Ozawa v. United States: 1922 US Supreme Court Decision and Limits of Diplomacy

Shotaro OSHIMA1

One hundred years ago in November 1922, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Takao Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922) (“Ozawa”). Takeo Ozawa was a Japanese citizen who commenced a lawsuit against the United States in a United States District Court in the Territory of Hawaii in 1914 after his application to become a United States citizen had been denied. Ozawa lost in the District Court. When his case reached the Supreme Court, the Court had to interpret laws governing naturalization, which limited eligibility to “aliens being free white persons and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” 3 The Court recognized that Ozawa had “including the period of his residence in Hawaii … continuously resided in the United States for 20 years” and that he was well qualified by character and education for citizenship.” Nonetheless, the Court held that Ozawa was not eligible for naturalization because he was not “white” within the meaning of the law and was not a person of “African nativity” or of “African descent.” Put another way, the Court upheld the image of American identity implicit in the law which discriminated against certain groups of people and denied them American citizenship by naturalization.

Two years later, the United States Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which provided that: “No alien ineligible to citizenship shall be admitted to the United States, …”4 Although existing laws had already banned immigrants from most Asian countries, they did not formally ban immigration from Japan. The purpose of the said provision of the Immigration Act of 1924 was to ban immigrants from Japan.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Ozawa and the legislative decision to ban immigrants from Japan in the Immigration Act of 1924 were responses to the increase in the early twentieth century in the number of Japanese immigrants on the West Coast, particularly in California, and the corresponding growth of anti-Japanese movements. When the San Francisco educational authorities decided to put Japanese and other Asian students into a segregated school in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened in support of the Japanese. The following year his administration supported the so-called gentlemen’s agreement between the United States and Japan on “voluntary restraint” by Japan on emigration to the United States. The anti-Japanese movements in the West Coast grew and the administrations that followed Roosevelt’s administration became less committed to pushing back. In 1919, President Wilson, who was chairman of Paris Peace Conference that was convened to settle the issues arising from the First World War, rejected a proposal by the Japanese delegation to include a clause banning racial discrimination in the peace treaty.

The Japanese people viewed the Supreme Court’s 1922 decision in Ozawa and Congress’s decision to ban Japanese immigration by the Immigration Act of 1924 as federal level endorsements of the policies of the anti-Japanese movements on the West Coast that were unfair and humiliating.

This paper will turn its focus to the diplomatic efforts that were made before the Supreme Court decided Ozawa and before Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924 to maintain good relations between the countries.

In May 1917, while Japan and the United States were allies in the First World War, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals referred Ozawa’s appeal to the Supreme Court. Because the United States opposed Ozawa’s claim that he had a right to become a United States citizen, the Wilson administration was concerned that a decision against Ozawa would adversely affect its relationship with Japan. In order to preserve that relationship during the war, the Secretary of State urged the Solicitor General to ask the Supreme Court to delay its decision until the end of the war.5

After the war ended, President Warren G, Harding convened a conference among major powers with interests in the Pacific and Asia in Washington D.C. (the “Washington Conference”). Japan had become a major presence in East Asia and the Pacific, Germany lost its possessions in the Pacific and Great Britain and France saw their role in the region diminished. One of the American objectives was to constrain Japan’s growing military power and its increasing influence in the Far East.6 Because a decision against Ozawa might embarrass the Japanese delegation and compromise the American objective of finding a modus vivendi with the rising power of Japan, the State Department sought another delay of the Supreme Court’s decision in Ozawa. The Japanese diplomats in the United States were aware of the Harding administration’s efforts to postpone the Ozawa decision for diplomatic reasons. A report by the Consul in Seattle submitted in early November 1922 stated: “…September last year [1921], US Department of Justice requested the postponement of the case again. This was because the US Government was preparing to convene the Disarmament Conference in Washington in October and considered that a judgement [by the Supreme Court] on a case which would have serious impact on the rights of the Japanese in the United States, will evoke a debate over the propriety of the decision and stoke emotions, whichever way the decision went. It will affect the outcome of the Disarmament Conference and the future of the Pacific problem, as well as creating problems for the Japanese Delegation.”7

The Washington Conference, which ended in February 1922, resulted in agreements pertaining to the security of the region, including the Four Power Treaty signed in December 1921 which replaced the two decades old Anglo-Japanese Alliance, and the Five Power Treaty, which established a ratio at 5:5:3:1.67:1.67 capping battleship tonnage for the U.S., Britain, Japan, France and Italy. On November 13, 1922, the Supreme Court published its decision in Ozawa.

In 1924 the issue of banning immigration from Japan came before the Congress. President Calvin Coolidge’s Secretary of State worked with the Japanese Ambassador in Washington to avoid legislation that included a ban. Their effort to influence the legislature backfired and facilitated the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1924.8 In the words of Green, “In 1924, Congress passed the Alien Exclusion Act [sic], which unilaterally abrogated the 1907 gentleman’s agreement on Japanese immigration to the United States, sparking pubic protests in Japan.”9

Each of the foregoing executive branch interventions was to achieve a diplomatic goal. The 1918 and 1921 interventions succeeded in delaying the Ozawa decision. Although each achieved its immediate diplomatic objective – to allow the United States and Japan to complete World War I as allies and to allow the United States and Japan to take part in the negotiations of a set of post-war security arrangements – neither affected the Supreme Court’s decision to interpret the naturalization laws as reflecting an American self-image that permits discrimination against the Japanese people. The 1924 intervention to prevent Congress from legislating a ban on Japanese immigration resulted in the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which replaced the 1907 “gentlemen’s agreement” that Japan would voluntarily restrain emigration with a legislative ban on all immigration from Japan.  The further concession to West Coast political pressures, which enshrined discrimination against people from Japan who wanted to immigrate to the United States in federal legislation, was one step too far for the entire Japanese nation.  It humiliated Japan, inflamed popular sentiments, and affected Japan’s strategy and policies towards the United States in the two decades leading up to the war.

It is now 100 years after the Ozawa decision and 70 years after the alliance that Japan and the United States forged in 1952 in the wake of the tragic war between them. After the Second World War, both countries have undergone dramatic changes. Japan adopted a new constitution and became a nation committed to liberal democracy and peace. The United States also made dramatic changes including removing discriminatory provisions from its naturalization and immigration laws.

While history may never repeat itself, we should remind ourselves that sentiments related to a country’s national identity, whether in Japan or the United States, can influence legislative and judicial decisions in ways that frustrate diplomacy.

(December 16, 2022)


1 I would like to acknowledge, with huge gratitude, Joshua Rabinowitz, a friend of almost 60 years, who read numerous drafts of this paper and made suggestions about how to improve it that I incorporated in this final draft.  The responsibility for the paper belongs to myself.

Also,  my views on a similar topic have been expressed some years ago in a contribution titled,  “Why the 1920s U.S. Ban on Japanese Immigrants Matters Today” which can be found at;  https://www.huffpost.com/entry/1920s-us-ban-japanese_b_8858260

2 For the legal analysis of this case, see Devon W. Carbado, “Yellow by Law,” California Law Review, Vol. 97, No. 3, June 2009.

3 Stipulations under review were, “Section 2169 of the Revised Statues, which is part of Title XXX dealing with naturalization,” which stated that the provisions of the Title “apply to aliens, being free white persons, and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent,” and the Naturalization Act of June 29, 1906.

4 The Immigration Act of 1924; “An Act of May 26, 1924, Public Law 68-139, 43 STAT 153, to Limit Immigration of Aliens into the United States for Other Purposes of 1924”

5 Carbado, ibid., p.675.

6 For the American strategic policies in the years after the First World War, see; Green, Michael J., By More than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific since 1783 (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2017). Also, Robert B. Zoellick, America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy (Twelve Hachette Book Group, New York, NY, 2020)

7 The quote is a rough translation by this writer of the relevant section of the correspondence from the Consul in Seattle to the Minister of Foreign Affairs dated 9 November 1922. The original passage in Japanese;「小沢事件は昨年十月五日合衆国大審院に於て弁論審理せらるる筈なりしも合衆国司法部の希望に依り再び之を延期したり。(中略)昨年[一九二一年]九月米国司法部側が小沢事件弁論延期を要求したるは米国政府当局が昨年十月華府に於て軍縮会議を開催するに当り在米日本人の重大なる権利に関する裁判を行ふは其成敗何に決定するも米国内に起るべき是非の議論及感情は延いて軍縮会議及び太平洋問題に影響を及ぼし殊に日本全権に対し迷惑を掛くるやも計り難しとの憂慮に起因せるが如し」(原文はカタカナである以外はママ。一九二二年十一月九日付、外務大臣あて在シアトル領事発、機密公第四三号、附属書「帰化訴訟の経過」より。」

8 Ichihashi, Yamato, Japanese in the United States: A critical Study of the Problem of the Japanese Immigrants and Their Children, Stanford, CA, 1932, particularly Chapter XIX “The Exclusion Law of 1924,” pp. 298-318.

Minohara Toshihiro, Hainichi Iminho to Nichibei Kankei (簑原 俊洋 「排日移民法と日米関係」) Iwanami, Tokyo, 2002.

9 Green, ibid., p.144.
Shotaro Oshima was a diplomat in Japan’s Foreign Service serving as Deputy Foreign Minister responsible for economic matters (2001-2002), Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Geneva, including the WTO (2002- 2005), and Ambassador to the Republic of Korea (2005-2007) and to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2000-2001). He also served as Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy of the University of Tokyo (2008-2015) and at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (2009-2018).