NIKKEI ANGEL ISLAND CHRONICLES: Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans on Angel Island


Picture brides and other immigrants walking onto Angel Island. Picture brides photo courtesy of California State Parks,

Angel-Island-Chronicles_Logo_4C_The Oct. 4, 2014 Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage — presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation in partnership with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and National Japanese American Historical Society — sparked a lot of interest among Japanese Americans in their potential Angel Island roots, either immigrant ancestors or those who may have been briefly confined there during World War II. This article presents a general history of Japanese immigration through the U.S. Immigration Station on the island as well as its wartime uses to detain “enemy aliens.”

Japanese Immigrants on Angel Island

Picture brides and other immigrants walking onto Angel Island. Picture brides photo courtesy of California State Parks,
Picture brides and other immigrants walking onto Angel Island. Picture brides photo courtesy of California State Parks,

The U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island was in use between 1910 and 1940. Built largely to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882 through 1943, the island also processed immigrants from 80 countries. Japanese immigrants were the second largest group after Chinese. While some called it the “Ellis Island of the West,” those who sought to limit immigration from across the Pacific also called it the “Guardian of the Western Gate.”

Erika Lee and Judy Yung’s book, “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America,” has a chapter about the approximately 85,000 Japanese who were detained at the U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island between 1910 and 1940 for immigration inspection, making them the second largest group after the Chinese. Lee and Yung note that more than 236,000 Japanese came to the U.S. between 1911 and 1932; most of them were not detained on Angel Island or entered through different ports. Some Japanese immigrants were questioned on board ship, and many were brought to the island. 

Anti-Asian groups like the Asian Exclusion League pushed for other Asian groups in addition to Chinese to be excluded from immigration. The San Francisco school board ordered Japanese and Korean students to be transferred to the segregated Oriental Public School that had been established for the Chinese. President Theodore Roosevelt was fearful of offending Japan, a rising military power, and negotiated the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, revoking the school segregation order. In exchange, Japan agreed to stop issuing passports to laborers, but unlike the Chinese, the Japanese could summon family members. At first, Japan did not allow laborers to summon wives, but after 1915 allowed those with $800 to do so. Roosevelt issued an executive order stopping the entry of Japanese laborers from Hawai‘i, Mexico and Canada to the continental U.S.

With these agreements enforced on Angel Island, most Japanese immigrants were admitted within a day or two, and fewer than one percent were excluded or deported. This was the shortest stay and lowest rate of deportation among the Asian immigrant groups. After 1907, an estimated 10,000 “picture brides” came through Angel Island to join their Japanese husbands in America. The Japanese women were housed in a separate dormitory from Chinese and European women in the left wing of the Administration Building. Japanese women took their meals with the other women and were allowed out to view the San Francisco Bay and get some exercise. Yung mentioned, “Still, many women complained about the poor food, prison-like environment, and feeling frightened and anxious about their uncertain fate.” In general, their questioning was relatively brief, to determine they were really married and would not become dependent on the government. The so-called Ladies Agreement of 1920 put an end to the practice of picture brides.

In the photo of picture brides in the Registry Room on Angel Island, Kichiko Okada is third from the right. She recalled putting on her silk kimono to look her best for her husband, Jiro Okada, before the ship landed in San Francisco. After a brief stay on the island, she went to live and work at her husband’s store in Sacramento, Calif. 

Not all immigrants had an easy time, however. As Yung mentioned when speaking on the island, the longest detention of a Japanese immigrant was Toshiko Inaba, who was born in Walnut Grove, Calif. in 1908. She went to Japan for schooling at age 3 and married a man in Japan when she was 19. Upon her return to the U.S. in 1929, she was denied entry on the grounds that she had lost her U.S. citizenship when she married an “alien ineligible for citizenship.” She appealed the decision and was detained on Angel Island for 16 months before her appeal was denied and she was deported. She was finally allowed to return in 1965 and joined her family in Sacramento.

In 1926, Goso Yoneda, a 21–year-old Kibei, left Japan to return to the U.S. in order to avoid military conscription. Upon arrival in San Francisco, he was taken to Angel Island and detained for two months while waiting for his cousin to come testify on his behalf. To pass the time, he read Japanese newspapers and books and wrote poems about his “agony, anguish and anxiety.” He would go on to become a well-known labor organizer named Karl Yoneda.

Family researchers will be disappointed to know that there are only about 8,670 case files of Japanese immigrants at the National Archives and Records Administration office in San Bruno, Calif. available for viewing. AIISF has a spreadsheet that allows people to search to see if they have ancestors in the files. Most Japanese immigrants do not have files because their immigration was so routine. The Immigration Act of 1924 made immigration of Japanese even more difficult, prohibiting the admission of any “alien ineligible for citizenship,” in effect, excluding all Asian immigration (Japanese could not become naturalized citizens until 1952). Some Japanese still managed to come to the U.S. — returning residents and temporary visitors such as ministers, students, government officials, merchants and tourists, about 20,000 between 1924 and 1940.

Japanese Immigrants Detained by the Army and Department of Justice During World War II

After the immigration station’s Administration Building burned down in 1940, immigration processing was moved back to San Francisco. The barracks were used again during World War II, housing “enemy aliens” — immigrants from Japan, Germany and Italy, as well as prisoners of war. Many of the Japanese had been under surveillance for a number of months or years by the FBI and arrested on Dec. 7, 1941, or soon after. These included Buddhist and Shinto ministers, journalists, community leaders, photographers and others deemed dangerous because of their ties to Japan including membership in organizations deemed “pro-Japan.”

Close to 600 Japanese immigrants from Hawai‘i and around 100 from the Pacific Coast were arrested and eventually brought to Angel Island, also called Fort McDowell, under the control of the Army. Many more were held at Sharp Park near Pacifica. After being held here for up to a few weeks, these men were sent to U.S. Army and Department of Justice camps such as Kooskia, Idaho; Missoula, Montana; Lordsburg and Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Crystal City, Texas. Some were allowed to rejoin their families in War Relocation Authority camps like Poston, Ariz. Jerome, Ark. and Tule Lake, Calif., others did not see them for the duration of the war.

Japanese immigrant Yasutaro Soga told about his wartime experiences in “Life Behind Barbed Wire.” Soga edited the Nippu Jiji Japanese-language newspaper in Hawai‘i. He was arrested on Dec. 7, 1941, held for six months on Sand Island off of Oahu, and detained on Angel Island from Aug. 5-27, 1942. Next, he was sent to an Army camp in Lordsburg, New Mexico, then a Justice Department camp in Santa Fe. He must have taken voluminous notes, because he mentioned by name other inmates he met, including several from California, and talked about the graffiti he saw from Chinese immigrants and Japanese prisoners of war. When he was told he would be sent to another camp, he noted, “I left my graffiti to mark in a corner of the room before leaving. ‘So we are Japs. Let us stomp defiant over sea and mountain.’”

George Hishida, born in Fukushima in 1896, established a photography shop in Fresno, where he and his wife Shizuka had four children. Daughter Grayce noted that he was successful in his business and happy in his career. After war broke out, an informant told the FBI that he had seen miniature negatives in the studio of sites like the Bay Bridge and Friant Dam, cause for suspicion. Hishida told authorities that they had been taken by some of his customers. Grayce remembers, “The FBI came to the studio and arrested Dad and searched the studio for anything incriminating. Then they took him to our house and took photos out of the albums, found short wave radio and Japanese flags. They said since he was an ‘alien’ and a photographer he was under suspicion as a spy for Japan… We did not see our dad from March 1942 until he was released in my mother’s custody to the Jerome relocation center (in July of 1943).” Later, the family was sent to Tule Lake and threatened with deportation, which Grayce and the family successfully opposed. 

For more information about the documentation of Japanese on Angel Island during World War II, visit the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation’s Website at, under “Education” and “Station History.” For questions, contact AIISF at or call (415) 348-9200.


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