Japanese immigration to the United States was possible after the Meiji Restoration and began in earnest in the 1880's. Early emigrants made their way to Hawaii and the West Coast and by the end of the century, small communities had been established by Japanese as far away as New York and even Alaska.
The Japanese in the US found a strange, new land that was frequently hostile to them and other Asian immigrant groups. From the late 19th century, the US Government had enacted laws limiting the immigration from China and the so-called "Gentlemen's Agreement" of 1907 severely restricting the immigration of Japanese. This ended with the Immigration Act of 1924.
Despite the overt prejudice and racism, Japanese relied on their inherited cultural values of hard work and gaman to build rich and flourishing lives in the US. The Issei established Japan towns and flourishing businesses. They became farmers and gardeners. They educated their children, the Nisei, in their cultural values, emphasizing the importance of education. Many went on to university and became professionals.
The events of WWII were tragic for Japanese Americans. The US Government rounded up 120,000 Nikkei men, women, and children living on the West Coast and placed them in concentration camps mainly for the duration of the war. These were barren camps, surrounded by barbed wire, in desolate locations with sub-human living conditions. After the war, the Japanese Americans returned to communities where homes and businesses were burned. They persevered, rebuilt their lives, and sought to integrate in US life for their children, the Sansei.
For Japanese Americans of the Issei and Nisei generation who suffered to prove their loyalty to the US, their "Japaneseness" was a given. Their "Americanness" was hard earned. For the Sansei, Yonsei, Gosei, and now Rokusei generations, the equation is flipped. Our forebears earned their identity as Americans. Now the younger generations are figuring out what it means to be of Japanese ancestry, while their "Americanness" is a given.
Their search for identity brings them to institutions like the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) to learn about their parents' and grandparents' stories. They also visit to learn broader lessons from the past about Japanese culture and heritage. Increasingly, they are also interested in the evolving worldwide Japanese culture of which Nikkei are a part.
In the past few years, JANM has combined exhibits exploring Japanese American history with broader exhibits to reach out to this interest. We presented "Dodgers: Brotherhood of the Game," which explored how sport has influenced Japan and the US (this included a visit to JANM by Hideo Nomo on the event of his induction into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame). We just completed "Jidai," an exhibit on samurai sword art. Last year, we partnered with Sanrio to produce, "Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty" in commemoration of her 40th anniversary/birthday. "Hello" is currently touring the US to record crowds.
Japanese Americans are curious about Japan and its impact on global culture. We are proud of our cousins and sometimes see in their cultural products reflections of an aesthetic or moral dimension that we recognize, even after so many generations removed. Seeing these elements sparks increased interest in learning about Japan and also for inflecting that culture in our own way.
One of the dramatic changes in the past generation or two, is that Japanese Americans are marrying outside of the ethnic community at a high rate. This means that possibly by the next census in 2020, there may be more Japanese Americans of mixed heritage than of singly Japanese extraction. While some decry this as a dilution, others look to Caucasian ethnicities in the US, like the Irish, and realize that this has actually lead to growth in the community.
There are over 1.3m Japanese Americans of all backgrounds now (around 800,000 of which have sole Japanese background), trying to figure out what it means to have that identity. This is fertile soil for institutions like the Japanese American National Museum to help them navigate this self-discovery and search for meaning. After all, in a globalized, Internet-connected world, most people belong to one or more communities that they identify with. The Japanese American community can be an exemplar of how this is done in a way that maintains the integrity of that connection to our ancestors.
Today, Japanese Americans have people of fame and influence in our community, such as Secretary Norman Mineta and actor George Takei. There are still challenges of racism and prejudice. There are many more opportunities for all because of the hard work and sacrifice of earlier generations. To them we owe gratitude, as we work to create a better US and world for those to come.