Select a primary language to get the most out of our Journal pages:
English 日本語 Español Português

We have made a lot of improvements to our Journal section pages. Please send your feedback to!

The Japanese American Family - Part 4 of 8

>> Part 3


Any analysis of modern families will invariably need to incorporate the realities of several rising trends that have influenced the living arrangements of a broad spectrum of Americans in the 21st century. First, there is an increased incidence of non-family households. Demographers traditionally define the family as two or more persons living together in a household unit who are related by blood, marriage or adoption, but in the U.S. today many households do not fit this description. For example, one-person households are more common now as many middle-aged persons have delayed or even abandoned marriage while many elderly persons have become more independent. Cohabitation (i.e., a couple living together without being legally marriage) is another trend in modern societies. Gay/lesbian couples are an additional example of a non-family household to the extent that these unions are not legally recognized. Non-family households were less common during much of the 20th century that dominates Kitano and Kitano’s (1998) discussion of JA family patterns, but the recognition of these households in the 21st century would be far more realistic.

Two other trends among modern families include the increased incidence of divorce and non-marital fertility. Due to these two trends, many children today live in households headed by a single parent. In some cases, the children were born while his or her two parents were married, but the parents later divorced. In other cases, the mother was never married and gave birth to the child (or adopted a child) outside of marriage. Thus, household structures are far more complicated and varied now than during the early 20th century when the divorce rate among the Issei is estimated to have been a mere 1.6 percent (Kitano 1976:42).

During that time period before World War II, racial intermarriage was actually illegal in many states (e.g., especially in the South) and was referred to as “miscegenation.” Intermarriage among the Issei and even Nisei during that era was rare (2 percent and 4 percent, respectively [Nishi 1995:128]). The legality of the “miscegenation laws” remained in effect until 1948 when they were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since that time, racial intermarriage steadily increased among Japanese Americans (Kitano 1976:106-107; Nishi 1995:128). In the Los Angeles area, which includes the single largest concentration of Japanese Americans, JA intermarriage rose from 2 percent in 1924 to 49 percent in 1972. More recently using data from the 2000 Census, Xie and Goyette (2004:24) report an intermarriage rate of 49 percent for JA women and 31 percent for JA men. In short, high rates of intermarriage are a reality for contemporary Japanese Americans.

The biological children of Japanese Americans who intermarry are often described as bi-racial and they may identify as such according the racial classification scheme that is currently used by the U.S. Census Bureau (Takei, Sakamoto, and Woo 2006). Across the generations, assimilation into mainstream America (in both cultural and biological terms) appears to be a significant trend (Takei, Sakamoto, and Woo 2006). Descriptions of the contemporary JA population may vary to some extent depending upon whether bi-racial and multi-racial Japanese Americans are included as being part of the JA population (Takei, Sakamoto, and Woo 2006).

From a cultural point of view, another changing facet of contemporary Japanese American families is the nature of immigration from Japan. The Issei of the early 20th century were motivated primarily by economic aspirations; “In common with most immigrants, they wanted to better their lives” (Kitano and Kikumura 1980:4). By contrast, contemporary Issei may be less likely to be so primarily focused on economic opportunity and social mobility. Today’s Issei are a more eclectic group. Some may be motivated to leave Japan precisely to avoid some traditional element of Japanese society such as strict gender roles, extended family relations, seniority-based hierarchy in the workplace, or the limited acceptance of less conventional lifestyles or independent personalities. Many Japanese Americans who were born in Japan may have come to the U.S. as the spouse of a native born American often of another racial group. That is, intermarriage itself was associated with their process of migration to the U.S. or their legal capacity to reside here on a long-term basis. Other Japanese Americans may be sojourners who reside in the U.S. for only a year or two to receive advanced training, education or who are on an overseas assignment for a major Japanese corporation.

In addition, the nature of contemporary migration from Japan differs somewhat from the migration of the Issei during the early 20th century because Japan has undergone substantial modernization and cultural change since that time. After the total and demoralizing defeat associated with World War II, traditional Japanese practices, norms, and values norms lost much of their sway and ideological appeal (Fukutake 1981). Advances in technology, communications, travel and incomes have increased globalized interaction and have reduced the cultural isolation of the Japan. In short, modern Issei immigrants are typically far removed from the austere Meiji-era culture described earlier.

Next - Part 5: Studying Contemporary 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