Why the Japanese Farmers Left Signal Hill

Claudine Burnett

At one time Japanese farmers thrived on Signal Hill, growing cucumbers which made the city the cucumber growing capital of California. Many believe the Japanese were forced off their Signal Hill land because of the discovery of oil in 1921. That is not the case.

They were required to leave when the Alien Land Law was passed by California voters in 1920. Since owning land was one of the qualifiers for U.S. citizenship, this law prevented them from becoming true Americans.

Today we are again facing anti-Asian hate, thrust at all who happen to have a face that looks different from white and black Americans. Perhaps the anti-Japanese movement which started in California in 1905 is best forgotten. It’s not something we’re proud of, but I bring it up here because it was part of our history and it helps to understand patterns and events that were to influence life in later years. It’s a story with a long history, as this article points out.

Looking back, the anti-Japanese movement was in many ways merely a continuation of the longstanding agitation against the Chinese, which began in the early 1850s. At first the Asian immigrants had been welcome, but later when the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad threw most of these Chinese workers into an already depressed labor market, there was an outcry against them. In 1920 the same thing began to happen to the Japanese, but it had earlier roots.

In May 1905 the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in California. The league’s immigrant leaders felt Europeans such as themselves could be assimilated into the American melting pot, but were convinced that assimilation could not cross the color line. From 1905 on the league continued to introduce legislation excluding Japanese immigration to America.

In 1920 they were successful in getting the matter of land ownership to a public vote in California. There was much debate surrounding the issue, including the following from Samuel M. Shortridge, candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator from California. He spoke at the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium in August 1920 before an audience of more than 350 persons:

“Let the bona fide Japanese travelers pass through our territory, let their students attend our universities, if they desire, and return to their own land to enlighten their own countrymen, but let them not make their permanent home among us. We do not need them; we do not want them; they are in no sense industrially, morally or politically, a benefit to us; they will but irritate and breed discontent and add to our domestic and international problems.

“Let them remain at home, cultivate their own soil, develop their own resources or migrate to other lands whose people will welcome them. We do not want cheap labor. We want well-paid labor. We want intelligent, patriotic, contented labor. We want homes and schools, libraries and churches. We want boys and girls with hope in their hearts and smiles on their faces. We want men and women erect, proud, self-sustaining, happy, and ready to die for their country, glad to give their first-born to the defense of the flag.

“We want no antagonistic races, we want no hostile classes, we want no castes, we want no aliens incapable of republican government. We want an intelligent, self-respecting, prosperous and loyal American citizenship which shall guide this nation upward and onward and make of this republic the greatest, grandest brotherhood the world has ever seen. We want no alien people in our midst.” LB Press 8/23/1920.

In September 1920 the Long Beach Press indicated there was a real possibility of a general exodus of Japanese from Long Beach if the general public voted for what was called Proposition 1. Many farmers had already left their farms on Signal Hill to investigate living conditions in Mexico and Texas.

On October 21 the Japanese issue was again debated at the Municipal Auditorium. James D. Phelan, U.S. senator for California took on the Reverend U.G. Murphy in an interesting contest. Phelan was angry that there was an effort to create a “pro-Jap” sentiment in Los Angeles to try and defeat Proposition 1. He felt this was being spearheaded by the Japanese “persons who are on our shores simply by sufferance, guests of the nation, organizing a movement to obtain defeat of a measure initiated by the rightful citizens of the state.”

Phelan went on to point out that in Japan foreigners could not own land so why should Japanese here own American soil? Phelan remarked that of the 3,856,000 acres of tillable land in California, 456,000 were in control of the Japanese. This was one of every nine acres. The money made from the land did not go into the usual trade channels, but went into the shops of Japanese, for they only traded with their own people.

Phelan claimed they were setting up a colony for Japan in the United States, destined to create a commercial rivalry with America. They had already doubled prices by their monopolistic control of certain crops and they could dictate prices of food.

The Reverend Murphy defended the Japanese, claiming they were peaceable immigrants and their American born children loyal to the teaching of American idealism. He asserted the Land Exclusion Act was one of “hysterical race prejudice.” He pointed out that Californians refused to tolerate the Japanese because it could not assimilate them but permitted the Jews, who for 4,000 years had refused to permit marriages outside their own race, to have every privilege.

Frequently Murphy had to stop speaking because of the catcalls, hisses and heckling from the audience.

On Nov. 2, 1920, California voters went to the polls to decide on passage of an act which excluded native born Japanese, the Issei, from owning land, a qualifying factor in becoming a citizen.

Their children, the Nisei, born in the United States were exempt from the legislation. Despite ads in the Long Beach Press asking Californians to vote no on election day and attempts of women like University of Iowa educated Mrs. Tatsu Kondo to Americanize the 1024 Japanese residing in Long Beach, the Alien Land Law passed.

Stories about the Japanese and their clannish ways continued to appear. In November 1920, following the passage of the Alien Land Law, Japanese fishermen at the Long Beach harbor were subject to several harassing allegations. White fishermen asserted the Japanese fishermen monopolized the wharves and docks at Fish Harbor to the absolute exclusion of the white men.

Another accusation was that the Japanese agreed to pricing among themselves, driving up the cost of fish. As a result, a bill was introduced in the California Senate making it unlawful for Japanese to engage in the fishing industry in California waters.

In January 1921, Long Beach contractor W. Jay Burgin suggested restrictions against Japanese merchants in Long Beach. He reported that in Brawley the entire business district of the city was in the hands of Asians. The anti-alien land law had driven Japanese farmers into the city, and the same thing might happen in Long Beach, Burgin stated, if action was not taken now. Burgin suggested a charter revision refusing business licenses to aliens not eligible for citizenship.

The Japanese were being forced out of their livelihoods. Many Japanese farmers on Signal Hill were unable to renew their leases and forced to move out of California. There were rumors of a Japanese plot to control the coast of Lower California by purchasing land holdings worth $5,000,000 from the Mexican government.

Local landowner W. L. Porterfield, who had never supported the Alien Land Law, attempted to lease 80 acres of land to Y. Mazino, the foreman at the Bixby ranch. The matter was taken to United States District Court which ruled that any land contract with a Japanese alien was illegal.

What was left for the Japanese was garbage. Literally. They contracted with the city to collect Long Beach’s waste, paying the city for the privilege. Mr. Sakomoto paid the city $1.05 a ton for the garbage, which he fed to hogs on land he got to use free from the city.

But there were complaints from Japanese workers that homeowners were not obeying the rules about sorting garbage. When the men found refuse mixed with broken glass, or liquids dumped into the garbage cans, making the garbage unsuitable for hog feed, they refused to take it. This brought verbal insults from residents.

Public Service Director A.L. Ferver looked into a number of complaints and found the Japanese completely justified in not taking the garbage because of broken glass and other injurious substances deposited in the cans. He advised that rules be followed or the garbage would not be picked up.

In November 1922, the United States Supreme Court simplified matters for the exclusionists by validating their long-standing contention that Japanese were “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” They based their decision on statutes limiting naturalization to “free white persons and aliens of African nativity.”

In 1924, the quota system limiting immigration was extended and the California congressional contingent was successful in getting Japanese exclusion included in the legislation.

The Japanese government was seriously upset at this exclusion legislation. When two Japanese were found murdered near Point Firmin on June 20, 1924, the Japanese Consul requested an official inquiry into the deaths. The bodies of M. Yoshioka and Kachema Igarashi were found lying in a pool of blood on the Point Firmin road leading to White’s Point with a 32-caliber pistol lying nearby.

Several bullet holes punctured Yoshioka’s body, while Igarashi appeared to have been shot once, through the right side of the face just above the mouth. The third finger of his left hand was nearly severed. Detectives disclosed both men were well known gamblers, with a reputation of being crooked, who preyed on the Chinese community. They were last seen alive with four other Japanese, who could not be found. Police surmised the slaying was solely the result of a gamblers’ feud and had no bearing whatsoever upon them being Japanese.

What must be realized in looking at the treatment of Japanese during this time is that it wasn’t merely the work of a minority of Americans. If the matter had been put to a national vote in the 1920s, there is little doubt that it would have been approved by the vast majority of United States citizens.

The discriminations against the Japanese are blots on the democratic ideals which we so highly prize today. But the consequences of the anti-Japanese movement were more than moral. The existence of this prejudice helped to poison relations between the United States and Japan and create the foundations of World War II.

[Editor’s Note: May is Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month]

Claudine Burnett is a retired Long Beach Public Library librarian who compiled the library’s Long Beach History Index. In her research, she found many forgotten, interesting stories about Long Beach and Southern California which she has published in 12 books as well as in monthly blogs. You can access information about her books and read her blogs at www.claudineburnettbooks.com.

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