Forgotten Legacy

From Kevin Starr’s Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era:

The Chinese had preceded the Japanese into the fields of California. By 1880 fully one-third of the state?s agricultural labor was Chinese. As the Chinese presence in agriculture increased in the 1870s with the fall-off of mining, so did violence against them. On 15 March 1877, for instance, an organization of white gunman calling itself the Order of Caucasians broke into a cabin of Chinese workers near Chico, robbed the immigrants, then set fire to the cabin, killing four Chinese men. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 [the first anti-immigration bill at a national level, passed shortly after the transcontinental railroad] cut off Chinese immigration to California entirely, the Chinese held their own in rural California for a while but tended in the 1890s to drift back into cities and towns. At first, as the Chinese left the countryside in search of better opportunities, the large-scale farmers and ranchers of California gave serious consideration to importing blacks from the South to the replace them, but by the 1890s not blacks but Italians, Portugese, Japanese, and later Mexicans began to replace the Chinese in the fields.

By 1900 nearly half, 45 percent, of California?s total farm labor was Japanese. At first the Japanese underbid their competition, including the lingering Chinese work force, in order to gain a foothold. They entered the fields strongly organized, hiring themselves out through kieyaku-nin, trusted middlemen who negotiated contracts and guaranteed living arrangements, including smoothly functioning eating and boarding clubs and other support services. Once they had eliminated the competition through low bidding and efficiency, the Japanese began to behave just like union labor: controlling their numbers to keep wages high, negotiating one grower against another, organizing quick strikes when they felt exploited, boycotting farmers they did not like. They also began to rent land whenever they could and eventually to buy their own farms. Skilled in intensive farming (their California farms averaged 54.7 acres), Japanese agriculturists were capable of paying higher rents or paying more to own marginal land ($15 an acre in 1910, when the going rate was $10) because they could coax a higher yield from the soil once it was theirs.

By 1910 some 1,816 California farms, for a total of 99,524 acres in Los Angeles, Orange, Fresno and Sacramento counties, most of it in vegetables, potatoes, fruit, berries, grapes, sugar beets, and other intensive crops, were controlled by Japanese. By 1913, 281,687 acres were in Japanese hands, either owned or leased; 383,287 acres by 1920. One San Joaquin Delta farmer, George Shima, who arrived in California as a young laborer, controlled 28,000 acres by 1913, from which came 85 percent of California?s potato crop, earning Shima the undisputed title of Potato King. Not only did the Japanese outdistance all other groups in farm ownership, they also established an interlocking network of marketing cooperatives and protective associations, presided over by the United Japanese Deliberative Council in Northern California and the Central Japanese Association in the South.

Bested in farm ownership, outproduced, outmarketed, excluded from employment (only George Shima showed any willingness to hire non-Japanese labor), white California grew envious, then angry, then overtly anti-Japanese, complaining, as did Elwood Mead, of the impending Asiaticization of California agriculture. The major offense offered by Japanese success was that it cut to the core of a dream that just was not working: small family farms for white California.