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by Judy Yung
On September 3, 1928, twenty-year-old Toshiko Inaba arrived in San Francisco with her eighteen-year-old brother Akira. Both were kibeis (born in the U.S. but educated in Japan) who held birth certificates proving their right to return to the U.S. However, while Akira was readily admitted, Toshiko was denied admission on the grounds that she had lost her U.S. citizenship by marrying Tatorao Yamamoto, an “alien ineligible to citizenship,” while in Japan. It didn’t matter that the marriage had been annulled within a few months and that she had never lived with him as man and wife. She would spend the next sixteen months on Angel Island, waiting for the results of her appeal to the Secretary of Labor in Washington, D.C., the U.S. District Court, and finally, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A victim of racist and sexist immigration and nationality laws, Toshiko Inaba was deported back to Japan on January 15, 1930.
Toshiko Inaba was but one of 85,000 Japanese to arrive in San Francisco between 1910 and 1940, making them the second largest ethnic group after the Chinese to be processed through the Angel Island Immigration Station. Japanese laborers had been prohibited from emigrating according to the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907-08, but a loophole in the law allowed Japanese aliens in America to send for their wives and family until the Immigration Act of 1924 stopped all Japanese immigration in its tracks. The majority of the Japanese detainees at Angel Island were picture brides, wives, and children of Japanese aliens, but there were also returning U.S. residents and U.S. citizens like Toshiko Inaba.
Of all the ethnic groups on Angel Island, the Japanese had the shortest stay and lowest rate of deportation, thanks to the Gentlemen’s Agreement, which gave Japan, a rising international power, authority to regulate Japanese immigration to the U.S. Immigrants armed with Japanese passports were generally admitted within a day or two, and less than 1 percent wecare barred from entry. In contrast, Chinese were detained for two to three weeks and 7 percent of all applicants were excluded and deported. Toshiko has the dubious distinction of holding the record for the longest known detention among the Japanese on Angel Island. She had to wait another thirty-five years before she was allowed to return to her family in Sacramento, California, where she died in 1981. This is her story as pieced together from her immigration file and information from her family.
Toshiko Inaba was born in Walnut Grove, California, on October 11, 1908, the oldest of six children. Her father Hikotaro Inaba was a farmer and foreman at the McNeil Canal Ranch; her mother Kazume Inaba was a housewife. At the age of three, Toshiko was taken to Japan for schooling by her mother’s friends, Mr. and Mrs. Matsumoto. She lived with her uncle Junzo Inaba’s family and entered Kosa Elementary School at the age of eight. Her daughter Emiko recalled years later that Toshiko liked playing with paper dolls and performing in school. At fifteen, she moved on to Kosa High School, where her favorite activity was tennis, and then to a boarding school when she was eighteen. Toshiko had plans to become a preschool teacher, but that same year, her uncle decided to arrange her marriage to a cousin, Tatorao Yamamoto.
According to Toshiko’s testimony at the Angel Island Immigration Station, she was away at school and had no say in the matter.
I was registered into his family for about one month….I spoke to my relatives and told them that I did not want to be the wife of Yamamoto, so they had a family conference, and took the matter up with Yamamoto Tatorao, and he agreed very agreeably, to this arrangement, stating that if I did not wish to be his wife, he would return me back to my family, which was done, and reported to the local Registrar for cancellation of our marriage. There were no divorce proceedings in court at all.
She had proof. The family registries that Toshiko showed the immigration inspectors proved that she had been registered into the Yamamoto family on June 15, 1927, and registered back into her own family on September 22, 1927. Testimonies of her parents and brother at Angel Island corroborated her story. Her father said he initially decided to leave the marriage proposal in the hands of his brother-in-law, but when Toshiko wrote him about her opposition to the marriage, he asked that she be returned to his family.
A year later and upon graduating from Kumamoto Sewing School, Toshiko returned to the United States with her brother Akira. The voyage by sea took close to a month and she was seasick all the way. She was grateful that her father had paid extra so that they could travel more comfortably in second class. They were able to get off the ship in Honolulu before proceeding to San Francisco, where their father was waiting for them at the docks. To Toshiko’s great surprise, after they had each been interviewed by immigration inspectors aboard the ship, she and her brother were ferried over to Angel Island for further investigation. Their birth certificates were in order and Akira was admitted as a native, but Toshiko was denied admission “on the ground that you are a person of a race ineligible to citizenship, not excepted by any of the provisions of the Immigration Law, you having lost your American citizenship by marriage to an Oriental.” During her absence from the United States, Congress had passed the Cable Act of 1922, which revoked the U.S. citizenship of any woman who married an alien ineligible to citizenship, namely Asian aliens.
The Inabas decided to appeal the decision, retaining attorney M. E. Mitchell to represent Toshiko. The argument was made to the Secretary of Labor that Toshiko’s marriage to Tatorao Yamamoto was not lawful under the laws of Japan because she had been coerced into the marriage and her parents had not given their consent. Moreover, the marriage had been promptly annulled by the return of Toshiko’s name to the Inaba family registry. “If the alleged marriage was void and an absolute nullity, there was, of course, no marriage at all….If there was no marriage at all, there was, of course, no loss of citizenship.” But the Board of Review rejected this argument on January 28, 1929, stating that the marriage was lawful and subsequently terminated, and that as a result of the marriage, Toshiko had lost her U.S. citizenship and become inadmissible according to the Immigration Act of 1924. Attorney Mitchell next petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in the Federal District Court, asking that Toshiko be released from unlawful detention based on the same arguments. The petition was denied on August 22, 1929.
The case, Toshiko Inaba v. John Nagle, Commissioner of Immigration, was next heard in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This time attorneys for the appellant argued, ”Even if we concede there has been a marriage and no annulment, there has at the very least been a divorce or termination of the marriage, and petitioner has the right to re-enter the United States for the purpose of regaining her citizenship.” They cited the case of Yoshiko Hoshino, in which a woman who was born in Hawaii and who lost her citizenship when she married a Japanese alien was allowed to regain her citizenship by naturalization after the marriage was terminated. However, as U.S. Attorney George Hatfield argued on behalf of the Immigration Service, there was a clear distinction between the Hoshino case and the Inaba case.
There the question was: Whether or not a woman born in the Territory of the United States, who had never left the Territory of the United States, who was at the time in the Territory of the United States, could be naturalized. Here the question is: Whether a woman born in the United States, who has lost her American citizenship, who is not now in the United States, but is seeking entry, can enter the country as a citizen. What was involved there was the Naturalization Law; what is involved here is the Immigration Law.
Having lost her U.S. citizenship by marrying a Japanese alien, Toshiko was inadmissible according to the Immigration Act of 1924.
The judge dismissed the argument that the marriage was invalid because of coercion on the part of Toshiko’s relatives. “If such coercion will invalidate a marriage between Orientals, it is a matter of common knowledge that few, if any, of such marriages, will result, or can result, in expatriation.” On December 17, 1929, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sustained the Department of Immigration’s decision to exclude Toshiko on the basis that she had indeed lost her citizenship through marriage. A week later, Toshiko was ordered to be deported. We don’t know what her reaction was to the bad news, but we do know that her father cried when he heard that Toshiko would not be coming back to live with them. In preparation, he had added two rooms to their small house in Sacramento. He asked that Tosiko be released on bond to spend the Christmas holidays with the family. His request was denied, perhaps because Japanese detainees as a group had the highest rate of bond forfeiture. After sixteen months of waiting at Angel Island, Toshiko Inaba returned to Japan on the Asama Maru on January 15, 1930.
A year later, she agreed to an arranged marriage to Kazo Ogata, a businessman. This time, the marriage lasted. The couple moved to Shanghai, where Kazo started an import business, selling sake and other supplies to the Japanese Navy. They had a daughter, Emiko, and a son, Yoshinori, before returning to live permanently in Kosa, Kumamoto, in 1938. Kazo became a high school teacher and Toshiko started a farm and later ran a bathhouse. After the deaths of her husband and son, and after her daughter married and moved to the United States, Toshiko decided to return to America in 1965 to visit her family and daughter. She was granted a six-month visitor’s visa.
Finding life in America to her liking, Toshiko decided to apply for permanent residency in 1966. Her mother had become a naturalized citizen in 1954 and was able to serve as Toshiko’s petitioner. In her application for permanent residency, she explained why she had been denied entry into the country in 1928. “A few years after that, I received a letter from Attorney Mitchell stating that I could return to this country should I so desire, but I was married to Kazo Ogata on February 27, 1931, so I could not return to this country.” (The Cable Act was not repealed until 1931, allowing all women who had lost their citizenship to regain it.) Then she added, “My husband, Kazo Inaba, died in Japan on September 28, 1956, and since my mother, brothers, etc. are all in this country, I am now applying to remain in this country with them.” This time she was successful.
For the remainder of her life, Toshiko worked at her family’s business, North American Food Distributing Company, in Sacramento. Founded by her brothers, Richard, Edward, and Flu Hitoshi, after World War II, the company distributed wholesale Japanese foods and gift items. Family members remember fondly that Toshiko enjoyed singing Japanese folksongs, flower arranging, playing Hana (a Japanese card game), and traveling. She passed away on February 3, 1981, at the age of seventy-two.
We will never know how Toshiko felt about her long detention at Angel Island and the final decision to ban her from America for marrying an alien ineligible to citizenship. She was after all, a victim of racist and sexist nationality and immigration laws, which were not fully rectified until 1931 and 1965, respectively. Was she embittered by the experience? According to her family, Toshiko never talked about Angel Island except to say that she liked to eat the oatmeal they served. “She learned how to cook it and always made it for her granddaughter who still enjoys eating oatmeal today.” If there is a silver lining to her misfortune, it is that Toshiko was able to escape incarceration in the Amachi Camp, where her family was interned during World War II.
Editor’s Note: For more information about the history of the Angel Island Immigration Station and the experiences of Japanese detainees on Angel Island, see Erika Lee and Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Toshiko Inaba with her husband Kazo Ogata, daughter Emiko, and son Yoshinori in 1940. (Courtesy of May Masunaga)
Toshiko Inaba may have attended one of Methodist Deaconess Katharine Maurer ‘s English classes during her long stay on Angel Island. Called “A.B.C. Mama” by the Japanese women, Maurer tended to the needs of all immigrants at the immigration station regardless of race or creed from 1912 to 1940. This photo was taken in 1929, the year that Toshiko was detained on Angel Island. (Courtesy of California State Parks)
Japanese women were housed in a separate dormitory from Chinese and European women in the left wing of the Administration Building. They took their meals in the dining hall with the other women and were allowed out to view the ocean scenery and get some exercise almost on a daily basis. Still, many women complained about the poor food and the feelings of imprisonment and anxiety over their uncertain fate. (Courtesy of California State Parks)
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