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The Japanese American Family - Part 2 of 8

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The classical Issei family promoted discipline, security, stability, and a motivation for achievement that served as the foundation of the educational attainment of the Nisei (Lyman 1974). As described by Jiobu (1988) “The Japanese-American culture places a high regard on education and on the set of values contained within the Confucian ethic: hard work, sacrifice for the future, patience, and stoicism in the face of adversity….” In the same vein, Kitano and Kitano (1998:312) note that “there was a strong emphasis on obedience, especially to the Caucasian teachers, to study hard, to keep quiet, and not to complain (monku).” In other words, the classical Issei family became the social venue through which the agency of Japanese Americans was expressed by directing the Nisei towards economic self-sufficiency, achievement, and high educational attainment. Kitano (1976:39) similarly states that “the story of Issei self-sacrifice to send their Nisei children to college is a common one in the Japanese-American community.”

Although not adequately acknowledged in contemporary research on Japanese Americans, a high level of schooling has been a statistical reality as well as an important demographic characteristic of the Nisei (Bonacich and Modell 1980; Featherman and Hauser 1978; Hirschman and Wong 1986; Kitano 1976; Mare and Winship 1988; Sakamoto, Liu and Tzeng 1998; Sakamoto, Wu and Tzeng 2000). For example, Sakamoto, Liu and Tzeng’s (1998, p. 233) analysis of the 1940 Census data finds that the mean years of schooling completed by Nisei men in the labor force was 2.26 higher than for whites. High educational attainment is likely the single most important proximate determinant of the prominent social mobility of Japanese Americans during the 20th century (Levine and Montero 1973; Sakamoto and Furuichi 1997).

The exaggeration of a group characteristic is often unwarranted in that doing so may promote a “stereotype” that ignores the substantial variability that typically exists within any demographic group including Japanese Americans. Nonetheless, in the case of the Nisei during the 20th century, their average levels of schooling and occupational mobility are sufficiently high to warrant general recognition. Fugita and O’Brien (1991:105) even claim that the Nisei represent “one of the most remarkable upward mobility processes in American history.”

On average, the educational level of the Issei during the early part of the 20th century was higher than that of African Americans, Italian Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans, but lower than that of English Americans, German Americans, Irish Americans and Scottish Americans (Darity, Dietrich and Guilkey 1997:302). As of 1910, most Issei were still primarily employed in low-wage agricultural work so that their mean occupational status was quite low and similar to that for African Americans (Darity, Dietrich, and Guilkey 1997:302). The Issei soon moved into small self-employed farming and related businesses, however, which improved their incomes to some degree (Nee and Wong 1985). Nonetheless, in terms of the modest rural origins, educational levels, occupational status, and incomes of their Issei parents, the higher educational attainment of the Nisei during that time period is especially notable as is more formally evident in the multivariate statistical results of Featherman and Hauser (1978:449) and Mare and Winship (1988:190).


As pointed out by Hirschman and Wong (1986:2), post-1965 Asian American immigration is selective towards persons with higher levels of education. In their careful study of attitudinal and socioeconomic variables, however, Goyette and Xie (1999:24) nonetheless conclude that “the socioeconomic approach is unsatisfactory as a general framework for explaining the educational achievement of Asian American children.” Indeed, the aforementioned studies by Featherman and Hauser (1978) and Mare and Winship (1988) find that the educational differential between white and Asian American men is statistically increased after controlling for socioeconomic variables in data from the 1970’s. Consistent with the references regarding the educational attainment of the Nisei during the first half of the 20th century, Japanese Americans in the post-1965 era continue to obtain educational levels above those obtained by whites (on average) with similar socioeconomic backgrounds (Takei, Sakamoto and Woo 2006; Xie and Goyette 2004).

One sub-cultural factor may relate to the transmission of expectations associated with Japanese and other Asian families. Prior research on post-1965 Asian Americans finds that Japanese and other Asian American children have higher educational expectations and that these derive from the high educational expectations placed upon them by their parents (Cheng and Starks 2002; Goyette and Xie 1999; Wong 1990). That is, Japanese and other Asian American families seem to be especially conducive to the transmission of parental expectations (regarding education) to their children.

In general, educational attainment is often believed to be more important in Japan than in the U.S. in terms of long-term socioeconomic rewards (Ono 2004; Sakamoto and Powers 1995). According to Reischauer (1977:171), “the close link between academic achievement and success in life is taken for granted by everyone in Japan.” The Japanese labor market is more highly stratified by educational credentials that have long-term and persistent effects years after graduation (Ishida, Spilerman, and Su 1997). The intense competition for entering prestigious universities in Japan (known as “examination hell”) reflects the lifelong socioeconomic consequences of this competition, and gives rise to an entire industry of after-school tutoring services (i.e., juku or cram schools). The greater significance of educational attainment for advancement in the stratification system undoubtedly at least in part reflects a higher cultural value that is placed on education in Japan.

In contrast to the American egalitarianism, Japanese society accepts social hierarchy as inevitable and natural, and lacks the American cultural strains that foster latent anti-intellectualism and glorify the “self-made man” and the “common man” (Reischauer 1977:162). Educational attainment is accepted as a fundamental aspect of social hierarchy. Universities therefore have a more clearly defined status hierarchy in Japan, and teachers at all levels are referred to respectfully in daily conversation with a special honorific title (i.e., sensei which literally means “teacher”). Educators rather than political leaders are more frequently portrayed on Japanese currency. In a detailed study of both quantitative and qualitative research, Schneider et al. (1994:347) conclude that “the results suggest that the strongest continuity between Japanese Americans and other East-Asian Americans is the focus on values.” A high cultural value placed on education—both for its intrinsic and extrinsic rewards—may be observed among Japanese Americans.

A common phenomenon in Japanese and JA families is the social role known as the “education mom” (i.e., kyoiku mama [Reischauer 1977:172; Stevenson and Stigler 1992:82]). Stated bluntly, Japanese (and other Asian) mothers are often highly dedicated to preparing their children for a college educational career because the educational success of their children brings honor and status to the entire family. More specifically, Japanese and other Asian mothers and fathers routinely have high educational expectations for their children, clearly convey this fact to them, and carefully invest in educational and social resources that enhance their children’s academic achievements (Caplan, Choy, and Whitmore 1991; Fejgin 1995; Goyette and Xie 1999; Hieshima and Schneider 1994; Hirschman and Wong 1986; Schneider and Lee 1990).

Next: Part 3 - Education and Traditional Japanese and Japanese American Families

* 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 nisei