Japanese Americans responded to anti-Asian hostility by focusing on agriculture as an economic endeavor that would be less threatening to whites. Japanese Americans succeeded in establishing farms supported by ethnic networks that facilitated purchasing of supplies and equipment, transportation, and marketing. The governments of many western states targeted Japanese Americans by passing legislation that banned “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning or leasing land. Japanese Americans circumvented these laws by placing land under the names of U.S.-born children or under corporate ownership, practices restricted by later versions of these laws. Although these laws were clearly based on racially discriminatory categories, the Supreme Court upheld them as constitutional in the early 1920s. Many Japanese Americans were forced to relinquish their farms and moved elsewhere, a practice that became formal U.S. policy with incarceration during World War II.
An act relating to the rights, powers and disabilities of aliens and of certain companies, associations and corporations with respect to property in this state . . . .
Section 1. All aliens eligible to citizenship under the laws of the United States may acquire, possess, enjoy, transmit, and inherit real property, or any interest therein, in this state in the same manner and to the same extent as citizens of the United States, except as otherwise provided by the laws of this state.
Sec. 2. All aliens other than those mentioned in section one of this act may acquire, possess, enjoy, and transfer real property, or any interest therein, in this state in the manner and to the extent and for the purpose prescribed by any treaty now existing between the government of the United States and the nation or country . . . and not otherwise, and may in addition thereto lease lands in this state for agricultural purposes for a term not exceeding three years.
Sec. 3. Any company, association or corporation organized under the laws of this or any other state or nation, of which a majority of the members are aliens other than those specified in section one of this act, or in which a majority of the issued capital stock is owned by such aliens, may acquire, possess, enjoy and convey real property, or any interest therein, in this state, in the manner and to the extent and for the purposes prescribed by any treaty no existing between the government of the United States and the nation or country of which such members or stockholders are citizens or subjects, and not otherwise, and may in addition thereto lease lands in this state for agricultural purposes for a term not exceeding three years…
Sec. 5. Any real property hereafter acquired in fee in violation of the provisions of this act by any alien mentioned in section two of this act, or by any company, association or corporation mentioned in section three of this act, shall . . . become and remain property of the State of California…
Commentary by Franklin Odo: California led the way for fifteen states to pass legislation preventing “aliens ineligible to citizenship” from owning land. Although occasionally used against other Asians, these laws were directly aimed at Japanese immigrants, who were perceived as gaining undue economic power through agricultural holdings. Legislation using the words “Asian” or “Japanese” would clearly be unconstitutional, hence the circumlocution. Violators would have their property revert to control by the state. But at least some Japanese manage to evade the law, and the legislature moved in 1920 to strengthen its provisions as well as prohibit the practice of immigrant Japanese (as guardians) placing land in the legal hands of their citizen children. The Supreme Court declared such laws constitutional in 1923, and California’s law remained on the books until 1956, although court cases had invalidated the 1920 and 1913 Alien Land Laws in Oyama v, California (1948) and Fuji Sei v. State of California (1952).
Excerpt from: Odo, F. (ed.) (2002). The columbia documentary history of the Asian American experience. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.