East Asians of the United States

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East Asians of the United States

ETHNONYMS: Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Orientals


Identification. The general category of East Asians in the United States includes Americans of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and Korean ancestry. Neither East Asians in general nor any of the four East Asian-American groups is a homogeneous cultural group in the United States. Within each are a number of identifiable subgroups, with perhaps the most sigificant being those who arrived before World War II and their descendants and those who have arrived since, the latter, Except for Japanese-Americans, making up the overwhelming majority of East Asian-Americans. Other important divisions are based on the region of origin in the sending nation, language, religion, generation, and occupation.

Location. Prior to the post-World War II population increase East Asian-Americans were concentrated in Hawaii and California, with small numbers in Washington and Oregon. Since World War II, the percentage of East Asians has increased dramatically, partly through immigration to the United States and partly through migration from Hawaii to the mainland. Japanese-Americans remain heavily concentrated in the West (80.3 percent in 1980), mainly in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose areas, though sizable numbers now live in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City. In 1980, 42.9 percent of Korean-Americans lived in the West, with the other 60 percent distributed almost evenly in the northeastern, north-central, and southern Regions. In 1980, 52.7 percent of Chinese-Americans lived in the West with 26.8 percent in the East, with major Communities in New York City and Boston. Filipino-Americans remain a largely West Coast group with 68.8 percent settled there in 1980. Large Filipino communities also exist in Detroit, Chicago, New York City, and Boston as well as in San Diego, Norfolk, New London, Connecticut, and other cities with large naval bases, reflecting a tradition of Filipino service in the U.S. Navy dating to 1901.

Demography. Estimates for 1985 indicate that there were 1,079,400 Chinese, 1,051,600 Filipino, 766,300 Japanese, and 542,400 Korean-Americans in the United States. If Immigration figures for 1986 through 1989 are considered, it is likely that Filipinos are now the largest East Asian group in the United States as the number of Filipino immigrants was more than double the number of Chinese ones during this period. The number of East Asians has increased dramatically since the 1950s. In 1940, there were 285,115 Japanese, 106,334 Chinese, 98,535 Filipino, and 8,568 Korean-Americans. Reflecting this heavy recent immigration, the East Asian population contains a majority of immigrants (in 1980, 63.3 percent of the Chinese, 64.7 of the Filipinos, 81.9 percent of the Koreans), and they are a young population (about 60 percent are under forty-four years of age in these three groups). Japanese-Americans were a larger population than the other groups before 1950 and have had a lower rate of immigration since then; thus they have a lower percentage of immigrants (28.4 percent) and are a somewhat older Population group.

Linguistic Affiliation. The first generation of East Asian immigrants generally spoke the language of their homeland. Thus, Japanese spoke Japanese; Koreans spoke Korean; Chinese spoke Cantonese, various Mandarin dialects, or Hakka; and Filipinos spoke Ilocano, Visayan, or Tagalog, with most recent immigrants speaking Tagalog, now the offical language of the Philippines. In the second generation of recent Immigrants, relatively few speak the native language regularly or remain fluent in it as adults. Instead, they prefer to speak English. Native language maintenance is a major concern of the first generation of recent immigrants, though language school programs have met with only limited success.

History and Cultural Relations

The nature of East Asian immigration to and settlement in the United States is a function of a variety of factors including politics and economic conditions in the sending nation, the relationship between the sending nation and the United States, the need for cheap labor in the United States, and the racial prejudice encountered by East Asians in the United States. The Chinese were the first East Asian group to settle in America in significant numbers, with 322,000 arriving Between 1850 and 1882. Most were men who worked as laborers in mines, in factories, and on farms to earn money that would enhance their economic status when they returned home. While initial settlement was in the western states, some later were sent east under a contract labor system designed to exploit the Chinese as a source of low-paid labor, and others settled in the south. In response to demands for control of Chinese immigration and settlement that began in California in the 1860s, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which in 1882 effectively ended their immigration until 1943. During this period, the Chinese population in the United States decreased from 107,448 to 61,639. It was also during this period, however, that Chinatowns developed in cities near where the men worked.

Unlike Chinese immigrants, the first influx of Filipino, Japanese, and Korean immigrants went to Hawaii where they were recruited to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations. Later, some moved on to California and the Northwest Coast while others immigrated directly from their Homelands, again to work as laborers on farms and in factories and canneries. The Japanese came first, and by 1890 there were 12,000 in Hawaii and 3,000 in California. By 1920 300,000 had come to these two areas. The gentlemen's agreement Between the United States and Japan in 1907 placed quotas on and slowed Japanese immigration. Between 1903 and 1905, 7,226 Koreans immigrated to Hawaii; however, Korean Immigration virtually disappeared for forty years when the Japanese government (which then ruled Korea) ended emigration from the country in 1905. Filipinos were recruited and began immigrating to Hawaii in 1906 in place of the Koreans and Chinese. Between 1909 and 1931 113,000 Filipinos immigrated to Hawaii, with 55,000 settling there, 39,000 returning home, and 18,600 moving on to the mainland. Some Filipinos also immigrated directly to California and the Northwest Coast, where they were used as farmworkers in place of the declining numbers of Japanese and Chinese. The Immigration Act of 1924 through quotas virtually eliminated Immigration from East Asia. Most immigrants between 1924 and the 1940s were wives of men already in the United States. Many of these were "picture-brides" selected through an Exchange of photographs handled by a matchmaker. Nearly all East Asian men and women lived in distinctively Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino communities in which the native Languages and many traditional beliefs and practices were maintained. The marriages also produced a second generation in the United States who were citizens and who spoke English and were much less interested in maintaining the traditional cultures.

During World War II, the four East Asian communities had different experiences. Filipinos were classified as nationals and therefore could not serve in the U.S. armed forces, though the rules were changed during the war to allow Filipinos to serve. The Chinese-American community benefited in some ways from the war, as job opportunities opened up. In 1943 the Exclusion Act was repealed, migration increased, and anti-Chinese sentiments lessened. Because Korea was ruled by Japan, Korean-Americans were classified as Japanese, although they were strong supporters of the war and vehemently anti-Japanese. Despite their being seen as Japanese, they were not classified as enemy aliens or removed to internment camps.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor served as a catalyst to turn years of anti-Japanese feeling on the West Coast into action designed to destroy the Japanese-American community on the mainland. Japanese-Americans (including those who were citizens) were classified as enemy aliens and rounded up; by the end of 1942 110,000 from California, Oregon, and Washington had been interned in camps in the California desert, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, and Arkansas. All except those who chose and were allowed to serve in the military and those who chose to resettle in the Midwest and East were kept in the camps until 1945. This mass violation of Japanese-Americans' civil rights nearly destroyed the Japanese community in the United States. After release from the camps most returned to California, with many reestablishing farms in the central part of the state. It was not until the late 1980s that the U.S. Congress voted to pay survivors of the camps $20,000 each as compensation for their losses.

As noted above, since the end of World War II, there has been a multifold increase in the number of East Asians immigrating to the United States. The repeal of restrictive Immigration laws, closer ties between the United States and South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan, and the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of 1965 which essentially ended the national-origin quota system all encouraged immigration to and settlement in the United States. East Asians who have come to America since World War II are a much different population than those who came earlier. They are younger, include a larger number of women and families, are often highly educated professionals and technicians, and expect to stay in the U.S.

The one constant in the settlement histories of the four groups was the economic exploitation and discrimination they experienced. In addition to major discriminatory actionsthe Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration Act of 1924, and Japanese-American internment during World War IIEast Asians were subject to numerous other discriminatory practices. For example, in California they were barred from certain businesses and professions, antimiscegenation laws prevented marriage to Whites, residential restrictions confined East Asians to their own communities, various laws limited their right to own land, Chinese miners (and Mexican miners) had their profits taxed, and so on. Today, although overtly racist policies and laws have essentially disappeared, racism continues. East Asian-American men, for example, make less than White counterparts with equal experience and education, and few have made it to the top level of American businesses. There is also growing resentment among other Americans about East Asian and especially Japanese investment in the U.S. economy and ownership of properties in the United States. The depiction of East Asian-American groups as "model minorities" troubles some East Asian-Americans, as it suggests that equality has been achieved while contrasting East Asian economic success with other minorities' alleged failures and thus creating conflict between the groups.


East Asian-Americans are mainly an urban-suburban group, with the place of residence now largely determined by Socioeconomic status. The two major nonurban groups are Japanese-Americans in the farming and nursery and related businesses in central California and Filipino-American farm workers in California. Today, Koreatown in Los Angeles is the center of Korean life for the 150,000 Korean-Americans in southern California and the home for many elderly Korean-Americans and recent immigrants. The large Chinatowns that developed early in the century in cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City have been transformed into major economic zones providing products and services both to the regional Chinese-American population and to the general economy. The tourist trade has also become a major source of income in Chinatowns. Their economic growth has been accompanied by or perhaps was stimulated by their decline as residential districts. As with Koreatown in Los Angeles, most residents are either elderly or are recent immigrants and many are poor. "Little Tokyo" in Los Angeles, which serves Japanese-American communities in southern California, has also undergone the same transformation. Filipino-Americans, Except for the mostly male communities in Hawaii and California early in the century, have not formed distinct Ethnic enclaves comparable to Chinatowns.


In general, the economic circumstances of Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos in Hawaii and on the mainland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were much the same. The majority were low-paid, unskilled, male workers on sugar plantations in Hawaii and in the railroad, agriculture, fishing, logging, and mining industries on the mainland. When demand for their work diminished and East Asian Immigration decreased, those who remained in the United States and their children tended to settle in cities and became involved in service industries. Filipinos worked as domestics in hotels and as kitchen workers in restaurants and many men joined the Merchant Marine or the U.S. Navy where they worked as mess stewards or in other low-level service jobs. At the same time, many Filipinos were employed seasonally as farm workers and eventually became active in the unionization movement. The Chinese were also employed in service industries as well as founding their own businesses, with restaurants, laundries, and garment factories being most Common. In Hawaii, many Chinese sugar workers went on to work in the rice industry, and a sizable percentage became business owners or professionals. The Japanese also found work as domestics, gardeners, and farmers, with some finding ways to circumvent laws that prohibited them from owning land. Many of those who owned farms returned to rebuild them after they were released from the World War II internment camps. Both the Japanese and Chinese businesses have been described as "middleman minority" adaptations characterized by self-ownership of family-staffed businesses that provide a unique product or service to the community.

The arrival of the post-World War II immigrants has changed the position of East Asian-Americans in the U.S. economy. Many of those who have arrived since 1965 have been highly educated professionals or skilled technicians, and the children of the earlier settlers have had greater access to advanced education and professional employment. These two developments have improved the economic position of East Asian-Americans. Both men and women are now employed at about the same rates as Americans in general. The percentages of East Asian-American women who work (55 percent of Koreans, 58 percent of Chinese, 59 percent of Japanese, and 68 percent of Filipinos in 1980) are especially noteworthy. As of 1980, the men were employed in significant numbers in managerial and professional positions (22.5 percent for Filipinos to 38 percent for Chinese), with the largest percentages of women being employed in administrative support and service jobs. Unique occupation patterns include 22 percent of Chinese-American men in service jobs, 30.4 percent of Filipino-American men in service and administrative support positions, and 14.4 percent of Korean-American men in sales. For women, 18.2 percent of Chinese-American and 24 percent of Korean-American women work in low-level laborer positions. Gross figures indicate that full-time Chinese-American and Japanese-American men have higher incomes and Filipino-American and Korean-American men have lower incomes than Whites. The Chinese and Japanese figures are somewhat misleading, however, in that they do not reflect the fact that men in these groups often have more education and work longer hours than do Whites. Korean-Americans have drawn considerable attention as owners of small businesses, often grocery stores or vegetable stands, in minority neighborhoods, suggesting a Middleman minority role similar to the Chinese and Japanese earlier.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Kinship. In the early Korean, Chinese, and Filipino Communities, which were composed almost entirely of men, ties to families and wider kin networks were maintained through return visits, correspondence, and the remittance of a percentage of the man's earnings. In the communities that formed in this country, the absence of East Asian women and antimiscegenation laws made marriage and the formation of families and kin groups difficult. Some community cohesion was created through fictive kin groups modeled on clan and extended family structures in the homeland. Chinese men formed fictive clans with recruitment and membership based on immigration from the same village or province or possession of the same surname. When Chinese families began to form later in the early twentieth century with the arrival of Chinese women, these clan associations became less Important. Filipinos organized compang, fictive extended families composed of men who immigrated from the same village, with the oldest man usually heading the family. As more Filipino women immigrated to the United States, Filipino-American families became more common (though before World War II Filipino-American men still outnumbered women by nearly three to one), and the compadrazgo (godparent) system was transferred to the United States with each Individual then enmeshed in a network of actual and fictive kin.

The situation for Japanese-Americans was different, as beginning in 1910 stable families began to form and Japanese urban and rural communities also become relatively stable. Although the second-generation Japanese-Americans, the nisei, were being acculturated into American society, the first-generation-based family (issei) was still strong enough to maintain traditional beliefs regarding appropriate behavior between superiors and inferiors as well as filial duties.

Marriage and Family. The most noteworthy trend in East Asian-American marriages is the shift from ethnic endogamous to ethnic exogamous marriage. In all groups since the 1950s there has been a large increase in the number of Marriages to non-ethnic group members, and especially to Whites. Contemporary East Asian-American families are generally small nuclear families. Korean-American and Filipino-American households are somewhat larger because of the larger number of children in the former and the presence of non-nuclear family members in the latter. East Asian-American families are notably stable, with over 84 percent of children in all four groups living with both of their parents. Nonetheless, there are concerns in the Chinese-American community about juvenile delinquency and in the Korean-American about what is considered a high divorce rate. There is a major difference in household composition between those already settled in the United States and recent Immigrants. Households among the latter frequently contain additional relatives beyond the nuclear family or friends, as these households are often part of the chain migration process through which relatives immigrate to the United States.

Within households in all four East Asian-American groups, decision making has become more egalitarian as patriarchal authority has diminished. Women, however, still bear the major responsibility for household tasks, even though a majority of both men and women are employed. Educational opportunities are afforded both boys and girls, and both sexes are encouraged to excel in school.

Socialization. As with Americans in general, socialization takes place through the family, the local community, and the formal education system. Many East Asians in the past came to America with a high school education and many of the Recent immigrants have college and/or professional education or technical training. The children of recent immigrants make full use of educational opportunities in the United States; in fact education for their children is a major reason many East Asians resettle. Programs designed to maintain the traditional culture, such as language classes, youth groups, and cultural programs are offered in all major East Asian communities by ethnic associations and churches. One major problem facing many recent immigrant families is a generational gap between parents who prefer to speak the Native language and eat native foods, stress family obligations, and associate mainly with other ethnic group members and their children who see themselves as Americans, speak English, and make friends among non-Asian-Americans.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Each of the four East Asian-American groups is a diverse ethnic group composed of a number of distinct subgroups. Across all four groups, two internal divisions are most obvious. First is the distinction between those who settled before World War II and their descendants and those who arrived after the war. Second is the distinction in the post-World War II group between the parental and second generation, with the latter composed of those who were born in the United States or came when they were young. Beyond these two categories, each East Asian group displays additional diversity as well as various social institutions developed in the United States.

Chinese. Major divisions within the Chinese-American community include those based on place of origin (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia), Cantonese or non-Cantonese ethnicity, rural or urban residence, and support for Taiwan or recognition of the People's Republic of China. Localized in Chinatowns and excluded from full participation in American society for over one hundred years, Chinese-Americans developed a complex set of interlocking organizations that enabled them to maintain elements of their traditional culture while adapting to their new life. In the early years, when the population was mostly male, clan and regional associations with affiliation based on surname and region of origin served to affiliate men in the United States and maintain ties with the homeland. Other organizations including secret societies (tongs), guilds, and credit associations were also developed, all of which served economic, political, and social functions. With the arrival of more women and the formation of families in the twentieth Century, the second generation of Chinese-Americans appeared. Although they were socially and economically isolated from mainstream society, they learned English in school and formed organizations based on mainstream models and interests. At the same, they were less interested in the traditional culture, and membership in the clan and regional associations declined. In the post-World War II immigrant group, the clan and regional associations and tongs have declined in importance as the focus has shifted to forming organizations that will help Chinese-Americans secure full rights as American citizens.

Filipinos.For Filipino-Americans, the major internal distinction is based on the region from which one emigrated: the Ilocanos from northern Luzon, the Tagalogs from central Luzon, and the Visayans from the central Philippines. Although the three groups are no longer as separate as they once were, regional endogamy is still stressed by the post-World War II parental generation, and a preference for affiliation with people from the same region has contributed to the absence of a pan-Filipino organization in the United States. In the mostly male pre-World War II Filipino community, few social organizations developed. Instead, social cohesion was achieved through the maintenance of family and kin groups based on traditional practices. Today, the Roman Catholic church is the social center of many Filipino communities, and kinship and friendship networks are also Important agents of social cohesion.

Japanese. Within the Japanese-American community a major distinction is made on the basis of generation in the United States with the issei being the first generation, the nisei the second, the sansei the third, and the yonsei the fourth. These categories are applied to those who arrived before World War II. Those who arrived after the war are technically issei, but are not referred to as such. Japanese in the United States also include Japanese businessmen and wives or ex-wives of Americans who worked in Japan after World War II. Both these groups exist outside the Japanese-American community. In the prewar years in California, Japanese-Americans formed a network of interlocking businesses, such as rooming houses, laundries, groceries, and so on, which served the Japanese-American and other East Asian-American communities. At the same time, the issei maintained a cohesive community through educational and cultural organizations, a credit association, and regional associations. The nisei moved away from the more traditional groups and chose instead to form their own organizations often based on existing mainstream models and activities such as recreation leagues. Today, the Japanese-American community is socially complex with distinctions made on the basis of generation, age, political affiliation, life-style, and Occupation. At the same time, Japanese values emphasizing group interests over individual interests, deference, loyalty, and reciprocity govern everyday behavior for many Japanese-Americans and are a major source of social cohesion.

Koreans. The Korean-American community today is composed mainly of people who immigrated to the United States after World War II and their children. One basic distinction in the community is made among those born in Korea (Ilse), those born in the United States (Ese or samse), and those who came to the United States when they were young. The Ilse tend to speak Korean rather than English, have strong ties to Korea, and emphasize the role and authority of the family and the husband/father. Those in the younger generation are more assimilated into American Society. Unlike the other East Asian groups, organizations based on kinship or regional affiliations rarely formed among Korean-Americans. Rather, most organizations have formed on the basis of common interests and include clubs, churches, associations, and political groups. One of the more important are the alumni associations (high school and College) which enmesh Korean-Americans in lifelong social and economic networks. Living outside the Korean-American community are perhaps as many as 100,000 wives or ex-wives of American servicemen who served in Korea, their children, and thousands of Korean children adopted into White Families.

Political Organization. Because they were denied citizenship and the right to vote, East Asian-Americans before World War II were essentially powerless to directly influence local, state, or federal policies and actions that affected them. Within the mostly male, relatively isolated East Asian-American communities, social control and decision making was based on traditional beliefs and customs that usually accorded much authority to the older men in the community. At the same time, the regional and clan associations, guilds, secret societies, and other organizations served as special interest groups to advance the interests of their members. East Asian-American interests within American society were often handled by umbrella organizations, which included the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and later the Chinese-American Citizens Alliance, the Japanese-American Citizen's League, and the Korean Association. A pan-Filipino political organization did not develop, though Filipinos were active in labor movements in Hawaii and California.

Politics in the homeland have and continue to be a major concern and a source of conflict especially in the Chinese-American and Korean-American communities. Some Korean-Americans affiliate on the basis of ties to factions in Korea, and a major division in the Chinese-American Community involves those who emphasize ties to Taiwan versus those who recognize and want ties strengthened with the People's Republic of China.

Japanese-Americans have been active in Hawaiian Politics and hold many elective offices, a development that has sometimes led to conflict with other ethnic groups. On the mainland, especially since the 1960s and to some extent as a result of the civil rights movement, Chinese and Japanese-Americans especially have been more active in voicing their concerns, participating in the major political party politics, running for office, and seeking government employment.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religious beliefs and institutions have been a major force in all East Asian-American communities, both past and present, though the particular beliefs and institutions vary among the four groups. Most Koreans who settled in the United States had already been converted to Christianity (usually Protestantism) in Korea before arriving. In the contemporary Korean-American community the the Korean Christian churches are often the center of Community activity and provide many programs of special appeal to women, the elderly, and children. They have also been the locus of language and cultural maintenance programs. In many churches the services are conducted in Korean.

Nearly all Filipinos in the United States are Roman Catholics, their ancestors having been converted some Generations ago in the Philippines. Because of their dispersed Residence pattern, Filipino-Americans do not form their own churches but instead affiliate with the local church.

The first generation of Japanese-Americans believed in Buddhism and/or Shintoism. Many were converted in the United States by missionaries to various Protestant denominations, and today the Japanese-American community has perhaps the widest range of religious affiliations of the four East Asian-American groups. Recent immigrants have brought with them some of the new Japanese religions, although all have roots in Buddhism and Shintoism.

The religious beliefs and practices of the early Chinese immigrants centered on ancestor worship, Buddhism, and Taoism. Ancestor worship was especially important as a source of community cohesion and as a mechanism to maintain ties with the homeland. Efforts by Protestant missionaries with these immigrants largely failed, and today only about 20 percent of Chinese-Americans are Christians. Recent Immigrants have brought with them some of the revived Chinese folk religions and have formed Buddhist and Taoist associations.

Expressive Culture. The post-World War II immigration has revitalized the expressive elements of East Asian culture in the United States. In all four groups, traditional dance, music, theater, and art are flourishing and are a major focus of ethnic solidarity and pride, as are the public celebration of traditional holidays. Some aspects of expressive culture have also become part of the mainstream culture, most notably Chinese and Japanese cuisines, martial arts, architecture, and artistic styles and designs.

See also East Asians of Canada


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