150 Years of Immigration Issues

Every clear morning I tuck in my right pant leg and pedal my way over to the museum. After setting my silver wheels up on the bike rack in the loading dock, I take the stairs up to the Education offices on the second floor. The dimly lit entry to the Education office space is located behind the tea room in the second floor Japan galleries. Because I pass through these galleries everyday, I always look forward to new rotations of Japanese art.

friendship dollThe latest additions to the Japan galleries include a pair of near-life-sized Japanese dolls in kimono complete with miniature accessories in a striking installation. Their innocent smiling white faces reflect in the gallery cases behind my own reflection. I know my sister would absolutely shudder at that description because she is one of those people that are just irrationally creeped out by dolls but I find them to be quite cherub-like. They are a part of the thematic exhibition Japan’s Early Ambassadors to San Francisco 1860-1927, currently on display.

This exhibition begins with the arrival of the ship Kanrin Maru and the first Japanese embassy in San Francisco, this year being the 150th anniversary of their arrival. It examines the experiences of some of the first Japanese diplomats and cultural emissaries to the United States. The exhibition also includes artwork and objects relating to Japanese artists active in San Francisco in the late 19th and early 20th century.

San Francisco’s love-hate relationship with Japan and its Japanese-American citizens is an underlying thread throughout this exhibition. Japanese immigrants faced many challenges, including discriminatory practices and attitudes. One culmination of this could be seen in an anti-Japanese movement that related directly to the Immigration of Act 1924. The 1924 law included provisions that were aimed specifically at Japanese immigrants.

In fact, the two Friendship Dolls on display were ambassadors of goodwill in a doll exchange effort made by certain leaders to ease tension between the two nations in the wake of the 1924 legislation. However, by the time the Friendship Dolls were sent immigration from Asia had been effectively halted by the Immigration Act.

I think this exhibition is timely and relevant because it brings up important questions about immigration in the past that we continue to struggle to answer to this day. As the responses to the recent new legislation in Arizona requiring police officers to stop and interrogate anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant show, immigration and related issues of discrimination and racial profiling remain a divisive issue for many people.

Arizona’s lawmakers have also signed into law a measure that bans Ethnic Studies programs in Arizona public schools in a move reminiscent of those made by the Hawaii Legislature in the 1920s, primarily targeting Japanese-Americans, to ban foreign-language schools in the territory. The Hawaii laws were later deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the case of Arizona today the debate continues.

Some leaders and groups have openly criticized the Arizona legislation and moved to boycott the state of Arizona. However, some polls have shown that there is broad support for this type of legislation. The complicated issue of immigration includes questions about racism, civil rights, education, healthcare, crime, and foreign policy. It is a big issue that I admit I am not expertly informed on.

So in the spirit of dialogue and learning I would like to offer some questions for discussion to all of our blog readers:

  • How do you think immigration has changed over the past one hundred and fifty years?
  • What can we learn from the immigrant experience of the past that will help us today?
  • What is the role of art, artists, and museums in relation to immigration issues?

15 Responses to “150 Years of Immigration Issues”

  1. xensen  on May 18th, 2010 at 9:48 am

    With respect to your first question (what has changed in the past 150 years), and the Arizona situation, one thing that is sometimes not understood is that the term Chicano originally referred to peoples who were already resident in lands that were taken over by the U.S. There is a connection to Asian history, because the reason President Polk provoked a border conflict leading to the U.S.-Mexican War (which, incidentally, Abraham Lincoln called the most unjust war ever fought) was that he wanted a port on the Pacific in order to compete with England and other powers that were asserting themselves in East Asia. As a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended that conflict, Mexico was forced to give up about half of its territories, and the Spanish-speaking peoples in those northern regions — the first Chicanos — instantly became subjects of the U.S. Today many people associate the term Chicano with immigration, but the original Chicanos, 150 years ago, never emmigrated anywhere — they were created by signatures on a treaty.

  2. sfmike  on May 19th, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Your questions are broad and challenging, and I’m curious what people working for the museum think about those issues. Another great essay, by the way, and you make me want to go to see the exhibit.

  3. otomeki5  on May 19th, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    These questions are definitely challenging. I think that one of the many important purposes of art is to create dialogue between the artist and the viewer. Museums are in the wonderful position to be facilitators of that dialogue. I hope that the museum here can continue to grow in that regard.

    As far as immigration issues go, I feel that the Arizona legislation is cold-hearted, misguided, impractical, and short-sighted but I don’t think it is completely racist.

    In the survey that I cited, most respondents believe that people should be required to produce documents, that police should be able question anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, and should be able to detain anyone who cannot produce evidence that verifies their legality.

    I think that this makes perfect sense. Of course I expect the majority of people to agree that people be held accountable and that the police should be able to enforce the law and detain people who break the law. I don’t think that means at all that the majority of people are racist.

    Perhaps people have become more aware and vocal about racism (which is a great thing) but there is also the pitfall of people by default labeling things as racist because its the easier simpler answer.

    The past 150 years suggests that it is always the newest immigrant that becomes the easy target for scapegoating regardless of race. First it was Irish-Americans, then Italian-Americans, then Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, now Mexican-Americans. It makes me think that racism is more like one of many symptoms of a problematic immigration system than it is the cause the system’s failure.

  4. Nancy  on May 19th, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    otomeki5, I think your answer is one of the more balanced that I’ve read. When I was researching my various ancestors, I found that they had – at one time or another – been called the kinds of names and accused of the kinds of things that are now applied to other groups.

  5. sfmike  on May 20th, 2010 at 12:29 am

    Okay, I’ve thought about it a little.

    I’m a Californian more than I’m an American, more than I’m anything else geographically, but there’s no serious border for that land. California’s relationship with Mexico and Mexicans and multi-generation Chicanos is fraught with anger, still, because the land was so recently “appropriated” by gringos and all the feelings of resentment, guilt, and displaced blame on both sides are real. There hasn’t even been enough time to change the names of places, which are still mostly in Spanish.

    What changed everything, I think, is Hollywood. People all over the world, for the last 100 years, have been seeing movies and television at the youngest of ages, and most of those images have had California somewhere in the background. It’s amazing how people from all over the world can arrive here, look at the landscape, and feel like they’ve known it from the time they were born. In truth, it was in their earliest dreams.

    That’s what’s really changed in the last 100 years, and it’s been fascinating to watch, particularly since I was raised by a mother who was cheering the entire multiculturalization of California onwards most of her life. We really are the grand experiment, and most of the world is praying that we figure it out.

  6. Bleka tänderna  on May 20th, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    I really don’t understand why so many people want to migrate to the US. There must be more than a dozen 1st world countries people can go to yet they choose the US. Is it because the American people and culture are more accommodating than these other 1st world nations?

    Say Japan, how many americans, europeans, asians, and etc., actually wanna go there to become citizens or just to live there? I don’t think it comes close to half the volume of people pouring into the US.

  7. otomeki5  on May 21st, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. I agree that California is really a supreme example of a increasingly multicultural society.

    In my home state of Hawai’i multicultural and multi-ethnic families are the norm. Of course we have our share of ethnic and cultural divides, and the huge challenges that new immigrants face are always the most difficult in the first couple generations. But although every cultural group is in many ways unique with a separate identity there is also a unifying ‘local’ culture of Hawaii that is an amalgamation of all the different cultures as they adapted and contributed to Hawaii’s unique cultural landscape. In Hawaii I would say that I am Japanese, but hapa, also I am a Local, but not Hawaiian. But really that’s pretty typical in Hawaii and there are many people in the Bay Area and California who have even more diverse backgrounds.

    So, SFMike, I’m curious to hear your thoughts about being ‘Californian’. How would describe the ‘Californian’ identity?

  8. sfmike  on May 21st, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    Dear otomeki5: Describing what constitutes the “Californian” identity is a book in itself, and it would have to acknowledge how different a San Joaquin Valley Californian is from a coastal Californian or a desert Californian or a mountain Californian. I’ve got a slightly wider view of it because I’m originally a coastal Southern Californian who’s lived in San Francisco for the last 35 years. I also had relatives in the San Joaquin Valley and now hang out in the desert and you get the idea.

    Whatever California is it is in the process of becoming at this very moment, and the entire world-flavored multicultural aspect, which is a fairly recent phenomenon, is my favorite part. The paving of paradise, which I’ve also witnessed first-hand over the last fifty-plus years, is my least favorite part.

  9. otomeki5  on May 25th, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    SFMike: If you ever decide to write that book on Californian identities I’d pick up a copy. (^_^) I always thought that identity was one of those subjective things that are mostly determined by the individual in question. I always thought of identity as something I’d choose for myself (easier said than done.) But it’s true that people create identities for others too, so it goes both ways. I’m glad that in California people are able to work together to co-create identity through exchange.

    Bleka: Why do so many people want to emigrate to the U.S.? That is a very good question… I would guess that in terms of legality it is easier to emigrate to the U.S. than some other countries although I’m no expert in immigration law. The U.S. historically has a reputation as a country of immigrants. I imagine that this has a lot to do with it too.

  10. otomeki5  on May 25th, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    SFMike: If you ever decide to write that book on Californian identities I’d pick up a copy. (^_^) I always thought that identity was one of those subjective things that are mostly determined by the individual in question. I always thought of identity as something I’d choose for myself (easier said than done.) But it’s true that people create identities for others too, so it goes both ways. I’m glad that in California people are able to work together to co-create identity through exchange.

    Bleka: Why do so many people want to emigrate to the U.S.? That is a very good question… I would guess that in terms of legality it is easier to emigrate to the U.S. than some other countries although I’m no expert in immigration law. The U.S. historically has a reputation as a country of immigrants. I imagine that this has a lot to do with it too. If I hypothetically were compelled to emigrate to another country I don’t know where I would go. Maybe Australia, Singapore, or the UK. You?

  11. Ana  on June 4th, 2010 at 8:06 am

    [n.b. below, each paragraph per question, in order]

    Good question!

    A few memories fit them, and since there few better places I could think of for getting those thoughts into the open, here they are:

    A hundred a fifty years of immigration – is the story of some journeys told from one end. The other end has another name, and oddly, the one in-between goes by other ones entirely. A fairly odd situation of a story changing title for the sake of its listeners bundled by the history of their motives and taste; not unlike a publisher’s privilege. Take an unusual source – say, a well-routed expat reading of immigration laws roiling his home country: “penny for your thoughts?”; “I’ll call myself an immigrant”. Same thing, without name.

    [1] By any rule, a century and a half is longer then living memory in my family, and this is mostly because at one point, recounting memories of border-crossings became unthinkable; if parents know better then to talk to their children – their stories are lost. You’d go to the museum to get a feeling of what their lives must have been, just like everybody else. It is a benign call of comers and goers: as a story emigrants would use to convey the feelings of their leaving, as a story of newcomers who want to forget. Almost every place has both kinds of peoples and both sides of the story; few find reason to document the subtle bonds between its comers and goers, let alone make prominent museum exhibits of them.

    [2] This is in fact the one thing I am convinced that the present does better then the past, here and there: the memories of a few places are the memories of everyone. Perhaps because rarefied academic considerations are not subject to the grind of life as much as other things, it is still possible to find museum districts where the closest thing to home are either in the anthropology or modern art sections, with a hole in-between. Damn embarrassing where there isn’t a modern art section! Wouldn’t believe it until it got me! It’s a silly jolt for a terribly medley group under archival lighting, a way of reading between the lines of a few artists’ biographies, and… nothing more.

    [3] Can’t bottle a feeling, let alone those of crowds past. Unless… some times…someone pulls it off. One thing art is worth tasting for tastelessly – either that, or a few years living in a place with the privilege to listen to its ground noise. In the end, life’s too short to travel like that.

    In the end, I would have a question to ask:

    The description of a doll reads: ‘Shell paste over wood … ‘etc. What ‘shell paste’? How was this used? For what? Is it still? The subject is interesting because nacre coating is being reinvented.

  12. idit  on June 9th, 2010 at 10:10 am

    ken, i think the main reason that the Arizona laws can be called racist is because they target a particular immigrant group, commonly known as “Mexican” but really meaning anyone from south of that border. no one is suggesting that the police detain at random, interrogate, and deport white Europeans who may or may not be immigrants overstaying their student visas. the same goes for the early 20th century laws that were meant to target immigrants from Asia.

    as far as the question of why people come specifically to the US illegally; there are two parts to the answer. the first is that Canada, England, Germany, Sweden, and France also have their fair share of illegal immigrants, and their fair share of horrifying laws intended to “control the problem”. if you catch the BBC at all, you’ll hear quite a bit about the issue in Britain.

    the second part of the answer is that it is much easier to fly under the radar in the United States than it is in many first-world countries because of the glaring lack of public programs as compared to, say, Sweden. it is normal for people in the US to lack health insurance, it is normal to lack a job, it is normal to lack childcare, etc., so that when an undocumented immigrant doesn’t have access to those, it does not necessarily distinguish them from the rest of the population. in England, if you are taken to the hospital and it is discovered that you are not on the NHS roll, it becomes obvious that you are in the country illegally. because Sweden is a Social Democracy where almost everything in life is run as a public program, it is even more difficult to pass for a legal resident.

    not to go too far off on an anecdote, here’s an amusing artifact: a letter of recommendation written for a friend’s father, a doctor from Korea who had overstayed his 2-year visa and was applying for permanent resident status, praising among other things his “typical oriental politeness and friendliness”:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/plattyjo/4622886038/

  13. nico  on June 12th, 2010 at 11:45 am

    To comment on immigration both past and present: so much depends on economics.

    Despite being known as a liberal stronghold, the history of San Francisco is writ in its motto, “Gold in Peace, Iron in War.” Being a strategic naval site, the opposite was certainly true when the Japanese government placed an order with Union Iron Works for a new battleship, the Chitose. Paying foreign powers were friends and allies.
    For more on this “armed peace,” here’s an interesting read from a 1908 Sunset Magazine: http://bit.ly/bWa09C

    Initially, the US government might have viewed Japan as a powerful ally to aid in their mastery of the Pacific Rim, but as they started showing themselves to be too much like the US in their imperialism, racism showed itself to be a handy tool.

  14. Tandblekning Hemma  on December 26th, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    As far as immigration issues go, I feel that the Arizona legislation is cold-hearted, misguided, impractical, and short-sighted but I don’t think it is completely racist.

  15. Tänder blekning  on January 25th, 2011 at 2:05 am

    As of the US immigration , during the colonial era most migrants came from northern European countries. Their numbers declined with the onset of the Revolutionary War during the 1770s but immigration later picked up strongly again during the 1840s and 1850s and i have a couple of relatives that was moving to New-York. I think thay got a better life there anyhow..


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