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Encyclopedia > Japanese Americans
Serving from 1999 to 2003, Army General Eric Shinseki of Hawaii became the first Asian American military chief of staff. Community leaders are currently courting him to run for Governor or U.S. Senate.

Japanese Americans, or Nikkei (日系), are a group of people who trace their ancestry to Japan or Okinawa and are residents and/or citizens of the United States. Japan is a western Pacific Ocean multi-archipelagic nation east of the Korean Peninsula in Asia. Okinawa, a former independent nation, was annexed by Japan in the late nineteenth century.

Japanese Americans are the third largest Asian American community following Filipino Americans and Chinese Americans. The largest Japanese American communities are in California, Hawai'i, Oregon and Washington. Each year, about 7,000 new Japanese immigrants enter United States ports.


Cultural Profile

George R. Ariyoshi of Hawaii became the first Asian American to be elected governor in the United States.


Japanese Americans have special names for each of its generations in the United States. The first generation born in Japan or Okinawa, is called Issei (一世). The second generation is Nisei (二世), third is Sansei (三世) and fourth is Yonsei (四世). The term Nikkei was coined by Japanese American sociologists and encompasses the entire population across generations.


Issei and Nisei speak Japanese or Okinawan in addition to English as a second language. In general, later generations of Japanese Americans speak English as their first language, though some do learn Japanese later as a second language. In Hawai'i however, Japanese is a major language, spoken and studied by many of the state's residents across ethnicities. It is taught in public schools as early as the second grade. Japanese subtexts are provided on place signs, public transportation, and civic facilities. The Hawai'i media market has many locally-produced Japanese language newspapers and magazines. Stores that cater to the tourist industry often have Japanese-speaking personnel.


Japanese American culture places great value on the education of its youth. Across generations, parents tend to push their children to study for long hours and venture into advanced subjects. As a result of such cultural pressure, math and reading scores on standardized testing exceed national averages. They fill gifted classrooms and have the largest showing of any ethnic group in nationwide Advanced Placement testing in April or May of each year.

Japanese Americans however face stereotyping when it comes to educational skills. The American public has tended to place unreasonably high expectations in the intellectual capacities of Japanese Americans. In reality, the ratio between gifted versus normal intellectual capacity is about the same with whites.

Most Japanese Americans enter the military and/or obtain advanced college degrees. Japanese Americans once again face stereotyping as dominating the sciences in colleges and universities across the United States. In reality, there is equal distribution of Japanese Americans across academic disciplines in the arts and humanities in addition to the sciences.


Patsy T. Mink was the first woman of color to serve in Congress. She is celebrated as one of the most important civil rights leaders, especially for writing the Title IX Amendment which today preserves the rights of all genders in education.

As a result of Japanese American educational prowess, the community as a whole tends to enjoy above average economic well being. However, with the exception of Hawai'i, Japanese Americans still face racial discrimination in non-government and non-medical industries.


Japanese Americans are typically members of Protestant Christianity. Only a small minority are also followers of Mahayana Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and sectarian Shinto.

After Filipino Americans, Japanese Americans are the second largest Asian Christian community. The church is one of the most important cultural foundations for Japanese Americans. In California, Hawai'i and Washington, congregations can be comprised entirely of Japanese Americans. In the rest of the country they tend to be accepted in white dominated churches.


Japanese Americans tend to discard original religious values for most of its cultural celebrations and holidays. Instead, such celebrations are sectarian in nature and focus on the community-sharing aspects. An important annual festival for Japanese Americans is the Bon Festival which happens in July or August of each year. Across the country, Japanese Americans gather on fair grounds and large civic parking lots and commemorate the memory of their ancestors and their families through folk dances and food. Carnival booths are usually set up so Japanese American children have the opportunity to play together.

Major Celebrations in the United States
Date Name Region
January 1 Shougatsu New Year's Celebration nationwide
February Japanese Heritage Fair Honolulu, HI
February to March Cherry Blossom Festival Honolulu, HI
March 3 Hina Matsuri (Girls Day) nationwide
March Hawai'i International Taiko Festival Honolulu, HI
March International Cherry Blossom Festival Macon, GA
March to April National Cherry Bloosom Festival Washington, DC
April Pasadena Cherry Blossom Festival Pasadena, CA
May 5 Tango no Sekku (Boys Day) nationwide
May Shinnyo-En Toro-Nagashi (Memorial Day Floating Lantern Ceremony) Honolulu, HI
June Pan-Pacific Festival Matsuri in Hawai'i Honolulu, HI
July 7 Tanabata Festival nationwide


The history of Japanese Americans begins in the late nineteenth century when the first Japanese and Okinawan immigrants unload in Honolulu Harbor as indentured laborers of the many sugarcane and pineapple plantations. This event leads to several phases of Japanese American history: anti-alien period of the west coast in the early twentieth century, internment period during World War II, and finally political empowerment period of the late 1960s leading into the present day. Here are some key events for Japanese Americans:

  • 1890, First wave of Japanese immigrants to provide labor in Hawai'i sugarcane and pineapple plantations, California fruit and produce farms
  • 1900s, Japanese begin to lease land and sharecrop
  • 1907, Gentlemen's Agreement between United States and Japan that Japan would stop issuing passports for new laborers
  • 1908, Japanese picture brides enter the United States
  • 1913, California Alien Land Law of 1913 ban Japanese from purchasing land; whites threatened by Japanese success in independent farming ventures
  • 1930s, Issei become economically stable for the first time in California and Hawai'i
  • 1942, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 on February 19 uprooting Japanese Americans, except in Hawai'i, to be sent to concentration camps (euphemized by the government as "internment camps")
  • 1943, Japanese American soldiers from Hawai'i forming the 100th U.S. Army Battalion arrive in Europe
  • 1945, 442nd Regimental Combat team awarded 18,143 Medal of Valor decorations and 9,486 Purple Heart decorations becoming the highest decorated military unit in United States history
  • 1965, Patsy T. Mink becomes the first woman of color in Congress
  • 1980, Congress creates Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate World War II policies over Japanese Americans
  • 1983, Commission reports Japanese American internment was not a national security necessity
  • 1988, U.S. President Ronald Reagan signs Civil Liberties Act of 1988 apologizing for Japanese American internment and provide reparations of $20,000 to each victim
  • 1994, Mazie K. Hirono becomes the first Japanese immigrant elected state lieutenant governor
  • 1999, Gen. Eric Shinseki becomes the first Asian American U.S. military chief of staff
  • 2000, Norman Y. Mineta becomes the first Asian American appointed to the U.S. Cabinet; worked as Commerce Secretary (2000-2001), Transportation Secretary (2001-2004)


People from Japan began migrating to the U.S. in significant numbers following the political, cultural, and social changes stemming from the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Particularly after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Japanese immigrants were sought by industrialists to replace the Chinese immigrants. In 1907, the "Gentlemen's Agreement" between the governments of Japan and the U.S. ended immigration of Japanese workers (i.e., men), but permitted the immigration of spouses of Japanese immigrants already in the U.S. The Immigration Act of 1924 banned the immigration of all but a token few Japanese.

The ban on immigration produced unusually well-defined generational groups within the Japanese American community. Initially, there was an immigrant generation, the Issei, and their U.S.-born children, the Nisei. The Issei were exclusively those who had immigrated before 1924. Because no new immigrants were permitted, all Japanese Americans born after 1924 were--by definition--born in the U.S. This generation, the Nisei, became a distinct cohort from the Issei generation in terms of age, citizenship, and language ability, in addition to the usual generational differences. Institutional and interpersonal racism led many of the Nisei to marry other Nisei, resulting in a third distinct generation of Japanese Americans, the Sansei. Significant Japanese immigration did not occur until the Immigration Act of 1965 ended 40 years of bans against immigration from Japan and other countries.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalized U.S. citizenship to "free white persons," which excluded the Issei from citizenship. As a result, the Issei were unable to vote, and faced additional restrictions such as the inability to own land under many state laws.

Japanese Americans were parties in two important Supreme Court decisions, Ozawa v. United States (1922) and Korematsu v. United States (1943). Korematsu is the origin of the "strict scrutiny" standard, which is applied, with great controversy, in government considerations of race since the 1989 Adarand decision.


Main article: Japanese-American internment


The Internment during World War II, is the best known example of Japanese Americans in U.S. history. However, the history of Japanese Americans should not be reduced to the internment experience.

Americans of Japanese ancestry living in the western United States, including the Nisei were, forcibly interned with their parents and children (the Sansei Japanese Americans) during WWII. Despite the treatment, many Japanese Americans served in World War II, mostly as sentries and intelligence agents in the Pacific war. For the most part, the internees remained in the camps until the end of the war, when they left the camps to rebuild their lives in the West Coast.


Japanese Americans have made significant contributions to the agriculture in the western United States, particularly in California and Hawaii. Nineteenth century Japanese immigrants introduced sophisticated irrigation methods that enabled cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and flowers on previously marginal lands. While the immigrants prospered in the early 20th century, many lost their farms during the internment, although Japanese Americans remain involved in these industries today, particularly in southern California.

Detainees irrigated and cultivated lands nearby the World War II internment camps, which were located in desolate spots such as Poston, in the Arizona desert, and Tule Lake, California, at a dry mountain lake bed. These farm lands remain productive today.

Notable Japanese Americans

After Hawai'i statehood in 1959, Japanese American political empowerment boomed with the election of Daniel K. Inouye to Congress. Inouye's success led the way to slow cultural acceptance of Japanese American leadership on the national stage culminating in the appointments of Eric Shinseki and Norman Y. Mineta, as first Japanese American military chief of staff and first federal cabinet secretary, respectively. Japanese Americans made strides in the arts, sciences and sports with Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Center. Ellison Onizuka became the first Asian American astronaut while Kristi Yamaguchi won gold medals in several olympic games.

See also

External links

  Results from FactBites:
Japanese American - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2337 words)
The largest Japanese American communities are in California with roughly 395,000, Hawai'i with roughly 297,000, Washington with 56,000, and New York with 45,000, according to the 2000 Census.
Japanese Americans also have the oldest demographic structure of any ethnic group in the U.S.; in addition, in the younger generations, due to intermarriage with whites and other Asians, part-Japanese are more common than full Japanese, and it appears as if this physical assimilation will continue at a rapid rate.
Americans of Japanese ancestry living in the western United States, including the Nisei, were forcibly interned with their parents and children (the Sansei Japanese Americans) during WWII.
Japanese American internment - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (5791 words)
The Japanese American Internment refers to the forcible relocation of approximately 112,000 to 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, 62 percent of whom were United States citizens, from the West Coast of the United States during World War II to hastily constructed housing facilities called War Relocation Camps in remote portions of the nation's interior.
Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not subject to the strict internment policy, despite the fact that they were closer to essential military facilities than most of the Japanese Americans in the western states.
Beginning around the 1960s, a younger generation of Japanese Americans who felt energized by the Civil Rights movement began what is known as the "Redress Movement", an effort to obtain an official apology and reparations from the federal government for interning their parents and grandparents during the war.
  More results at FactBites »



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