Alternative names: “Issei”, “Nisei”, “Sansei” (First, second, third generation Japanese Americans respectively)
Location: mainly west coast USA and Hawaii
Population: about 700,000 (1980)
% of population: 0.3%
Religion: various
Language: Japanese, English

Japanese-Americans are the descendants of Japanese immigrants to the USA. They are the second largest group of Japanese outside Japan, after the one million strong Japanese community in Brazil. They are distinctive among US minority groups in that one of the two major communities, that in the West Coast states, was collectively interned as punishment during World War II, a detention which is now widely recognized as being unjust and unnecessary.

The majority of Japanese settlers came to the USA between 1900 and 1924, where they settled in two main areas. One community settled in the Hawaii, where at the outbreak of war in 1941 they numbered about 158,000 — about 27% of the population and an important skilled labour force. During the war about 2,000 were taken into custody on the mainland but the vast majority remained free. It was argued by the administrators of the islands that they were too important to the economy to intern.

During the war there were no acts of sabotage by Japanese-Americans in Hawaii and Nisei troops served with distinction in combat with the US forces. Today there are about 260,000 Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, some of whom have intermarried with peoples from other ethnic backgrounds.

Japanese settlers on the west coast of the USA initially faced institutionalized discrimination. Some states banned intermarriage and Japanese settlers could not obtain US citizenship and were thus unable to own farm land or practise in many professions. Despite discrimination, a combination of hard work, community solidarity and educational achievement meant that by 1940 the Japanese-American community had achieved modest prosperity.

The Japanese-American communities of the western states were subject to a internment order — Executive Order 9066 of February 19, 1942 — removing them from a “restricted military zone” in parts of the four states of Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona. The internment began in early 1942 and the camps were not closed down until early 1946, although most detainees were released from 1945. The internment order was supposedly for security reasons although no sabotage or attempted sabotage by Japanese-Americans took place on the Pacific coast and it was alleged that some groups saw the Japanese as an economic threat. The internment order covered all Japanese whatever their legal status, whether aliens, resident immigrants or American born citizens. A total of 110,000 to 120,000 people were interned in camps in the interior of the USA, about two-thirds of whom were US citizens and most of the remainder permanent residents of the USA. The internment order was challenged and initially upheld by the Supreme Court but in December 1944 the court found it to be unconstitutional. Conditions in the camps were often harsh and although camp inmates were encouraged to leave the camps for work and study in other states, anti-Japanese prejudice made this difficult. Some camp inmates were drafted for military service and fought in Europe.

The fight for redress and compensation by Japanese-Americans with regard to internment has continued since the war and gained new impetus in the 1980s. In 1948 Congress enacted the Evacuation Claims Act which gave some compensation to victims; in 1952 Japanese Issei (and foreigners) were able to obtain citizenship; in 1956 California’s alien land laws were repealed; in 1976 Executive Order 9066 was rescinded; in 1983 a Congressional-backed Commission of Enquiry held public hearings and recommended monetary compensation for victims; while also in 1983 new court cases concerning internment were filed, in part based on new research into wartime archives.

Redress is being sought along three specific lines. Firstly, the three persons who lost their Supreme Court cases in 1943 and 1944 are applying for a writ of coram nobis to quash their original convictions. Secondly, a group of Japanese-Americans are engaged in a class action against the USA to seek economic compensation totalling approximately $24 billion to the victims or their relatives.

1Italian and German-Americans resident on the Eastern seaboard were given individual loyalty hearings but not interned en masse.

In 1984 this suit was dismissed by a District Court but was later challenged in the Supreme Court. Thirdly, a group of Japanese-Americans is attempting to gain compensation by means of Congressional legislation and is claiming a total of $20,000 per person for each of the 60,000 surviving internees — about $1.25 billion in all. This strategy appears to have been the most successful as in August 1988 the House of Representatives and the Senate approved the legislation while President Reagan indicated that he would sign it.

Japanese-Americans are today regarded as one of the most successful American minority groups. They have higher than average income, educational levels and professional qualifications — factors which are sometimes ascribed to cultural as well as economic factors. But in many ways the Japanese-American community, now largely third and fourth generation, has lost some of its distinctiveness. Most Japanese-Americans live in non-Japanese-American neighbourhoods and have friendships and professional ties that cross ethnic lines. Marriage outside the community is increasingly common. Approximately 60% of the Sansei now marry non-Japanese-Americans. Few Sansei speak Japanese and the numbers are likely to decline further unless Japanese immigration to the USA (currently about 4,000 annually) increases greatly. Despite impressive qualifications, few Japanese-Americans have reached the highest levels of management. They have however fared well in electoral terms and were recently represented by three Japanese-American Senators and one member of the House of Representatives.

(See also Asian-Americans; Japanese-Canadians)