Like other minorities, Asian Americans have repeatedly been the target of conspiracy-infused scapegoating. The term “yellow peril” was first used to refer to Chinese and later Japanese immigration in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, but it was rapidly extended to all Asians seen as a threat to Western Christian civilization.
This conspiracy-minded fear gave birth to an imagery soon exploited by the media (press, cartoonists, dime novels, comics, and motion pictures) of legions of Asians sweeping into the country, to destroy the white man, and take his job and his women.
The roots of the “yellow peril” can be traced back to the time of Attila the Hun and the subsequent sacking of Rome by the Barbarians, and much later to Genghis Khan and Mongolian invasions of Europe, whose inhabitants lived under the threat of invasion. These deeply ingrained fears were passed on from one generation to the other, and crossed the Atlantic, to be revived in nineteenth-century America.
In the United States, the “yellow peril” needs to be considered as part of the general ideology of nativism, which was strengthened by the large numbers of immigrants entering the country during the nineteenth century. In the case of Asians, the immigration of Chinese laborers—coolies— started in the 1840s, accelerating with the 1849 gold rush in California.
In 1852, over 20,000 Chinese, mostly from the Canton area, immigrated to work in gold mines. A new flow started in the late 1860s, when the U.S. government signed the Burlingame Treaty (1868), which opened the doors to Chinese workers, wanted to build the transcontinental railroad.
As many historians and wise contemporaries noted, if they did come to the United States in search of work, it was because work was available and there were Americans ready to employ them. Their attitude toward work and willingness to take lower wages fueled a debate on whether cheap labor led to economic instability.
Moreover, as it became rapidly apparent that many Asians were settling permanently in the United States, the fear of miscegenation appeared, a term coined in Irish newspapers, condemning interracial marriage and the deleterious effects of sexual contact between the races.
“A Rotten Race”
In California the idea of excluding the Chinese was part of the wider ideology of nativism. When it entered the Union as a free state in 1850, California made attempts to legislate against the entrance of nonwhites, meaning blacks and Asians. In the 1850s, the Chinese outnumbered blacks—4,000 black residents and 47,000 Chinese—and were seen as a greater threat. As an example of one of many discriminatory measures, the California Supreme Court ruled in 1854 that the Chinese could not testify in court against a white person.
They were gradually driven out of mining and agriculture; when the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the Chinese turned to occupations (manufacturing, laundering, and domestic jobs) where they competed with the Irish, another recent immigrant group, who were instrumental in developing the “yellow peril” obsession.
Consequently, at the national level, U.S. legislators devoted a lot of energy to controlling Asian immigration, in spite of the opposition of the supporters of the “open” tradition inaugurated by the 1790 Naturalization Act. Although this act explicitly stated that naturalization was only possible for “free white persons,” it was targeted at blacks and not Asians, then considered as belonging to the “white” category.
In 1870, the act was amended to include blacks while excluding Asians, considered as “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act made the naturalization of Chinese people impossible, and closed the gates. An 1884 amendment tightened both exclusions.
There remained the problem of those Chinese immigrants already residing in the United States. A series of race riots starting in California spread to Washington territory, Wyoming, and New York. Now the threat was no longer new immigration but miscegenation.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the United States defeated the Spanish in the 1898 Spanish-American war. Although the acquisition of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines satisfied the imperialists, many Americans were alarmed at the prospect of all those members of “inferior races” likely to enter the United States.
The fear of “yellow peril” led to more restrictions on immigration, especially when another Asian community, the Japanese, was unexpectedly and brutally brought to the fore by international developments in the Far East. In 1905 the Japanese defeated the Russian fleet at Port-Arthur, thus winning the Russo-Japanese War in what was publicized by the Japanese and sorely experienced by the Westerners as the first time Asian military power triumphed over Western power.
Consequently Japan lost its special exemption from immigration restrictions into the United States, which had allowed the first Japanese immigrants to go to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations, quickly followed by others who came to mainland cities, especially in the far West. They had arrived with the hope of making a better life for themselves but often faced racial prejudice.
In 1908, a gentleman’s agreement signed by Japan and the United States prohibited Japanese laborers from entering the country. It was followed in 1913 and 1920 by the California Alien Land Laws, which prevented Asian immigrants from purchasing or leasing land.
Finally, in 1922, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Ozawa v. United States that first-generation Japanese immigrants were not eligible for citizenship, and in 1924 the Exclusion Act halted Japanese immigration altogether until 1965.
By 1920 there were well over 100,000 Japanese immigrants on the U.S. mainland, facing anti-Japanese feeling and discriminatory laws. With World War II came concentration camps, when Japanese Americans were interned in prison camps in California and other states because of fears that they would commit sabotage.
The news of mounting discrimination against Japanese immigrants and their descendants was received with shock in Japan, and perceived as humiliating, especially since Japan had been striving to convince the United States that it was a friendly nation.
This definitely contributed to the degradation of Japanese and American diplomatic relations. Only in 1988 did the U.S. Congress issue a formal apology to wartime internees of Japanese ancestry.
Concerning the fear of interracial marriage, Congress passed the 1922 Cable Act, which revoked the citizenship of any woman who married a foreign national. By 1952, twenty-nine of the forty-eight states had antimiscegenation laws forbidding marriage between “whites” and “nonwhites.”
At the end of World War II when China fell to communism, the idea of the “yellow peril” was superimposed on the threat of the “red menace,” which symbolically had the effect of locating the source of the peril no longer at home but abroad. However, in the 1980s, the notion of a “yellow peril” was revived as an internal danger through the fear of Japanese companies seeking to control the U.S. economy, and Hollywood in particular.