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Nikkei in the Americas: New Questions, New Perspectives

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from participating in the National Museum's "International Nikkei Research Project (INRP)1 " is how varied the Nikkei experience is throughout the Americas. Even a quick perusal of the two books that came out of the INRP fully confirms this basic fact (see Kikumura-Yano 2002; and Hirabayashi, Kikumura-Yano, and Hirabayashi 2002). This lesson however is no more than an invitation to develop new questions and new perspectives on the topic. The challenge now is to identify new patterns of similarity and difference in this geo-political setting and, harder yet, to explain how these patterns developed and what they may mean.

A case in point is the whole topic of Nikkei experiences in the Americas during the 1940s. A watershed for me--as a third generation JA hapa--was traveling to Santiago, Chile, with my father and Akemi Kikumura-Yano in order to attend the Pan American Nikkei Association conference in 1999. On the way, we stopped to visit community-based organizations in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which was the occasion for some very revealing conversations with Argentine Nikkei.

One of the most surprising rejoinders that I remember hearing had to do with Argentine Nikkei's experiences during the war years. I had assumed in this regard that our hosts would regale us with stories of hatred and harassment of various kinds. Instead I was struck by the fact that the question hardly seemed to register with our hosts. The sentence "No hubo problemas," (or "There weren't any problems") seemed to sum up the overall situation, and repeated and varied questions didn't alter this characterization of the war years.

When we arrived in Santiago and conversed with community leaders there, we encountered much the same response from the Chilean Nikkei. I remember talking this over with Akemi and making some notes to remind me that I should look further into this surprising finding.

Long after we returned to the States, our visit to Argentina and Chile stuck in my mind, especially in regard to the war years. Eventually I was reminded of the only publication that I had ever seen that purported to explain variations in Nikkei experiences in Latin America during the war years. This was C. Harvey Gardiner's chapter, "The Latin-American Japanese and World War II," first published in 1986 (Gardiner 1991). Gardener's explanation is too detailed to summarize in full here but essentially he argued that, because the countries along the west coast of the Americas faced Japan and thus seemed like more of a threat to national security, Nikkei there suffered greater persecution than Nikkei in countries on the Atlantic coast. Once I was reminded of this hypothesis, I had a basis on which to go back and review the literature.

I quickly re-initiated a series of conversations with Akemi, and convinced her to collaborate with me. We determined that we could use her Encyclopedia of Japanese Descendants in the Americas as the database for our comparative survey. We decided to synopsize the available information for the eight countries that the encyclopedia covers, and also to include the fascinating case of the Nikkei in Cuba that was getting popular and scholarly attention right around the turn of the millennium when we were working up our piece. We decided that these nine cases would provide a solid foundation that we could utilize in order to test Gardiner's hypothesis about the importance of the home country's location on either the west or the east coast in shaping Nikkei's experiences in the Americas during the 1940s.

I won't go into the details of our findings at this juncture other than to indicate that Gardiner's early explanatory framework falls short of accounting for the variations encompassed in the historical record (interested readers can see Hirabayashi and Kikumura-Yano 2006 for details). The spirit of Gardiner's account is what interests me most here: that is, Gardiner's willingness to look at the Nikkei experience in the Americas beyond national boundaries, and his willingness to put forward an explanatory account for the variations that he observed. Although in the end our own analysis differs from that of Gardiner, we whole-heartedly commend his intentions and approach.

In this sense, the two books that we published out of the INRP, and the extension of these books into the "Discover Nikkei" website, offer a plethora of new possibilities for the study of Nikkei in the Americas. Best of all, because the entries in the Encyclopedia and the website have to do with the self-representations of the individuals, organizations, and communities involved, the ethical and political foundations of the data base are firmer in many ways than data generated out of the traditional academic disciplines.2

Let me identify just three broad lines of inquiry that are pertinent to Nikkei, that would yield useful data and analyses if they could be explored in two or more countries that span the Americas.

What forms and functions have the various churches taken if we look at these within the context of Nikkei communities in the Americas, before, during, or after the war? How has sexism impacted Nikkei women in the Americas in terms of intra- and inter-ethnic group settings over time? What of the ethnic identities of the hundreds of thousands of persons of part-Japanese ancestry in North, Central, and South America? These are all fascinating questions that will take a great deal of time and energy to study. With the INRP publications, and the "Discover Nikkei" web site, the National Museum and its affiliated scholars invite you to join us in establishing new perspectives we strive to comprehend what is distinctive about people of Japanese ancestry in the Americas.


1. The International Nikkei Research Project was the forerunner of the Discover Nikkei Web site. It was a unique collaborative project that involved an interdisciplinary research team of more than one hundred scholars from ten countries and fourteen participating institutions.

2. I have discussed the importance of community-based organizations, specifically, as sources for alternative data sets and perspectives in Japanese American history in my essay, "Community Destroyed?" (2002).


Gardiner, C. Harvey
1991 "Latin-American Japanese and World War II", in Roger Daniels, et al., editors, Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress (Seattle: University of Washington Press; second revised edition), pp. 142-145.

Hirabayashi, Lane Ryo
2002 "Community Destroyed? Assessing the Impact of the Loss of Community on Japanese Americans During World War II." In Re-collecting Early Asian America: Essays in Cultural History , Josephine Lee, et al, eds., (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 94-107.

Hirabayashi, Lane Ryo, and Akemi Kikumura-Yano
2006 "Japanese Latin Americans During World War II: A Reconsideration," in Nobuko Adachi, ed., Japanese Diasporas: Unsung Pasts, Conflicting Presents, and Unsure Futures (New York: Routledge), pp. 159-171.

Hirabayashi, Lane Ryo, Akemi Kikumura-Yano, and James A. Hirabayashi, editors
2002 New Worlds, New Lives: People of Japanese Descent in the Americas and From Latin America In Japan (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Kikumura-Yano, Akemi, editor

2002 Encyclopedia of Japanese Descendants in the Americas . (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press).


* Professor Lane Ryo Hirabayashi developed this article based on a workshop he held at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, on November 17, 2006.

© 2007 Lane Ryo Hirabayashi

discover nikkei International Nikkei Research Project Japanese American National Museum