The Japanese American Experience

The cultural gulf between America and Japan is much discussed in the media; one possible bridge between the two cultures, the Japanese-American ethnic group, is usually either lumped together with other Asian-American groups or ignored completely. In 1988, Congress drew attention to them by voting to compensate surviving victims of the forced internment of Japanese Americans of the Pacific Coast in 1942.

Trying to explain Japanese Americans’ pre-1942 success as truck farmers and post-World War II rebound from the catastrophe of internment, the authors argue that Japanese immigrants had cultural resources (e.g., a flexible attitude toward tradition, a knack for organizing collectively) that many white immigrant groups lacked. Yet it took more than ethnic culture, the authors concede, to lift Japanese Americans into the middle class: an economic boom, and an improved international climate, were necessary. The crucial difference between the Japanese American experience on the mainland and that in Hawaii is also clarified.

This concise survey neglects some issues. Relations with other non-white groups get relatively little attention. No Japanese American prominent in any field outside politics is mentioned by name; this omission makes the book less interesting to middle school and high school readers. The Japanese American experience in literature is ignored; thus, the name of Nisei autobiographer Monica Sone appears nowhere in the book. For young readers, Harry Kitano’s THE JAPANESE AMERICANS (1987) is better.

Yet Fugita and O’Brien do offer the college student, the college teacher, and the scholarly researcher an up-to-date survey. The authors treat the years from 1945-1991 more fully than some other accounts of Japanese Americans’ history, such as that found in Ronald Takaki’s STRANGERS FROM A DIFFERENT SHORE; they see, despite linguistic assimilation, a persistent sense of separateness. The bibliographical essay helps readers dig more deeply; illustrations are well chosen; and tables let readers grasp basic quantitative information on the group at a glance.