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Japanese America at a Crossroads: Toward a Dynamic Model of Community

Japanese Americans were once one of the largest of the Asian ethnic groups in the United States but now, in the generational aftermath of World War II internment, out-marriage rates among the highest for any ethnic group, and little immigration from Japan, is this community on the verge of extinction, a precursor for other ethnic communities, or a 21st Century model for the evolution of the American melting pot? Yoda examines the history of this community, considers where it is today, and contemplates its future.

I. Introduction

Among Asian Americans, Japanese Americans, in particular, have an especially long history in the United States. Much of their experience has even made its way into the mainstream annals of American history. In 1903, for example, Japanese American farm workers in Oxnard, California united with Mexican American farm workers and successfully pressed for fair wages and working conditions;1 in 1922, Takao Ozawa attempted to persuade the Supreme Court that he was eligible for nationalization despite racially restrictive immigration laws;2 during World War II, nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans were evicted from their West Coast homes and incarcerated in concentration camps without due process of law;3 also during World War II, thousands of Japanese American men served in the nation’s famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 100th Military Battalion, and Military Intelligence Service;4 after World War II, Japanese Americans successfully challenged alien land laws (which prohibited Asian immigrants from owning land) and successfully lobbied the United States government for redress and an apology for its wartime incarceration of them;5 from the 1960s onward, Japanese Americans helped to lead the Asian American movement; and many prominent Japanese Americans have served as leaders in local, state, and federal government.

II. Deadlocked Demographics

Notwithstanding this long history (or perhaps because of it), the Japanese American community has not grown significantly in size over the last several decades. In 1970, Japanese Americans constituted the largest Asian American subgroup; by 2000, Japanese Americans were the smallest of the six major Asian American subgroups (i.e., Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese). There are many potential explanations for this trend. First, Japanese American birth rates have decreased over time and are lower than Asian American birth rates generally. In 1990, the average Japanese American woman had 1.1 children.6

Second, since 1965, new immigration from Japan has been low and outpaced by immigration from other Asian countries. Illustratively, in 2009, only 43.9 percent of Japanese Americans were foreignborn; by contrast, 76.7 percent of Korean Americans and 72.5 percent of Asian Indians were foreignborn.7

Third, Japanese Americans are likely to outmarry. In 2010, 62.8 percent of married Japanese American men were married to Japanese American women and 44.4 percent of married Japanese American women were married to Japanese American men.8 Of the six major Asian American subgroups, Japanese Americans are the least likely to marry endogamously (i.e., within their own ethnic group).9

In light of these demographic trends, many observers predict the demise of the Japanese American community. As one website puts it:

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.10

Similar concerns are sometimes expressed among Japanese Americans as well.

III. The Reports of the Japanese American Community’s “Demise” Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

As a fourth-generation Japanese American myself, I reject such notions of community as wrongheaded. Terms and phrases like “disappear,” “demise,” and “retaining Japanese characteristics” are premised upon a static notion of community that improperly enshrines the immigrant generation as the gold standard against which to compare all future generations.

Such a mindset, even at the most basic of levels, overlooks the inherent nature of immigration and assimilation, which necessarily entails some change or evolution in the immigrant community. As a practical reality, there simply cannot exist an immutable immigrant group that is hermetically sealed from other groups.

In addition, this mindset tends to overlook the United States’ own domestic notions of ethnic relations. Whether the United States is a “melting pot” or a “salad bowl” of cultures, Americans of all ethnicities intermix. A natural result is that, over time, ethnic Americans develop unique subcultures that are not purely “ethnic” and not purely “American.” The Chicano community is an example of this. The Japanese American community itself is another. For example, taiko drumming and obon festivals in the United States, while rooted in ancient Japanese traditions, have developed their own unique American flair.11 Even the ubiquitous California roll, available at practically all Japanese restaurants in the United States, is an American twist on traditional Japanese sushi. Evolution is inevitable—and that is not necessarily bad.

IV. Creating A More Dynamic Japanese American Community

What does this mean for Japanese Americans? While little can be done to change macro demographic trends, the “demise” of community is not necessarily inevitable. “Demise” is in the eye of the beholder, and it turns on the beholder’s definition of “community.” If Japanese Americans continue to define themselves along traditional racial lines, then their “demise” may very well be in the offing. If, however, Japanese Americans adopt a more dynamic notion of self and community, then there is no threat of “demise” at all. There are at least three specific ways in which Japanese Americans can gravitate toward a more dynamic notion of self and community.

First, Japanese Americans should embrace a more colorblind notion of “Japanese American.” The simple truth is that the number of single-ethnicity Japanese Americans (i.e., Japanese alone) is decreasing. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of single ethnicity Japanese Americans decreased by 2.1 percent.12 At the same time, however, the number of Japanese Americans of mixed ethnicity increased by 7.9 percent.13 Mixed ethnicity Japanese Americans now constitute approximately 31.8 percent of the overall Japanese American community.14 One can only assume that this figure will increase in the future. The fact of the matter is: Japanese Americans are becoming more colorful and Japanese Americans can no longer afford to narrowly define their community on purely racial terms.

Second, Japanese Americans should embrace all who embrace their history and culture. Japanese American history occupies a unique place within the American consciousness at large. This was evident in the aftermath of 9/11, when the specter of Pearl Harbor and the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans was routinely raised in popular media. Clearly, Japanese American history teaches many important lessons with universal appeal. As stewards of that history, Japanese Americans should openly welcome into the community all individuals who appreciate and respect that history (regardless of color). Indeed, it likely will be those very individuals who will act as future stewards of that history. Incidentally, the same can also be said for all individuals who appreciate and respect Japanese American culture. Thus, “being Japanese American” might ultimately come to be defined by one’s state of mind as opposed to one’s racial composition.

Third, Japanese Americans should embrace newer Japanese immigrants. The first and largest wave of Japanese immigration to the United States occurred between 1880 and 1924, when the Immigration Act of 1924, which effectively banned future immigration from Japan, was passed.15 That ban was not lifted until 1952, and it was not until the Immigration Act of 1965 that mass immigration from Asia was once again permitted.16 By that time, of course, Japan was experiencing its own economic prosperity and the number of immigrants from Japan was relatively low as compared to other Asian countries. For these reasons, the majority of Japanese Americans today are descendants of that first wave of Japanese immigrants between 1880 and 1924. Many of their forebears, who suffered during World War II because of their race, distanced themselves psychologically from their Japanese ancestry. The lingering effects of that self-denial, combined with the fact that Japanese Americans today speak little to no Japanese, tends to create a cultural gap between most Japanese Americans and newer
Japanese immigrants. That gap should be bridged.

As indicated above, appreciation of and respect for Japanese American history and culture is not a function of color. Thus, there is no reason why newer Japanese immigrants (as opposed to any other group) could not appreciate and respect the same. Furthermore, newer Japanese immigrants (like Japanese immigrants of the past) still face challenges to assimilation. To the extent a common heritage can facilitate that process, Japanese Americans should provide such support. At the same time, newer Japanese immigrants can help bring Japanese Americans closer to their cultural roots. One small example of such symbiotism can be seen within the Japanese American Bar Association (JABA), based in Los Angeles. Several years ago, JABA created a new standing committee called the “shin issei committee” (or “new Japanese immigrant committee”) in order to bring newer Japanese immigrant-attorneys into its fold. Thanks to its formation, tighter bonds between older Japanese American attorneys and newer Japanese immigrant-attorneys have been forged. As a result, JABA can now better serve the Japanese immigrant community at its pro bono law clinics by matching clients to older Japanese American attorneys that have the necessary expertise in a specific field but have little to no Japanese language fluency, and to newer Japanese immigrant attorneys with Japanese language fluency but with little to no expertise in the specific field requested. Likewise, the shin issei committee has helped JABA to forge bonds with the local Japanese consulate—thereby promoting greater cultural understanding between older Japanese Americans and newer Japanese immigrants.

Finally, Japanese Americans should embrace Asian America generally. The Asian American movement was initiated in the 1960s by Chinese American, Filipino American, and Japanese American students, who forged solidarities across strict ethnic boundaries and created a larger collectivist identity to combat the prejudice and discrimination faced by all Americans of Asian ancestry. That was and is a worthy cause.

As a group with a long history in the United States, Japanese Americans should bring its collective experience and memory to aid newer Asian immigrants in their own struggles. By continuing to forge such solidarities, Japanese Americans can continue their struggle for social equality. For this reason, Japanese Americans should see “Japanese America” and “Asian America” as part and parcel of each other.

V. Conclusion

By expanding the notion of self and community in these ways, Japanese Americans need not lament the demise of community. If anything, by embracing a more dynamic notion of self and community, the Japanese American community can be continually expanded.


1. Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans 198–99 (1989).
2. Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922); Devon W. Carbado, Yellow by Law, 97 Cal. L. Rev. 633 (2009).
3. Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944); Notice of Exclusion of Persons of Japanese Ancestry, 7 Fed. Reg. 3725
(May 10, 1942); see also Justice Delayed: The Record of the Japanese American Internment Cases (Peter Irons ed.,
4. Lyn Crost, Honor By Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific (1994).
5. Oyama v. California, 332 U.S. 633 (1948); Cong. Comm’n on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians,
Personal Justice Denied
6. U.S. Dep’t of Commerce, Econ. & Statistics Admin., Bureau of the Census, We the Americans: Asians 4 (1993),
7. Larry Shinagawa et al., Univ. of Md., Asian-American Studies Program, A Demographic Overview of Japanese
Americans 6 (2011) [hereinafter Demographic Overview].
8. C.N. Le, Interracial Dating & Marriage, Asian Nation: The Landscape of Asian America, http://www.asian-nation.
org/interracial.shtml (last visited Aug. 13, 2012).
9. Id.
10. Stanley E. Easton & Lucien Ellingon, Japanese Americans, Countries and their Cultures, http://www.everyculture.
com/multi/Ha-La/Japanese-Americans.html (last visited Aug. 13, 2012).
11. In 2005, TaikoProject, a largely Japanese American taiko ensemble based in Los Angeles, became the first and only
non-Japanese group to win first place at Japan’s most prestigious taiko competition, the Tokyo International Taiko Contest.
12. Demographic Overview, supra note 7, at 5.
13. Id.
14. Id.
15. Mae M. Ngai, The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924, 86
J. Am. Hist. 67, 72, 80–81 (1999).
16. Immigration Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-235, 79 Stat. 911 (1965) (amended 1994).


*This article was originally published in the IILP Review 2012: The State of Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession.

© 2012 Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession

asians community culture discrimination family immigration JABA japanese americans law out-marriage shin issei United States World War II