Manjiro was a boy in Japan. He was 14 years old, and he needed to help his family. Manjiro got a job with a fishing crew. He set out for a fishing trip in 1841, and disaster struck. A storm caused the ship to crash. Manjiro and the crew were stranded on an island.
The fishers survived for more than five months before help came. That help was an American whaling ship. Captain William Whitfield took the Japanese crew aboard. He got them to Hawaii, which was not part of the United States yet. When Whitfield continued on, Manjiro went with him. He wanted to learn about the world.
Manjiro stepped foot in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on May 7, 1843. Other Japanese people had visited the United States. But Manjiro is known as the first to live there. The date is one reason that May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month!
Manjiro wasn’t the last Japanese . For hundreds of years, Japan was closed off to western nations. In 1853, it opened up to trade. And in 1860, the first official Japanese leaders traveled to America.
By the end of the 1860s, Japanese people were moving to America. These early immigrants were known as Issei — Japanese for “first .” Between 1886 and 1911, more than 400,000 people moved from Japan to the United States. They mostly settled on the U.S. West Coast or in Hawaii. Hawaii became U.S. land in 1900.
Life in America wasn’t always easy for Japanese people. Many immigrants worked tough farm jobs. And they faced from other Americans. Some laws made it impossible for Japanese people to own land or even to move to the United States. Still, the immigrants created communities. One was Japan Town in San Francisco, California. Over time, Japanese immigrants grew their own businesses.
By 1930, half of Japanese Americans had been born in the United States. That made them Nisei, or “second generation.” They grew up speaking English and taking part in American culture.
Then came a dark time. World War II started in 1939. Japan and the United States took opposite sides. U.S. leaders decided that people from Japan — even Japanese Americans — were a danger. From 1942 to 1945, officials forced people of Japanese descent to live in . There were 10 camps, and about 120,000 people were held. Many of those people lost their land, businesses, and belongings.
George Takei is a Japanese American actor. He was in the TV show Star Trek. But as a kid, Takei lived in these camps. He wrote about this in the book They Called Us Enemy. Takei shares about when his family had to sleep in stalls. He was too young to understand. But for his parents, “it was a devastating blow,” he wrote. “They had worked so hard to buy a two-bedroom house. Now we were crammed into a smelly horse stall.”
Takei makes sure Americans don’t forget this time. After all, learning from the past can help make a brighter future.
Today, the United States has about 1.5 million people of Japanese descent. Japanese Americans live all across the country. They work in all kinds of fields, from art to government. And they make up the sixth largest AAPI group!
Updated May 4, 2023, 5:02 P.M. (ET)
By Ashley Morgan