Select a primary language to get the most out of our Journal pages:
English 日本語 Español Português

We have made a lot of improvements to our Journal section pages. Please send your feedback to!

The Japanese American Family - Part 1 of 8

Editor's Note: The following article is a shortened version of a chapter to appear in Ethnic Families in America: Patterns and Variations, 5th Edition, edited by Roosevelt Wright, Charles H. Mindel, Robert W. Habenstin, and Than Van Tran.


Many excellent discussions of Japanese American (JA) history and Japanese immigration to the U.S. are well known and widely available (Barringer, Gardner and Levin 1993; Kitano 1976; Kitano and Daniels 1995; Min 2006; Nishi 1995). For our purposes, immigration patterns and related demographic trends are the most directly pertinent factors. Immigration from Japan may be distinguished from immigration from other Asian nations in that a significant JA population was established in the early 20th century especially in Hawaii and California. These communities included many JA families consisting of immigrant parents residing with their native born, second-generation children. Whereas immigration laws relating to the Chinese limited the significant development of a regular Chinese American family during this time period (Wong 1995:69), the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907-1908 curtailed the immigration of Japanese male laborers but specifically allowed for Japanese women to immigrate for the purpose of marrying Japanese men who were already established in the U.S. For more than a decade afterwards, the so-called “picture brides” arrived in the U.S. and their fertility was substantial within a fairly short period of time (Barringer, Gardner, and Levin 1993).

By 1920, the JA population was expanding while the Chinese American population was contracting due to the limited number of Chinese women in the U.S. (Barringer, Gardner, and Levin 1993:39). Although further immigration from Japan and most of the rest of Asia was largely eliminated by the Immigration Act of 1924, by that time Japanese Americans had already formed stable communities that included a sizeable subpopulation of second-generation offspring. Japanese Americans had become by far the largest Asian American group during the first half of the 20th century.

Another distinctive feature of Japanese immigration is that its level in the post-1965 period is the lowest among the major Asian nations (Min 2006:17). After the fundamental changes in the immigration laws that occurred in 1965, immigration from such countries as Vietnam, China and Hong Kong, India, the Philippines, and South Korea has numbered in the millions during the last few decades, but immigration from Japan has been far more limited (Min 2006:17). By convention in this literature and among Japanese Americans themselves, foreign-born immigrants are often referred to as Issei (i.e., “first generation” in Japanese). Their native-born second-generation children are known as Nisei (i.e., “second generation” in Japanese). The offspring of the Nisei are known as Sansei (i.e., “third generation” in Japanese) who are also usually native-born.


Kitano and Kitano (1998:317) describe “the Issei family” in reference to the first stream of Issei immigrants who, as outlined above, began arriving in significant numbers during the 1890s. Those immigrants were largely motivated by economic opportunity, and as discussed by Kitano and Kitano (1998), they brought with them the cultural heritage of a more traditional Japanese society (i.e., associated with the Meiji era of the 19th century). Having roots in Buddhism and Confucianism, this culture emphasized group obligation over individualism and behavioral obedience to authority over personal verbal expression (Reischauer 1977; Smith 1983). As summarized by Kitano and Kitano (1998:318), the Issei family may be characterized by “interaction based on obligation, strong involvement in family relationships, priority of filial bond over conjugal bond, male dominance, rigid division of labor by sex, emotional restraint with emphasis on compassion, respect, consideration, stability, and little verbal communication.” In comparison to more typical American families which permit and even encourage democratic-style exchanges between parents and children, the Issei family was more hierarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal.

In addition, the Confucian tradition “emphasized that stable families ensured a stable society. The ie (i.e., the family lineage) structure endured over time and was of greater importance than the individuals constituting the unit; individual interest and goals were secondary to the larger unit…” (Kitano and Kitano 1998:313). This cultural orientation was implicit in the Issei family and was more consistent with the traditional Asian concerns for interdependence and collectivism than with the European American emphasis on fostering independence and individualism in their children (Kim and Wong 2002:185).

This Confucian heritage also promoted a concern for children to be disciplined and trained in such a way that they will most likely bring honor to the family by their being successful in some manner (Lyman 1974; Kim and Wong 2002). Bringing honor to the family is consistent with filial piety, obedience towards parental wishes, and parental authority because especially Japanese parents want to have successful children in that their high achievements are naturally viewed as a positive reflection upon the parents themselves as well as upon the ie. Conversely, “shame was one means of social control: Don’t do things that will bring shame on the Kitano family and the Japanese community” (Kitano and Kitano 1998:312).

Part 2 - The Educational Attainment of Nisei / Education and Traditional Japanese and Japanese American Families >>

© 2010 Arthur Sakamoto, ChangHwan Kim, and Isao Takei

academic education family history japanese american