Nisei is a Japanese term used to describe the second generation of children born in the United States of Japanese migrant parents. Nisei were born as early as the
1890s, but it was not until the interwar years that the nisei would emerge as a distinct generation who would struggle to carve out an identity that could negotiate their relationship to their migrant parents and their U.S. citizenship.
The nisei population began to grow at a steady rate between 1908 and 1924. According to U.S. Census figures, in 1910 the number of nisei was documented at 4,502, but by 1920 this number had swelled to nearly 30,000. The shifts in population patterns were due to the 1908 Gentleman's Agreement, a pledge that prohibited the migration of Japanese male laborers (issei or first generation) into the United States. However, until 1924, wives, children, and parents were allowed to join their family members in the United States.
Born with U.S. citizenship, the second generation of Japanese Americans was often viewed especially by scholars as the cultural, political, and social bridge between Japan and the United States. Commonly, they attended both Japanese and English-speaking schools, whites expected them to be well versed in American holidays and excel as model American citizens, while issei parents tried to instill in them Japanese cultural traditions. In addition, the age gap between parents (issei) and children (nisei) meant that the regular issues of adolescence were magnified by the added cultural differences including education, language, age, and customs.
But more than the age gap or the pressure placed on the nisei to be a cultural bridge, the experience of the second generation of Japanese Americans is unique because of the economic and racial politics that punctuated their lives, including
the two world wars, the Great Depression, high racial tensions, and exclusionary immigration acts. Although the role of the nisei in the history of Japanese American internment during World War II is often privileged in contrast to their parents, the ways in which this generation addressed cultural, political, and economic realties before World War II is of equal importance to their historical narrative.
During the interwar years, education, religion, and print culture were three sites that were particularly important to the formation of nisei identity and to the history of this second generation in the United States. Because of their status as citizens who routinely faced discrimination and racism, cultural, educational, and religious institutions are particularly important for understanding how this generation negotiated their place within the United States. Education was held as one of the most valuable ways that the nisei could secure the citizenship rights denied to their parents, succeed economically, and assert themselves as Americans. Within American public schools, the push for Americanization and assimilation was particularly strong and contributed to the stereotype of nisei being overly Americanized. However, even with advanced education, often including college, Japanese Americans found that racist sentiments ran deep. Even with degrees from colleges and universities like the University of California, Berkeley, they were excluded from the professional workforce and, without access to labor unions, nisei were often relegated to menial labor within their own communities. Further, many members of this generation graduated from high school and college at the height of the Great Depression, and as such faced even more difficulty finding employment.
A nisei wrote in 1937, “I am a fruitstand worker. It is not a very attractive nor distinguished occupation…. I would much rather it were doctor or lawyer … but my aspiration of developing into such [was] frustrated long ago…. I am only what I am, a professional carrot washer” (Daniels, 23). Of course, that frustration was due to racism that limited that nisei's upward mobility, which was a central feature of their “Americanization.” White leaders like the University of Hawaii president advised the nisei, “Do not count on education to do too much for you, do not take it too seriously. Do not expect a college degree, an A.B. or a Ph.D. to get you ahead unduly in this world” (Okihiro, 144). Instead, he counseled, nisei should be content to accept work in agriculture as laborers.
Faced with the reality that their race and ethnic identity would always trump their legal status as citizens, the nisei began developing cultural organizations meant to both affirm citizenship rights and strengthen community identity. The most famous of these organizations was the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). “I am proud that I am an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, for my very background makes me appreciate more fully the wonderful advantages of this nation,” the JACL creed, written in 1940 on the eve of World War II, began. “I believe in her institutions, ideals and traditions; I glory in her heritage; I boast of her history; I trust in her future” (Daniels, 24).
Like the JACL, the press was a useful mode for building and enunciating nisei identity. Churches and religious institutions, both Christian and Buddhist, were often segregated spaces in which nisei could discuss and develop their identity as Japanese Americans. Unlike the public schools, which inaugurated nisei into
American culture, religious institutions provided an avenue for developing strong cultural and racial ties with the Japanese American community.
In spite of their status as citizens, the nisei were targeted as threats to national security during World War II and were included in the massive round up and internment of Japanese Americans in U.S. concentration camps.
Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps: North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger, 1981.
Hosokawa, Bill. Nisei: The Quiet Americans. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1969. Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865–1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
Yoo, David K. Growing Up Nisei: Race Generation, and Culture among Japanese Americans of California, 1924–49. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.