In 1938, Orson Welles scared the willies out of us with a sci-fi tale about a Martian invasion. But thirty years earlier, newspapers were frightening nearly everyone with equally fantastic rumors about an upcoming invasion by Japan.

Even 1908 Sonoma County, with its established and well-respected Japanese community, got into the act; the Santa Rosa Republican reported that locals in Bodega Bay were suspicious about two Japanese men – “well dressed and intelligent looking” – who rented a buggy and looked at the coastline. “What their real business was is a matter of conjecture and there was some talk of setting a watch on their movements,” the Republican’s correspondent wrote ominously, although their actions seemed no different from any other tourists.

The roots of the hysteria went back to Japan’s military victory over Russia in 1905, as discussed in an earlier essay. Almost overnight, the popular image of Japan flipped upside-down, from couldn’t-care-less to couldn’t-care-more. The little Asian country that was once just viewed as a source of cheap field labor was now a potentially threatening superpower. It was as if we were suddenly told today that Guatemala had developed nuclear weapons.

American anxiety about Japan’s formidable navy was fueled by fearmongering in the press – the link above shows a 1906 feature story titled, “If Japan Should Attack Us” – and that in turn launched a national mania about Japanese spies gathering tactical data to prepare for an invasion of the West Coast. And once we began looking for spies, we found them everywhere; Americans are world champs when it comes to hunting witches.

Japanese spy stories spread through the 1908 media like modern-day Internet urban legends. Most often they were an item from the United Press newswire, such as the January report that National Guard sharpshooters fired at someone trying to break into the San Francisco armory where “valuable military maps” were kept. “It is thought that Japanese spies were seeing to gain entrance to the armory.” Although that story was picked up by dozens of newspapers (often adding their own little embellishments), it apparently wasn’t true at all; no mention of an incident like this appeared in the San Francisco Call or Oakland Tribune.

Similarly, another wire story had it that a Japanese spy was caught at Fort Wadsworth, NY, with maps of the land surrounding the fort. “The military authorities at Fort Wadsworth admit that a Japanese spy has been caught…officers of the regular army are trying to hush the affair up but militiamen speak freely about it.” Yet strangely, not a peep about the event can be found in the New York press.

Like the “friend of a friend” source of a juicy urban legend story, these events always happened somewhere else and far away. The San Francisco armory story appeared in the New York Tribune, as well as many papers in the upper Midwest. The Fort Wadsworth story was printed in South Carolina. Then there was a widely reprinted story quoting a Mexico City paper that claimed a spy had been caught in Brownsville, Texas with plans of American fortifications. Alas, not a single newspaper printed the firm denial from the local paper: “No Japanese whatever have been seen at Brownsville in months.”

Other spy sightings were likely misunderstandings by hyper-suspicious locals, like the incident in Bodega Bay. In January, two well-dressed Japanese men (being well-dressed is a common reason for suspicion in many of these yarns) were detained in Oregon because they were found walking around and looking at Fort Stevens, on the mouth of the Columbia River. Although “nothing of an incriminating nature could be found upon their persons, the indications are that they were at the post for the purpose of obtaining plans and sketches of the different fortifications.”

There were also spy stories that stretch belief to the breaking point. The Daily Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon) ran a front page article about a Nevada draftsman named A. B. Clinton who claimed a Japanese man wanted to hire him to draw up plans of the San Francisco harbors. The patriotic draftsman attacked the man, but “the Jap put up a fierce fight and proved himself a master of jiu-jitsu. In the melee some of Clinton’s fingers were so badly bitten that they will probably have to be amputated.” The Japanese man was said to be held under a charge of “mayhem.”

Every urban legend collection has to include an “imminent catastrophe” tale, and a UP wire story datelined Galveston, Texas, August 8, claimed there were “fifty thousand Japanese in Mexico ready to cross” the border:

From eight Japanese captured while attempting to cross the border from Mexico, details of a great smuggling plot were learned today by the immigration agents. The Japanese declare that there are now 50,000 of their countrymen in Mexico, and that most of them are awaiting an opportunity to enter this country. They say an organized band of smugglers is working on the border…

But unlike the other examples of anti-Japanese hysteria, there was a core of truth to this story, and it’s worth a detour to explore.

After the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 between the U.S. and Japan blocked immigration of workers, Japanese men began entering the country illegally through Mexico. From the 1880s onward, the Mexican border was an easy crossing point for anyone not allowed in through the front door. Most numerous were the Chinese, but after the turn of the century there were growing numbers of Russian Jews, Syrians, Slavs, Greeks, and Italians as well as the Japanese. These European and Mideast immigrants weren’t barred from legal entry on basis of race or nationality, but usually had individual reasons for sneaking in. Often, it was because the person wasn’t in perfect health; Ellis Island medical examiners were increasingly turning immigrants away because of disease or because they otherwise appeared to sickly for manual labor. “LOPD” was bureaucratic shorthand for “Lack of Physical Development,” and as likely to cause rejection as the “No Money” classification.

Ironically today, the easiest way to enter the U. S. was to pass as a “local Mexican” crossing the border for shopping or day labor. Immigrants were sold traditional clothing and coached on how to blend into the Mexican crowds. Many of the Japanese men used another trick: Telling the border guard that they were only crossing the U.S. en route to Canada, producing a ribbon of train tickets as proof.

To coach and/or smuggle these immigrants, an industry emerged. An excellent book on border enforcement, “Imaginary Lines.” quotes a 1908 report from the Commerce Secretary:

On the Mexican side of the border, at the towns nearest the several ports of entry, aliens, both European and Asiatic, congregate in large numbers prior to seeking entry into the United States. By reason of the influx of foreigners into these towns, a profitable industry has grown up in the promotion of immigration, by methods seldom more than colorably legal and often simply illegal…there are physicians professing ability to remove the signs of disease, and there are smugglers and guides in abundance.

The most common points of entry from Mexico was either San Diego or El Paso, and that the dateline of this story is Galveston suggests there’s also a dash of anti-Semitism in this mishmash of truth and fiction. The year 1908 was just after the start of the “Galveston Movement,” which brought Eastern European Jews to the U.S. via Texas so to avoid the crowded East Coast cities.

There weren’t many newspapers that spoke out against the rumors, but to his credit, one voice was Ernest L. Finley, editor of the Press Democrat. “These silly yarns of Jap spies are getting tiresome,” he griped in an editorial. “Their publication puts us in the light of being about scared to death.” Another editor raised the point that it was absurd to believe that Japanese spies were skulking about drawing our coastlines. “Topographical maps of the United States, made accurately by government surveyors, may be purchased for a dime,” wrote the editor of the Los Angeles Herald. “Why should the Japanese go to the trouble and expense of making topographical surveys on their own hook?”

War Scare is Noted at Bodega Bay


Considerable excitement was occasioned in Bodega yesterday by the arrival of two Japanese men on the train from San Francisco. They were well dressed and intelligent looking, but spoke broken English when making inquiries about the coast line about Bodega Bay. Securing a rig from the livery stable here they immediately drove toward the bay. Ostensibly they were looking for abalones and when they returned said they could not find a suitable boat landing or place to erect a cabin. As they were gone from town but about three hours it is hardly possible for them to have made a very extended search for such locations. They exhibited a map of the coast when asking the distance to the point known here as Campbell’s Point and seemed familiar with the shore line. What their real business was is a matter of conjecture and there was some talk of setting a watch on their movements. Another Japanese war scare. Well I must say that in the present uncompleted condition of the fortifications about Bodega Bay we are hardly in position to resist the attack of a very formidable squadron.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 14, 1908

The latest scare of the timorous Japophobists is that the spies of Nippon are trying to get jobs as waiters and laundrymen in the big maneuvers camp at Atascadero. It is likely that these prying Japs are only prying into the chances to feed the privates and was the officers’ shirts, and not into the secrets of the wireless signal code or into the manner in which the national guard fights and bleeds in sham battle. It is usual for foreign officers to be given the courtesy of an invitation to witness military maneuvers and these guests, trained in the science of soldierly evolutions, would learn far more than will the cooks and waiters in camp. Moreover, the war department in Tokio already knows all it cares to know concerning the work out for the regular and state troops at Atascadero. These silly yarns of Jap spies are getting tiresome. Their publication puts us in the light of being about scared to death.

– Press Democrat editorial, October 2, 1908

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