Shonosuke Tanaka: Immigrant and Internee

This month Untangle Immigration returns to the story of the Tanaka family. The initial blog on the Tanakas was June 13, 2020 with Graduation Stories.

Shonosuke Tanaka, still in his teens, immigrated to the U.S. in 1900. Even before he arrived, anti-Japanese sentiment was already brewing. In 1893, the San Francisco Board of Education attempted to introduce segregation for Japanese American children, but the Japanese government intervened with protests.

Seven years later, in 1900, young Tanaka immigrated as a contract worker for the Northern Pacific railroad. Like other Japanese workers, he likely lived in a boxcar and was paid below market wages, probably about $1.10 a day. After his contract ended, he moved to Seattle where he studied English and worked as a kitchen helper. There he learned how to cook Western dishes. Next, he moved to Cordova, Alaska, and started his first café where he fed copper miners. Finally, he moved on to Juneau and started the Star Café in 1907. By 1912, the same year Alaska became a U.S. territory, he had moved his restaurant to South Franklin street and called it the City Café. His new location positioned him to feed the working men of the nearby mining mill, harbor and industrial area.

Japanese immigrants could not own property in the continental United States, but in the Alaskan territory, Shonosuke was able to purchase a home. Then, at age forty, Mr. Tanaka returned to his village in Japan to marry 19-year-old Nobu—an arranged marriage. The two returned to Juneau where they began their family, eventually having five children, all U.S. citizens, by virture of their birth in a U.S. territory.

The business thrived as Tanaka worked there 14-15 hours a day. The children thrived as well, though Teddy, the second to youngest, drowned at a young age. As the other children grew, the older ones enjoyed school, community and church events, while also working in the café. When his oldest, John and his friend needed funds to publish their 1941 high school yearbook, Shonosuke helped foot the bill.

By the time the nation of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Shonosuke had invested thirty five years in the U.S. or in its territory of Alaska. So, why hadn’t he become a citizen? Because citizenship was not a possibility for non-European immigrants. It was only in 1952 that the Senate and House voted the McCarran-Walter Act which allowed Japanese immigrants to become naturalized U.S. citizens, 7 years after World War II.

The Monday after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Shonosuke’s school-aged children arrived home from school to learn their father had been arrested simply for being Japanese.

The next post–Looking beyond Pearl Harbor–considers the reasons for Japanese internment.


Quiet Defiance: Alaska’s Empty Chair Story, Karleen Grummett, There’s A Long, Ignominious Trail of Bans, Registries and Forced Relocation, Jorge Encinas, Feb. 3, 2017.

Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, Japanese, David J. Wishart, Editor.,some%20became%20owners%20of%20small%20businesses%20and%20farms.

Photo: Japanese railroad workers at the turn of the century

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