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!

Nikkei Heritage

A Look at the Emigration of Identity from Japan to America

Men's dance group at Kagoshima Kenjinkai picnic, July 22, 1934, Seattle, Washington.
(Photo: Densho Encyclopedia)

When we talk about the state of the Japanese American community today, one of the most common remarks is how incredibly diverse we are. Nikkei Americans have high-rates of out-marriage to white Americans and other Asian Americans. While this is legitimately new and different from the Japanese America of decades past, the community was never as homogenous as its reputation suggests. In actuality, the Issei brought diverse identities with them from Japan – in particular, centered around the prefecture they emigrated from and their family’s position in a feudal caste system. And while these identities may be forgotten by many today, they played an important part in how American Nikkei related to each other in the early days.

Prefectural Pride and Prejudice

Since the mid-1800s, Japan has been divided into different prefectures or municipalities (currently there are 47). Different regions of Japan, of course, have their own dialects, food, traditional clothing, and cultural practices that often fall along prefectural lines. While these differences persist today, the distinctions were much sharper in the late 18th and early 20th centuries.

Even after arriving and living for many years on the mainland and in Hawai‘i, people from the same prefectures maintained close ties. Early Japanese Americans (even Nisei) were strongly encouraged by their parents to marry someone whose family came from the same prefecture. If not the same village (the thinking being that they would be more compatible with one another – and more accountable if anything went wrong). When he conducted his 1933 survey of Issei women in California, Stanford University psychology scholar Edward K. Strong observed that a notably high number married men from the prefecture of their origin.

These regional ties were formalized in the kenjinkai – prefectural clubs that provided Nikkei with mutual aid in times of economic or physical distress, as well as opportunities for socializing.

Prefectural pride and identity, then, became hugely important ways for the Issei to band together and develop a sense of security and belonging. However, these identities also created divisions.

These were, of course, regional stereotypes. In his book Nisei, Bill Hosokawa writes that “various characteristics were attributed to the people of each prefecture. For example, Hiroshima people were said to be industrious and tight-fisted; Wakayama people aggressive and hot-tempered; Tokyoites generous; people from Kumamoto stubborn; Okayama shrewd and clever; the northern provinces patient as a result of their long cold winters.”

These stereotypes could cause offense, but the biggest problems arose from power differentials. While there were emigrants from all parts of Japan, a large majority of those who immigrated to the U.S. before 1924 were eight of Japan’s 47 prefectures: Fukuoka, Kumamoto, and Kagoshima (all of which are on the southern most island of Kyushu) and Yamaguchi (all in the southwest of the main island of Japan or the “Chugoku” region). In Hawai‘i, emigrants from Yamaguchi and Hiroshima (and Chugoku people more generally) formed a solid majority; for all intents and purposes, Chugoku dialect became “standard” Japanese. (Words that many Nikkei know, such as “bakatare” and “musubi,” are actually regional and not-standard Japanese.) And people from other regions were sometimes ostracized or looked down upon by Chugoku Japanese.

In her book Issei: Japanese Immigrants in Hawaii, Yukiko Kimura describes a radio show hosted by an Issei she calls “Charlie S.” The show, which ran from 1946-1970, was focused on attacking Chugoku Japanese who discriminated against people from other prefectures. (The host, the author asserts, represents an outlier in terms of tactics, but his radio show illustrates the level of visibility the issue of prefectural discrimination had in the community at the time.)

People from many regions experienced discrimination, but the regional heritage group that faced the most prejudice was undoubtedly people of Okinawan heritage. Culturally and to some extent linguistically distinct from the rest of Japan, the Okinawa/Ryukyu Islands were historically independent, only being annexed by the Japanese empire in 1879. Its people were seen as an ethnically, by some even racially, distinct group.

In Hawai‘i and the mainland, these prejudices diminished considerably with each new generation, to the point where discrimination by prefecture of origin can be said to barely exist in today’s Japanese American communities. And the role of kenjinkai transformed as well. By the time of the Sansei generation, they became more about socializing, bringing people together and holding picnics and other such events, rather than providing economic or other material assistance. Many still exist today, though their membership numbers are greatly diminished and they often center around teaching younger Nikkei about their heritage.

Marked by Mibun

If prefectural identity had its dark side, the identities associated with the Japanese caste system were even more powerful and problematic among Issei.

Though officially abolished in the late 1800s, Japan’s feudal “mibunsei” system that sorted people into distinct castes remained important to the identities of Nikkei immigrants. For instance, coming from a samurai family, a category near the top, was a source of great prestige at the time. Farmers were (comparatively) well respected. But many other professions faced varying degrees of stigma at different times and in different regions. (Coal miners and even fishermen, for instance, were considered lower-caste in certain places.) However, at the absolute bottom of the hierarchy were the “Burakumin” – butchers, leather workers, and of the people who “worked with death” in some way, believed to be a source of spiritual defilement or impurity.

People from all prefectures discriminated against Burakumin, in some cases even forbidding their children from having physical contact with them for fear of becoming spiritually tainted. The derogatory word “eta” was used so commonly to describe people of Buraku origin that many Nikkei did not even realize that it was a discriminatory term.

It’s difficult to accurately determine how many Burakumin immigrated to the United States. The Japanese government at the time wanted to project a “respectable” image to the U.S. and tried to be selected about who it allowed to Immigrate. However, according to the work of Andrea Geiger and several other scholars, there is much evidence that a significant Buraku population managed to come to both Hawai‘i and the U.S, mainland with other Issei.

Japanese picture brides and other immigrants walk off the dock at Angel Island in San Francisco, circa 1910. (Photo courtesy of California State Parks)

Upon arriving in the U.S., all Japanese found that most white Americans made no distinctions between them based on Mibun or anything else, (and in some cases made no distinctions between them and Chinese immigrants). Even those in elite positions, who had lived lives of privilege in Japan, found themselves subject to discrimination and persecution. Politician and scholar Inazo Nitobe wrote that even former samurai were merely regarded as “Oriental heathens.”

The Issei who made one of the earliest and most direct challenges against anti-Japanese racism in San Francisco were men who would have historically been considered Burakumin because of the profession. In her book Subverting Exclusion: Transpacific Encounters with Race, Caste, and Borders, 1885-1928, Andrea Geiger tells the story of the “Nihonjin Kakou Doumekaiu,” the Japanese Shoe Repairers Organization. A man known only as Shiro, who immigrated to San Francisco in 1889 and found work as a shoemaker, sent word back home that the port city was full of opportunity in leatherwork and shoemaking (highly stigmatized trades in Japan). But soon after, the Issei who joined him found themselves the victims of a white boycott of Japanese shoe repair business. In response, they formed their own union.

They declared that, in spite of being seen as part of an inferior “yellow race” by many Caucasians, they were proud to be Japanese (and in some way staked their claim as legitimately Japanese).

“Members of the association saw in the racial conflict that erupted with white shoemakers an opportunity to assert their common identity as Japanese subjects and, in so doing, to challenge the traditional caste prejudices of other Japanese immigrants,” Andrea Geiger writes. “Their purpose was not only to establish a base for organizing against white racism but also, through their effective resistance to white racism, to prove themselves to fellow immigrants who disparaged them because of their ancestry or their work.”

As decades passed, the distinctions fell away. One 1928 front-page editorial from the Japanese-American Courier in Seattle was headlined “Forget Caste and Status According to Occupation.” For a variety of reasons, just that happened.

Much like the prefecture identities, the Mibun identities faded with the generations, to the point where they likely seem irrelevant to most Nikkei today. Today, as the Japanese American community redefines itself, it’s important to remember that this is not new. Our identities as Japanese Americans always have and always will be fluid and dynamic.


*This article was originally published in Nikkei Heritage (Fall 2015: Winter 2016, Vol 26, No. 1).


© 2016 National Japanese American Historical Society

caste discrimination identity immigrants immigration issei japanese american kenjinkai Mibun Mixed prefects stereotypes

About this series

This series republishes selected articles from Nikkei Heritage, the quarterly journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco, CA. The issues provide timely analysis and insight into the many facets of the Japanese American experience. NJAHS has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

Visit the National Japanese American Historical Society Web site >>