History of Japanese Farmers in Texas: Race Relations

Like many Asian immigrants to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century, Japanese immigrants, as well as their descendants, faced great racial discrimination. After the Chinese Exclusion Act was promulgated in 1882, Japanese laborers were wanted in the U.S. as substitutes of the Chinese. The number of Japanese immigrants to the US increased significantly: by 1910, the Japanese population actually surpassed the Chinese by 10,000. Like their Chinese counterparts, Japanese immigrants, too, faced racial discrimination. Japanese laborers were willing to work for lower wages, which was the primary cause of anti-Japanese campaigns on the West Coast. These campaigns soon resulted in discriminatory laws and policies against the Japanese immigrants. The 1913 Alien Land Law in California, which prohibited Japanese farmers from owning land, for example, was a significant obstacle to the Japanese immigrant community which primary worked in agriculture. In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, a wholesale restriction on Japanese immigration in the U.S.

Stop sign showing the cross-street of Jap Rd. and Burrelwingate
"Jap Road," established in commemoration of the Mayumi brothers. The road's name has now been changed.

The story of Texas is a bit different. Unlike the American West, which saw a massive influx of Asian immigrants, especially to California, immigration to Texas was comparatively low. In 1910, for example, there were reportedly over 41,000 Japanese people in California, but only 340 in Texas, according to data by Thomas K. Walls. As a result, the sense of competition towards Japanese laborers that characterized the anti-Japanese movement in California was not as prevalent in Texas. In fact, after land ownership for Japanese people was curtailed in California, many Japanese farming families like the Tanamachi family moved to Texas to set up their farms.

Indeed, as the stories from this exhibition show, in the prewar period, Japanese farmers in Texas were generally not subject to intense hatred and animosity from the locals. Many of them would actually be loved and supported by the surrounding community. For example, the Mayumi brothers, who set up their farm in 1906, became popular in Fannett despite initially being met with suspicion. They welcomed neighbors in for drinks on a regular basis and even hosted dances for the community. Decades later, when debates erupted over the name given to the road leading up to their farm – “Jap Road” – community members gathered and recalled memories of the brothers as kind and gentle people. The commemoration of Japanese farmers in Texas through road names is also seen in the story of Shinpei Maekawa and Mykawa Road, which remains today in south Houston.

Steet sign for Mykawa Rd.
Mykawa Road, established in commemoration of Shinpei Maekawa. The road still exists today in Houston.

Also noteworthy is that there was a great deal of diversity on Japanese-run farms in Texas. When wealthy Japanese immigrants came to the state and bought land, they usually brought men from their hometown to work on the farm as well. But working alongside Japanese laborers were also farmers of different races and ethnicities, including Black, Mexican, and white workers. There is little evidence as to how these farmers interacted with one another, but some stories suggest that they were treated with respect by the Japanese farm owners. On the Kishi colony, for example, it is said that meals were made to match the tastes of the different groups of workers.

Of course, non-discrimination did not mean equality. Japanese immigrants in Texas would not able to become naturalized citizens for a long time, and during the World War II period, many of them would face hostility from the surrounding community as well as the government. Members of the Hirasaki family, for example, recalls difficult experiences with racism as schoolchildren in the immediate postwar years, Still, this exhibition shows that in Texas, the Japanese immigrant population was generally met with friendliness and respect. They were not portrayed as evil thieves who would steal jobs from the locals, but hardworking people who made great contributions to the community. In the end, it is worth remembering the beginning of this story, which saw Texas officials and businessmen, wanting to develop rice cultivation in the state, eagerly welcoming Japanese farmers. The people of Texas once opened its arms to Japanese immigrants, and it is now more important than ever to remember this history.