Ozawa v. United States

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Takao Ozawa v. United States
Argued October 3–4, 1922
Decided November 13, 1922
Full case nameTakao Ozawa v. United States
Citations260 U.S. 178 (more)
43 S. Ct. 65; 67 L. Ed. 199; 1922 U.S. LEXIS 2357
Ozawa was racially "ineligible for citizenship" as he did not qualify as belonging to the Caucasian race.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William H. Taft
Associate Justices
Joseph McKenna · Oliver W. Holmes Jr.
Willis Van Devanter · Mahlon Pitney
James C. McReynolds · Louis Brandeis
George Sutherland
Case opinion
MajoritySutherland, joined by unanimous

Takao Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922), was a US legal proceeding. The United States Supreme Court found Takao Ozawa, a Japanese American who was born in Japan but had lived in the United States for 20 years, ineligible for naturalization.[1] In 1914, Ozawa filed for United States citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906. This act allowed only "free white persons" and "persons of African nativity or persons of African descent" to naturalize. Ozawa did not challenge the constitutionality of the racial restrictions. Instead, he claimed that Japanese people should be properly classified as "free white persons".


Takao Ozawa was born on June 15, 1875, in Kanagawa, Japan.[2] In 1894, he moved to San Francisco, California, where he attended school. After he graduated from Berkeley High School, Ozawa attended the University of California. In 1906, after graduating, he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. After settling down in Honolulu, Ozawa learned English fluently, practiced Christianity, and obtained a job at an American company.[2] While in Hawaii, he married a Japanese woman with whom he had two children. Ozawa's wife studied in the United States. His family spoke fluent English and focused on American culture more than they did on Japanese culture.

On October 16, 1914, Takao Ozawa decided to apply for citizenship since he had lived in America for 20 years. Despite his US education, Ozawa did not get his citizenship easily.[3] Ozawa tried to petition under the naturalization law, but he was ineligible as he was classified as Japanese. By the time Ozawa's case made it to the Supreme Court he had been living in America for 28 years.[4]

In his brief to the court, Ozawa argued for his case on the basis of his good character. Ozawa notably wrote in his brief that "The color of skin is controlled by climate", further arguing that an individual's race should not be a determining factor in their worth as a person and ultimately his worth as a citizen of The United States.[4] An excerpt from one of Ozawa's legal briefs reads as follows: "I neither drink liquor of any kind, nor smoke, nor play cards, nor gamble, nor associate with any improper person. My honesty and my industriousness are well known among my Japanese and American acquaintances and friends; and I am always trying my best to conduct myself according to the Golden Rule."[5]

The courts' reaction[edit]

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice George Sutherland approved a line that lower court cases held, stating that "the words 'white person was only to indicate a person of what is popularly known as the Caucasian race." The courts stated that the Japanese were not considered as "free white persons" within the meaning of the law. Justice Sutherland wrote that the lower courts' conclusion that the Japanese were not "free white persons" for purposes of naturalization had “become so well established by judicial and executive concurrence and legislative acquiescence that we should not at this late day feel at liberty to disturb it, in the absence of reasons far more cogent than any that have been suggested." Justice Sutherland also wrote in the court's opinion that the court was not making “any suggestion of individual unworthiness or racial inferiority."[4] The Court declined to review the ethnological authorities relied on by the lower courts to support their conclusion or those advanced by the parties.

Ozawa's case was one of several contradictory rulings on race and citizenship during this period.[6] Three months after Ozawa's case was heard by the Supreme Court, the court completely altered their own reasoning during the case of United States v. Thind. Thind, an Indian man from the northern region of Punjab moved to The United States when he was young, having even joined the U.S. Army during World War I.[7] Thind made the argument that he should be able to naturalize as a U.S. citizen because he was of the Cacausian race, the rhetoric that Ozawa's case upheld. Although the court agreed that Thind was Caucasian, the court also asserted that Thind was not white and that whiteness has to be "be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man, synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian’ only as that word is popularly understood."[8]


On the same day, the Supreme Court released its ruling in Yamashita v. Hinkle, which upheld Washington state's alien land law.[9]

Within three months, Justice Sutherland authored a ruling in a Supreme Court case concerning the petition for naturalization of a Sikh immigrant from the Punjab region in British India, who identified himself as "a high caste Hindu of full Indian blood" in his petition, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. The upshot of this ruling was that, as with the Japanese, "high-caste Hindus, of full Indian blood" were not "free white persons" and were racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship. To support this conclusion, Justice Sutherland reiterated Ozawa's holding that the words "white person" in the naturalization act were "synonymous with the word 'Caucasian' only as that word is popularly understood".[10]


Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1923, a social scientist named Raymond Leslie Buell said, "The Japanese are now confronted with the unpalatable fact, laid down in unmistakable terms by the highest court in the land, that we consider them unfit to become Americans."[11]

Ozawa's case did not depend on "any suggestion of individual unworthiness or racial inferiority".[12] The argument was that if Ozawa was denied citizenship based on his race, did the law consider the Japanese people an inferior race and Caucasians a superior race? Ozawa argued that his skin was the same color, if not whiter than other Caucasians.[2] The case allowed for anti-Japanese proponents to justify the passing of the Immigration Act of 1924, which prohibited the immigration of people from Asia to the United States. Some West Coast newspapers expressed satisfaction with the Ozawa decision, though the Sacramento Bee called for a constitutional amendment “which would confine citizenship by right of birth in this country to those whose parents were themselves eligible to citizenship.”[12]

Japan is a strict jus sanguinis state as opposed to jus soli state, meaning that it attributes citizenship by blood and not by location of birth. In practice, it can be by parentage and not by descent.[13][14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ozawa v. the United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922).
  2. ^ a b c "Ozawa v. United States | Densho Encyclopedia". encyclopedia.densho.org. Retrieved May 1, 2021.
  3. ^ "TAKAO OZAWA v. UNITED STATES". LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved May 1, 2021.
  4. ^ a b c Yeatman, Nicole W. C. (November 14, 2022). "The Hill: The Supreme Court failed Asian Americans a century ago. What will it do now?". Pacific Legal Foundation. Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  5. ^ Teel, Steven C. (1998). "Lessons on Judicial Interpretation: How Immigrants Takao Ozawa and Yick Wo Searched the Courts for a Place in America". OAH Magazine of History. 13 (1): 41–49. ISSN 0882-228X.
  6. ^ Ito, Emma (May 19, 2021). "Whiteness on Trial: Asian Americans and the Right to Citizenship - The UncommonWealth". Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  7. ^ "Racial Identity and American Citizenship in the Court | lesson plan curriculum | The Asian American Education Project". asianamericanedu.org. Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  8. ^ "United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923)". Justia Law. Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  9. ^ Yamashita v. Hinkle, 260 U.S. 199 (1922).
  10. ^ Race, Nation, and Refuge. www.sunypress.edu. Retrieved May 11, 2021.
  11. ^ Buell, Raymond Leslie (December 15, 1923). "Again the Yellow Peril". Foreign Affairs. Vol. 2, no. 2. ISSN 0015-7120.
  12. ^ a b "1922 Seventy-five Years Ago | AMERICAN HERITAGE". www.americanheritage.com. Retrieved May 1, 2021.
  13. ^ "The Nationality Law (Law No.147 of 1950, as amended by Law No.268 of 1952, Law No.45 of 1984, Law No.89 of 1993 and Law.No.147 of 2004, Law No.88 of 2008) Article 8". 2008. Retrieved August 5, 2017.
  14. ^ "Tokyo court upholds deportation order for Thai teenager born and raised in Japan". 2016. Retrieved December 6, 2016.

External links[edit]