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This article is an edited chapter on the major historical events and contemporary characteristics of the Japanese American community, excerpted from The New Face of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity, and Change in the 21st Century, edited by Eric Lai and Dennis Arguelles in conjunction with AsianWeek Magazine and published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

A Legacy of Overcoming Preconceptions

The Japanese American population was established by immigration in two major historical periods -- before and after World War Ii. In the eight decades before World War II, roughly 450,000 Japanese migrated to the United States (including Hawaii when it was an independent country, then a U.S. territory). The greatest concentration began in 1885, with the start of the mass labor migration, and ended in 1924, when the United States forbade immigration by "aliens ineligible to citizenship."

Japanese American young woman © Hitoshi Nishimura and Getty Images

This first major wave of Japanese immigration established the Japanese American community. The majority of Japanese immigrant (Issei) women arrived from 1908-1924, entering as wives of men previously settled in the United States, and the resulting concentrated period of family formation produced the first American-born generation, the Nisei. A post-WWII baby boom generation, the Sansei, reached its peak in the early 1960s. Although the current generation of young people is sometimes referred to as Yonsei (or the fourth generation), this age cohort is a much more complex mixture of ethnic, racial, and intergenerational backgrounds.

Japanese immigration is seen by many, including Japanese Americans themselves, as being small or of negligible size. But during the period from 1965 (when racial restrictions on Asian immigration were finally removed) to 2000, there were 176,000 Japanese immigrants, a number similar to Pakistanis (204,000) Thais (150,000), Cambodians (206,000), Hmong (186,000), and Laotians (198,000).

Japanese-born wives of American citizens account for perhaps half of all Japanese immigrants to the United States. From 1945 to 1985, Japan was the sixth largest source of foreign spouses (mostly female) immigrating to the U.S. During that period, the 84,000 foreign-born spouses made up well over half (55 percent) of the 154,000 immigrants from Japan. The husbands include Japanese Americans as well as Americans of other backgrounds.

Demographic Characteristics

With a median age of 36.5 years of age in 1990, the Japanese American population was older than the overall U.S. population (33.0 years), and the overall Asian American population (30.4 years). The sex ratio was slightly skewed, with females making up 54 percent of the total Japanese American population. U.S. natives were evenly divided, at 50-50. But 63 percent of foreign-born Japanese immigrants were female.

Over 60 percent of all Japanese Americans live in two states, California (34 percent) and Hawai'i (26 percent). Almost 73 percent live in the West and while there has been some dispersion in the pattern over the last 30 years, it is a matter of greater growth outside the historic core areas, rather than a loss at the core.

Little Tokyo in Los Angeles © Panoramic Images and Getty Images

In the spring of 2001, rather startling Census information reported that the Japanese American population was shrinking. Census Bureau statistics revealed that the Japanese American population had fallen from about 848,000 in 1990 to 797,000 in 2000. The explanations given for the apparent decrease included low birth rates, high rates of outmarriage and assimilation, and low levels of immigration. But a year later, the Census Bureau issued a second set of more detailed figures, showing that there are 1.15 million Americans who claimed at least partial Japanese ancestry.

The apparent discrepancies in the two population figures were due to a change in the 2000 Census that allowed individuals to be classified as being of more than one race or ethnic group. Under this system almost 797,000 persons were reported as Japanese only. Another 350,000 were reported as Japanese in combination with one or more other racial/ethnic ancestries. The total Japanese American population, including mixed-race and mixed-ethnic people, is thus over 1.1 million.

In spite of the perception of shrinking numbers, the historical statistics show the exact opposite. In fact, the Japanese American population has nearly doubled since 1970, and is more than triple the 1950 count. Although the rate of increase is mild compared with other APA groups, the number of Japanese Americans has been slowly but steadily growing for decades. Over two-thirds of all Japanese Americans were born in the United States -- the highest proportion among all APAs.

The Magnitude and Meaning of Japanese Intermarriage

Japanese American intermarriages to non-Japanese -- which were once very few due to anti-miscegenation laws, segregation, and ethnic preferences -- have risen very rapidly since the end of World War II: from perhaps 10 percent in the 1950s, to about 30 percent in 1980, to over 40 percent in 1990. The trend is almost certain to continue; in 1990, about three-quarters of young U.S.- born Japanese American married adults were wed to non-Japanese, according to demographers Larry Shinagawa and Gin Yong Pang.

Japanese American father and kids © Bruce Laurance and Getty Images

In the 1960s and 1970s, marriages between American-born Japanese Americans and White Americans became the dominant intermarriage pattern. In the 1980s however, there was a shift towards marriages to other Asian Americans and by 1990, marriages with other Asians rose to become the majority of Japanese American intermarriages. Japanese American intermarriage was once assumed to represent assimilation to the White American majority. But this newer trend suggests the "Asian Americanization" of Japanese Americans.

Intermarriage has inevitably led to the emergence of a large and growing mixed-ancestry Japanese American population. Almost 70 percent of the total Japanese American population is identified as entirely Japanese, and over 30 percent are partially Japanese in various combinations with other Asians and other (non-Asian) races, the highest proportion of mixed-ancestry members among the dozen largest Asian groups.

Demographically, the future of the Japanese American community -- if not the present -- will increasingly depend on the inclusion of Japanese persons of mixed ancestry, and on these mixed- ancestry Japanese Americans identifying themselves as such.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2003 by Dean S. Toji, Eric Lai, Dennis Arguelles, AsianWeek Magazine, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. Reprinted in accordance with Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

Suggested reference: Toji, Dean S. 2003. "Japanese Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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