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1915 | Michi Kawai | Female

by Michi Kawai

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Angel Island immigrant: Yes

Place of Origin

Place of Settlement

AIISF logoEditor Judy Yung’s Note: Japanese immigrants were the second largest group after the Chinese to be processed at the Angel Island Immigration Station.  Approximately 90,000 Japanese were admitted through Angel Island between 1910 and 1940.  Because the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 barred the emigration of Japanese laborers to the United States, the new arrivals consisted mainly of parents, wives, and children of Japanese residents.  In contrast to the Chinese experience at Angel Island, the Japanese had an easier time.  Armed with passports issued by the Japanese government and birth and marriage certificates proving their right to immigrate, the overwhelming majority were processed and admitted within a day or two. Less than 1 percent were ever excluded or deported.  It is probably because their stays at Angel Island were short that few have left written or oral accounts of their detention experience. The following description of Japanese life at Angel Island is thus rare.  It was excerpted from two works by Michi Kawai, general secretary of the YWCA of Japan from 1912 to 1926: My Lantern (Tokyo: Kyo Bun Kwan, 1939) and “A Day at Angel Island,” Joshi Seinenkai, September 1915, translated by John Akiyama.  Kawai made three visits to Angel Island in 1915 while in the United States to attend the YWCA National Training School in New York and to investigate the condition of Japanese women on the Pacific Coast.  A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and founder of Keisen Girls School in Tokyo, Kawai was a strong advocate of women’s education.  It was largely through her efforts that the YWCA in Japan and in the United States became directly involved in preparing and assisting Japanese women to adapt to their new lives in America.

Upon hearing that some one hundred Japanese women were on the July 15 ship Tenyo Maru, I left home early on the morning of the 16th to visit the Angel Island immigration facility.  As I had already visited twice before, I was able to get permission to board the ship without much hassle.  Angel Island, which can be reached by heading northeast of San Francisco, is very scenic.  One side of the island is occupied by the immigration buildings and military barracks, the other side by a hospital for contagious diseases–a sad and forbidding place.  Some may ask why name such a place “Angel,” but if it is the work of angels to give comfort in such a lonely and sad place by surrounding it with beauty, then it is very appropriately named.

After crossing the short pier, one faces a large two-story wood-framed building [Administration Building], and beyond that up the hill is a two-story building that serves as the men’s detention barracks.  The ugly white building on the left is a quarantine hospital with trees and flowers dotting the landscape, displaying the struggling efforts of a gardener.  The smokestacks sticking out towards the seaside show that electricity flows through the island, and on both sides, as if to stand guard over the premises, are the staff quarters lined up like toy battleships.

AIISF logoEntering the building ahead, one finds a room [Main Examination Room] that is partitioned into three or four waiting areas on each side, and an official calling out Japanese to the left, Chinese to the right.  This is where the parents, spouses, and friends of the new arrivals are interviewed.  On the second floor are the one hundred or women of the same nationality gathered in one room.  Bunks in tiers of three occupy the greater part of the room.  Some of the women are lying down, others are changing their clothes, and still others are sitting on a bench as if waiting for someone to come.  All of them are anxiously awaiting the physical examination for trachoma and hookworm as they carefully guard their passports done up in furoshiki wrapping-cloths.  It is no wonder that they are nervous.  I hear that even those who passed the same exams three times in Japan have been stopped by the Immigration Service, because they did not take care of their health while on board the ship.

In general, the women represent a cross-section of lower-middle class Japanese-a hair-dresser, a middle-aged geisha and a dancing mistress, all with Japanese coiffure and clothes; a group of dancing girls going to the Exposition; several older country women; a refined looking mother with two children; wives who have been sent for by their husbands; some who are returning from visits in Japan; and a few “picture brides.”  The brides are mostly from country communities and look queer, even to me; for no one has told them that their huge pompadours stuffed with “rats” have long since gone out of style in America, and that their efforts to beautify themselves with an excessive use of powder results only in giving an impression of uncleanness.

When the lunch bell rings, they go downstairs to the dining room along with the Chinese, Spanish, and European women-all housed in separate quarters.  The room is bare, save for eight rows of long tables and benches.  On each table is a large pan filled with slices of bread, some small bowls of jam and white sugar, and cups for tea.  The Europeans have meat, beans, and even better silverware.  Only a few of the Japanese women are served one or two extra dishes, which they had ordered and purchased beforehand.  Within five minutes, they finish eating and head back upstairs.  Some stop along the way at the small food stand to purchase pickled vegetables and other snacks.  At four o’clock for their supper they have steamed Chinese rice and greens cooked with scraps of pork in a salty broth.  Some of the Japanese women tell me with tears that the food is awful.  The steamship companies pay a certain amount per person to the government for food; the government bids out the food services to a sub-contractor who is of course white; and the sub-contractor uses mainly Chinese cooks who cater to the palates of the Chinese immigrants.

After dinner one is allowed to go out and view the ocean scenery, or head towards the hill for some exercise.  The back area, however, is surrounded by a chain link fence, and guards can be seen from time to time, giving one a sense of unease.  We return inside by 7 o’clock and take a bath, and the matron on duty orders everyone to prepare for bed.  There are two matrons for the female dorms, one is an American and the other is the beautiful wife of Reverend Terasawa.  Mrs. Terasawa is fluent in English, very compassionate, and a mother of several fine children.  No one is better suited for such a role.  The fact that she can also speak Chinese is very advantageous; the Chinese respect and call her Mama.  Her virtue should be noted, as it is due to Mrs. Terasawa’s generosity that I am permitted to spend the night, to my great delight.

AIISF logoThe next morning, in order to ease the nerves of those waiting for the results of their physical exam from the previous day, and those waiting for their own exams, I talk to them like an older sister, explaining the customs, the likes and dislikes of the American people.  I mention the special things women should be careful about; the cleanliness of hair, nails, shoes and handkerchiefs; the difference between the Japanese and the American bathroom and toilet; the way to walk in American shoes.  I tell them about American home life and moral standards, and of the Japanese people’s responsibility to the land they have come to live in.  After an hour of talking to them, it is time to board the boat.  Unsure of how long the boat would wait, I cut short my farewells and hurry below to the waiting room, which is packed with husbands, parents and friends of the new arrivals.  As we leave the island I look up, and at all the windows a flutter of white handkerchiefs wave an appreciation of what little I had been able to do in that short time.  Then and there I saw a field of service for the Y.W.C.A., the work of preparing our women emigrants for life abroad, before ever they leave Japan.

Please note: We continue to look for stories of those who were once detained or who worked at Angel Island.  Please contact us if you have a story to share.  Email us at

Judy Yung is professor emerita of American Studies at UC Santa Cruz and the co-author of Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, with Professor Erika Lee of the University of Minnesota.  The book is sponsored by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and was published in 2010. Judy is currently working on a revision of Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, which she originally co-wrote with Genny Lim and the late Him Mark Lai.

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