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How Japanese Americans saw Japan: The case from Issei to Sansei in Mainland U.S.

Cultural anthropologist, Ruth Benedict stated that, “The Japanese were the most alien enemy the United States had ever fought in an all-out struggle. In no other war with a major foe had it been necessary to take into account such exceedingly different habits of acting and thinking” in Chrysanthemum and Sword published during World War?. From this phrase, we can understand how Japanese and Americans were regarded as “different” during that era. In that atmosphere, there were people who left Japan for the United States and decided to live their life there. As time passed, they and their descendants became Japanese Americans. Like it or not, they could not escape completely from Japanese elements because of their racial and cultural heritage. This article will explore how Japanese Americans viewed their homeland. The feelings toward Japan did not emerge merely from their ancestry but were weaved by the political, economical and social contexts around them. Furthermore, the different stances held by the separate generations allow us to distinguish them from one another.

Issei: Pulled between the differences of their homeland and country of residence

For Issei, Japan was their homeland, the land of the Emperor, and which they still perceived their imagined community. They sent relief to the victims of the great Kanto Earthquake and to people who suffered from poverty after World War ?. Issei organized Kenjinkai and Nihonjinkai as a strategy for surviving. Nihonjinmachi in the U.S. like Japantown and Little Tokyo, were ethnic ghettoes, but for Issei, they were enclaves of Japan since they did not have many connections outside Nihonjinmachi and could fully carry out their lives within its walls.

Pressure from a hostile host society and the lack of English ability made it almost impossible for many Issei to live outside the Japanese community. In addition, the Emperor-centric ethnic ideology of the Meiji era helped them to feel a sense of Japanese community, like one big family. This compact, reciprocal helping and watching within the community prevented delinquency and fragile family structures, which is specific to urban poor areas.

The Manchurian incident of 1931 stimulated patriotism among Issei and many care packages were sent to Japanese soldiers in China. At the time of the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 1937, $28,600 dollars was sent from the United States alone, which was 34% of the $97,200 received altogether from all areas with overseas Japanese residents such as North and Latin America, Hawaii, Manchuria, Southeast Asia and Micronesia.

However, in the atmosphere of rising anti-Japanese sentiment, it became dangerous to show loyalty toward Japan, which was absolute for Issei. They changed the content of the Japanese language textbooks from “be a good Japanese National” to “it is for your parent’s country’s sake that you become a good American citizen.” Issei manipulated the symbol of what it is to be a “good Japanese”. Their feelings toward Japan wavered between their homeland and their resident country.

Nisei: Stigmatized ethnic heritage and negative feelings toward Japan

Nisei, generally, had little knowledge of Japan and kept their distance from Japanese language and culture. Issei originally identified themselves as Japanese and had little connection outside their community and thus did not hold strong negative feelings toward Japan. On the other hand, Nisei were educated to be American and fluent in English. They had much more contact with the host society; however, harsh racial discrimination prevented them from living outside the Japanese community. They were discriminated against solely on the basis of their outward appearance and thus they rejected Japan. Although there were some Nisei leaders who sent donations to Japan before World War?, the experience of the relocation camps strongly affected Nisei’s ethnic identities and their feelings toward their ancestral land.

After World War?, an economically developed Japan emerged and large Japanese corporations tried to establish foreign branches within Nihonjinmachi in the U.S. The ensuing conflicts over the redevelopment of Little Tokyo and Japantown and the management of Nisei Week had a negative impact upon Nisei’s feelings toward Japan yet again. In fact, there were multiple views held among the Japanese Americans in regard to the redevelopment ranging from criticism to vital for the revival of Little Tokyo. The once poor, defeated nation of Japan now became a threat to destroy Japanese Americans’ ethnic heritages.

All in all, the experiences of Nisei—discrimination in daily lives, the relocation camps and the impact Japanese companies had in the U.S.—were common for many Nisei. Their feelings toward Japan were formed in a compulsory and standardized way.

Moreover, there are some people called Kibei who were born in the U.S. but educated in Japan for some years before returning to America. Their feelings toward Japan varied according to their type of stay and length of sojourn.

Sansei: Outer empowerment and freedom of choice

For Sansei, the situation was yet again different. Sansei were more assimilated than their ancestor counterparts within the U.S., enjoyed being a part of their upward stratum and weakened atmosphere of hostility from the host society, experienced the Pan-Asian American Movement and the success of Redress. Both social movements bolstered their ethnic identities. Also, the image of an economically successful and industrialized Japan, though it might be a cause of trouble for Japanese Americans due to U.S.-Japan relations, was more attractive than the poor defeated nation image. It was a new phenomenon to have outer influences enable Japanese Americans to positively reformulate their ethnic identities and their feeling toward Japan, the country of their ancestors.

In contrast to the case of Issei and Nisei, Sansei had a chance to construct their feelings toward Japan more spontaneously and selectively. They can connect themselves with Japan and Japanese culture without strong prejudice or dislike. They can decide on their own whether to participate in Japanese cultural ceremonies, travel to Japan or study Japanese.

Japan’s post-war success as a trading partner enabled Sansei to reconstruct their ethnic identities and at the same time, it was the cause of unfortunate “Japan Bashing.” However, the impact on their lives was limited compared to those suffered by Issei and Nisei during their lifetime.

In this way, the tendency of outer pressures molding Japanese Americans’ feelings toward Japan is decreasing, strengthening the freedom for future generations to select their own views. Taking this into consideration, we can predict that “not ever knowing Japan, or only knowing a little about this country of ancestors and not having any specific feelings toward it” might be added in a general pattern of feelings toward Japan among Japanese Americans.


The images of Japan for Japanese Americans have mainly varied based on U.S.-Japan relations. The common view among researchers is that “Ethnicity never disappears in the assimilation to host society.” However, the feelings toward their ancestral country, whether Japan will be in an important position to the U.S. or in the world or not, might proceed down the road to “freedom to lose common feelings toward Japan.”

Last, but not least, various elements such as class, gender, sexuality and distance from the Japanese community weaved the views of members of the Issei, Nisei and Sansei generations in that era in a complicated fashion. The categorization of their feelings observed here are no more and no less than merely a “survey” of Japanese Americans’ attitude.



Eiichiro Azuma
2005 Between Two Empires: Race, History and Transnationalism in Japanese America. Oxford University Press.

2004 Little Tokyo Reconsidered: Transformation od Japanese American Community through the early Redevelopment Projects. The Japanese Journal of American Studies , No.15. pp237-255.

Yasuko Takezawa
1994 Nikkei Amerikajin no esunisitii .?University of Tokyo Press.

Kunisuke Hirano

2007 Nikkei Amerikajin no nihonkan: Hondo zaijuuno issei kara sansei wo taisyou ni . Thesis submitted to The University of Tokyo.


* This article is a contribution of Imin Kenkyukai, a Discover Nikkei Affiliate.

© 2007 Kunisuke Hirano

About the Author

Kunisuke Hirano is a member of the Association for Immigration Studies, and a graduate student in Cultural Anthropology at The University of Tokyo. His research interest is minorities and community in society. He likes traveling, swimming, Kichijoji (a town in Tokyo) and going on vacation.

Updated November 2007

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