Oregon History: Japanese-Americans and Other Newcomers

photograph of a Japanese woman
Many Issei women, first generation Japanese immigrants, such as Ai Hitaka shown in 1915, came to the United States as picture brides. (National Archives, image no. ARC 296466)
Jobs and land lured Japanese immigrants by the last decade of the 19th century. Overpopulation and limited opportunity at home, the favorable publicity of labor recruiters, and adventure drew Japanese to Oregon. They found places to work and live. Many men hired on as laborers to build railroads. Tadashichi Tanaka, Shinzaburo Ban, and Shintaro Takaki were all involved in 1891 in recruiting rail workers. The men helped build the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, feeder lines, and logging railroads.
Japanese immigrant families settled in the Treasure Valley near Ontario, Hood River Valley, and at Gresham. The prospect of gaining a few acres, planting a garden, setting out an orchard, and producing high-quality vegetables and fruits drew husbands, wives, and children to work together to establish a substantial hold in a new land. Others settled on Second, Third, and Fourth streets in Northwest Portland, where they became shopkeepers. Some men worked in sawmills, but at risk. In 1925, for example, a woman in Toledo on Yaquina Bay sparked a nasty attack on Japanese families. Threats of violence and bricks thrown through windows drove 25 Japanese men, women, and children from the town, and earned Rosemary Shenk a court appearance.
Oregon by the end of the 19th century, in spite of exclusionist attitudes and wars fought against Indians by the pioneer generation, had a changing complexion. Jewish merchants operated mercantile stores, enriched cultural life through their love of music and literature, and founded synagogues. Japanese and Chinese workers took some of the worst but necessary jobs. They helped build the state's vital transportation links. They canned fish, raised fruit, and ran small businesses. African-Americans dominated the Pullman services, mined coal, and grew steadily in numbers. Oregon was not a comfortable place for minorities, but negative treatment was also dished out to "dumb Swedes," beer-drinking Germans, Irish and Italian Catholics. Many Oregonians wore their fears of those who were different on their shirtsleeves.