Japanese Americans

views updated May 21 2018


by Stanley E. Easton and Lucien Ellington


A country slightly larger than the United Kingdom (about the size of California), Japan lies off the eastern coast of the Asian continent. An archipelago, Japan consists of four main islandsHonshū, Hokkaidō, Kyūshū, and Shikokuas well as 3,900 smaller islands. Japan has a total land area of 145,825 square miles (377,688 square kilometers). Much of Japan is extremely mountainous and almost the entire population lives on only one-sixth of the total land area. Of all the world's major nations, the Japanese have the highest population density per square mile of habitable land. Japan has virtually no natural resources except those found in the sea. To Japan's north, the nearest foreign soil is the Russian-controlled island of Sakhalin while the People's Republic of China and South Korea lie to the west of Japan.

The word, "Japan," is actually a Portuguese misunderstanding of the Chinese pronunciation of the Chinese term for the country. The actual name for the country is Nippon or Nihon ("source of the sun"). Japan has a population of approximately 124 million people. By the standards of other nations, the Japanese are one of the most homogeneous people on earth. Under two million foreigners (less than one percent of the total Japanese population) live in Japan. Koreans constitute well over one-half of resident minorities. There are also two indigenous minority groups in Japan, the Ainu and the Burakumin. The Ainu, a Caucasian people, number around 24,381 and live mainly in special reservations in central Hokkaidō. Ethnically, the approximately two million Burakumin are no different than other Japanese, but have traditionally engaged in low-status occupations; and although they have the same legal status as their fellow citizens, they are often discriminated against. Shinto, an indigenous religion, is the most popular spiritual practice in Japan, followed by Buddhism, a Korean and Chinese import. Followers of other religions constitute less than one percent of the Japanese population. Culturally, the Japanese are children of China but have their own rich native culture and have also borrowed extensively from Western countries. Tokyō is Japan's capital and largest city. The national flag of Japan is a crimson disc, symbolizing the rising sun, in the center of a white field.


The oldest identified human remains found in Japan date from upper Paleolithic times of the last glacial period, about 30,000 b.c. While there is some dispute, most historians believe that political unity in Japan occurred at the end of the third century or the beginning of the fourth century A.D. The Yamato chiefs who unified the country developed an imperial line, which is the oldest in the world. However, early in Japanese history, emperors lost political authority. Compared to China, ancient and medieval Japan was undeveloped culturally. From early in Japanese history many Chinese imports, including architecture, agricultural methods, Confucianism, and Buddhism, profoundly influenced the Japanese. The Japanese established a pattern that still exists of selectively importing foreign customs and adapting them to the archipelago. Medieval and early modern Japan was marked by long periods of incessant warfare as rival families struggled for power. While power struggles were still occurring, the Japanese had their first contact with Europe when Portuguese traders landed off southern Kyūshū in 1543. In 1603, through military conquest, Tokugawa Ieyasu established himself as ruler of the entire country. Early in the Tokugawa era, foreigners were expelled from Japan and the country was largely isolated from the rest of the world until Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy forced Japan to open its doors in 1853.


Japan's modern history began in 1868 when a number of citizens led by Satsuma and Chosū domains overthrew the Tokugawas. In the decades that followed Japan feverishly modernized in an attempt to end Western efforts at dominance. By the early twentieth century, Japan possessed a rapidly industrializing economy and a strong military. At first the rest of Asia was excited by Japan's rise. However, the militarization of Japan in the 1930s, and Japan's attempt to dominate the rest of Asia, resulted in the Pacific War that pitted much of Asia and a number of Western countries (including the United States) against Japan. In August 1945, a devastated Japan accepted the surrender terms of the Allied powers. The subsequent American occupation resulted in major political and economic change as Japan became a democracy, renounced militarism, and resumed its impressive economic growth. Today, Japan is a stable democracy among the world's economic superpowers.


In 1835, American settlers established the sugar plantation system in Hawaii, which was then an independent monarchy. The sugar plantations required large numbers of workers to cultivate and harvest the cane fields and to operate the sugar refineries. Beginning in 1852, the plantation owners imported Chinese laborers. In many ways, this "coolie" trade resembled the African slave trade.

By 1865, many of the Chinese were leaving the plantations for other jobs. Hawaii's foreign minister, a sugar planter, wrote to an American businessman in Japan seeking Japanese agricultural workers. On May 17, 1868, the Scioto sailed from Yokohama for Honolulu with 148 Japanese141 men, six women, and two childrenaboard. These laborers included samurai, cooks, sake brewers, potters, printers, tailors, wood workers, and one hairdresser. Plantation labor was harsh; the monthly wage was $4, of which the planters withheld 50 percent. The ten-hour work days were hard on the soft hands of potters, printers, and tailors. Forty of these first Japanese farm laborers returned to Japan before completion of their three-year contracts. Once back home, 39 of them signed a public statement charging the planters with cruelty and breach of contract.

On May 27, 1869, the Pacific Mail Company's China brought a party of samurai, farmers, tradesmen, and four women to San Francisco. These Japanese had been displaced from their homes by the ending of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of the Meiji emperor. Followers of lord Matsudaira Katamori established the 600-acre Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony on the Sacramento River at Placerville. The colony failed in less than two years because the mulberry trees and tea seedlings perished in the dry California soil. A few of the settlers returned to Japan while the rest drifted away from the colony seeking new beginnings. Such were the origins of the first-generation Japanese (Issei ) on Hawaiian and American shores.


The U. S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, prohibiting further Chinese immigration. In 1886, Hawaii and Japan signed a labor convention that led to large numbers of Japanese contract workers in Hawaii and student laborers in California. The increase of Japanese in California gave rise to an anti-Japanese movement and a 1906 San Francisco school board order segregating Japanese American students. Ninety-three students of Japanese ancestry and a number of Korean students were ordered to attend the school for Chinese. The Japanese government was insulted. President Theodore Roosevelt, wishing to maintain harmonious relations with Japan, condemned anti-Japanese agitation and the school segregation order. He advocated naturalization of the Issei, but never sponsored introduction of a bill to accomplish it. Political reaction against Roosevelt in California was fierce. Several anti-Japanese bills were introduced in the California legislature in 1907. President Roosevelt called San Francisco school officials and California legislative leaders to Washington. After a week of negotiations, the Californians agreed to allow most Japanese children (excluding overage students and those with limited English) to attend regular public schools. Roosevelt promised to limit Japanese labor immigration. In late 1907 and early 1908 Japan and the United States corresponded on the matter. Japan agreed to stop issuing passports to laborers in the United States. The United States allowed Japanese who had already been to America to return and agreed to accept immediate family members of Japanese workers already in the country. This was the so-called "Gentlemen's Agreement."

Under the Gentlemen's Agreement some Japanese migration to the United States continued. Between 1908 and 1924, many of the immigrants were women brought by husbands who had returned to Japan to marry. Between 1909 and 1920, the number of married Japanese women doubled in Hawaii and quadrupled on the mainland. Most of the Japanese women who migrated to Hawaii and the U. S. during that period were "picture brides." Marriages were arranged by parents. Go-betweens brokered agreements between families. Couples were married while the bride was in Japan and the groom was in the United States. Husband and wife met for the first time upon their arrival at the pier in Honolulu, San Francisco, or Seattle, using photographs to identify one another. This wave of immigration changed the nature of the Japanese American community from a male migrant laborer community to a family-oriented people seeking permanent settlement.

By 1924, many Americans favored restricting immigration through a quota system aimed primarily at restricting European immigration without discriminating against any country. Such a bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in April 1924. U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson of California, however, wanted a ban on all immigration from Japan. Hoping to avoid offending the Japanese government further, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes asked the Japanese ambassador to write a letter summarizing the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907-1908 since its provisions were not widely known. Ambassador Masanao Hanihara wrote the letter and included an appeal to the senators to reject any bill halting Japanese immigration. He referred to "the grave consequences" that exclusion would have upon relations between his country and the United States. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, called Hanihara's letter a "veiled threat" and led the Senate to incorporate Japanese exclusion into the immigration bill. President Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924, including the ban on further Japanese immigration, into law on May 24. Japanese immigration was curtailed until 1952, except for post World War II Japanese brides of U.S. servicemen.


In 1952 the McCarran-Walter Act allowed immigration from South and East Asia. The new law ended Japanese exclusion, but was still racially discriminatory. Asian countries were allowed 100 immigrants each, while immigration from European countries was determined by the national origins quotas of the Immigration Act of 1924. The McCarran-Walter Act also repealed the racial clauses in the naturalization law of 1790 that forbade non-white immigrants from obtaining American citizenship. Over 46,000 Japanese immigrants, including many elderly Issei, became naturalized citizens by 1965.

The Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the national origin quotas and annually permitted the admission of 170,000 immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere. Twenty thousand immigrants per year per Asian country were allowed to enter the United States. This law opened the way for the second wave of Asian immigration and resulted in a new composition of the Asian American population. In 1960, 52 percent of the Asian American population were Japanese American. In 1985 only 15 percent of Asian Americans were Japanese. Between 1965 and 1985, there were nearly four times as many Asian immigrants as there had been between 1849 and 1965.


According to the 1990 census figures, there were 847,562 Japanese Americans in the United States. About 723,000 of the Japanese Americans lived in the West, 312,989 of those in California. Today there are Japanese Americans located in each of the 50 states.

Recent decades have brought not only legal and institutional changes but positive attitudinal change on the part of many white Americans toward Japanese Americans. The combination of legal and attitudinal change, along with the higher levels of education that Japanese Americans tend to attain, compared to whites, have resulted in a reversal of the dismal situation of overeducated and underemployed Japanese Americans that existed in the 1930s. Although a substantial number of Japanese Americans are employed by corporations and are members of professions that require college educations, Japanese Americans still experience problems that are a direct result of racially-based misconceptions that some members of the majority population hold.

Many white Americans, particularly well-educated white Americans, think of Japanese Americans as a "model minority" because of their reputation for hard work and their high educational attainment. Despite this reputation, many Japaneseas well as other Asian Americanscomplain that they are stereotyped as good technicians but not aggressive enough to occupy top managerial and leadership positions. Anti-Asian graffiti can sometimes be found at top universities where at least some white students voice jealousy and resentment toward perceived Asian American academic success.

Recent economic competition between the United States and Japan has resulted in a rise in anti-Japanese sentiment on the part of many Americans. The 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a young Chinese man in Detroit, by two auto workers who mistook him to be Japanese is one grisly example of these sentiments. Third-and fourth-generation Japanese Americans often cite incidents of fellow Americans making anti-Japanese statements in their presence or mistaking them for Japanese nationals.

The issue of cultural revitalization is not related to racial attitudes but is still serious to many Japanese Americans. Because of the amazing success of Japan's economy since World War II, the number of Japanese immigrating annually has been far below the 20,000 quota allotted to Japan. In recent years, Japanese immigrants have constituted less than two percent of all Asian immigrants. As a result, the Japanese towns of large American cities are not being culturally renewed and many second-and third-generation Japanese have moved to the suburbs. Many third-and fourth-generation Japanese Americans are not literate in the Japanese language. Unlike the lingering prejudices toward Japanese Americans, the over-assimilation problem may very well have no ultimate solution.

Acculturation and Assimilation

In the United States, Japanese Americans built Buddhist temples and Christian churches. They built halls to serve as language schools and as places for dramas, films, judō lessons, poetry readings, potlucks, and parties. They constructed sumō rings, baseball fields, and bath houses. They also established hotels, restaurants, bars, and billiard parlors. Japanese Americans opened shops to provide Japanese food and herbal medicines.

The Issei faced many restrictions. They were excluded from some occupations, could not own land, and could not become U.S. citizens. They faced discrimination and prejudice. The Issei's pleasure was in seeing the success of their children. Despite their poverty, the Issei developed large, close-knit families. They encouraged their children (Nisei) to become educated and obtain white collar jobs rather than stay in farming communities. This drove the Nisei into close associations and friendships with Caucasians. The Nisei were educated in American schools and learned white middle-class American values. Hierarchical thinking, characteristic of Japanese culture, led to pressure to achieve academically and to compete successfully in the larger Caucasian-dominated society.

Between 1915 and 1967 the proportion of Japanese Americans living in predominantly Japanese American neighborhoods fell from 30 percent to four percent. With the end of World War II, prejudice and discrimination against Japanese Americans declined. The majority of Nisei now live in largely Caucasian neighborhoods. Their children (Sansei) have been schooled there and have mostly Caucasian associations. A majority of Sansei are unfamiliar with the Japanese American world characterized by intimate primary, communal association, and close social control. They rarely see members of their clan. Their world has been that of Little League and fraternities and sororities. Whereas only ten percent of Nisei married outside their ethnic group, about 50 percent of the Sansei did.

Many Sansei long to know more about their cultural roots, although the ways of their grandparents are alien to them. They are concerned over the demise of Japanese values. They seek to preserve their Japanese culture through service to the Japanese community at centers for the elderly, participation in community festivals, involvement with Asian political and legal organizations, and patronizing Japanese arts.

In Japanese Americans, sociologist Harry Kitano observed that Japanese Americans developed a congruent Japanese culture within the framework of American society. This was due to necessity rather than choice, since there was little opportunity for the first Japanese immigrants to enter into the social structure of the larger community. Now most Japanese Americans can enter into that social structure. Nisei and Sansei continue to identify themselves as Japanese Americans, but that identity is of little importance to them as members and partakers of a larger society that is not hostile toward them as it was to the Issei. The degree to which Japanese Americans have been assimilated into the predominant culture is unusual for a nonwhite group. Coexistence between Japanese and American cultures has been successful due to the willingness of both cultures to accommodate to one another.

Japanese American history brings us to some critical questions. What the future holds for fourth-generation Japanese Americans (the Yonsei) is unclear. The Japanese American ethnic community may disappear in that generation, or complete assimilation may bring about the demise of the values that pushed Japanese Americans to socioeconomic success. It is uncertain whether the Yonsei will retain their Japanese characteristics and inculcate them in the next generation.


In Japanese American communities many Japanese still celebrate New Year's Day very much in the manner the Issei did, following the customs of Meiji-era Japan. New Year is a time for debts to be paid and quarrels to be settled. It is an occasion when houses are cleaned, baths are taken, and new clothes are worn. On New Year's Eve, many Japanese Americans go to temples and shrines. Shinto shrines are especially popular. Just inside the red tori gate, worshippers wash their hands and rinse their mouths with water from the special basin. Then a priest cleanses them by sprinkling water from a leafy branch on them and blesses them by waving a wand of white prayer papers. The people sip sake, receive amulets (charms), and give money.

In Japanese American homes where the traditions are observed, New Year's offerings are set in various places of honor around the house. The offering consists of two mochi (rice cakes), a strip of konbu (seaweed), and a citrus arranged on a "happiness paper" depicting one or all of the seven gods of good luck. The offerings symbolize harmony and happiness from generation to generation.

At breakfast on New Year's Day many Japanese Americans eat ozoni, a toasted mochi, in a broth with other ingredients such as vegetables and fish. Mochi is eaten for strength and family cohesiveness. Sometimes children compete with each other to see if they can eat mochi equal to the number of their years.

Friends, neighbors, and family members visit one another on New Year's Day. Special foods served include kuromame (black beans), kazunoko (herring eggs), konbumaki (seaweed roll), kinton (mashed sweet potato and chestnut), and kamaboko (fish cakes). Also, sushi (rice rolled in seaweed), nishime (vegetables cooked in stock), sashimi (raw fish), and cooked red snapper are commonly provided for New Year's guests. At many celebrations the Japanese cheer of "Banzai ! Banzai ! Banzai !" rings out. That salute, which originated around 200 b.c., means 10,000 years.


Generally, Japanese Americans are healthier than other Americans. Japanese Americans have the lowest infant death rate of any ethnic group in the United States. In 1986, 86 percent of babies born to Japanese American mothers were born to women who had received early prenatal care, compared to 79 percent for Caucasians and 76 percent for all races. Relatively few Japanese American infants have low birth weight and only eight percent of Japanese American births were preterm, compared to ten percent for all races in 1987. Asian Americans have fewer birth defects than Native Americans, Caucasians, or African Americans, but more than Hispanic Americans. Asian and Pacific Islanders were two percent of the U.S. population in 1981-1988, but accounted for only one percent of all U.S. AIDS cases during that period. In October of 1987 less than one percent of drug abuse clients in the United States were Asian Americans.

A study comparing the health status of Japanese and Caucasians over the age of 60 in Hawaii revealed that better health could be predicted from younger age, higher family income, maintenance of work role, and Japanese ethnicity (Marvelu R. Peterson and others, "A Cross-Cultural Health Study of Japanese and Caucasian Elders in Hawaii," International Journal of Aging and Human Development, Volume 21, 1985, pp. 267-279). The better health of Japanese Americans in Hawaii may be due to cultural values such as the priority of family interests over those of the individual, reverence for elders, and obligation to care for elders.

Many Japanese Americans consider the use of mental health services as shameful. They tend to use them only as a last resort in severe disorders, such as schizophrenia. Japanese Americans under-use mental health services in comparison to other ethnic groups. They believe the causes of mental illness to be associated with organic factors, a lack of will power, and morbid thinking. They tend to seek help from family members or close friends, rather than from mental health professionals. Further, since Japanese Americans tend to somaticize psychological problems, they may seek help from traditional medical practitioners instead of mental health professionals. There are, however, a number of Japanese American psychiatrists in practice today, indicating greater acceptance of the need for professional mental health care.


The Japanese language is unique and has no close relationship to any other language, such as English does to German, or French does to Spanish. It is a popular misconception that Japanese and Chinese are similar. Although many kanji, or ideograms, were borrowed from classical Chinese, the two spoken languages do not have a single basic feature in common. The origins of Japanese are obscure, and only Korean can be considered to belong to the same linguistic family. Spoken Japanese was in existence long before kanji reached Japan. While there is some variation in dialect throughout Japan, variance in pronunciation and vocabulary is, in general, quite small.

Japanese is easy to pronounce and bears some similarity to the Romance languages. The five short vowels in Japanese order are "a," "e," "i," "o," and "u." They are pronounced clearly and crisply. The same vowels in the long form are pronounced by doubling the single vowel and making a continuous sound equal to two identical short vowels. Japanese consonants approximately resemble English.

Some useful daily expressions include: Ohayōgozaimasu good morning; Konnichiwa hello; Kombanwa good evening; Sayōnara goodbye; Oyasumi nasai good night; Okaeri nasai welcome home; O-genki desu ka how are you; Dōmo arigatō gozaimasu thank you very much; Chotto matte kudasai wait just a moment please.

Many linguists believe that Japanese is the world's most difficult written language. Written Japanese consists of three types of characters: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Kanji, which means "Chinese characters," are ideograms, or pictorial representations of ideas. Kanji were imported into Japan sometime during the fifth century A.D. from China via Korea. Although there are said to be some 48,000 kanji in existence, roughly 4,000 characters are commonly used. The Ministry of Education identified 1,850 kanji (called tōyō kanji) in 1946 as essential for official and general public use. In 1981 this list was superseded by a similar but larger one (called jōyō kanji) containing 1,945 characters. These are taught to all students in elementary and secondary school. Kanji are used in writing the main parts of a sentence such as verbs and nouns, as well as names. Kanji are the most difficult written Japanese characters, requiring as many as 23 separate strokes.

Since spoken Japanese existed before kanji reached Japan, the Japanese adopted the Chinese ideograms to represent spoken Japanese words of the same or related meanings. Since the sounds of Japanese words signifying the ideas were not the same as the sounds of the Chinese words, it became important to develop a writing system to represent the Japanese sound. Therefore, the Japanese developed two sets of characters, hiragana and katakana, from original Chinese characters. Each kana, as these two systems are called, is a separate phonetic syllabary and each hiragana character has a corresponding katakana character. Hiragana and katakana characters are similar to English letters in that each character represents a separate phonetic sound. Hiragana are used in writing verb endings, adverbs, conjunctions, and various sentence particles and are written in a cursive, smooth style. Katakana, which are used mainly in writing foreign words, are written in a more angular, stiff style. Both hiragana and katakana are easy to write compared with kanji. In modern written Japanese, kanji, hiragana, and katakana are combined. Traditionally, Japanese is written vertically and read from top to bottom and right to left. Now, most business writing is done horizontally because it is easier to include numerals and English words. Even though the written language is illogical, in many ways, it has aesthetic appeal and contributes to a feeling on the part of many Japanese that they are unique among the world's peoples. For a variety of reasons, including negative pressures by the majority population and a lack of new Japanese immigrants in the United States, many third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans do not know the language of their ancestors.

Family and Community Dynamics

Communalism did not develop in overseas Japanese communities as it did among the overseas Chinese. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Japan's land-based lineage community gave way to down-sized extended families. Only the eldest son and his family remained in the parental household. Other sons established separate "branch" households when they married. In Japan, a national consciousness arose while in China, the primary allegiance remained to the clan-based village or community. Thus, Japanese immigrants were prepared to form families and rear children in a manner similar to that of white Americans. The "picture bride" system brought several thousand Japanese women to the United States to establish nuclear branch families.

The "picture bride" system was fraught with misrepresentation. Often old photographs were used to hide the age of a prospective bride and the men sometimes were photographed in borrowed suits. The system led to a degree of disillusionment and incompatibility in marriages. The women were trapped, unable to return to Japan. Nevertheless, these women persevered for themselves and their families and transmitted Japanese culture through child rearing. The Issei women were also workers. They worked for wages or shared labor on family farms. Two-income families found it easier to rent or purchase land.

By 1930, second-generation Japanese Americans constituted 52 percent of the continental U.S. population of their ethnic group. In the years preceding World War II, most Nisei were children and young people, attempting to adapt to their adopted country in spite of the troubled lives of their parents. For many young people the adaptation problem was made even more ambiguous because their parents, concerned that their children would not have a future in the U.S., registered their offspring as citizens of Japan. By 1940, over half of the Nisei held Japanese as well as American citizenship. Most of the Nisei did not want to remain on family farms or in the roadside vegetable business and with the strong encouragement of their parents obtained high school, and in many cases, university educations. Discrimination against Japanese Americans, coupled with the shortage of jobs during the Great Depression, thwarted many Nisei dreams.

The dual-career family seems to be the norm for Sansei households. Recently, spousal abuse has surfaced as an issue. If it was a problem in previous generations, it was not public knowledge. In San Francisco an Asian women's shelter has been established, largely by third-generation Asian women.

In Japanese tradition, a crane represents 1,000 years. On special birthdays 1,000 hand-folded red origami cranes are displayed to convey wishes for a long life. Certain birthdays are of greater importance because they are thought to be auspicious or calamitous years in a person's life. For men, the forty-second birthday is considered the most calamitous. For women it is the thirty-third year. Especially festive celebrations are held on these birthdays to ward off misfortune. The sixty-first birthday is the beginning of the auspicious years and the beginning of a person's second childhood. Traditionally, a person in his or her second childhood wears a crimson cap. The seventy-seventh birthday is marked by the wearing of a loose red coat (chanchan ko ) over one's clothes. The most auspicious birthday is the eighty-eighth, when the honoree wears both the crimson cap and the chanchan ko.

At a wedding dinner, a whole red snapper is displayed at the head table. The fish represents happiness and must be served whole because cutting it would mean eliminating some happiness. Silver and golden wedding anniversaries are also occasions for festive celebrations.


While virtually all Issei came to the United States as Buddhists, Christian missionaries worked at converting the immigrants from the very beginning. The Methodists were particularly successful in this effort and records of the Pacific Japanese Provisional Conference of the Methodist Church indicate that three immigrants from Japan were converted in 1877, 11 years before Japan legally allowed citizens to emigrate. In the beginning the Japanese, even though they understood no Chinese, were segregated into Chinese churches. By the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century, separate Japanese Christian churches and missions were established in various California cities as well as in Tacoma, Washington, and Denver, Colorado. These early Japanese Christian organizations usually offered night English classes and social activities as well. While Methodism remained, other denominations such as Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Catholics also claimed converts.

Organized Buddhism was somewhat slow in attempting to minister to the spiritual needs of Japanese Americans. The first record of Japanese Buddhist priests in the United States was in 1893 when four of them attended the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The priests had limited contact, however, with Japanese Americans. The success of one San Francisco Methodist minister, Yasuzo Shimizu, in winning converts stimulated a Japanese American to return to his native land and pressure priests of the Nishi Honganji sect of the Jodo Shinshu denomination to begin establishing Buddhist churches in the United States. The arrival in San Francisco of two Nishi Honganji priests, Shuyei Sonoda and Kukuryo Nishijima, on September 2, 1899, is regarded as the founding date for the Buddhist Churches of America. By the early years of the twentieth century, a number of Buddhist churches were founded on the West Coast. In the 1990s, Jodo Shinshu, organized as the Buddhist Churches of America with headquarters in San Francisco, is the dominant Buddhist denomination in the United States. However, Zen, Nichiren, and Shingon sects of Buddhism are represented in various cities throughout the United States. While only a minuscule number of Japanese Americans practice Zen Buddhism, this particular sect has exercised a profound influence on many artists, musicians, philosophers, and writers who are members of the majority American population.

Because of cultural assimilation it is difficult to obtain statistics on the religious practices of Japanese Americans. However, followers of Christianity are probably more numerous than Buddhists.

Employment and Economic Traditions

The Issei, who came to the United States in the late 1800s and early twentieth century, worked on the West Coast as contract seasonal agricultural workers, on the railroad, and in canneries. For the most part, working conditions were abysmal; and because of racism and pressure by organized labor, Issei were barred from factory and office work. As a result many Japanese Americans created small businesses such as hotels and restaurants to serve their own ethnic group or became small vegetable farmers. The term "ethnic economy" is often used to describe the activities of pre-World War II Japanese Americans. While Japanese produce interests sold to the majority population from the beginning, the grower, wholesaler, and retailer networks were Issei. Issei were remarkably successful in both of these endeavors for several different reasons. Small businessmen, farmers, their families, and work associates toiled an incredible number of hours and saved much of what was earned. Also, the Issei community was well organized, and small businesses and farms could rely upon their tightly knit ethnic group for capital, labor, and business opportunities. Ethnic solidarity paid off economically for Japanese Americans. By the eve of World War II, 75 percent of Seattle's Japanese residents were involved in small business, and Japanese farmers were responsible for the production of the majority of vegetables in Los Angeles County.

Japanese economic success caused a substantial white backlash spearheaded by elements of the majority population who felt their livelihoods threatened. Unions were consistently anti-Japanese for a variety of reasons and California agricultural groups assumed leadership roles in the land limitation laws. The laws resulted, between 1920 and 1925, in the number of acres owned by Issei declining from 74,769 to 41,898 and the acreage leased plummeting from 192,150 to 76,797.


No event in history has resulted in more economic change for Japanese Americans than World War II. Before the war Japanese Americans constituted mostly a self-contained ethnic economy. The internment of Japanese Americans and societal changes in attitudes toward Japanese destroyed much of the prewar economic status quo. Since the war a minority of Japanese Americans have been employed in Japanese American-owned businesses. Many Japanese American farmers, because of the internment, either sold their land or never were able to lease their pre-war holdings again. As a result of the internment, Japanese Americans also sold or closed many family businesses. A comparison of pre-war and post-war economic statistics in Los Angeles and Seattle illustrates these major changes. Before World War II, Japanese Americans in Seattle operated 206 hotels, 140 grocery stores, 94 cleaning establishments, 64 market stands and 57 wholesale produce houses. After World War II, only a handful of these businesses remained. In Los Angeles, 72 percent of Japanese Americans were employed in family enterprises before World War II. By the late 1940s, only 17.5 percent of Japanese Americans earned their livelihood through family businesses.

While these economic changes were largely forced upon Japanese Americans because of the events surrounding the internment, other societal factors also contributed to the end of the Japanese American ethnic economy. The pre-war racial prejudice against Japanese Americans declined substantially in the late 1940s and 1950s. Japan no longer constituted a geo-political threat; many Americans were becoming more sympathetic about the issue of minority rights; and Japanese American West Coast agricultural interests no longer were seen as threatening by other Americans. As a result of these events, the large majority of Japanese Americans in the post-war years have experienced assimilation into the larger economy.


Today, because of the changes in the post-war years, Japanese Americans are well-represented in both the professions and corporate economy. The prewar discrimination against university-educated Japanese Americans is largely ended. Japanese Americans today have higher levels of education on average than the majority population and comparable to slightly higher incomes. Studies documenting the absence of Asian Americans from top corporate management and public sector administrative positions provide some evidence that there is some sort of "glass-ceiling" for Japanese Americans still present in the larger economy. Still, the economic position and socioeconomic mobility of Japanese Americans is much higher now than any time in American history.

Politics and Government


In February 1903, 500 Japanese and 200 Mexican farm workers in Oxnard, California, formed the Japanese Mexican Labor Association, the first farm workers union in California history. Led by Kozaburo Baba, the union called a strike for better wages and working conditions. By March 1903, membership had grown to 1,200 members, about 90 percent of the work force. On March 23 a Mexican striker was shot and killed and two Mexicans and two Japanese were wounded in a confrontation with the Western Agricultural Contracting Company, the major labor contractor. Negotiations led to a settlement by the end of March. Despite such effective organization and leadership, however, the American Federation of Labor denied the Japanese Mexican Labor Association a charter, due to its opposition to Asians.

In Hawaii there were 20 strikes by Japanese plantation workers in 1900 alone. In 1908 the Higher Wage Association asked for an increase from $18 to $22.50 per month. In May 1909, 7,000 Japanese workers struck all major plantations on Oahu. The strike lasted four months. The planters branded the strike as the work of agitators and evicted the strikers from plantation-owned homes. By June, over 5,000 displaced Japanese were living in makeshift shelters in downtown Honolulu. The leaders of the Higher Wage Association were arrested, jailed, and tried on conspiracy charges. The Association called off the strike about two weeks before their leadership was convicted.

In 1920 the Japanese Federation of Labor struck the Hawaiian plantations for higher wages, better working conditions, and an end to discriminatory wages based on race and ethnic background. The strike lasted six months and cost the plantation owners an estimated $11.5 million. The union saw their cause as part of the American way. Hawaii's ruling classthe plantation owners and their alliescalled the strike anti-American and painted it as a movement to take control of the sugar industry. The planters evicted over 12,000 workers from their homes. Many deaths resulted from unsanitary conditions in the tent cities that arose.


The great plantation strike of 1920 generated fears within the U.S. government that the labor movement in Hawaii was part of a Japanese plot to take over the territory. Japanese Americans accounted for about 40 percent of the Hawaiian population in the 1920s and 1930s. Beginning in the 1920s, the U.S. Army viewed the presence of Japanese in the Hawaiian Islands as a military threat. The army formulated plans for the declaration of martial law, registration of enemy aliens, internment of Japanese who were considered security risks, and controls over labor. On the afternoon of December 7, 1941, the United States declared martial law, suspension of habeas corpus, and restrictions on civil liberties, following the attack by the Japanese navy on U.S. naval and army bases at Pearl Harbor.

Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor American officials in Hawaii began rounding up Japanese Americans. A concentration camp was established on Sand Island, a flat, barren, coral island at the mouth of Pearl Harbor. Terror and punishment were applied to the internees. Terror techniques included strip searches, frequent roll calls, threats to shoot, and excessive display of firepower by the guards who were armed with machine guns and pistols. The prisoners were often forced to eat in the rain, use dirty utensils, and sleep in tents. Ultimately, the army held 1,466 Japanese Americans in Hawaii and sent 1,875 to mainland camps such as Fort Lincoln (North Dakota), Fort Missoula (Montana), Santa Fe (New Mexico), and Crystal City (Texas).

General Delos Emmons, military governor of Hawaii, recognized that Japanese American labor was essential to the territory's economic survival. Therefore, he resisted pressure from Washington to intern more Japanese Americans. Those Japanese Americans in Hawaii who were not interned were required to carry alien registration cards at all times. They were to observe a curfew that applied only to them and were forbidden to write or publish attacks or threats against the U.S. government.

On the U. S. mainland, Japanese Americans were not considered essential to the economy or the war effort. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the army to designate military areas from which "any or all persons may be excluded" and to provide transportation, food, and shelter for persons so excluded. Lt. General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, issued proclamations dividing Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona into military areas from which enemy aliens and all Japanese Americans would be excluded. These proclamations also laid down a curfew between 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. for enemy aliens and all Japanese, aliens and citizens alike.


While some in the majority population objected to the oppressive treatment of loyal American residents and citizens, most Americans either approved or were neutral about the actions of our government. Wartime American propaganda about the Japanese reflected long-held racist attitudes of many Americans. While cartoonists depicted Germans as buffoons, Japanese were typically caricatured as apes or monkeys.

On December 7, 1941, there were about 1,500 Nisei recruits in U.S. Army units in Hawaii. On December 10 the army disarmed them and confined them to quarters under armed guard. Two days later they were re-armed and placed on beach patrol. On June 5, 1942, after rounding them up and disarming them again, the army organized 1,432 Japanese American soldiers into the Hawaiian Provisional Battalion and shipped them to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. There, they trained for seven months, initially with wooden guns. The Nisei from Hawaii were joined by other Japanese American soldiers, mostly volunteers and draftees from mainland concentration camps, to form the segregated 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Many Nisei argued that serving the United States in war against Japan and her Axis allies would prove their loyalty and worth as citizens and overcome the discrimination from which they suffered. In all, about 33,000 Japanese Americans served the United States's cause in World War II.

Other patriotic Japanese Americans saw the situation differently. In 1943, about 200 Nisei at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming formed the Fair Play Committee (FPC) to resist conscription into the armed services. The FPC published a manifesto that read in part, "We, the Nisei, have been complacent and too inarticulate to the unconstitutional acts that we were subjected to. If ever there was a time or cause for decisive action, IT IS NOW!" The Fair Play Committee protested denial of their rights as citizens without due process, without any charges being filed against them, and without any evidence of wrongdoing on their part. In June 1944, at the end of the largest draft resistance trial in U.S. history, 63 Nisei resisters were sentenced to three years in prison. On Christmas Eve 1947, President Harry S Truman pardoned them.

From the beginning, Japanese Americans sought to right the wrong of interning up to 120,000 innocent civilians. Mitsuye Endo agreed to serve as the test case against the internment program in 1942. On December 18, 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared the detention of Japanese Americans unconstitutional and ordered Endo's immediate release. One day before the ruling, and in anticipation of it, the Western Defense Command of the U.S. Army announced the termination of its exclusion of loyal Japanese Americans from the West Coast, effective January 2, 1945.

After the war, many Japanese Americans returned home from the camps or the armed services and went to work to secure their rights and redress the wrongs committed against them. In Hawaii, Daniel K. Inouye, a decorated veteran, entered politics. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1959 to 1962. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962. Along with three other Japanese American legislators (Senator Spark M. Matsunaga of Hawaii and Representatives Norman Y. Mineta and Robert T. Matsui of California), Inouye sponsored a bill to apologize for the wartime internment and offer cash payments of $20,000 (tax-free) to each of the 60,000 victims still living. Congress enacted the bill in 1988, but because Congress failed to appropriate the necessary funds, a second bill had to be passed in 1989 to assure the payments.

Individual and Group Contributions


Harry H. L. Kitano (1926 ), a native of San Francisco, is a professor of sociology at UCLA, where he holds an endowed chair in Japanese American studies.


Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986) designed the World Trade Center in New York City. Its twin towers, erected in 1970-1977, rise 110 stories high.


Perhaps the most famous Japanese American sculptor was Isamu Noguchi. His work extended beyond sculptures to include important architectural projects and stage designs, including designs for the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Ruth Asawa (1926 ) is a Nisei artist known for her wire mesh sculptures and bronzed "baker's clay" sculptures. She is co-founder of the School of the Arts Foundation in San Francisco.

Isami Doi (1903-1965) exhibited his art works widely. Born and reared in Hawaii, he studied art at the University of Hawaii, Columbia University, and in Paris.

Toyo Miyatake (1895-1979) was a noted photographic artist and a leader in the Los Angeles Little Tokyo Community. During World War II, he and his family were interned at Manzanar, California, where he was allowed to take photographs documenting life in the camp. After the war he reopened his studio.


Philip Kan Gotanda (1949 ), a playwright, musician, and director, is best known for musicals and plays about the Japanese American experience and family life. His plays include The Avocado Kid, The Wash, A Song for a Nisei Fisherman, Bullet Headed Birds, The Dream of Kitamura, Yohen, Yankee Dawg You Die, and American Tatoo.

Sessue Hayakawa (1890-1973) was a leading figure in silent films. After an absence of many years, he returned to Hollywood filmmaking in the 1950s and won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Hiroshima is a Sansei pop music group which blends traditional Japanese instruments into jazz.

Makoto (Mako) Iwamatsu (1933 ) was the founding artistic director of the East West Players, an Asian American theater company in Los Angeles. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role as a Chinese coolie in The Sand Pebbles.

Nobu McCarthy (1938 ) was a Hollywood star in the 1950s and is currently artistic director of the East West Players in Los Angeles. Her early film roles were mostly stereotypical (geisha girls and "lotus blossoms"). In the 1970s and 1980s, she appeared in more rounded roles in Farewell to Manzanar, The Karate Kid, Part II, and The Wash.

Midori (1971 ) is a celebrated violinist who has performed with many of the world's great orchestras.

Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (1932 ) became a major television and film actor in the 1980s. In 1984 he starred as Miyagi, a kind-hearted karate instructor, in The Karate Kid, and was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor.

Sono Osato (1919-) is an important dancer who worked with Diaghilev, the Ballet Russe, Balanchine, Tutor, Fokine, Massine, the American Ballet Theatre, and performed in the original production of the Jerome Robbins/Leonard Bernstein On The Town.

Seiji Ozawa (1935 ), conductor, became music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1970 and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1973.

Pat Suzuki (c. 1930 ), singer and actress, was the first Nisei to star in a Broadway musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, in 1958.

Miyoshi Umeki (1929 ) received an Academy Award as best supporting actress in 1957 for her role in Sayonara.


John Fujio Aiso (1909-1987) was director of the Military Intelligence Service Language School which trained about 6,000 persons in Japanese for intelligence work during World War II. In 1953 he became the first Japanese American judge.

George Ryoichi Ariyoshi (1926 ) served as governor of Hawaii from 1973 to 1986. He was the first Japanese American lieutenant governor and governor in U.S. history.

S. I. Hayakawa (1906-1992), a professor of English, gained national attention for his strong stand against dissident students during his tenure as president of San Francisco State College (1968-1973). He served as a Republican U.S. Senator from California from 1977 to 1983.

Daniel K. Inouye (1924 ) of Hawaii was the first Nisei elected to the U.S. Congress. A Democrat, he served in the House of Representatives from 1959 to 1962. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962. He was a decorated veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II.

Clarence Takeya Arai (1901-1964), a Seattle lawyer, was a key figure in the founding of the Japanese American Citizens League. He was active in Republican politics in the state of Washington in the 1930s. He and his family were sent to the relocation camp at Minidoka, Idaho, during World War II.


James Hattori is a television correspondent for CBS News.

Harvey Saburo Hayashi (1866-1943) was both a physician and newspaper editor for the rural Japanese American community of Holualoa in Kona, Hawaii. He founded the Kona Hankyo in 1897. The newspaper was published for the next 40 years and reached a circulation of 500 at its peak.

William K. "Bill" Hosokawa (1915 ) has served as a writer and editor for the Denver Post. He is the principal historian for the Japanese American Citizens League. During his wartime internment at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, he edited the Heart Mountain Sentinel.

Ken Kashiwahara (1940 ) is a television correspondent for ABC News and one of the first Asian American journalists to work in network television.

James Yoshinori Sakamoto (1903-1955) began the first Nisei newspaper, the American Courier, in 1928. He was a strong supporter of the Japanese American Citizens League from its beginning and served as its national president from 1936 to 1938.


Lance A. Ito (1950 ), Los Angeles County superior court judge, is a highly respected jurist who gained national prominence as the judge in the O. J. Simpson murder trial.


Velina Hasu Houston (1957 ) is known for her plays and poetry reflecting on the experiences of Japanese American women and her own experience as a multiracial Asian woman. Her plays include Asa Ga Kimashita, American Dreams, Tea, and Thirst.

Jun Atushi Iwamatsu (1908 ) is best known as author and illustrator of children's books. He has been runner-up for the Caldecott Medal for Crow Boy (1956), Umbrella (1959), and Seashore Story (1968). He has held several one-man exhibitions of his paintings.

Tooru J. Kanagawa (1906 ), a journalist and decorated veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, published his first novel at the age of 83. His novel, Sushi and Sourdough, is based on his youth in Juneau, Alaska.

Toshio Mori (1910-1980) chronicled the lives of Japanese Americans in numerous short stories and six novels. Most of his writings, however, remain unpublished.


Leo Esaki (1925 ) is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who invented the tunnel diode while working for the Sony Corporation in Japan. In 1960, Esaki immigrated to the United States to work at IBM's Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.

Makio Murayama (1912 ), a biochemist, received the 1969 Association for Sickle Cell Anemia award and the 1972 Martin Luther King, Jr. medical achievement award for his research in sickle cell anemia.

Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928), a microbiologist, devoted his life to fighting diseases such as bubonic plague, syphilis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and yellow fever.

Jokichi Takamine (1854-1922) was a chemist who developed a starch-digesting enzyme (Takadiastase ), which was useful in medicines. In 1901 he isolated adrenaline from the supradrenal gland and was the first scientist to discover gland hormones in pure form.


Masao Kida (1968 ), a major league baseball player for the Detroit Tigers, Kida is a pitcher and was born in Tokyo.

Hideo Nomo (1968 ), a major league baseball player for the Milwaukee Brewers, Nomo was born in Kobe, Japan.

Kristi Yamaguchi (1971 ), a figure skater, won the women's gold medal in figure skating at the 1993 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.



Chicago Shimpo.

Bi-lingual newspaper. The only Japanese publication in the Midwest.

Contact: Akiko Sugano, Editors.

Address: 4670 North Manor Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60625.

Telephone: (773) 478-6170.

Fax: (773) 478-9360.

The Hawaii Hoichi.

A bilingual publication intended to keep non-English fluent Japanese Americans informed about the United States.

Contact: Mr. Mamoru Tanji.

Address: 917 Kokea Street, Honolulu, Hawaii 96817-4528.

Telephone: (808) 845-2255.

Fax: (808) 847-7215.

Hokubei Mainichi.

A bilingual publication. Covers Japanese politics as well as national news. Receives strong support from local Japanese American organizations.

Contact: Ms. Atsuko Saito.

Address: 1746 Post Street, San Francisco, California 94115.

Telephone: (415) 567-7323.

Fax: (415) 567-1110.

Nichi Bei Times.

A bilingual publication geared toward both visitors from Japan and Japanese Americans. Covers world, national, local, and lifestyle news.

Contact: Ms. Keiko Asano.

Address: 2211 Bush Street, San Francisco, California 94115.

Telephone: (415) 921-6820.

Fax: (415)-921-0770.

Rafu Shimpo.

A bilingual publication. Main source of Japanese American news in Southern California.

Contact: Ted Ubukata.

Address: 259 South Los Angeles Street, Los Angeles, California 90012.

Telephone: (213) 629-2231.

Fax: (213) 687-0737.


KALI-FM (106.3).

Japanese language news broadcast weekdays from 7 to 9 AM. Affiliated with Bridge, U.S.A. magazine.

Contact: Mr. Ono.

Address: 20300 South Vermont Avenue, Suite 200, Torrance, California 90502.

Telephone: (310) 532-5921.

Fax: (310) 532-1184.


Japanese language news broadcast daily.

Contact: Ms. Ikuko Tomita.

Address: 711 Kapiolani Boulevard, Honolulu, Hawaii 96813.

Telephone: (808) 593-1950.

Fax: (808) 593-8040.

KZOO-AM (1210).

Largest exclusively Japanese broadcast in the United States.

Contact: David Furuya.

Address: 250 Ward Avenue, Suite 209, Honolulu, Hawaii 96814.

Telephone: (808) 593-2880.

Fax: (808) 596-0083.


The following television stations offer programming in Japanese language: KDOC-TV, Anaheim, California; KTSF (Channel 26), Brisbane, California; KHNL, Hilo, Hawaii; KSCI (Channel 18), Pasadena, California; WMBC (Channel 63), New York City, New York; and WNYE (Channel 25), New York City, New York.

Organizations and Associations

Japan-America Society of Washington (JASW).

Contact: Patricia R. Kearns, Executive Director.

Address: 1800 Ninth Avenue, Suite 1550, Seattle, Washington 98101-1322.

Telephone: (206) 623-7900.

Fax: (206) 343-7930.

E-Mail: admin@us-japan.org.

Online: http://www.us-japan.org.

Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).

Educational, civil, and human rights organization founded in 1929 with 115 chapters and 25,000 members.

Contact: Herbert Yamanishi, National Director.

Address: 1765 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California 94115.

Telephone: (415) 921-5225.

Fax: (415) 931-4671.

E-mail: [email protected].

Japan Hour Broadcasting.

Founded in 1974, it produces radio and television programs in Japanese for Japanese residents in the United States, and English language programs on Japan to promote American understanding of Japan and U.S.-Japanese relations.

Contact: Raymond Otami, Executive Director.

Address: 151-23 34th Avenue, Flushing, New York 11354.

Japan Society (JS).

Organization for individuals, institutions, and corporations representing the business, professional, and academic worlds in Japan and the United States; promotes exchange of ideas to enhance mutual understanding.

Contact: William Clark, Jr., President.

Address: 333 East 47th Street, New York, New York 10017.

Telephone: (212) 832-1155.

Fax: (212) 755-6752.

E-mail: [email protected].

Online: http://www.jpnsoc.com.

Nippon Club.

Organization for persons who take special interest in Japanese affairs.

Contact: Tsutomu Karino, Executive Director.

Address: 145 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019.

Telephone: (212) 581-2223.

Fax: (212) 581-3332.

Museums and Research Centers

Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.

A performing and visual arts center founded in 1980.

Address: 244 South San Pedro, Suite 505, Los Angeles, California 90012.

Telephone: (213) 628-2725.

Fax: (213) 617-8576.

E-mail: [email protected].

Online: http://www.jaccc.org/.

Japanese American Curriculum Project.

Address: 234 Main Street, P.O. Box 1587, San Mateo, California 94401.

Telephone: (800) 874-2242.

Japanese American National Museum.

The first national museum dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of Japanese Americans.

Address: 369 East First Street, Los Angeles, California 90012.

Telephone: (800) 461-5266; or (213) 625-0414.

Fax: (213) 625-1770.

Online: http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/janm/ main.htm.

Japanese American Society for Legal Studies.

Contact: Professor Daniel H. Foote.

Address: University of Washington Law School, 1100 Northeast Campus Parkway, Seattle, Washington 98105.

Telephone: (206) 685-1897.

Fax: (206) 685-4469.

E-mail: [email protected].

U.S.-Japan Culture Center (USJCC).

Seeks to promote mutual understanding between the United States and Japan; to help the public, scholars, government officials, and businesspersons of both countries increase their knowledge of U.S.-Japan relations.

Contact: Mikio Kanda, Executive Director.

Address: 2600 Virginia Avenue, N.W., Suite 512, Washington, D.C. 20037.

Telephone: (202) 342-5800.

Fax: (202) 342-5803.

E-mail: [email protected].

Online: http://www.usjpcc.com/.

Sources for Additional Study

Ellington, Lucien. Japan: Tradition and Change. White Plains, New York: Longman, 1990.

Hosokawa, Bill. Nisei: The Quiet Americans. New York: William Morrow, Inc., 1969.

Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tokyo, Japan: Kodansha, 1993.

Japanese American History: An A to Z Reference from 1868 to the Present. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

Kitano, Henry E. Japanese Americans: The Evolution of a Subculture. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

. Generations and Identity: The Japanese American. Needham Heights, MA: Ginn Press, 1993.

Lyman, Stanford M. Chinatown and Little Tokyo: Power, Conflict, and Community Among Chinese and Japanese Immigrants in America. Millwood, New York: Associated Faculty Press, 1986.

Montero, Darrel. Japanese Americans: Changing Patterns of Ethnic Affiliation Over Three Generations. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1980.

Nakano, Mei T. Japanese American Women: Three Generations 1890-1990. Berkeley, California: Mina Press, 1990.

Takahashi, Jere. Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989.

Japanese Americans

views updated May 17 2018

Japanese Americans

ETHNONYMS: Nikkei, Nihonjin


Identification and Location. Japanese Americans are the descendants of people from East Asia who settled on the four major islands of what is now Japan. Japanese people began to migrate to America during the Meiji era (1868-1912), a period when Japan was undergoing modernization and industrial, economic, and military growth. Japanese people who moved to the United States in the late nineteenth century came from the southern agricultural region and settled in the Pacific Coast states and Hawaii. The physical environment of those areas had some similarities to the climate and topography of Japan (mildly temperate) but had more land available for cultivation. Because many of the first immigrants had an agricultural background, the land and climate of Hawaii and the western United States was a good match for their occupational skills.

Demography. In 1880 there were 148 Japanese in the United States; despite restrictive immigration laws, that number increased with each decade through the twentieth century. In 1890 the number was 2,039, and shortly before World War II, in 1940, the population was 285,115. The 1990 population was 847,562.

Linguistic Affiliation. The vast majority of Japanese Americans speak English. First- and second-generation immigrants are largely bilingual. The third and subsequent generations are likely to be monolingual English speakers, but there has been a resurgence of interest in the Japanese language among the more recent generations. The linguistic roots of the Japanese language are not agreed upon. Historical linguists suggest a "hybrid" theory by which the language emerged from the Altaic (Turkish, Mongolian, Korean) languages with some contributions from Austronesian (Pacific Islands, Australian) languages.

History and Cultural Relations

For many centuries Japan was a closed country where emigration was prohibited. In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay to open trade relations. This signaled the beginning of contact between Japan and Western nations and, as a result, increased migration of Japanese to North America and other parts of the world. According to Ichioka (1988), Japanese immigration can be broadly divided into two periods: 1885-1907 and 1908-1924. Those periods coincided with restrictions on Japanese immigration enacted by the U.S. government. During the early period, the pattern of immigration was called dekasegi, or the practice of going abroad to work, and eventually there was a return to the homeland. Between 1885-1894 nearly thirty thousand Japanese went to Hawaii to work as contract laborers on sugarcane plantations. The earliest Japanese settlement on the mainland United States was the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony near Gold Hill, California. The colony was not successful and was abandoned by 1872.

The bulk of Japanese migration occurred after 1880. The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 led to a decline in the number of laborers available for the developing Western industrial economy, and Japanese immigrant laborers filled the gap left by the exclusion of the Chinese. Initially, many Americans viewed Japanese immigration as desirable. As a group the Japanese were often compared favorably with the Chinese, but those positive comparisons were short-lived. By the early twentieth century labor leaders and politicians became concerned with the increasing Japanese population and the relative success of those immigrants in agricultural ventures. Anti-Japanese activists sought to end Japanese immigration. In 1905 the San Francisco Board of Education wanted to move all Japanese students in that city to the Chinese school. This was met with a great deal of resistance by the Japanese community and the Japanese consulate in San Francisco. Through the consulate's intervention, the students were allowed to stay in their neighborhood schools. By that time the event had drawn national attention, and President Theodore Roosevelt was pressured to address the concerns of the leaders of the anti-Japanese movement. The Gentlemen's Agreement (1907-1908) was established in response to growing pressures for immigration restrictions. The United States agreed not to pass any formal exclusion laws concerning the Japanese, and the Japanese government agreed to stop issuing passports to laborers who wanted to work in the United States. Thus, both governments saved face at a time when relations between Japanese and American workers and the government were tense.

By 1908 returning to Japan had become less common among the Issei (first-generation) workers. The Gentlemen's Agreement discouraged many from returning because there was no assurance that they could reenter the United States as laborers at a later time. Many decided to stay and entered into arranged marriages or sent for wives so that they could establish families and communities in the United States. By the 1920s families with children constituted a large proportion of the established Japanese American community. Japanese immigration came to a halt in 1924 with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 (National Origins Quota Act), which prevented further immigration from Japan. It was not until 1952 that the ban on immigration was lifted by the McCarran-Walter Act and the Issei became eligible for citizenship.


There were major urban settlements in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Fresno, Los Angeles, and San Diego, California. Major rural settlements included the Yakima valley of eastern Washington state and the Central, Central Coast, and Imperial valleys in California.

During World War II more than 120,000 Japanese Americans in California, Oregon, and Washington were forced to move to relocation centers. Ten centers were built by the U.S. Army and operated by the War Relocation Authority, a branch of the Department of the Interior. Those centers were in operation between 1943 and 1946 and were located in Arkansas (Rohwer, Jerome), Arizona (Gila River, Poston), California (Manzanar, Tule Lake), Colorado (Amache), Idaho (Minidoka), Utah (Topaz), and Wyoming (Heart Mountain). The living quarters were built using army specifications for barracks. The rooms were 20 by 16 feet (6 by 5 meters), and one room would house an entire family with children or a group of single men or women. Cooking and eating areas, washrooms, toilets, and shower facilities were centralized.

Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not interned because of the logistic difficulties of mass incarceration. It was believed that the Hawaiian economy would collapse if such a large proportion of the population were removed from the islands.


Subsistence. Japanese immigrants engaged in commercial activities to obtain and distribute food and other necessities.

Commerical Activities. Japanese immigrants engaged in a wide range of activities to generate income. They worked in the lumber and railroad industries and in urban areas worked as domestics, gardeners, and small business owners (grocery and sundry stores, restaurants, and boardinghouses). The largest percentage of Japanese immigrants was involved in agricultural endeavors. They grew a number of specialty crops such as strawberries, lettuce and other vegetables, deciduous fruits (apples, cherries, pears, and peaches), potatoes, and wheat.

Division of Labor. Women traditionally were responsible for child rearing and management of the home. Men typically did tasks outside the home, working for wages, or worked in their own homes for production, such as agriculture. In early immigrant communities women's traditional homework was often combined with work to support the family. Women did paid work outside the home, took in work (such as laundry) for pay, or took care of children and other boarders (hired hands or workers on the farm). Children were educated in the American public education system. For the most part these schools were not segregated by race but might have been characterized by de facto racial segregation because of the composition of ethnic neighborhoods and the locations of the schools that served those neighborhoods.

While the Issei generation worked in jobs that were essential to the developing Western economy, such as agriculture, the Nisei (second) generation was encouraged to obtain a formal education. Many Nisei obtained college and professional degrees but had difficulty finding jobs in their areas of specialization because of their ethnic background. After World War II the third and fourth generations (Sansei and Yonsei ) experienced less discrimination than had the previous generations. There are greater opportunities now that some of the more obvious forms of discrimination have become illegal. Thus, there is a much higher proportion of third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans in skilled and professional occupations.

Land Tenure. A large number of Japanese immigrants worked in agriculture. Beginning in 1913, several states (California, Arizona, Washington, Louisiana, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Kansas) began to pass laws restricting ownership of land by non-citizens. Japanese immigrants were not eligible to become naturalized citizens of the United States, and so those laws affected their livelihoods. Despite the laws, Japanese farmers devised a number of ways to continue farming. They put the land in the names of their underage American-born children who were U.S. citizens, found sympathetic whites who would lease land to them, and formed corporations that leased land as a business entity. Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants are no longer prohibited from purchasing or using land for any purpose.


Kin Groups and Descent. Most Japanese American families recognize patrilineal descent. Families that have similar surnames may have common ancestors and other relations, but those family ties and relations generally have not extended into the practices of kin relations in the United States. Kin groups are closely tied to the domestic unit of the household.

Kinship Terminology. Japanese Americans use a distinct nomenclature to refer to different generational groupings in the United States. The Issei are the immigrant generation. The Nisei are the second generation but are the first generation born in the United States. Kibei are a group of Nisei who are educated and raised in Japan. Sansei are the third generation, Yonsei are the fourth generation, and Gosei are the fifth generation. Because of the restricted time period of Japanese immigration, each generation has had unique experiences. Japanese immigrants who came to the United States after 1950 are usually designated shin issei, or new Issei.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are one of the major life events for Japanese Americans. They are not marriages of individuals but represent the bringing together of two families. During the early immigration period "picture bride" marriages were common. This type of arranged marriage allowed male immigrants to become engaged to and marry a woman in Japan without being physically present during the ceremony. Afterward the bride's name would be entered into the groom's family registry as a member of the family and the bride would be eligible to immigrate as the wife of a Japanese immigrant worker in the United States. The 1907-1908 Gentlemen's Agreement did not affect the picture brides of men already living in the United States. Divorce was uncommon in the United States, but it did occur. Women could exercise some degree of control during the early immigrant period by leaving marriages in which they were unhappy and finding new partners without getting a legal divorce.

Domestic Unit. Issei families were based on the traditional kinship structure of the ie, or household. The term refers to both the physical structure of a household and its members and the past and future members of the household. Each individual was a registered member of a household; this included all the members marrying into the family unit. In the United States these were usually nuclear family units with the husband, wife, and children living in one household. Other family forms emerged but were less common. Households may have also included other male laborers (boarders) or unmarried or married relatives of either the husband or the wife. Thus, it was possible for families to be extended in the sense that there were non-parental relatives. Post-World War II Japanese American families are generations removed from the Meiji-era Japanese immigrant families of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. According to Yanagisako (1985), "the ideal family is one that is a balanced compromise between a traditional past and a modern past." Japanese American families incorporate traditional Japanese values (particularly duty and obligations to filial relations) into American cultural traditions and lifestyles.

Inheritance. Families in Japan had patrilineal lines of descent in which male progeny, in order of age, receive an inheritance. In this system females marry into other family and clan groups and do not receive an inheritance. Successor-son inheritances have been replaced by equal inheritance among siblings.

Socialization. Children's relationship with their parents is extremely important in traditional Japanese society, and these values have carried over to Japanese American families. The basis of the relationship lies in the oyako, parent-child relations that stress reciprocal obligation. There is a strong emphasis on children obeying adult (parental) authority. Parents provide for their children because in their old age and retirement the children will be responsible for taking care of them.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Family and kin are the most important primary group obligation for Japanese Americans. Beyond this, the Japanese American community has always had a strong history of social organization. The early immigrant communities were organized around prefectural associations called kenjinkai. A prefecture is a geographic area roughly equivalent in size to a small state or large county. Immigrants from certain prefectures in Japan, such as Wakayama, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka, formed associations based on common interests and familiarity with the homeland region. Those associations reinforced individual ties to Japan and emphasized Japanese national identity. As anti-Japanese hostility increased, prefectural associations served to organize people against those attacks. The Japanese government was concerned about the welfare of its citizens abroad. In cooperation with local Japanese consular officials, the Issei organized the Japanese Association of America. There were branches of this organization in cities that had substantial Japanese populations. In addition to the kenjinkai, Japanese immigrants had organizations such as farmer's cooperatives and business and trade associations that served the needs of individuals in certain occupations. Buddhist and Christian churches and Japanese schools also formed the basis of secondary group associations in the United States.

The postWorld War II Japanese American community continues to have a high level of social organization. Ethnic churches; sports leagues for basketball, bowling, and golf; and cultural community functions (Japanese day camp for children, arts and crafts) continue to serve as primary and secondary group social outlets for many Japanese Americans.

Political Organization. The Japanese American community follows many of the same rules and practices of leadership, politics, and decision making as other groups in American society. Since the great majority of Japanese Americans are American citizens, they are active in the political process. Urban Japanese Americans tend to be Democrats, whereas rural residents are split between the Democratic and Republican parties. Several Japanese Americans have served in prominent political positions locally, regionally, and nationally, including Senator Daniel Inouye and Congresswoman Patsy Mink of Hawaii, and Congressmen Robert Matsui and Norman Mineta of California. Mineta became the first Japanese American appointed to a cabinet position, serving in the Clinton administration as secretary of commerce. Later, he was appointed to the cabinet of the Bush administration as secretary of transportation.

Social Control. Traditional Japanese culture required a great deal of social control and conformity from its members. Individuals with different status levels defer to those of higher status. Status positions are defined within the family (parent/child) as well as within the community (profession/age/family name). The norms and values of the culture include a sense of obligation and loyalty to one's family and community. By violating these norms, one risks being socially ostracized. Japanese norms in the United States have been adaptive, developing in response to the historical situations and necessities of life in a Western cultural world. However, some aspects of traditional Japanese culture conflict with American values and expectations. Though several generations removed from the culture of Japan, Japanese American culture recognizes status deference and obligation in social relations, and this conflicts with American societal values of egalitarian relationships between individuals.

Conflict. Japanese Americans have experienced conflict with other groups in American society. The anti-Japanese movement had its origins in the anti-Chinese movement of the late nineteenth century. The anti-Japanese movement is most frequently traced to economic competition between Japanese and non-Japanese workers. Other explanations for the movement suggest cultural factors: The Japanese were perceived as foreigners from a culture that would not fully assimilate into American society.

After being confined in camps during World War II, the community had to reestablish itself. Many individuals and families lost their savings and investments and had to start over. Compensation for those losses was not adequate. In the 1980s the Japanese American community rallied around a national redress and reparations movement. The issue was settled in the early 1990s, when approximately two-thirds of the surviving former internees were awarded $20,000 each in compensation for losses incurred during the war.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Japanese Americans have a range of religious affiliations, although most are Buddhists or Christians. Most Japanese Americans adhere to the Jodo Shinshu Nishi Hongwanji (Pure Land) tradition of Buddhism, which originated in Japan. Among Protestant Christians there are a range of denominations, including Baptist, Methodist, and Methodist-Episcopal. Missionaries from those sects worked with the Japanese community by teaching Sunday school and English classes and provided other social welfare activities within the community. The missionary work of Protestant denominations formed the basis of the Christian Japanese American ethnic church and congregation.

Religious Practitioners. The first Buddhist churches in the United States did not have ministers because religion was not a weekly activity, but religious philosophy and practice were part of everyday living. In the early Christian churches the ministers were not Japanese, but lay leaders in the church might be members of the Japanese American community. In contrast to the early religious leadership, both Buddhist and Christian Japanese American churches are now headed by men and women who are Japanese American.

Ceremonies. Japanese Americans, regardless of religious affiliation, observe different seasonal and religious holidays (matsuri ) that are both secular and religious in nature. Members come from different parts of the community and include non-Japanese outsiders, and these events have become symbolic of Japanese American ethnicity. The events typically occur as seasonal celebrations, such as the fall and spring festivals (Hanamatsuri and Akimatsuri ). Japanese traditional holidays such as Girls Day and Boys Day are celebrated within a Japanese American context. During the months of July and August, most Buddhist churches celebrate obon, an event that honors the dead. This takes place as a festival that includes Japanese dancing and music. Obon festivals have been transformed into larger Japanese American community events and may include games for children and adults; food, flower, and produce vendors; and other cultural activities.

Arts. Some of the artistic activities traditional to Japan have survived in the United States. The art of ikebana (flower arranging), classical Japanese dance, and music played on the shamisen and the koto (stringed instruments) and the taiko (drum) continue to be practiced and interpreted in new ways. In Los Angeles during the 1980s the band Hiroshima had several hit songs in the progressive jazz music scene. The band used traditional Japanese instruments (koto and taiko) and consisted almost exclusively of Japanese American musicians.

Japanese American writers and poets have made contributions to the literature of American society. They include prose writers such as Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Cynthia Kadohata, Toshio Mori, John Okada, Yoshiko Uchida, Hisaye Yamamoto, and Karen Tei Yamashita and the poets Lawson Inada and Mitsuye Yamada. Visual artists include Matsusaburo and Hisako Hibi, Chiura Obata, Mine Okubo, and Henry Sugimoto. Many writings and art works document and provide a literary and visual interpretation of the World War II internment camp experience.

Death and Afterlife. Japanese Americans' views of death coincide with different religious and spiritual affiliations. Death is one of the major events that bring people from the community together. Funerals and memorial services represent a significant social responsibility and obligation by members of a family to the deceased and the deceased's family and thus can be very large affairs. There is a strong obligation to attend a funeral to recognize the accomplishments of the deceased and show respect to the surviving family members. A mortuary offering of koden (money) is commonplace among those attending a funeral. Because the members of a family may have different religious affiliations (the Issei generation may be Buddhist, while the Nisei and Sansei may be Christian), there is some overlap between Christian and Buddhist funeral services.

For other cultures in The United States of America, see List of Cultures in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 1, North America.


Daniels, Roger (1968). The Politics of Prejudice. New York: Atheneum.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano (1981). Issei, Nisei, War Bride: Three Generations of Japanese American Women in Domestic Service. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Ichioka, Yuji (1988). The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885-1924. New York: Free Press.

Kitano, Harry H. L. (1976). Japanese Americans: The Evolution of a Subculture. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Ng, Wendy (2001). Japanese American Internment during World War II. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Niiya, Brian, editor (1991). Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference. New York: Facts on File.

O'Brien, David J., and Stephen S. Fugita (1991). The Japanese American Experience. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Spickard, Paul R. (1996). Japanese Americans: The Formation and Transformations of an Ethnic Group. New York: Twayne.

Weglyn, Michi (1976). Years of Infamy. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Yanagisako, Sylvia (1985). Transforming the Past: Tradition and Kinship Among Japanese Americans. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


Japanese Americans

views updated May 09 2018

Japanese Americans

For more information on Japanese history and culture, seeVol. 3: Japanese.


The first Japanese arrived in America by accident in the early 1800s, swept off in their fishing boats by powerful currents and shipwrecked. Rescued at sea by U.S. ships, they were brought to America, where they usually remained because it was illegal at that time to leave or enter Japan. In 1868 a group of about 150 contract laborers secretly left Japan and came to work on the sugar plantations in Hawaii. After suffering mistreatment and harsh working conditions, they were called back to Japan. About one-third returned, while the others chose to stay on in Hawaii.

In 1885, Japan decided to open its borders in a limited way and allowed a restricted number of emigrants to leave for Hawaii. Most of those who chose to go to Hawaii intended to work hard, save a large sum of money, and return to Japan. A few did, but most ended up staying in Hawaii.

Groups of Japanese Americans began to establish farming colonies in the early 1900s. Although the first experiment, the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony established in 1869 near Sacramento, California, had failed, later attempts were more successful. Between 1904 and 1919, five farming colonies, each called Yamato Colony, were established in the San Joaquin Valley of California, near Boca Raton, Florida, and near Browns-ville, Texas. The Texas colony did not last much longer than the original Wakamatsu failure, and the Florida colony eventually dwindled away (though it struggled along for almost three decades). The California colonies, however, are still in operation today, and the Wakamatsu Colony is being restored as an historic site.

In 1908, as a compromise between Japanese-U.S. relations and anti-Asian racial tensions in California, Japan and the United States signed the "Gentleman's Agreement," discontinuing all Japanese emigration to the United States except for "former residents, parents, wives or children of residents" in return for the integration of Japanese American students into American public schools. But fear of the so-called "Yellow Peril" led to further discriminatory acts, such as alien land laws (stating that no one who was ineligible for U.S. citizenship, which included all Asians, could own land); the "Ladies' Agreement" of 1921, barring any more picture brides from entering the United States, and, finally, the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, which prohibited the immigration of anyone ineligible for citizenship, effectively ending Japanese immigration.

In 1929, Japanese Americans created the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) to fight for their rights and promote a Japanese American identity for all Japanese Americans. The JACL still exists today as the largest Asian American civil rights organization.

Relations between the United States and Japan worsened throughout the 1930s. Then, on 7 December 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, at that time a U.S. Territory (it would become the 50th U.S. state in 1959). The U.S. government immediately seized over 1,000 Japanese American community leaders in Hawaii and on the U.S. west coast and

imprisoned them. Two months later, on 10 February 1942, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered all Japanese Americans to be evacuated from their homes and sent to detention camps. They were also presented with loyalty questionnaires to fill out and sign. At the time, the U.S. government believed this was necessary to prevent those Japanese Americans still loyal to Japan from sabotaging U.S. military efforts, carrying out espionage for the Japanese government, or staging internal attacks. However, no other immigrant group was detained or had their loyalty questioned during the whole of World War II (1939–45), including German and Italian Americans. Executive Order 9066 was clearly racially motivated, and it would take decades for the U.S. government to redress this grievous wrong. In 1988, a bill was finally passed to pay $20,000 per internee living when the bill went into effect, or to his or her heirs, and in 2005 the California legislature passed a bill to give diplomas to Japanese Americans who had been forcibly removed from high school during the internment. The internment camps themselves are now being preserved as historic sites and educational centers.

Most Japanese Americans had been forced to sell their homes and businesses at a moment's notice when informed that they were to be evacuated. After suffering for almost three years in the dreadful living conditions of the internment camps, they were released to a life with no home, no property, and no financial resources. Many were afraid to return to the "Japantowns" of the West Coast because anti-Asian sentiment was still running high there. Consequently, the Japanese American community became much more widely dispersed, scattering across the United States.

Japanese Americans also tried to hide their cultural differences, blending in with mainstream American society as much as possible. A great deal of traditional Japanese culture was discarded by Japanese Americans in those first years after World War II, and more has been lost in succeeding generations. The movement for redress (compensation for wrongs done to Japanese Americans), which began in earnest in the 1970s, did lead many young Japanese Americans to examine their history and begin to reclaim their identity as Japanese Americans. Once redress was achieved, however, the rallying point for Japanese Americans as a culture group was gone and interest in a separate Japanese American identity waned once again.

The children and grandchildren of Japanese American internees were encouraged to adopt mainstream American values, traditions, and attitudes. Most grew up speaking only English, learning and experiencing very little of traditional Japanese culture. Because they no longer lived in Japanese American enclaves but were rather dispersed throughout American communities, they made many non-Japanese American friends. This led to a rise in interracial marriages to the point that today there are very few Japanese American children of pure Japanese descent. The Japanese American community may eventually disappear simply through racial blending.

According to the U.S. Census, there were 1,148,932 Japanese Americans living in the United States in 2000. Over two-thirds (about 70%) are American-born, almost twice as many as in any other Asian American group. Although Japanese immigration continues into the United States, most Japanese Americans are descended from Japanese who arrived before 1924. Some 200,000 Japanese settled in Hawaii and 180,000 on the U.S. mainland between 1885 and 1924.

Most Japanese Americans (68%) still live in the West, with the majority concentrated in the Pacific region. California has the highest population of Japanese Americans (394,896). Although Hawaii has fewer Japanese Americans (296,674) than California, they comprise a higher percentage of the total population (25%, compared to 1% in California). In 2000 one-fifth (20%) of all Japanese Americans lived in Honolulu alone. The next highest Japanese American populations are in the states of Washington (56,210), New York (45,237), Texas (28,060), and Illinois (27,702).

Japanese Americans distinguish themselves by generation. Issei are first generation Japanese Americans who were born in Japan. Their children, second generation Japanese Americans, are called Nisei. The children of Nisei and grandchildren of Issei are known as Sansei, or third generation Japanese Americans. Yonsei are fourth generation Japanese Americans, children of Sansei. Many Japanese Americans today are either Sansei or Yonsei. They have lived in the United States longer than some European Americans and consider themselves more American than Japanese. Most do not speak Japanese or follow traditional Japanese customs.

The Japanese are very tolerant, and Japanese Americans likewise follow a variety of religious faiths. In their efforts to assimilate with mainstream American culture, many have become Christian, though they may still visit Buddhist temples on traditional Buddhist holidays. Certain Shinto customs also survive, such as visiting shrines at New Year's and praying to Shinto gods for luck.

Major rites of passage, such as weddings and funerals, may be celebrated in traditional Buddhist or Shinto fashion. Somefamilies take their children to the Buddhist temple for the Infant's First Service, or Hatsu Mairi, in May, where the children are formally introduced to the community for the first time. Adult Japanese Americans who choose to pursue Buddhism seriously are given a Buddhist name in the Three Treasures, or Ti Sarana, ceremony held every March and September.

Most Japanese Americans continue to celebrate certain traditional Japanese holidays. Although different communities celebrate a variety of holidays, nearly all Japanese Americans recognize New Year's (Shogatsu), the Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri), Children's Day (Tango no Sekku), the Weaving Loom or Star Festival (Tanabata), and the Bon Dance (Bon Odori). Japanese Americans often add typical American holiday foods, such as ham or turkey, to their traditional Japanese feasts, and girls may display American rather than Japanese dolls on Hina Matsuri.

Tanabata had been celebrated in a rather reduced form in the United States, consisting of small gatherings of people reading poetry. Recently, however, Japanese Americans are returning to more elaborate displays of traditional Tanabata decorations. Bon Odori has become the occasion for huge parades with professional dancers in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Although Japanese Americans have for the most part become thoroughly Americanized, certain traditional customs remain, such as gift giving. Younger generations, however, are beginning to lose touch with the importance of these rituals, much to the chagrin of their parents and grandparents. One traditional Japanese value to which even younger Japanese Americans still adhere is the strong bond between mother and child. Studies show that Japanese American children are held more by their mothers and spend less time alone than other children in the United States. Japanese American children are taught to respect their elders, and they grow up with feelings of gratitude and obligation toward their parents that last throughout their lifetime.

Many Japanese Americans continue to eat traditional Japanese foods, such as sushi, sashimi, maki, and tempura. Japanese foods have also become popular among the general U.S. population. In May 1964, Hiroaki "Rocky" Aoki (1938–) opened the first Benihana restaurant, in New York City. Though some critics consider the food more American than Japanese, it is prepared in a flamboyant "Japanese" manner by Japanese American chefs wielding large knives at lightning speeds right at the customers' table. Benihana restaurants are now located in cities throughout the world.

Japanese Americans have contributed more than just food to American society. The arts of haiku poetry, origami (paper-folding), ikebana (flower arranging), and Kabuki theater are practiced and enjoyed by many Americans. Actors such as George Takei (Star Trek) and Pat Morita (Happy Days and the Karate Kid films) are well known to most Americans, and musicians including Yoko Ono, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and the jazz band Hiroshima have added elements of their Japanese heritage to the world of American music, as have James Iha, a guitarist formerly with the Smashing Pumpkins, and rapper Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park.

A number of Japanese American writers have found success, including Ronald Takaki, Bill Hosokawa, Jun Atsushi Iwamatsu, Lydia Minatoya, David Mura, Phillip Kan Gotanda, Kyoko Mori, and others. Successful Japanese American artists and architects include Eiko Ishioka, Gyo Obata, and Minoru Yamasaki.

Although the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and the United States came as contract laborers, they were carefully selected by the Japanese government from the ranks of the well educated to serve as ambassadors of a sort. Most Japanese Americans descend from these hard-working, highly skilled immigrants and carry on their drive to succeed. The unemployment rate among Japanese Americans is very low, and only 8.6% live below the poverty line, as compared to 12.4% of the overall American population.

Some Japanese Americans who have risen to the top in their fields are Nobel Prize winners Leo Esaki and Tetsuo Akutso; research scientist Douglas Ishii; Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian American astronaut (who was tragically killed aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1986); U.S. Senators Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa and Daniel Inouye; U.S. representatives Bob Matsui, Patsy Takemoto Mink, and Norman Mineta; Superior Court Judge Lance Ito (who was named to preside over the O. J. Simpson trial in 1994); George Aratani, founder of the Mikasa Corporation (one of the largest privately owned international firms); lawyer and director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, Dennis Hayashi; and CBS news correspondent James Hattori.

Japanese Americans have also been very successful in sports. Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal for figure skating in the 1992 Winter Olympics and has also won gold and silver medals at World Championship competitions. Several Japanese American baseball players have made the major leagues, and Japanese American athletes have risen to the top in many other sports as well, including gymnastics, boxing, golf, track and field, tennis, volleyball, hockey, football, and basketball. Miki Gorman, a 2005 nominee for the National Distance Running Hall of Fame, is the only woman to win the Boston and New York City marathons twice each, as well as the only woman to win them both in the same year (1977). She was also the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon in under three hours (1974). Japanese Americans are also responsible for bringing karate, judo, aikido, and ninjutsu (whose practitioners are called ninjas) to the United States.

Japanese Americans still suffer the wounds and scars of internment during World War II, and anti-Asian discrimination continues to afflict their lives. Studies have shown that Japanese American men are paid less than what European American men earn for the same work, and few Japanese Americans are promoted to top management positions. Chinese American Vincent Chin was mistaken for a Japanese by European American auto workers in Detroit in 1982. The auto workers called Chin a "Jap," blamed him for the loss of their jobs, and beat him to death on the street. This sort of racial prejudice prevents Japanese Americans from taking their full and rightful place in American society.

Both Japan and Hawaii encouraged the emigration of women to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to promote a stable home life among Japanese laborers there and discourage prostitution, gambling, and other vices to which single young men might succumb. Many Japanese women came to Hawaii and the U.S. west coast as "picture brides." In a system similar to the traditional arranged marriages of Japan, a man and a woman would exchange photos and letters until the woman could travel across the sea to join her husband.

Despite Japanese and Hawaiian efforts, however, some hundreds or even thousands of young Japanese women were brought to Hawaii and the United States as prostitutes. Most were either sold into prostitution by their destitute families, kidnapped, or tricked into joining the recruiters. Life was hard for these young women, and they saw little of the profits from their forced labors.

Other Japanese women came to Hawaii and the United States, not as picture brides or prostitutes to serve the male contract laborers, but as contract laborers themselves. Thou-sands of Japanese women worked as cooks, seamstresses, and field laborers alongside the men. However, even their lives were more difficult than the lives of Japanese American men: although the women did equal work, they received only $6 per month in wages, as compared to the men's wages of $10 per month.


Asian-Nation. Asian American History, Demographics, and Issues, http://www.asian-nation.org (2 June 2008).

Bernardo, Stephanie. The Ethnic Almanac. Garden City, NY: Dolphin Books/Doubleday & Co., 1981.

California Japantowns. http://www.californiajapantowns.org/index.html (2 June 2008).

Gall, Susan, and Irene Natividad, ed. The Asian American Almanac. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

Gonzales, Juan L., Jr. Racial and Ethnic Groups in America, 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1993.

Japanese American Citizens League. http://www.jacl.org (2 June 2008).

Lee, Lauren. Japanese Americans. Tarrytown, NY: Benchmark Books/Marshall Cavendish, 1996.

National Distance Running Hall of Fame. http://www.distancerunning.com/news/class_05.html (2 June 2008).

Niiya, Brian, and Sandra Yamate. "Who Are the Japanese Americans?" In The Asian American Almanac, Susan Gall and Irene Natividad, ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. American Factfinder. http://fact-finder.census.gov (2 June 2008).

—by D. K. Daeg de Mott

Japanese Americans

views updated May 21 2018

Japanese Americans





There may well be no other group that simultaneously represents and challenges the meaning of such terms as American dream, model minority, or reparations. These terms are essential to debates about immigration policies, racial politics, and economic opportunities in the United States. Like other immigrant groups, Japanese Americans (Nikkei ) embody the struggles, contradictions, and possibilities that are inherent in the promise of a new life in America. And like other nonwhite groups in the United States, the attempts of Japanese Americans to take advantage of what American life promised were met with racism. And like many other U.S. minority groups, racial or not, Japanese Americans have faced an enormous amount of overt and covert discrimination throughout their history. It is here, at the crossroads of U.S. immigration history, racial politics, civil rights struggles, and ideas about economic success, that Japanese Americans, past and present, stand out most starkly.


There is no question that Japanese Americans, who began to come to the United States and Hawaii in the late nineteenth century as laborers in the vegetable and sugarcane fields of the Pacific and Western coastal states, could be collectively called an immigrant success story. As the first waves of men arrived, eventually followed by their wives and children, they immediately began to encounter blatant discrimination and exploitation from employers and neighbors, as well as from local, state, and federal governments. They were not alone. The first Japanese immigrants entered the United States at a time when xenophobia, racist nativism, jingoism, and labor struggles helped to create the realities of hardship and survival that give credibility to every American immigration success story. The first Japanese immigrants faced a configuration of the Asiatic Exclusion League, formed in 1908; the Alien Land Laws, passed in 1913 and 1922; the 1922 U.S. Supreme court ruling declaring Japanese ineligible to become naturalized citizens (Ozawa v. United States ); the bloody strikebreaking and lockouts in the Hawaiian cane fields during the 1920s and 1930s; and in 1942 the signing of Executive Order 9066, which began the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II (19391945).

When comparing this first generation (Issei ) and their children (Nisei ) to todays fourth (Yonsei ) and fifth (Gosei ) generations, it is not difficult to see why Japanese Americans are considered to be a model minority. The differences between the first and subsequent generations are obvious. And because of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the comparison of the earliest Japanese immigrants to Japanese Americans living in the early twenty-first century is remarkable, and emotionally charged for many. This increasingly multiracial and multiethnic group of descendants, as well as a large number of people who do not claim Japanese ancestry, looks to the history of Japanese people in the United States as representing the best and the worst of what going to America for a better life has meant.

It is not just that Japanese men and women, through their diligence and hard work, laid the framework, both economically and culturally, for their descendants to achieve increasing success with each new generation. That story is part of the immigrant history for many American ethnic groups. Japanese Americans stand out because their history includes the experience of internment, and not only surviving but thriving after being released. As a group, they not only prospered in the postwar years, with a long list of notable and famous Japanese Americans, but they were able to mobilize and achieve redress and reparations in 1988 against a great deal of opposition from the U.S. government. But, like all immigrant histories, the Japanese American success story demands a closer look in order to understand the realities, as well as the images, that give it power and appeal.

Academic research on Japanese Americans has tended to focus on three subjectsthe Issei generation, World War II (including internment and Nisei military service), and the redress movement of the 1980s. There are multiple ways of interpreting these episodes, and many stories that remain untold. As interest in the Japanese success story has increased, an attempt to build upon existing understandings and analyses of the varieties of Japanese American histories has unfolded, and with it a desire to expand the ways that Japanese Americans, as individuals and as a group, are seen as part of U.S. history. This effort has cut across disciplinary boundaries and generated a great deal of exciting and often controversial work.

Some scholars have challenged assumptions about who the men and women were that left Japan and what they brought with them as they faced a system of anti-Japanese laws and sentiment in the United States. The assumption that they came with no skills and little education and were able to achieve middle-class status in one (or less than one) generation encourages a look at culture and not economics for an explanation. This is especially important when Japanese Americans are set in stark contrast to other nonwhite and ostensibly nonachieving groups in the United States. Economist Masao Suzuki (2002) makes it clear that the story of Japanese Americans is much more complex than commonly imagined. Focusing on the large out-migration of Japanese back to Japan during the 1920s (the majority of immigrants left) and the ways that the Gentlemens Agreement of 1908 regulated and thus changed the type of Japanese immigrant coming to the United States from Japan (the earliest Issei were unskilled farmers; later Issei came with more education and skills), Suzuki argues that the Japanese American immigration story demands contextualization. He argues that lateral mobility, not upward mobility, and selective immigration must be stressed when considering which Japanese Americans achieved economic success, and how they did so. Arguments like this challenge other widely held interpretations that focus on Japanese cultural values by calling attention to the gendered, classed, generational, and regional realities of Japanese Americans before World War II.


When President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945) signed Executive Order 9066 in February, 1942, he did more than direct the removal of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans to desolate areas in the U.S. mainland interior. He helped to create one of the most symbolic moments in both U.S. and Japanese American history. The internment of Japanese Americans, like the Holocaust, the Great Migration, and the Trail of Tears, is a deservedly major event in U.S. history. Today, the internment is written about widely. This was not always the case, as the subject was not generally discussed in textbooks or in popular culture until the 1980s. This was due, in part, to the decision by many Japanese Americans, though not all, to downplay this injustice.

The removal and four-year incarceration of Japanese Americans led to more than economic hardship and emotional suffering. As they were rounded up and sent to assembly centers in California, Oregon, and Washington with little more than what they could carrymany Issei men were sent to federal prisons without trials or evidencethe meaning of Japanese American began to change. Most were American citizens and minors who were taken to places where their alleged allegiance to Japan would not be a threat to the U.S. war effort. And although such accounts of injustice factor into the ways that internment is useful in arguing that Japanese Americans were a model minority, the incarceration and eventual relocation of Japanese Americans helped to create a generation of Nisei who would never forget the racial injustice that they and their relatives faced during the war. In places like Tule Lake in California and Rowher, Arkansas, some Japanese Americans looked out from behind barbed wire in armed camps and began to rethink what it would mean to be Japanese in postwar America.

Some young Japanese men joined the U.S. military and won numerous medals during the war in an effort to prove their loyalty and make things easier for their relatives. Others, known as the No-No Boys, refused to pledge allegiance or serve in the U.S. military and thus were sent to jail. After the war, some moved as far away from their old lives and the internment camps as possible, creating large postwar Japanese populations in cities like Chicago, where they and their families became part of a new fabric of race, class, and civil rights struggles. During this period, the model minority and success labels began to be applied to Japanese Americans. Yet Japanese American responses to the incarceration indicate that there is a multiplicity of ways that their history can be conceived, both within and outside of the model minority and Japanese American success story images.


Beginning in 1970 and ending with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the struggles of Japanese Americans to achieve recognition and a token payment for what happened to them during World War II mark yet another moment where the contradictions of the Japanese American immigrant success story are laid bare. There were differing opinions on how to achieve redress, and, as the only racial or ethnic group to be granted an apology and cash settlement from the federal government, this hard-earned victory also helped cast Japanese Americans as a favored minority. As other minority groups, such as African Americans and Native Americans, continue to work for their own reparations, the Japanese American success is held up by a variety of interests who are either demanding or suppressing calls for further reparations acts. What is perhaps most interesting with regard to future claims by other groups was the way that the Japanese American redress initiative was castit was about citizenship, not race. Today, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) continues to frame itself as an organization committed to preventing a recurrence of the civil rights violations that led to the internment. The JACL has, for example, been a loud voice in post-9/11 debates over national security. The images and realities that Japanese Americans embody continue to be of major importance to how life in the United States is imagined and lived.

SEE ALSO African Americans; Citizenship; Discrimination; Immigrants, Asian; Incarceration, Japanese American; Migration; Mobility, Lateral; Model Minority; Native Americans; Race; Racism; Reparations; Whites; World War II


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Jacalyn D. Harden

Japanese Americans

views updated May 11 2018


JAPANESE AMERICANS have contributed significantly to the political strength, economic development, and social diversity of the United States. Like all Asian Americans, they are a heterogeneous group, the most obvious distinction being between those from the Japanese home islands and those from Okinawa, which was an independent kingdom until 1879, when Japan incorporated it as a prefecture. In 1970, Japanese Americans were the largest group among Asian Americans in the total U.S. population, but Chinese and Filipinos had passed them by 1990, In 2000, the Census Bureau asked respondents to identify themselves as one or more races in combination. Japanese Americans were most likely to report one or more other ethnic groups, but with a total population of 1,148,932, they still ranked sixth among Asian Americans, having also fallen behind Asian Indians, Vietnamese, and Koreans. Japanese Americans increased least among Asian Americans by immigration after 1980 because Japan's economy provided its citizens with a high living standard. Also, Japanese Americans did not manifest a huge gender imbalance like other Asian American groups, and in fact was the only group prior to 1965 in which women outnumbered men. By far most Japanese Americans live in California and Hawaii, with the states of Washington, New York, and New Jersey a distant third, fourth, and fifth.

Early Settlement in Hawaii and California

U.S. commercial expansion in the Pacific during the early nineteenth century initiated the history of Japanese movement to America. After American traders established a presence in Hawaii, the United States secured a commercial treaty with China in 1844. It then gained access to Japan in 1854, signing an agreement that ended Japan's policy of national isolation. Thereafter, Hawaiian sugar planters, mostly U.S. citizens, began to recruit Japanese as contract laborers. In 1869, the first Japanese arrived on the mainland and settled near Sacramento, where they established the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony on 600 acres. This settlement soon disappeared because the mulberry shoots and tea seeds that the immigrants brought from Japan could not survive in the dry California soil. In 1871, Japan sent the Iwakura Mission to the United States in search of Western scientific knowledge as a way to preserve its political and cultural independence. Significant numbers of individual Japanese resettled in the United States thereafter for the same reason and generally were

well received until Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. U.S. labor recruiters from the mainland then went to Hawaii to lure Japanese workers with promises of higher wages and better working conditions. Seeking escape from the rigors of sugar plantation life, 34,000 Japanese left Hawaii from 1902 to 1906 for the West Coast.

Anti-Japanese agitation in the United States began almost with the arrival of the first Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans). Not only did reactionary politicians favor action to block Japanese immigration, but reformers also called for restrictions. Progressives talked of the "Yellow Peril" and prevailed on legislatures in western states to pass anti-Japanese laws that barred Japanese Americans from interracial marriage and excluded them from clubs, restaurants, and recreational facilities. Racial segregation greatly reduced opportunities in education, housing, and employment, and alien land laws thwarted advancement in agriculture.

Japan protested these measures to defend its national honor and to protect itself against the same imperialist exploitation China endured. In response, President Theodore Roosevelt arranged the 1908 Gentlemen's Agreement with Japan, whereby Tokyo agreed not to issue passports to Japanese workers seeking to migrate to the United States in return for Roosevelt's promise to press for repeal of discriminatory laws. At that time, California had roughly 50,000 Japanese residents in a population of 2,250,000, working mostly as tenant farmers, fishermen, or small businessmen. But many owned farms, and there was a small professional class of lawyers, teachers, and doctors. From 1908 to 1920, the migration of Japanese women, mainly as "picture brides" and wives, helped even the mainland gender ratio. In 1924, the National Origins Act effectively ended Japanese immigration.

World War II and Incarceration

By 1941, about 120,000 Japanese lived in the United States, 94,000 in California. Earlier, most Japanese immigrants had settled in towns, but by then, 40 percent lived outside urban centers and worked in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. In Hawaii, racism against the Japanese was strong, but not as strong as in California. Many bowed to pressure to give up their language and embrace Christianity, yet they were still excluded from white schools. After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor forced U.S. entry into World War II, Japanese Americans were targeted for special persecution because of an exaggerated fear that they would conspire to aid the enemy. Time magazine explained to its readers in late December 1941 how they could distinguish the "kindly placid, open" faces of the Chinese, who were allies of the United States, from the "positive, dogmatic, arrogant" expressions of "the Japs." Barred from U.S. citizenship were 47,000 Issei, but their 70,000 American-born offspring (Nisei) were citizens. Congressman Leland Ford of California insisted that any "patriotic native born Japanese, if he wants to

make his contribution, will submit himself to a concentration camp." Despite their having committed no crimes, General John DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, declared Japanese of any citizenship enemies.

In Hawaii the U.S. government declared martial law but imposed no further limitations on the Japanese living there. On the mainland, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 of 19 February 1942 declared parts of the country "military areas" from which any or all persons could be barred. The U.S. Army gained authorization to remove all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. In May, the War Relocation Authority gave forty-eight hours or less to Japanese Americans to pack their belongings and sell or otherwise dispose of their property. More than 112,000 people were moved to ten detention facilities, mostly located in remote and desolate areas of the West. Thirty thousand children were taught in schools about democratic values, while being denied their civil liberties.

No one ever was charged with treason or sedition, as the pretext was disloyalty, which was not against the law. Yet since only 1,466 Japanese in Hawaii were placed in detention facilities over the course of the war, it is clear that racism, not fears of disloyalty, motivated the massive mainland incarceration. Facilities in the camps were primitive, services poor, and privacy virtually nonexistent. But nearly all Japanese Americans complied without objection, performing menial labor under armed guard. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld as legal the racial curfew for reasons of military security. With three judges dissenting, the Court ruled in 1944 that the relocation was justified by the exigencies of war.

Dozens of Japanese Americans refused to be drafted from the camps into the military to protest their incarceration, with some claiming conscientious objector status. At the same time, many young Japanese American men and women made important contributions to the U.S. war effort. The 442d Infantry Combat Team, comprised entirely of Nisei volunteers and serving in Europe, became the most decorated unit for bravery in action in the entire American military service. Others worked in the Pacific theater as translators, interpreters, or intelligence officers. Meanwhile, the numbers of Japanese Americans in the camps steadily declined as students were allowed to attend college, workers received temporary permits, and some internees gained permission to leave after agreeing to settle in eastern states. In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled in Ex Parte Endo that a loyal U.S. citizen could not be deprived of his or her freedom. That October, martial law ended in Hawaii. By January 1945, the camps still held 80,000 people, but finally that summer all could leave. A fortunate few found that friends had protected their homes and businesses, but most lost the work of a lifetime.

Postwar Acculturation

After World War II, Americans who had fought against Nazism started to question older notions of white superiority and racism. During the war, California had vigorously enforced an alien land law that led to the seizure of property declared illegally held by Japanese. In November 1946, a proposition endorsing the measure appeared on the state ballot, but voters overwhelmingly rejected it in part because the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) organized a campaign to remind Californians of the wartime contributions of Nisei soldiers. Two years later, the Supreme Court declared the alien land law unconstitutional, labeling it as "nothing more than out-right racial discrimination." In Hawaii, Japanese American veterans entered politics, organized the Japanese American vote, and reshaped the Democratic Party in the islands, ending nearly fifty years of Republican Party rule in the "revolution of 1954." The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act removed the ban on Japanese immigration and made Issei eligible for naturalized citizenship. Japanese Americans lobbied aggressively for the new law and rejoiced in its passage. By 1965, some 46,000 immigrant Japanese had taken their citizenship oaths.

Like other World War II veterans, Japanese Americans used the GI Bill to gain college educations. This brought a steady increase in postwar years in the percentage of professionals and city dwellers in this Asian American group. Because the rise in education levels and family incomes appeared so spectacular, especially after the impoverishment caused by World War II detention, commentators heaped praise on Japanese Americans as a "model minority." These writers attributed their economic advancement not only to determined effort but also cultural values that resembled dominant American ideals, including the centrality of the family, regard for schooling, a premium placed on the future, and belief in the virtues of hard work. As early as 1960, Japanese Americans had a greater percentage of high school and college graduates than other groups, and in later years median family incomes were higher by nearly $3,000 than those of other Americans. Observers noted, however, that Japanese Americans had greater numbers of workers per household, accounting in part for higher median incomes. According to a study of Asian Americans in California's San Francisco Bay area, based on the 1980 census, Japanese American individuals worked more hours.

Passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the national origins quotas of 1924 and opened the gates widely for many Third World peoples. Adopting the principle of "first come, first served," it also gave preference to professionals and the highly skilled. By 1986, immigrants from Asia rose from 1 to 5 million, comprising 40 percent of new immigrants as opposed to 7 percent twenty years earlier. But the portion of Japanese immigrants plummeted from 52 percent of all Asian Americans in 1960 to 15 percent in 1985. This decline accelerated the integration and assimilation of Japanese Americans into the mainstream of American society.

Japanese American Community Since the 1980s

During the 1980s, the Japanese American community experienced a transition from a relatively exclusive and excluded group to a fragmented and diverse collectivity. Among Sansei (third generation) and Vonsei (fourth generation), there was declining participation in Japanese American institutions and a lack of cultural connection to things Japanese. Rejecting assimilation, some younger Japanese Americans criticized the JACL for supporting cooperation with internment and opposing wartime draft resistance to strengthen its power position.

Japanese American political agitation grew during an era of greater social, economic, and political opportunities, focusing especially on gaining compensation for relocation and internment. Congress had of fered a token payment in 1948, but it was not until the 1980s that several Japanese Americans convicted of wartime offenses successfully reopened their cases. The Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were forced to release files showing how prosecutors withheld evidence proving that no danger existed to justify wartime civil rights violations. Civil organizations, political activists, and congressmen then lobbied successfully for passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, resulting in the U.S. government apologizing for wrongs done to Japanese Americans during World War II and authorizing monetary redress in the amount of about $20,000 per surviving internee. After determining terms of payment and definition of eligibility in 1988, over 82,000 received payments.

Japanese American assertiveness in this matter and against other forms of discrimination caused many observers to reexamine the accuracy of describing the group as the "model minority." Some writers saw a basic flaw in comparative analysis, stressing that Japanese Americans had to overcome "structural restraints" that white European immigrants did not have to face. Their success was largely attributable to a Japanese culture that emphasized the primacy of group survival over and above the retention of specific beliefs and practices. Others pointed to a sharp contrast between traditional American values that stressed individualism, independent goals, achieving status, and a sense of optimism, and Japanese values emphasizing group reliance, duty and hierarchy, submissiveness to authority, compulsive obedience to rules and controls set by those with status, a sense of fatalism, and success through self-discipline. Yet Japanese Americans arguably have been able to achieve assimilation into the American mainstream more fully than any other Asian American group. Despite the increasing complexity of the Japanese American community, new stereotypes have surfaced to limit options for Sansei and Vonsei that are less visible and more subtle. Meeting this challenge has caused younger Japanese Americans to rely on voluntary social groups to deal with collective needs. Persistent ethnic cohesiveness, as well as a commitment to build orderly and meaningful lives, thus remain key sources of strength in the Japanese American community.


Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

Hazama, Dorothy Ochiai, and Okamoto Komeiji. Okage Sama De: The Japanese in Hawai'i, 1885–1895. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

O'Brien, David J., and Stephen S. Fugita. The Japanese American Experience. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Spickard, Paul R. Japanese Americans: The Formation and Transformations of an Ethnic Group. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Takahashi, Jere. Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

James I.Matray

See alsoAsian Americans ; Japan, Relations with ; Japanese-American Incarceration ; andvol. 9:Gentlemen's Agreement .

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