea for the sake of improved relations with Japan," according to the center, but the agreement was seen as a success that helped avoid a war.
Although Japan and the San Francisco Board of Education adhered to the Gentlemen’s Agreement, which was never ratified by Congress, it didn’t end discrimination against Japanese immigrants. Attacks and protests against Japanese immigrants and businesses were frequent.
California’s Webb-Haney Act of 1913, also known as the Alien Land Law, banned “all aliens ineligible for citizenship” lawn-owning rights. About 10 years later, the Immigration Act of 1924, or Johnson-Reed Act, was signed into law by Calvin Coolidge, making the Gentlemen's Agreement obsolete.
"Of all the races ineligible to citizenship under our law, the Japanese are the least assimible and the most dangerous to our country,” V.S. McClatchey, a California newspaper publisher, said while lobbying for the act, which established a national origin quota system and a ban on Japanese immigrants until the law was repealed in 1952.
"A History of Japanese Americans in California: Discriminatory Practices," National Park Service.
"Japanese-American Relations at the Turn of the Century, 1900–1922," Office of the Historian.
"Root-Takahira Agreement," Theodore Roosevelt Center.
"Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History," Library of Congress.
“Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution,” Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
"Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress," U.S. House of Representatives.