The “Gentleman’s Agreement” was an informal agreement (1907-1908) between Japan and the United States that restricted the inflow of Japanese immigrants in exchange for desegregating San Francisco's public schools. It reflected President Theodore Roosevelt's diplomatic efforts to address California's growing anti-Japanese sentiment and to appease a proud Japanese government.
California's Japanese immigration issue received national attention when the San Francisco Board of Education ordered the segregation of Asian children into a separate public elementary school on October 11, 1906. (See San Francisco school segregation.) The San Francisco school board justified segregation as a measure "to save white children from being affected by association with pupils of the Mongolian race." Since Chinese children were already segregated, the order was clearly directed at the Japanese. The Japanese press reported the incident as an example of American discrimination against the Japanese, deepening their estrangement over the open door policy in China. Fearful of offending a rising world power in the wake of Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), President Roosevelt intervened and appointed Secretary of Commerce and Labor Victor H. Metcalf to investigate the situation. Metcalf's report found that with the exception of some overage students, there was no basis for segregation.
Although Roosevelt denounced the segregation order, the federal government was in a weak legal position, as the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling had already established the "separate but equal" doctrine in 1896. In order to challenge the segregation order in the courts, the federal government decided to focus on the forty-one alien students who were in the appropriate grade for their age. The local Japanese consul agreed that the twenty-seven overage students need not be considered, and nothing could be done for the remaining twenty-five students who were American citizens. Armed with a portion of the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation of 1894 between Japan and the U.S. that guaranteed reciprocal "most favored nation" rights of residence to nationals of each country, the federal government was prepared to file suit. Still, Roosevelt and Secretary of State Elihu Root preferred a political settlement that would placate both the Japanese government and public opinion in California. Roosevelt made it clear that stopping "all immigration of Japanese laboring men" was the "only way to prevent constant friction" between the two countries, a compromise the Japanese government was willing to make in order to avoid a Japanese version of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
On February 8, 1907, Roosevelt and Root met with San Francisco school officials and California legislative leaders to work out a negotiation. The California officials agreed to reinstate Japanese students on the condition that they were not overage, while the federal government withdrew its lawsuits and promised to limit Japanese labor immigration. The Japanese agreed to stop issuing passports to laborers bound for the continental United States. However, passports might be issued to returning laborers and the "parents, wives and children of laborers already resident there." As this was an executive agreement, based on correspondence between the two governments in late 1907 to early 1908, it required no congressional ratification.
The agreement led to a steady increase in the Japanese American population over the next decade-and-a-half because it allowed wives and children to enter. Many of the women were "picture brides," whose marriages had been arranged through photographs prior to their arrival in the United States. As a result of this loophole, the community was spared the extreme gender imbalance that had undermined Chinese Americans. In 1910, the ratio of Japanese men to women was 7 to 1; by 1920, it was less than 2 to 1.
The agreement also facilitated the formation of the Japanese Association of America in 1909, to which the Japanese consulate general delegated the task of comprehensive registration and social control of Japanese Americans. Most of the functions were bureaucratic, such as processing various certificate applications, but the association would later come under attack by exclusionists as an "invisible government" with Japanese imperial ambitions.
Authored by Shiho Imai, State University of New York at Potsdam
For More Information
Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
Hing, Bill Ong. Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850-1990. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.
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