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The Growth of a Culture in a Foreign Land: Japanese-Americans

During this semester I had the opportunity to choose a specific ethnic community, or beat, to cover. I chose to follow the Japanese-American community. And with that coverage came the creation of my site dedicated to it—Rooted in Japan. But even that site doesn’t fully give a proper perspective on this population of people. I hope to remedy that in this profile.

For as long as our country has existed, it has been a haven to citizens of all nations looking for new opportunities. Yet crossing an ocean and starting anew, on foreign soil, is a monumental risk. For the natives of Japan that made the move to neighboring Hawaii, and then on to the mainland U.S., it was a risk that was not without its pitfalls. However, the Japanese-American community has persevered through these setbacks and succeeded in this new world like many of their fellow immigrants of the time.

Japanese immigration to the U.S. saw its first boom during the 1880s. The very first migrants made their way to Hawaii, and were men taking part in contracting work. As more workers were brought in, eventually their spouses and children joined them in the journey to America. By 1911, over 400,000 Japanese men and women had left their native land in pursuit of prosperity in the United States, or U.S. controlled lands.

For five decades up until 1960, Japanese-Americans were the largest Asian-American group in the country. Japanese-Americans spread their culture and communities all over the nation. California and Hawaii have long been the states with the largest populations. Although, Texas and Florida has seen the greatest growth in Japanese-American population between 2000 and 2010.

Progress was not without incidents. The most notable of which occurred during the United States’ involvement in World War II. Since the country was at war with the nation of Japan, irrational paranoia spread across the land towards the sizable population of Japanese decent living in the country. There was a fear that their loyalties remained with their native land. So in 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, which lead to the internment of 127,000 Japanese-Americans into camps located in the interior of the country. Making it all the more unfortunate was that two thirds of these people were born in the U.S. and never even stepped foot on Japanese soil. These camps stayed active for two and half years before they were eventually shuttered after legal challenges to the order.

It wasn’t until 1988, during the presidential regime of Ronald Regan, that the federal government took responsibility for the mistreatment of internees and signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. This act, which was sponsored by former internee and California Congressman Norman Mineta, gave an official apology to Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps. It also paid out reparations of $20,000 to each internee, and other Japanese-American citizens that were affected by the federal government’s actions during WWII.

Because of these events, Japanese-Americans faced discrimination for years to come, and it forced many who had previously resided on the west coast, to scatter to different parts of the nation. Which shows in current population statistics. The discrimination they endured for their national affiliations is not too far removed from what many Muslim-Americans are going through, because of their religious ties to Islam. And with comments made by Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump last year, on how to swiftly handle Islamic extremism in our borders, the Japanese-American community has had to relive one of their darkest times.

Due to these circumstances, organizations like the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) were formed to protect the civil rights of this community. So incidents’ like internment never happen again. This organization has become an information hub for people in this community through its publication the Pacific Citizen. So that they can stay up to date on cultural, communal and political dealings that have an effect on them. It has been an invaluable resource since 1929. And its success has led to the creation of other Japanese/Asian themed news sources’ like Rafu Shimpo, Nichi Bei, Nikkei West, North American Post and Chop Sticks NY (all of these were used for my site Rooted in Japan).

With the progress made by Japanese-Americans in our country, it has influenced many more Asian based people to make the shift here. Today, Japanese-Americans are the sixth largest Asian community in our nation. But it doesn’t make them any less instrumental. There are several men and women of Japanese descent that hold noteworthy political offices, including: Representative Scott Kawasaki of Alaska and Representative Mark Nakashima of Hawaii.

The median income for Japanese-Americans is $65,390. That is $15,590 higher than the average general income for all Americans. To attain those enviable incomes, a college degree is often necessary. Thirty one percent of Japanese-Americans over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree. And an extra 16 percent have more advanced degrees. Both are higher than the American average in those categories.

In 1990, the month of May was recognized as Asian-Pacific Heritage Month (now known as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month) to acknowledge the importance of this large communities impact on American culture. Some of the noteworthy Japanese-Americans (or individuals with Japanese bloodlines) making an impression on our society include NASA astronaut Daniel M. Tani, television journalist Ann Curry, and Olympic Gold Medalist Apolo Ohno.

It could be viewed that, despite early misfortunes, the Japanese-American community in the United States has persisted in attaining the “American Dream” and integrating its culture into the nation. They have just as much influence in politics, industry and entertainment as many other cultures that emigrated during the same period. They are seen as people of Japanese heritage, but even more so, they are also looked at as fellow Americans that strive to make our country a better place.

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