THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The Yoshitomi files, and a study of anti-Japanism


In 1924, Congress passed the National Origins Act, which barred all Japanese immigration to the United States. Throughout the surrounding years, the “Japanese question” — that is, the labor and social status of ethnic Japanese — remained the subject of endless debate among policymakers, journalists, nativist pressure groups and religious organizations, as well as the Issei intellectuals such as K.K. Kawakami and Toyokichi Iyenaga who took up the defense of Japanese communities. Anti-Japanese campaigners, led by California editor V.S. McClatchy, described the Issei as a socially undesirable and biologically unassimilable foreign race whose cheap labor undermined (white) American living standards. Defenders such as Kawakami and Sidney L. Gulick lauded the civic virtue, honesty and intelligence of Japanese Americans.

Amazingly, the debates over Japanese settlement in North America, and the character of the immigrants, were by no means limited to the United States or to North America. If anything, they were even more potent among jurists, writers and intellectuals in France. It is an enduring mystery why the subject of Japanese Americans should have attracted so much commentary in early 20th century France, where Asians were an exceedingly tiny fraction of the population. One element is the fascination with which many French intellectuals regarded the United States as the world’s predominant economic power and the living symbol of modernity. Aspects of American popular culture such as jazz and motion pictures enjoyed a vogue among French thinkers. The problem of race relations occupied a particularly strong place in the writings of French visitors to the United States. In addition, French discussions of Japanese immigration to America may have reflected the widespread interest in Japan. The culture of Japan, with its exotic character, exercised an irresistible attraction for French thinkers and artists from the Impressionist era to the Art Deco age. Meanwhile, talented Japanese such as Eurasian novelist Kikou Yamata, dancer Michio Ito, and modern painter Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita achieved widespread popularity during the period.

Whatever the reason, In the period from 1908 to 1928, four full-length books on the subject of Japanese immigration to north America appeared in France, as well as a dozen book chapters and pamphlets and numerous newspaper and magazine pieces. Authors include such eminent figures as political commentator André Siegfried, radical-socialist politician Henri Labroue and scholar Claude Eugène Maître. French-speaking authors took a wide variety of positions on the desirability and implications of the Japanese presence, positions that often resembled the arguments of the competing factions in the United States. Three of the texts have special features that merit particular attention.

First, Louis Aubert’s book “Américains et Japonais” (“Americans and Japanese”) is worthy of note because it is by all evidence the first serious full-length study to appear, in any language, on the subject of Japanese Americans. Aubert, born in 1876, was a regular contributor and later editor of the well-known magazine La Revue de Paris. In the months following the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, he published several articles on Japanese culture and on Japan’s new role as a great power in the world. These articles were ultimately collected into the book “Paix Japonaise” (“Japanese Peace”), published in 1906. The book was widely and respectfully reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic, and won an award from L’Académie Française. Aubert decided to expand the work’s fourth chapter, which dealt with American-Japanese diplomacy, into a full work on Japanese immigration. “Américains et Japonais” appeared in 1908, and won a prize from the French national geographical society. Aubert subsequently shifted his interests to European foreign relations, and he wrote several books on international diplomacy and disarmament issues.

“Américains et Japonais” is notable for its broad discussion of the economic and political impact of Japanese immigration, not only on Hawai‘i and California, but on Canada and Latin America as well. The author shows great attention to detail and dedicated research — including numerous long verbatim citations from Japanese sources. However, Aubert’s argument contains a central contradiction. Although he agrees that the attitude of white workers toward Asians is influenced by feelings of white supremacy, he insists that racism is not the cause of their just demands for exclusion of Japanese. Rather, he bases the case for restricting Japanese immigration on economic grounds — even though the Japanese are hard workers willing to learn new tasks, they represent unfair competition and will depress the labor market if permitted to immigrate in large numbers. Because of their “ascetic” lifestyle, says Aubert, the Japanese lack the hunger for luxury that drives modern civilization. Aubert takes for granted that the Issei cannot be assimilated to American ways because of their racial character, and thereby concludes that they constitute an innate threat to American society.

Another intriguing work is Prew Savoy’s 1923 book “La Question japonaise aux États-Unis” (“The Japanese Question in the United States”). Savoy (1899-1957), a native-born American of French Canadian ancestry received his bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Chicago, then went on to study for a doctorate in political science and economics at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris. Savoy went on to become a leading Washington, D.C. corporate lobbyist during the New Deal years and a member of the Supreme Court bar.

“La Question japonaise aux États-Unis,” which was expanded from Savoy’s doctoral dissertation and published in 1923, was Savoy’s only book.

Although Savoy spoke French from childhood, critics derided the quality of his French prose. Much of the book’s text is a legal study, which sets forth the development of anti-Japanese laws in the various states and compares the details of such legislation. In the book’s final section, however, Savoy states boldly his conclusion that Japanese immigration should be totally banned. Although he is careful not to state the case explicitly in terms of Japanese racial inferiority, his position rests the same race-based arguments that were the chief weapon of restrictionists — immigrants from different nations should be ranked for acceptance based on their similarity to Americans and their readiness to assimilate. Savoy points to the presence of strong Japanese community institutions, notably ethnic newspapers, and widespread opposition to intermarriage within Japanese communities as “proof” of the refusal or inability of Japanese immigrants to assimilate, and thereby proclaims that they must be barred from entering the country.

Macaomi (aka Masaomi) Yoshitomi took an opposite tack. Yoshitomi, born in Japan in 1889, graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in 1924, and went to study in France thanks to a grant from the Japanese foreign ministry. Within a short time after arriving in Europe, Yoshitomi burst on the French literary scene by editing and translating an anthology of contemporary Japanese literature, producing French translations of two novels by Japanese modernist writer Takeo Arishima, and publishing a French-language monograph that gave a short introduction to Japan and its civilization. In 1927, Yoshitomi produced a volume on the economic history of ancient Japan, adapted from his dissertation at University of Paris. I have found little information on his later years, which he spent in the Japanese foreign service.

Yoshitomi’s book on Japanese Americans, “Les conflits nippo-américains et le problème du Pacifique” (Japanese-American conflicts and the Problem of the Pacific) was published in 1926. The work, adapted from Yoshitomi‘s doctoral dissertation for the University of Bordeaux, is a study of “anti-Japanism” in its historical, legal and moral aspects. Drawing on a number of English, French and Japanese sources, the author presents the thesis that it was American racism, mixed with jealousy of Japan, that led the national government to enact a hateful and short-sighted immigration ban. Two novel elements of Yoshitomi’s work bear noting. First, while decrying American racism against Asians, he displays significant prejudices of his own, decrying Chinese as morally inferior. Also, Yoshitomi discusses American policy in the international context (the book carries a flattering preface by a Japanese diplomat assigned to the League of Nations). Despite his expressed skepticism about the possibility of international action to support the equal rights of Japanese Americans, Yoshitomi’s work is foresightful in positing the influence of America’s desire for world leadership in liberalizing its racial policies.

The French vogue for discussion of the “Japanese question” proved short-lived. Indeed, since the appearance in 1937 of Peter Dju’s work “L’emigration japonaise depuis 1918” (“Japanese Emigration Since 1918”) there has not been a single monograph published in France on the subject of Japanese Americans (the recent publication by Pum, a press in Quebec, of “Un drame de la Deuxième Guerre,” an adaptation of my book “A Tragedy of Democracy,” marks the first French-language history of the wartime incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans and Canadians). The decline of French-language writing on this theme is unfortunate. Still, the earlier works expand our store of knowledge on Japanese immigration and the debates it provoked.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at

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