Japanese People: Island Nation And Their Migration

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The are an ethnic group native to Japan. Japanese make up 98.5% of the total population of their country. Worldwide, approximately 130 million people are of Japanese descent; of these, approximately 127 million are residents of Japan. People of Japanese ancestry who live in other countries are referred to as . The term ethnic Japanese may also be used in some contexts to refer to a locus of ethnic groups including the Yamato, Ainu, and Ryukyuan people.

How did the Japanese migrate? 

The Japanese migration to the United States began in the late 19th century and increased in the early 20th century, when the Japanese government signed agreements with the US to allow Japanese citizens to emigrate to the US. 

The Japanese immigration to the US is one of the most popular topics in the history of immigration to the US. It’s also a big part of the American culture today. So let’s look at how it all began.

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An Open Door: How Japan’s Emigration Path Began

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy sailed into Tokyo Bay with gunships, forcing the reclusive nation to open its doors to trade. This incidentally gave the world an unprecedented glimpse of this alien nation.

Japan’s Unique Way of Emigration

Japan’s emigration path began soon after the country opened its doors to the outside world. At first, young men seeking a better life were the prominent emigrants. However, as the years went by, women and families also began to migrate.

The Lure of Better Life and Wages

The booming economy of the islands in the late 1800s and early 1900s lured many Japanese to seek a better life and wages outside of Japan. The disruption brought about by rapid urbanization and industrialization forced many agricultural farmers to become jobless, and they looked for a new way of life.

The Earliest Destinations of Japanese Emigrants

The earliest destinations of Japanese emigrants were the Hawaiian lands. In 1885, the consul general secretly hired and transported contract laborers to Hawaii, bypassing legal barriers. This opened the door for major government-sponsored emigration.

The Popular and Expensive Path to the United States

The United States became a popular destination for Japanese emigrants. However, the path was expensive and difficult. The Japanese underwent increasingly strict social and legal barriers in the United States. The Japanese maintained their isolation from Europe and other countries.

The Modern Japanese Emigration Model

The Meiji Restoration brought about a model military and government, and rapid urbanization and industrialization. This brought about a unique way of life for the Japanese people. The lure of better wages and life outside of Japan continued to be a great path for many Japanese emigrants.

The Japanese Immigration Story: From Feudal Japan to the United States

  • Japanese immigration began in the early 1860s, following the opening of Japan to the Western world after more than two centuries of isolation.
  • The first countries to receive Japanese immigrants were the United States, Hawaii, and China.
  • The Japanese government actively searched for opportunities to emigrate its people outside of Japan, as a way to transform the country into a modern power.
  • The Edo period (1603-1868) saw significant changes in Japan, including the rise of a merchant class and the opening of cities to outside trade.
  • The arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet in 1853 effectively forced Japan to open its ports to foreign powers, leading to an exchange of ideas and culture.

The Meiji Era and Immigration

  • The Meiji government (1868-1912) actively encouraged emigration as a way to achieve equality with the Western powers.
  • The government set up an emigration bureau and signed agreements with countries such as the United States and Hawaii to allow Japanese immigrants to settle there.
  • The first large-scale Japanese immigration to the United States began in the late 1800s, with many Japanese immigrants arriving in Hawaii to work on sugar plantations.
  • The story of Manjiro, a Japanese immigrant who arrived in the United States in the early 1800s, reflects the rare opportunity for Japanese people to leave their country and seek a better life elsewhere.

The Exclusion Act and Twentieth Century Immigration

  • The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively ended Japanese immigration to the United States, reflecting the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the country.
  • However, Japanese immigration to other countries such as Canada and Brazil continued to grow throughout the twentieth century.
  • The post-World War II period saw a significant increase in Japanese immigration to the United States, as the country’s economy grew and opportunities for work and education became more widely available.
  • Today, Japanese immigrants in the United States reflect a diverse group of people, with a range of backgrounds and experiences that reflect the history of Japanese immigration to the country.

The Legacy of Japanese Immigration: Descendants of Japanese Immigrants

  • The first generation of Japanese immigrants faced significant resistance in Western countries, including the United States, due to the perception of Japan as a feudal and backward nation.
  • However, some Japanese people actively chose to leave their country, such as the Edo period (1603-1868) samurai who discovered and embraced Western science and technology.
  • As a result, a large number of Japanese immigrants arrived in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly after Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in Japan in 1853 opened the country to foreign powers.
  • Many of these immigrants served as laborers in cities like San Francisco and were able to achieve a level of equality through their hard work and perseverance.
  • The story of Manjiro Nakahama, a Japanese sailor who was rescued by an American whaling ship and eventually became an immigrant in America, serves as a testament to the transformative power of immigration.

Later Generations: Embracing the New World and Transforming the Old

  • As the descendants of Japanese immigrants grew up in America, they faced their own set of challenges and changes.
  • Many were able to achieve success in fields like science, technology, and math (STEM), including the famous Japanese-American physicist and Nobel laureate Yoichiro Nambu.
  • Some also served in the American military, such as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit composed entirely of Japanese-American soldiers who fought in World War II.
  • Meanwhile, in Japan, the Meiji government actively sought to modernize the country and achieve equality with Western nations, a process that was significantly aided by the knowledge and skills of Japanese immigrants who had returned home.
  • The MIT-educated Japanese engineer Jokichi Takamine, for example, played a key role in transforming Japan’s chemical industry and achieving a level of technological sophistication similar to that of the modern Western world.


So that’s how the Japanese have migrated over the years. It’s been a long journey, but they’ve made it to where they are today. 

The Japanese are one of the most immigrant-friendly countries in the world, so if you’re thinking of migrating, why not consider Japan? You won’t regret it!

Check out our new cookbook

Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.