“Shall We Allow the Narrow Minded Race Prejudice . . . to be Paramount?”: A Sociological Study of “The Japanese in Rural Los Angeles County,” 1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

When Walter P. Temple and Laura González purchased the 75-acre Workman Homestead in late November 1917, restoring the property to Workman and Temple family ownership after nearly two decades, the deed referred to the fact that they could not take actual possession of the ranch until a lease expired at the end of 1918.

The holder of that lease was mentioned only as “K. Yatsuda” and nothing else was said about him or his use of the tract, but Yatsuda was one of many Japanese residents of Los Angeles County who was renting property and farming—presumably, he was engaging in the truck farming of fruits and vegetables that was common to many Japanese.

Moreover, leasing or renting was the only option for Japanese residents of our area because of the racist Alien Land Law passed by the California Legislature in 1913 and which placed an outright ban on land ownership by the Japanese. This followed the so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 in which the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt signed a pact with Japan to restrict the immigration of Japanese to the United States.

In June 1920, as part of its Studies in Sociology series of monographs, the Southern California Sociological Society based at the University of Southern California issued its sixteenth publication, “The Japanese in Rural Los Angeles County,” written by Ralph F. Burnight, an assistant in the Department of Sociology at the university.

Today, from 3 to 8 p.m., the Homestead will have a booth at the Nikkei Festival sponsored by Boyle Heights Community Partners in conjunction with Japanese-American community groups and others, so this post is a sort of preview for that event and its content an important element of the history of the relations of Japanese residents of our region at a time of intense racial prejudice and institutional actions of oppression.

An editor’s note provided a brief biography of Burnight (1897-1973), stating that was born in Pasadena and earned his B.A. from USC in 1918 and was a candidate for his master’s from the school at the time the monograph was published. Moreover, Burnight was in the California National Guard and served in World War I as part of the Sanitary Corps, arriving in France at the end of July 1918. He was promoted to a sergeant and then first lieutenant during his service and left Europe in mid-April 1919, being mustered out from the Presidio in San Francisco at the end of May.

Shortly after he completed his studies at USC and this monograph issued, Burnight went to China to teach and followed this with a short period of instruction at a high school in Fresno before returning to this area. In 1924, he was hired to teach at the newly opened Excelsior High School in Norwalk and became its principal and superintendent of the district of the same name a half-dozen years later.

Under his lengthy tenure, including the Great Depression, World War II and boom years following that conflict, Burnight oversaw the addition of the Artesia, Bellflower and Norwalk high schools and, with the tremendous growth after 1945, which included conversion of former truck farms before the Japanese were interned in concentration camps during the war and of former dairy, advocated for the creation of a junior college. Excelsior opened in 1955 with Burnight as president and he retired seven years later—the school was renamed Cerritos College in 1971.

He began his study by noting it concerned those Japanese residing in unincorporated areas, comprising some 440,000 acres of cultivated lands, of which the Japanese, like Yatsuda, had, through leases some 38,000 acres, though there was a small amount in ownership (acquired prior to 1913) of just more than 3,000 acres. Notably, leases were restricted by the Alien Land Law to three years or less and Yatsuda had at least two (1917 and 1918) when he rented from the Homestead’s then-owners Eugene Bassett and his son-in-law Thurston Pratt. Burnight recorded that the Japanese population of Los Angeles County was at around 10,000 in 1920.

Of the acreage rented or owned by the Japanese, more than 60 per cent was planted to vegetables and about 15% to beets and 8% to hay and grain. Berries comprised 3% and there were smaller numbers of deciduous and citrus fruits and grapes, while a miscellaneous category totaled another 8% or so. The largest concentration of Japanese residency in farm areas was in the South Bay near Inglewood, Compton, Gardena, San Pedro and Long Beach, with more than 40%, or about 19,000, of the total acreage in these areas.

On the west side of Los Angeles and in Santa Monica, there was just over 4,800 acres farmed by the Japanese, while in Alhambra and San Gabriel the total was about 4,300 and the San Fernando Valley amounted to just over 4,000 acres. At Norwalk and Whittier, the total was not quite 1,100 acres and the average farm size ranged from about 15 acres in Alhambra and San Gabriel to 36 in Norwalk and Whittier with the general average being not quite 23. The largest Japanese-ran farm was just north of 112 acres in Van Nuys and the second biggest was in San Pedro and constituted a little over 62.

Burnight observed that “pro-Japanese writers in this State [asserted[ that wherever the Japanese farmer has gone he has taken unproductive and often waste land and brought it to a high degree of fertility.” He found this to have “a fair amount of truth . . but there is a danger of misconception,” in that there was often arid, unproductive land involved, but only when the Japanese (understandably) wished to buy the tract. So, for those 3,100 acres of owned land, he found that, because the Japanese “were very poor and had to buy the cheapest land they could find,” the statement was true, but, he wrote, “little evidence could be found to further support the assertion.”

Counter to this were statements “by the anti-Japanese agitators . . . that the Japanese are buying an immense amount of land in the name of their children” and it was even claimed that childless Japanese couples “‘borrow’ children and pay ‘rent’ for them and buy land in the names of the ‘foster’ children.” Burnight was told this “by a highly respected and able official of the country,” yet, when this individual was asked for evidence, “he failed to produce even one” example. The author asked “respectable citizens” in the region and found no proven instances, so “such an assertion should be cast aside” until definitive proof was brought forward.

As to Japanese buying land in their children’s names (which, in fact, was totally legal as the youngsters born in the United States were, of course, American citizens), these “alarmist” statements “contained enough truth to establish it as a fact. Yet, the totals were minuscule, with only 385 acres in Los Angeles County, almost all in Lankershim (Van Nuys) and 528 for all of southern California. Burnight observed that “these facts do not justify the many columns that appear in the daily press on the subject,” and, given this was over six years, “should be no cause for alarm.”

More serious in his mind was the accusation that the Japanese “are ruining some of the best land in the country” through their farming practices, including one by an agricultural expert that “the Japanese farmers have water-logged the land so that it became useless” though replacing fertilizer with water or over-irrigation. Two instances were cited, but, when asked if that was true with farmers of other ethnicities, the answer was “it was one of the most common causes of the failure of ‘tenderfoot’ farmers;” in other words, any inexperienced farmer. Moreover, Burnight found that one of the pair of Japanese examples “was found to have very little foundation.” In fact, there were several white farmers misusing water in that unnamed locality.

Burnight, however, did note that “there seems to be good foundation for the complaint” of Japanese farmers ruining the land on a general level and attributed this to the three-year lease restriction, so that, for the first two years fertilization and intense cultivation took place, but in the “lame duck” year, unless a renewal was anticipated, “no fertilization is done and through very intensive cultivation practically every once of nourishment in the ground is extracted.”

But, he added, the land was not ruined per se, because experts noted that the land could be restored within three years. So, while this was a situation “at which the Japanese farmers have erred greatly,” the 1913 land law also “is partly responsible.” Burnight added that the Japanese consul and community associations felt that, if Japanese farmers were approached about this issue, “they would do much to remedy the situation, and virtually solve the problem.”

Then, there was competition with the writer noting that “where the groups [white and Japanese] are rather evenly matched, the struggle can go on successfully” as each would improve farming operations, produce with less cost and “thereby progress and be benefited by the competition.” Yet, he went on, “if the first group is manifestly more fitted for agriculture and can raise produce at so much lower prices than the second group as to make competition prohibitive, the second group will have to leave the field.” When it came to vegetables and berries, Burnight observed, “this is the condition that exists in Los Angeles county between the Japanese and the white farmers . . . and for this reason the Japanese have gained almost a monopoly in the business of truck farming.”

A Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce study found that almost all berries, 85% of celery, 60% of cauliflower, 40% of cabbage and potatoes, close to 70% of vegetables, and nearly three-quarters of all public market space for these products was under the management of the Japanese. Burnight analyzed the situation and found four principal reasons for this: 1) a low living standard; 2) long hours of work and women working alongside men; the Japanese “are fitted through habit for ‘squatting’ occupations; and 4) “they are accustomed to intensive cultivation of the soil.” He also found that the Japanese were willing to invest more in vehicles and tools, but less so on household “luxuries,” than whites, to maximize production from the fields.

With respect to the hours worked, Burnight made sure to note that “it is by no means a point of criticism but rather, to a certain degree, one of commendation,” but, he continued, “the trouble with the Japanese is that they carry this custom to too great an extreme and work practically all their waking hours.” He said he witnessed farmers in the fields by dawn and harvesting after dusk.

When it came to women working on farms, he pointed out that, with white men off to war in the late conflict, white women took to the fields, which was “much more healthful than working in the department stores or the smoky factories.” Moreover, most white women workers were young and unmarried and gave up employment when they were wed and had families. He concluded, “the proper training of the children of any country requires more attention from the mother than taking them into the fields where they sit all day while the parents are working nearby.” Finally, he allowed that Japanese women working with their husbands was a cost-saving benefit, as white farmers had to hire labor, so “the competition tends to become very one-sided and is destructive to the American farmer.”

All Burnight said about the “squatting” occupations was that “the Japanese are fitted through nature and through training for this, so that “they are superior to other nationalities” when it came to the nature of truck farming, while their abilities with such intensive cultivation gave them an advantage over Americans not experienced with it, though he added that the latter “can acquire this knowledge . . if they will.” Burnight continued that “if the low standards of living of the Japanese are allowed to remain . . . [they] will eventually defeat all competitors.”

Whites had three options: 1) allow Japanese control of truck farming; 2) legislate them out of the industry; and 3) “elevate the standards of the Japanese and in other ways seek to bring him up to our ideals, or in other words, to Americanize him.” Stating that the first was not wanted as no “group of foreigners [should have] a monopoly in any of our industries,” Burnight called the second, wanted only by agitators and jingoists, and wrote that it was:

diametrically opposed to the true spirit of Americanism” and its “spirit of fair play.” Shall we allow the narrow minded race prejudice of a portion of our population to be paramount in this matter or shall the question be settled on the broad foundations on which America was established and upon which she still professes to stand?

Concerning the living standards of the Japanese, Burnight recorded that “there is scarcely room for argument” as “the rough, unpainted shacks are found in every section of the county.” He noted that “it seems strange to come upon a ranch in full bearing . . . and showing every evidence of prosperity, and then to find a group of shacks in one corner which serve as the house, barn and stables.” This, he continued, was “much of the same type of shack [as] seen in the Mexican quarters of the cities, but there it is evidence of extreme poverty and is probably as good as the inhabitants can afford.”

There were improvements in the last decade, as testified to by a building inspector of fourteen years experience. Houses had partitions, wood floors and more furniture and “since conditions have been improved, further improvements may be expected.” As to sanitation, a 1919 state law required flush toilets in all houses, but it was stated that no Japanese had complied by mid-March 1920 and a test case was readied in the criminal court on the matter. An expressed concern was about the likelihood of typhoid fever being carried by the Japanese under such circumstances.

Burnight went on that “the responsibility for the existing conditions, especially in the matter of housing, however, should not be placed entirely on the Japanese.” Because of the lease restrictions of the Alien Land Law, he asked, “is not strange, then, that they should refuse to build houses according to our standards when they know that at the end of three years they may be obliged to move to some other locality. What would American do under similar circumstances?” He simply stated that “there is something fundamentally wrong with the law” as it “removed all incentive for the upkeep of land.”

Also of concern was the agitators and their claims “that Japanese children are immoral; that they have low standards; and that the teachers discriminate against the white children and in favor of the Japanese by devoting more time to the latter.” Burnight pointed out that “there are a number of Mexican families with children in school, and yet no complaint is made against them,” but he also added that “any one who is at all acquainted with the Mexican children knows that their standards of morality and general standards of living are exceedingly low.”

He stated that “the universal testimony of the teachers [was] that as far as morality was concerned they had absolutely no trouble with the Japanese,” excepting the youngest at the start of a year, “who, through ignorance, acted in a way which is not up to the standard of the American children,” but, when corrected, behaved properly—this leads to a question of what the definition of “morality” was in terms of behavior and the understanding of right and wrong. It was added that teachers were against segregated schools as this would inhibit assimilation. As simply put by Burnight, “race prejudice tends to disappear when the two peoples come to know each other better” and asked “where is a better place to start the elimination of race prejudice than among the children?”

In a table of school statistics, it was noted that there was, in one district, a high number of Japanese children under five years of age, so that, when they entered the school, they would outnumber white students. Burnight accounted that “this is a serious situation and one that will require careful handling,” but segregation “would only make matters worse for it would make the children feel the difference in races rather than to eliminate race prejudice.”

For birth rates, there was a decline about Japanese births as well as whites, but he wrote “it is this decrease in the white birth rate that should give cause for alarm,” though “it is sure no one’s fault but our own” if another ethnic group became numerically superior as this would be a “serious reflection upon us.” Burnight, however, wrote that “the panic stricken cry of alarm” that the Japanese “will soon swamp the whole country” was untrue and “there is little need of alarm,” but he added “it should not be the Japanese that we should fear, but rather the Mexicans,” who birth rate was rising and “at that rate they would soon outstrip both the white and the Japanese races.”

Burnight suggested that there was both “ignorance on the part of Americans of the Japanese people and of their traits and characteristics which make them an asset to our country” as well as “ignorance on the part of Japanese of our customs and institutions.” The anti-Japanese agitators were prominent in the media, which tended to inform the opinions of most whites, but the author stated that three forces were helping the Japanese. These included the public schools, being “the greatest force for the Americanization of the immigrant that exists in America;” the Protestant missions who were valuable “in raising the ideas and the lives of the people and in teaching them the true ideals of American life;” and the Japanese Association of Los Angeles, which “has a comprehensive program for the Americanization of the Japanese” in citizenship, dietetics, farming, housing, hygiene, sanitation and more.

Burnight, in speaking to the Association’s secretary, Jji Kasai, observed that most racial antipathy was in rural areas like Gardena and San Gabriel and Kasai answered that his group was encouraging Japanese to move from those areas and to go to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, where, it was hoped, that Japanese would be “careful not to congregate” so that whites would “slowly become acquainted with them and the shock of the meeting of the two races which was felt very severely in California would be eliminated.

After summarizing his report in twelve statements, including a couple with sub-comments, Burnight quoted Theodore Roosevelt (notable given the Gentlemen’s Agreement during his tenure as president) and stated that it “should be made the key note of our whole atitude towards the Japanese:

We must treat with justice and good-will all immigrants who come here under law . . . All we have a right to question is the man’s conduct. If he is honest and upright in his dealings with his neighbor, and with the state, then he is entitled to respect and good treatment. Especially do we need to remember our duty to the stranger within our gates. It is the sure mark of a low civilization, a low morality, to abuse or discriminate against or in any way humiliate such [a] stranger who has come here lawfully and who is conducting himself properly . . .

Burnight’s report is one that generally shows a somewhat advanced view of the Japanese compared to most whites in our region at that time, though there are some elements of his analysis that do not comport with modern ideas about race relations. Notions of Americanization, discussions of the Japanese and their work habits, standard of living, hygiene and other aspects stand out, as does his comments about Mexicans, who were, because of revolution in México and economic instability, immigrating in greater numbers and would dramatically increase in rates during the 1920s.

The “Japanese in Rural Los Angeles County” report is an important one and, as the Museum participates at the Nikkei festival in Boyle Heights today and engages in events and interpretation of the history of greater Los Angeles generally, it is one of the many artifacts in the Homestead’s collection that helps us better understand conditions in our region from 1830 to 1930.

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