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The Japanese American Family - Part 8 of 8

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Researchers have become so fixated on the drama of the World War II internment that the general study of contemporary Japanese Americans themselves has been unfortunately neglected in recent years. We have sought to help fill this research gap by investigating the JA family using recent demographic data. Our results indicate major changes since the time of the first half of the 20th century that figured prominently in the descriptions of the classical Issei family and the Nisei family as provided by Kitano (1976). Indeed, the changes that have occurred since that era have been so substantial as to amount to nothing less than a radical transformation of JA family patterns.

First of all, JA family patterns reflect the trends of modern societies in general. One-adult households and non-family households have now become commonplace even though many of them would have been considered rather unusual in the early part of the 20th century. Furthermore, racial intermarriage appears to have become the dominant pattern among Japanese Americans. Table 3 implies that 45.0% of marital JA families involve intermarriage with a White. The percentage would be increased to 48.5% if foreign-born Whites (i.e., IWhites) were added to that figure.

By contrast, Table 3 indicates that only about 31.5% of marital JA families refer to households where both spouses are Japanese American even after expanding the definition of that group to include bi-racial Japanese (i.e., BR-Japanese) and whites who identify as having some Japanese ancestry (i.e., J-Whites). The modern equivalents of the classical Issei and Nisei families (i.e., the FB-FB Japanese family and the NB-NB Japanese family, respectively) represent only about 15.9% of marital JA families. Even that modest figure is likely to decline in the near future because the elderly average age of NB-NB Japanese families suggests that more recent cohorts of NB-Japanese may be increasingly turning to intermarriage.

These findings suggest why the term Yonsei (i.e., “fourth generation” in Japanese) has never really become popular in the JA community. Although persons who are fourth-generation Japanese American certainly exist (i.e., the great-grandchildren of Issei immigrants from Japan), these persons are likely to be multi-racial due to the high level of intermarriage that, in the contemporary period, often begins with the very first Issei immigrants. Given this low level of endogamous marriage among Japanese Americans, only a very small proportion of fourth generation descendents is likely to think of itself as having a primarily Japanese heritage. For this reason, the Japanese term Yonsei is unlikely to be viewed as being very appropriate for most fourth-generation descendents of Issei immigrants.

At the same time, however, some preservation of Japanese American identity seems to be suggested as well by our results. The mere fact that many bi-racial individuals choose to be enumerated as being partly Japanese is itself indicative of the significance of this ethnic identity to those individuals. This point may even be even more applicable to J-Whites who apparently seek to maintain some identity relating to Japanese Americans even as they enumerate themselves as single-race whites. Given that the ACS questionnaire uses the word “ancestry” rather than “ancestries” (although multiple responses are considered acceptable), the existence of J-Whites is suggestive of a notable desire to be recognized as having some JA heritage.

In terms of what might be somewhat more precariously referred to as JA sub-culture, our results are also suggestive of some continuation of traditional patterns. As was discussed earlier, high levels of educational attainment have been a historic characteristic of Japanese Americans (at least among those who were schooled in the U.S.). Immigrant Japanese Americans have adapted to life in the U.S. by promoting the education of their children, which is facilitated by the cohesiveness of Japanese families. Contemporary Japanese Americans to some extent maintain this tradition by tending to have higher rates of college completion. In particular, Japanese Americans most closely associated with FB-Japanese tend to have the highest levels of educational attainment.

An additional aspect of some enduring sub-cultural aspects of Japanese Americans is their greater propensity to intermarry with (non-Japanese) Asian Americans (i.e., Asians). That is, Japanese Americans are much more likely to intermarry with Asians than with African Americans, Hispanics or immigrant whites even though each of these latter three groups are substantially larger than Asians in terms of population sizes. Although non-Japanese Asian Americans are obviously not Japanese in terms of their ethnic heritage, some sub-cultural similarities between East Asian Americans and Japanese Americans are evident in their common tendencies to achieve high levels of educational attainment as well as perhaps other characteristics relating to family processes (Min 1995; Sakamoto, Goyette, and Kim 2009; Takei, Sakamoto, and Woo 2006; Xie and Goyette 2004).

In our view, this transformation of JA family patterns should be viewed as welcomed change associated with the more multicultural ethos that America has embraced in the 21st century. Gone is the era when complete “Anglo-conformity” or “hyper-assimilation” was required for access to opportunities for advancement in educational and labor market institutions (Takei, Sakamoto, and Woo 2006). Any nostalgic yearning for the traditional family patterns of 20th century is clearly unwarranted because contemporary Japanese Americans now have much more freedom to identify and live according to their own preferences in regard to their own chosen ethnic identities, household arrangements, and socioeconomic attainments. Japanese Americans today are free to intermarry, and the fact that they do so in large proportions with the predominantly native-born members of the majority group (i.e., Whites) suggests that societal prejudice and discrimination against Japanese Americans—once exemplified by “miscegenation laws”—are no longer systematically endemic. Overall, these aspects of the racial and ethnic relations of the 21st century are consistent with Masaoka’s (1942:3) prophetic vision of “that greater America which is to come” as well as with the “kodomo no tame ni” spirit of the Issei and Nisei ancestors of many contemporary Japanese Americans.


* The following article is a shortened version of a chapter to appear in
Ethnic Families in America: Patterns and Variations, 5th Edition, edited by Roosevelt Wright, Charles H. Mindel, Robert W. Habenstin, and Than Van Tran.

© 2010 Arthur Sakamoto, ChangHwan Kim, and Isao Takei

academic education family history japanese american