Sonoma County violence against Asian-Americans was at its worst in years, but the newspapers were unsympathetic, even indifferent to getting the basic facts correct.

In Santa Rosa, anti-Chinese racism had simmered for more than a generation; when the town cleaned up its red light district the year before there was a simultaneous call to force out the Chinese, an idea even endorsed by the District Attorney. With such an attitude, justice was sure to be denied the Chinese when attacks occurred. Santa Rosa produce seller Wong Gum was beaten “until he was almost unrecognizable” in 1909 because he dared to ask moocher John Belesto for the return of one of the many tools he had borrowed. Belesto was fined ten dollars and served no jail time.

Japanese-Americans had their own worries. Fear-mongering had been building since the previous year when a nationwide scare about Japanese spies reached Sonoma County, with alarm over a pair of “well dressed and intelligent looking” Japanese men visiting Bodega Bay, and rumors that Japanese spies were trying to learn military secrets by seeking laundry jobs during a war games exercise near Atascadero. The Santa Rosa newspapers, which had long treated the Japanese community with respect, now used the racist term “little brown men” in almost every story that mentioned local Japanese.

The year began with headlines about a series of proposed anti-Japanese bills and resolutions were introduced in both the California state senate and assembly, most infamously the “Anti-Japanese School Bill,” which would force Japanese children to attend separate schools. After it passed in the Assembly, lame duck President Teddy Roosevelt took the unusual step of lobbying the governor to veto it or immediately challenge it in court if it passed. State legislators took this as meddling and were incensed, and the author of the bill took to the floor of the Assembly to make a blatantly racist pitch for his proposal:

“I am responsible to the mothers and fathers of Sacramento County who have their little daughters sitting side by side in the school rooms with matured Japs, with their base minds, their lascivious thoughts, multiplied by their race and strengthened by their mode of life…I have seen Japanese 25 years old sitting in the seats next to the pure maids of California. I shuddered then and I shudder now, the same as any other parent will shudder to think of such a condition.”

The Anti-Japanese School Bill failed (although attempts to revive it were made later in the session), but the Press Democrat gave the story prominent front page coverage, even quoting a sympathetic state senator that “antipathy of the Californians to the Japanese is reasonable, and that they are entirely right to legislate against them if they so desire.”

Such political rhetoric likely encouraged racism, as did the drumbeat about the “yellow peril” in Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. But for whatever reason, attacks upon local people of Chinese and Japanese origin were both more frequent and more violent in 1909. The worst incident happened in Sebastopol during Chinese New Year. After starting a free-for-all with a group of Japanese men, three toughs next attacked Gee Yook in the Chinatown neighborhood, breaking off the tip of a knife in the man’s head. Also in Sebastopol’s Chinatown a few months later, four drunks trashed a “noodle house,” throwing bottles at owner Gee Chung.

These incidents, along with an attack the previous year, should be considered together. One of the attackers in the stabbing was Irving Masse, and the Press Democrat reported that a man involved in the later noodle house fracas was also named Masse. Another restaurant rioter was identified as Joe Poggi. Readers of this journal may recall that a year earlier, Johnny Poggie and a friend smashed the same shop owner in the head with a brick, breaking his jaw.

Now, the odds are pretty high that “Johnny Poggie” and “Joe Poggi” were the same person, just as it’s very likely that the same guy named Masse was involved in both attacks of 1909. Today a District Attorney would probably spot that Poggi and Masse were committing serial racial hate crimes and prosecute them aggressively to get them off the streets for a few years. But this was Sonoma County a hundred-plus years ago and the victims were Chinese, which together meant that the crimes weren’t taken that seriously. Masse was punished with 50 days for his role in the knife assault and 90 days for his acts at the noodle house. Poggi(e) apparently received no jail time at all; he was not charged in the brutal 1908 bashing of Gee Chung – although the judge suspected he was lying under oath – and two 1909 Sebastopol trials for his role in the restaurant melee ended in hung juries (the case was moved to Santa Rosa where the jury appeared headed for another stalemate).

In the local press, assaults like these were considered routine and often treated as humor items. Per the knife attack, Gee Yook was not fatally injured, according to the Santa Rosa Republican, because “the skull of the Celestial was more than ordinarily thick.” Like the Republican, the Press Democrat called the gang of attackers “half-breeds,” and belabored a joke that “the Indians are going to take a hand in Japanese and Chinese exclusion.” Aside from flinging racist insults, the worst was that neither paper could be bothered to get the story right. Both reported at first that the victim was attacked on the street. But when the matter came before a judge, the setting had changed to Gee Yook’s restaurant, where he was stabbed while “Masse was doing his best to disfigure the Chinaman’s face with his fists.” (The man who drove his knife deep into Yook’s scalp was sentenced to a mere four months in county jail.)

The Republican paper also didn’t think much ado when teenagers assaulted a man named Hop Lee near Guerneville. The boys didn’t want to pay for their laundry and Lee refused to turn it over without cash. They took it from him anyway and used the string tying the package to fashion a sort of noose which they knotted over his queue. Hop Lee was left hanging by his hair from a railroad bridge, where he was found sometime later by a horrified passerby. Instead of voicing outrage over the incident (which apparently wasn’t even investigated by the sheriff), the newspaper used it as an opportunity to include some “funny” pidgin: “I washee all you clo’s flee,” he supposedly promised his rescuer.

A final item transcribed below concerns a dust-up between two Japanese and Chinese men that wound up in court, and is notable for being one of the few items that (apparently) involves Tom Wing Wong, the “mayor of Chinatown” in Santa Rosa and father of Song Wong Bourbeau, whose memories of that era were recorded by Gaye LeBaron.

Wednesdays Session of State Building Trades Council
Exclusion League’s Speakers Arouse Much Enthusiasm–Want Delegates to Indorse the Anti-Race Track Legislation–More Resolutions Adopted

…A hearty greeting was given the fraternal delegates George B. Benham, Charles W. Steckmest and A. R. Yoell, the representatives of the Asiatic Exclusion League. They were not there merely as visitors and in a very few minutes they were called upon for speeches and as each one of them has a natural facility for talking, particularly when it comes to exclusion matters, they were heard with much interest.

Yoell is secretary-treasurer of the Asiatic Exclusion League. He called attention to the rapid increase of Japanese, Chinese and Koreans in the territories of United States. According to his figures there are 72,000 Japanese in the Hawaiian Islands out of a population of 170,000. He also mentioned the births for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1907. The total births in Hawaii were 4,593, and the number of Japanese babies born was 2,445, or over 50 per cent of the total number of children born in the Hawaiian Islands.

In California for the year 1908, Yoell said, there were according to the reports 222 Japanese children were born, 179 Negro children, 155 Chinese and 23 of Indian parentage. This indicates that the increase of Japanese by birth on the soil California is next to that of the white race.

Benham made an exhaustive address. He spoke of the dangers confronting the county by Asiatic immigration and claimed that the press and the pulpit were too indifferent and apathetic on this question…

– Press Democrat, January 14, 1909
Aged Chinaman Injured by Half Breed Indians

A Chinese resident of Sebastopol is going about that place with a piece of knife blade an inch in length in his skull. Were it not for the fact that the skull of the Celestial was more than ordinarily thick, his remains might now be occupying a slab in the morgue. The Chinese was stabbed by one of three drunken half breeds and despite the piece of steel sticking in his head, declined to go for medical attendance until Friday, asserting that he was “too busy” attending to the joss during the New Year’s festivities.

The onslaught on the Celestial was made without provocation or warning. The three Indians had attacked three Japanese in Sebastopol, and in a free for all fight had routed the men from the Mikado’s realm. Emboldened by their success in this fight they wandered to Chinatown and made an assault on the Celestial, whom they found standing at the outside door of the joss house. One of the aborigines wielded a knife on the cranial adornment of the Chinaman and broke the blade, a portion of the steel remaining in the man’s skull.

The injured man has identified two of the half breeds taken before him as his assailants, and they will be held for the crime. Another Indian was arrested here by Constable Orr of Cloverdale on suspicion of having been implicated in the assault. His name is Smith, and he was turned over to City Marshal Fred Mathews of Sebastopol.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 28, 1909

Three Half Breeds Put to Flight Three Japs and Then Make Attack Upon an Aged Chinaman

Are the California Indians arraying themselves of the side of Japanese exclusion? Three half-breeds went over to Sebastopol on Tuesday night and encountering three Japanese a free-for-all started, in which the Indians are said to have come off with the honors, having put the little brown men to flight.

Doubtless encouraged by the success of their onslaught on the Japs, the Indians later wandered into the little Chinatown at Sebastopol, and finding an aged Celestial in front of the joss house, set upon him and one of them stabbed him in the head and broke off a part of the knife blade in his skull.

On Wednesday the Chinaman was still on duty at the joss house and was apparently not bothering about having the piece of steel in his head. He siad he would have the doctor attend to that on Thursday.

Two half-breeds were taken before the Mongolian for inspection and he identified one of them as the knife wielder. District Attorney Clarence Lea went over to Sebastopol to conduct an investigation on Wednesday morning. Wednesday afternoon Constable Orr arrested an Indian named Smith at the  Court House here on suspicion of being concerned in the trouble, and City Marshal Fred Matthews of Sebastopol took him in charge.

“Looks like the Indians are going to take a hand in Japanese and Chinese exclusion,” remarked some one among the spectators at the Court House. “The Indians were here before the Japs and before the whites, too, for the matter of that.”

– Press Democrat, January 28, 1909

Broke Knife in Chinese Skull at Sebastopol

Carolina Smith was sentenced to serve one hundred and twenty days in the county jail, and Irving Masse received fifty days’ sentence from Justice Harry B. Morris at Sebastopol on Friday.

These are the men who filled up on booze Wednesday and attempted to wreck the noodle joint of G. Yook. The fight ended by Smith sticking a knife into Yook’s skull, and breaking the point off in the bone. Masse was doing his best to disfigure the Chinaman’s face with his fists.

The men were brought to the county jail here Friday afternoon by City Marshal Fred Mathews.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 29, 1909
Desperate Man Holds up a Lodging House

A desperate man, who wanted coin badly, robbed a number of Japanese in Brown’s Chinatown in Sebastopol early Saturday morning.

The robber secured more than a hundred dollars and four watches of the little brown men and made his escape. He left absolutely no clew of his identity. The man had his features concealed behind a mask of cloth and the Japs can give no description of the culprit.

The place is conducted by a Japanese named Ezery and the robbery occurred at three o’clock Saturday morning. City Marshal Fred Matthews was notified at once and was on the scene is less than half an hour after the robbery. He was unable to get a clew to the robber.

If the Japs had had a revolver or weapon of any kind at the time they were compelled to hold up their hands they could have killed the man who took their coin. It was a desperate chance and the robber played his hand in a careless manner. He searched the pockets of his victims.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 27, 1909

In Justice Morris’ court in Sebastopol this week two youths name Burns and Masse were sentenced to serve sixty and ninety days imprisonment, respectively, in the county jail for throwing bottles and other missiles at on G. Chung’s head. Another man arrested pleaded not guilty, and will be given a trial on Saturday.

– Press Democrat, May 13, 1909
Noodles Not on Free List Precipitates Litigation

The hearing of Joe Poggi, an Indian, or of Indian blood, who was charged with disturbing the peace of the Sebastopol Chinatown, and who was tried twice on that count in the Justice Court of that place, the jury disagreeing on each occasion, came up in Judge Atchinson’s court Thursday morning, the case having been transferred. The complaining witness was Gee Chung, a Chinese, who alleged that Poggi was one of a party of four who created a disturbance in a noodle house maintained by the former.

A jury was empaneled, those chosen being… The principal question asked the prospective jurymen and upon which their eligibility to act in the case seemed to largely depend, was whether the fact of the defendant being of Indian blood and the complaining witness a Chinaman would influence them unduly in the bringing in of a verdict. None examined gave any such manifestations of race prejudice.

Assistant District Attorney George W. Hoyle appeared against Poggi and L. C. Scott of Sebastopol on his behalf.

Gee Chung was put on the stand and stated that Poggi and three others came in his noodle establishment at a late hour in a state of intoxication and besought him to treat them to noodles, which he decided to do. And when they offered to let him share in the consumption of several bottles and a demijohn of beer, he persisted in his refusal. It was then the scenes of tumult alleged by him to have taken place commenced. He stated that the glass receptacles of the liquor were hurled violently, striking the partition shivering it into pieces. He ran out and blew the whistle calling the night watch. The latter, Fisher Ames, testified to finding the floor covered with shattered bottles and overturned benches. Companions of Poggi admitted having engaged in a rough house, but denied that Poggi had participated in the exercises. The case was argued at some length by  counsel on both sides and the case was submitted to the jury. The hour being late, the court dismissed the jurymen for dinner, to reassemble and deliberate on a verdict later in the day.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 29, 1909
Treatment of Celestial Who Tried to Collect Bill

Because he refused to return articles of laundered apparel unless payment was made on delivery, several Oakland high school boys, who are camping in the vicinity of Guerneville, are believed to have been responsible for the treatment accorded Hop Lee, who was discovered Monday morning hanging by his queue to a tie on one of the railroad trestles.

Brunner, who had arisen to go fishing, while crossing a trestle between this place and Guernewood Park, was horrified to see the body of the Chinaman swinging in mid air beneath his feet.

After much effort he managed to pull the Chinese up through the opening between the ties. According to the laundryman’s story he incurred the disfavor of the fellows by refusing to deliver laundry without pay.

The Chinese left his shack Monday morning to deliver laundry and on his return was met by the same crowd of lads. The twine, which Lee had used to secure his bundle, was knotted to the Chinaman’s queue and he was left to dangle above the ground.

Aside from a strained scalp, Hop Lee seems none the worse for his experience. “I washee all you clo’s flee,” he is said to have told Brunner.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 18, 1909

John Belesto battered up Wong Gum, the well known Chinese vegetable man, the other day, until he was almost unrecognizable, and Monday morning a warrant was issued for his arrest, which was served by Constable Boswell. The trouble was occasioned, states Wong, by Belesto having a habit of borrowing tools from the Chinaman and not having the habit of returning them. When Wong went Friday to get a plow that the other had borrowed, he was met with a single tree in the hands of Belesto, who proceeded to beat the owner of the implement in the manner stated above.

Belesto was brought in by Constable Boswell without trouble and fined ten dollars by Justice Atchinson. Some trouble was anticipated with him, as he had at one time, when in trouble before, threatened to shoot both Constable Boswell and Gilliam.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 19, 1909
Japanese and Chinese Did Respective Tattling

Things are happening in the Mongolian district of Santa Rosa that may yet perhaps develop into international complications between the courts and peoples of Japan and China. And it all grew out of the gambling roundup by the police the other night.

A Japanese and a Chinaman, W. K. Hyama and Wong Wing respectively, appeared in the justice court Tuesday afternoon and swore out a complaint against each other for battery. Wong stated that Hyama owed him $5 and that there remained no way of collecting it other than having recourse to fisticuffs or litigation, which he didn’t want to resort to. Then Hyama hit him, he said.

Hyama asserted that Wong insisted that he, Hyama, reimburse Wong for the $5 fine imposed upon him for gambling on the ground that Hyama had informed the police of the game that the Chinaman had in progress Sunday night. He confessed to hitting the yellow brother, but alleged that the other had struck him first. He also admitted having “tipped” the officers in regard to the Chinese gambling deal. It appears that he had supplied the information in question because he was one of the inmates of the Japanese gambling house, raided the same night by the police, and he and his fellow residents of that place believed that the Celestial had told on them, the Japanese.

Hyama was arraigned before Justice Atchinson on the charge of battery and pleaded not guilty. He gave bond to appear for trial later. He didn’t seem to have much faith in our American courts, for he insisted on Justice Atchinson giving him a receipt for his ten dollars bail.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 28, 1909
Sequel to the Arrest For Gambling on Sunday Night Now to be Aired in Courtroom

As the result of the arrest of a number of Japanese Sunday night for gambling by the police, W. K. Hymana [sic] was arrested yesterday on complaint of Wong Wing, charged with battery, while Wong Wing was arrested on complaint of W. K. Hyana on a similar charge. Both Jap and Chinese were released by Justice Atchinson on $10 cash bail and the trial will be held Thursday.

The men got into a fight over the forfeited bail of the Japanese. Wong Wing claims that Hyama put up his watch for the loan of bail money, and later demanded the watch back without paying the loan, and when refused Hyama attacked him. Hyama on the other hand, claims Wong Wing introduced him to the game and after his arrest when he went to him demanding that he pay the fine, Wong attacked him and he simply defended himself.

– Press Democrat, September 29, 1909

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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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So how bad were relationships between Japan and the U.S. in the early 20th century? Let’s put it this way: Anyone wouldn’t have been surprised if the two countries went to war someday.

International politics isn’t usually on the radar of this journal, but the long-running thread of anti-Japanese fervor can even be found in the Santa Rosa newspapers, and some context helps to interpret where the line was drawn before WWI between geo-political opinions and overt racism.

Unlike many other places in California, Sonoma County had little enmity towards Japanese immigrants. Part of the reason was the respect given Fountain Grove wine maker Kanaye Nagasawa, who came to America via Scotland (where he picked up English with a distinctive burrrrrrr) and was portrayed in the papers as an innovator in the manner of Luther Burbank. Locals apparently also viewed Japanese laborers as kindred spirits, seeking to scratch together enough money for a family homestead. Santa Rosa even had a Japanese employment office because immigrants were sought out as hard-working domestics, farm workers, and general labor.

By contrast, Chinese immigrants were isolated and the target of bigotry in Santa Rosa, usually described in the local newspapers of the day as criminal or foolish “Chinks” or “Celestials” who could barely speak English (which sometimes might have been a feint to play the game of diminished expectations). When they were mentioned in the Press Democrat of that era, it was typically an arrest or something that was an opportunity to write a “humorous” racist vignette (usually with pidgin dialog), often concerning a broken marriage or other personal humiliations of Chinese residents.

Before 1904, most Santa Rosans probably couldn’t find Japan on a map on a bet. But once the Russo-Japanese War began, Japan and its military were in the headlines for much of the year. Many Japanese youths in Sonoma County returned home to fight the Czar, and there was a parade and train station sendoff for the boys.

As the war was underway, a movement began to demote Japanese immigrants to the same dismal legal status as the Chinese. In 1905, San Francisco labor unions created the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, seeking to expand the ban on Chinese “coolie” labor to include other Asian workers. (If you’re wondering where our elected officials stood on these race-tinged issues, Santa Rosa’s own Rep. McKinlay was among the most anti-immigrant hardliners in Congress, leading California House Republicans who helped defeat Teddy Roosevelt’s attempt to make exceptions in the Chinese Exclusion policy for “officials, teachers, students, merchants, or travelers for curiosity or pleasure.”)

( “If Japan Should Attack Us” Sunday feature in the San Francisco Call, Sept. 23, 1906)

Japan’s victory over Russia in the autumn of 1905 only fed American anxieties. Now it wasn’t only hordes of farm laborers to fear, but the possibility that Japan had a robust industrial base that could undercut U.S. exports to Asia, along with a navy capable of challenging the United States militarily.

Fearmongering became a common theme in the early 1906 newspapers. When the British launched a Dreadnought warship, the Feb. 12 NY Tribune used the news in an op/ed to point out that Japan was building two warships of this type, but U.S. ships were years away. An editorial in the Feb. 11 LA Herald warned, “…little Japan, grown ‘cockey’ by its recent victories, is nudging the sleeping giant and whispering to it to ‘go in and win.’ But recently the Japanese government had the nerve to twist the lion’s tail by criticizing the army formations of Great Britain. And reports come that Japan is working day and night on its naval armament…” An adjacent article by “Captain A. W. Best” warns that the “real aim and aspiration of the yellow races…[is] to win first the Pacific slope of North and South America (and Northern Australia) and having established themselves, like weeds there and choked out the white race in those areas to gradually extend the process to the rest of the world…” There was also a Panama Canal angle: Canal-bashers in Congress implied that if it was completed, Japanese warships could use it to attack the U.S. East Coast.

In short order, the situation became a replay of the anti-Chinese hysteria of the 1880s. Champion of the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League was a San Jose Congressman who delivered a Japanese exclusion speech. The San Francisco school board issued an order to segregate “pupils of the Mongolian race” from public schools, charging that classrooms were overcrowded with Asians (in reality, the order only applied to 93 Japanese kids, since Chinese schoolchildren were already forced to go to the “Oriental School”). Following the 1906 Earthquake, Japanese scientists visiting San Francisco were pelted with rocks, perhaps because one of the Exclusion League’s statements claimed the Japanese liked earthquakes: “Do not for a moment think that the Japanese will keep away on account of the earthquakes. They are raised on earthquakes in Japan, and the earthquake will only make the Nepponese [sic] coolies feel more at home in California. ”

The view from Sonoma County can be found by sampling the local papers from January, 1907. Teddy Roosevelt had just ordered the San Francisco Board of Education to keep Japanese students in the public schools, and on the seventh the Santa Rosa Republican printed wire stories about the Governor and an Oregon Senator denouncing the order. The next day, the Republican reprinted an Oakland Enquirer editorial on the “commercial menace of Japan,” warning that the Japanese could horn in on lucrative flour exports if they started grinding wheat grown in Asia. On Jan. 24, the Press Democrat published the editorial cartoon seen at right, powerful in its imagery if rather vague in message (click to enlarge).

Most significant is that both Santa Rosa papers never, as far as I can find, reprinted items from the Bay Area press that suggested that the Japanese were “coolies” or part of a Fifth Column, called for them to be deported or their children removed from school, or otherwise suggested that they were undeserving, lesser people. Yes, individuals were sometimes disrespectfully (in modern eyes) referred to as “Japs” or even “little brown men” in local articles, but if those editors truly intended to publish racial putdowns, they had a lexicon of hateful invective available to them from the San Francisco papers.

Santa Rosa’s big event for that month was a speech by Democratic Party superstar William Jennings Bryan, and more than 3,000 packed into the skating rink on a Saturday afternoon to hear him pontificate about America’s greatness and its destiny to lead the world. In the portion of his speech summarized in a Press Democrat article below, Bryan also pitched the conflicts between Asia and the United States as sort of a crusade for the “active, positive faith of Christianity.” Oh, dear.

The situation only spiraled down. Japanese who had become naturalized citizens but lost their papers in the San Francisco earthquake were denied their former citizenship. 1907 also witnessed two incidents in San Francisco involving White drunks that turned into anti-Japanese riots, and similar riots followed in Berkeley (!) in 1909. The Exclusion League tripled in membership groups, and in 1910 there were an astonishing 27 anti-Japanese laws proposed in the California legislature. William Jennings Bryan, always helpful, told President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 that the problem could be solved if half the Japanese in California were relocated to other states.

Most of those woes didn’t impact Japanese immigrants in Sonoma County, but the California Alien Land Law of 1913 did. They could no longer buy property, or even legally rent land for more than three years, and a 1920 ballot initiative further blocked their ability to have the actual land title held in the name of a trust, business, or their citizen children. The courts later chipped away at the restrictions somewhat, but the entire law was not overturned in California until 1952.

While trade unions and the California Grange sparked the anti-Japanese movement, it was the newspapers of the day that are most to blame for fanning the flames white hot. The pro-union San Francisco Chronicle kept the issue on the front page for much of 1905-1906, even reviving it when interest waned after the quake. It became fodder for a newspaper war with the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner’s long-running “Yellow Peril” series, which most famously offered a 1907 Sunday feature titled, “Japan May Seize the Pacific Coast.” The Hearst syndicate continued playing this alarmist theme for years and hit rock-bottom – which for them, was really saying something – when in 1915 they ran an article supposedly revealing secret plans for a Japanese invasion of California via Mexico. The photos were twenty years old, and the basis of the story was badly-translated fiction from a Japanese magazine.

Masterly Address Is Heard by Immense Audience
Splendid Reception Tendered the Distinguished Statesman in the City of Roses Saturday

It was an immense audience that gathered in the pavilion on A street to hear the Hon. William Jennings Bryan, the distinguished Nebraska statesman, on Saturday afternoon. They came from far and near to see and hear one of the country’s foremost men. They saw and heard and went away satisfied, carrying with them the inspiration of a high resolve, and uplifted and elevated by the stirring sentiments expressed by the celebrated speaker.


Mr. Bryan dwelt at considerable length on modern China and her issue from the dormant condition of two thousand years. The negative creed of Confucius is giving place to the active, positive faith of Christianity, he said. Progressive viceroys of different provinces are organizing schools not for the teachers of the musty philosophy of the past, but the newer ideas of a nearer age placed before the earnest student. “I see the day,” said the speaker, “when Christianity will illuminate the lang [sic], dark places of the Orient.”

Referring to Japan the speaker said she was facing one of the most important crises in her history. She had copied western ways and now it remained to see whether she would borrow western religion, or endeavor to build up the nation without religion, and with agnosticism and infidelity.

Very interesting Mr. Bryan alluded to the religions of other races and the idolatry practiced in certain lands. He then described the visits he and Mrs. Bryan paid to some of the crowned heads of the old world, and of the ceremony attendant thereon. He was pleased beyond measure, he said, to hear President Roosevelt mentioned all over the world as a lover of peace, growing out of his mission in bringing about a cessation of hostilities between Russia and Japan…

– Press Democrat, January 27, 1907

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