In the late 1800s, many Japanese immigrants came to California with many becoming successful farmers and were perceived as a competitive threat to white farmers. With growing anti-Japanese sentiment, California passed the Alien Land Law in 1913. The law made it illegal for aliens to own or lease land for more than three years and though it didn’t specifically target the Japanese, they were the only group of Asian immigrants who were farming in large numbers.
Eiichi Edward Sakauye Interview Segment 11, February 8, 2005, Japanese American Museum of San Jose
Promotion for the 1920 Alien Land Law, 1920, National Museum of American History
“By the law adopted we offer no offense; we make no discrimination. The offense and discrimination are contained, it is claimed, in the use if the words “eligible to citizenship,” and in making a distinction between those who are eligible to citizenship and those who are not. We do not mention the Japanese of any particular race.”
~ Hiram Johnson, California Governor
Barring the Japanese from owning land prevented them from one fundamental way of climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Many Japanese-Americans couldn’t benefit from the transfer of wealth usually associated with property ownership because their parents were unable to purchase land.
From 1913 to 1925, eight other states would also pass restrictive land-ownership laws, including five more during WWII. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the California and Washington alien land laws in four different cases. In 1942, Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were ordered to evacuate their homes and forced into internment camps due to Executive Order 9066. In 1944 and 1945, the California legislature enacted provisions to fund escheat suits to take away property owned by Japanese aliens. During that time, California legislators wanted to express hostility towards Japanese-Americans and discourage them from returning to California after being released.
escheat: transfer of property ownership to the state
Japanese Farms in Washington, 1926, University of Washington