In 1841, around the same time that Herman Melville set sail on his first whaling voyage, a fourteen-year-old Japanese fisherman named Manjiro became shipwrecked on an uninhabited island a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan. Manjiro and his crew were eventually rescued by a whaling ship from Massachusetts, the John Howland led by Captain William Whitfield. After bringing the rest of Manjiro’s crew to Hawaii, Whitfield invited Manjiro to the United States to go to school and live with him in Massachusetts. Eager to learn navigation and other skills, Manjiro gladly accepted the captain’s invitation. On May 7, 1843, the John Howland returned home and Manjiro became the first Japanese immigrant to the U.S. Manjiro went on to live a remarkable life; he traveled to California during the gold rush, returned to Japan and became a Samurai, and his work as a translator was instrumental in opening up Japan for trade.
In 1977, the United States Congress was deciding when to declare an official National Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week, and eventually settled on the seven-day period beginning on May 4. This was picked because they wanted to recognize May 7, the day Manjiro arrived in Massachusetts, as well as May 10, the anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.
Today, it is widely accepted that the railroad could not have been completed without the contributions of Chinese laborers. The workers of Central Pacific, the company that was in charge of the western half of the railroad, were ninety percent Chinese, and it’s estimated that nearly 20,000 Chinese people worked on the railroad over the six years of its construction. These workers were given more dangerous jobs, like planting explosives to blast through granite, and were paid less than their European American counterparts. Chinese people weren’t even allowed to become American citizens until years later.
In 1969, during a ceremony to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the railroad’s completion, none of the speakers even acknowledged the existence of the Chinese laborers. This was quite the insult to Chinese Americans, many of whom were descended from the very laborers being ignored. They saw this as nothing new, just another incident in the long history of American racism, a history that includes one of the uglier laws ever put to books in the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Even though Chinese people made up only .002% of the U.S. population at the time, there was a prevalent belief among many white folks that immigrants were coming to take all the jobs from them, as well as less economically tinged concerns over “racial purity.” The Chinese Exclusion Act was crafted to address these concerns and made immigration from China illegal. Even though it was originally meant to only last ten years, it was renewed twice and made permanent in 1902. It was eventually repealed forty years later, in 1943, but the damage had been done, immigration from China was successfully curtailed for more than half a century.
Just like the Chinese workers’ contributions to the railroad were obscured and suppressed by the Exclusion Act, Manjiro’s status as the first Japanese immigrant is complicated by another dark spot in American history, the internment of Japanese people during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, over 100,000 Japanese people living in America, the majority of whom were American citizens, had their property seized and were sent to internment camps. Even though there were multiple court challenges to the constitutionality of the camps, the United States government didn’t acknowledge the injustice until 1988. Through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, formal apologies were extended and $20,000 in reparations were paid to each person who was incarcerated.
In 1990, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week was expanded to Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month and now lasts for all of May. The two dates that were originally meant to be commemorated, May 7 and 10, are still important observations. These dates, along with the people and ideas they represent are quintessentially American. Just as Manjiro found kindness and the opportunity to flourish in the United States, many other Asian immigrants have found racism, exclusion, and exploitation. It can feel like a contradiction at times, but all of those experiences are true. It’s why observations like Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month are important, not just so we can celebrate where we come from, but also to remember when we weren’t so great, and try to use that knowledge in order to be better in the future.
References and Further Readings:
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage and History in the U.S. (2019, August 27). NEH. Retrieved March 6, 2022, from, https://edsitement.neh.gov/closer-readings/asian-pacific-heritage-month
About Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. (2022). Library of Congress. Retrieved March 6, 2022, from, https://asianpacificheritage.gov/about/
Fuchs, C. (2019, April 22). The Chinese railroad workers who helped connect the country: Recovering an erased history. NBC News. Retrieved March 6, 2022, from, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/recovering-erased-history-chinese-railroad-workers-who-helped-connect-country-n991136
Kennedy, L. (2020, April 30). Building the Transcontinental Railroad: How 20,000 Chinese Immigrants Made It Happen. History. Retrieved March 6, 2022, from, https://www.history.com/news/transcontinental-railroad-chinese-immigrants
History.com Staff. (2019, September 13). Chinese Exclusion Act. History. Retrieved March 6, 2022, from, https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/chinese-exclusion-act-1882
Japanese-American Incarceration During World War II. (2022, January 24). National Archives. Retrieved March 6, 2022, from, https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/japanese-relocation#background