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  • Anti-Japanese Sentiment, International Diplomacy, and the Texas Alien Land Law of 1921
  • Brent M. S. Campney (bio)

The Japanese ‘invasion’ of Texas appears to be in full swing,” reported a correspondent from the lower Rio Grande Valley (hereinafter, the Valley) on January 7, 1921. The writer drew this conclusion from the arrival a day earlier of two Japanese families who had been met at the train station in the South Texas town of Harlingen by a mob who warned the immigrants not to settle on the land that they had already purchased in the vicinity. The alleged invasion continued with the arrival of B. R. Kato, “another Japanese colonist from California, [who] reached Brownsville today.” As Kato alighted from the train, an antagonistic crowd informed him “that public sentiment made it impossible for Japanese to colonize here and that trouble was probable if the attempt was made.” Amid rumors that other Japanese immigrants were en route, local white residents cautioned against such efforts; the reporter predicted that the “Rio Grande district is apt to prove a hornet’s nest for the Japanese, because the [white] natives of this region, which retains many aspects of the old frontier, are more inclined to take ‘direct action’ than the [white] people of California, where the dispute over the Japanese land holdings has been largely confined to the legislature and the courts.”1

This article explores the responses of white citizens of Cameron and Hidalgo Counties to the so-called Japanese invasion between October 1920 and January 1921, including threats of mob violence, the arousal of public opinion, and the elevation and expansion of anti-Japanese sentiment. Second, it examines the stereotypes of the Japanese people [End Page 841] promoted by white Texans to justify these responses. Third, it compares and contrasts the tepid responses of the anti-Japanese forces with those of the mobs who had slaughtered ethnic Mexicans there in a 1915 massacre, and it ties these different responses to the international power, prestige, and diplomatic leverage of the countries from which the victims originated. Fourth, the study demonstrates how white people in the Valley, in the state capital of Austin, and across Texas not only eliminated the perceived threat posed by the Japanese immigrants through the passage of an alien land law barring them from landownership but also stoked similar fears of a Japanese invasion among white residents of neighboring states and prompted comparable responses. Finally, it speculates on the implications of the findings for the historiography. To meet these objectives, the study relies on a number of sources but especially on newspapers published nationally, regionally, and locally.

With its focus on Japanese immigration into the Valley after World War I, this article provides an antidote to two scholarly trends. First, it challenges a bias toward the study of ethnic Japanese experiences in the U.S. Far West (particularly along the West Coast), a characteristic of Asian American historiography generally. Instead, this study addresses Japanese experiences in South Texas and orients the story, as did some contemporaries, toward the South and particularly toward the Gulf Coast states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida, while at the same time contextualizing these experiences within the American West and developments in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Second, by examining the 1920s, this study challenges a bias toward a focus on internment during World War II, when the U.S. government imprisoned all persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast.2 As a result, the article demonstrates that decades earlier white Americans appealed to the same stereotypes and exclusionary impulses used against the Japanese during the internment, exacerbating tensions between Japan and the United States, while the two countries were jockeying for power and prestige in a world recently devastated by World War I, and laying the groundwork for that better-known and wholesale suspension of the rights of ethnic Japanese populations during World War II. At the outset, however, the study provides an overview of Japanese immigration to the United States and its impact on bilateral relations, describes the short history of the Japanese in South Texas generally and in the two easternmost counties in the Valley specifically, and summarizes...


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