Chinese and Japanese immigrants in United States
In order to explain the socioeconomic achievement, in the face of disadvantages due to racial discrimination, of Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the United States and their descendants, sociologists have typically applied either culturally based or structurally based theories—but never both together.
To use an economic metaphor, culturally based explanations assert the importance of the supply side of the labor market, emphasizing the qualities immigrant groups bring with them for competition in the United States labor market.
Such explanations reflect a human-capital perspective in which status attainment is seen as a result of individuals’ ability to generate resources. Structurally based explanations, on the other hand, examine the market condition of the immigrants’ host society, particularly its discriminatory practices and their impact on the status attainment process of immigrant groups. In the economic metaphor, structural explanations assert the importance of the demand side of the labor market.
In order to understand the socioeconomic mobility of Chinese and Japanese immigrants and their descendants, only an analysis of supply-side and demand-side factors together, in the context of historical events, will suffice.
On the cultural or supply side, differences in immigration pattern and family formation resulted in different rates of socioeconomic achievement for Chinese and Japanese immigrants. For various reasons, Chinese immigrants remained sojourners and did not (except for urban merchants) establish families.
They were also hampered by ethnic conflict in the labor market. Japanese immigrants, on the other hand, were less constrained, made the transition from sojourner to settler within the first two decades of immigration, and left low-wage labor to establish small businesses based on a household mode of production.
Chinese sojourners without families were more vulnerable to demoralization, whereas Japanese immigrants faced societal hostility with the emotional resources provided by a stable family life.
Once Chinese immigrants began to establish nuclear families and produce a second generation, instituting household production similar to that established by Japanese immigrants, their socioeconomic attainment soon paralleled that of Japanese immigrants and their descendants.
On the structural or demand side, changes in institutional constraints, immigration laws, labor markets, and societal hostility were rooted in the dynamics of capitalist economic development. Early capitalist development generated a demand for low-wage labor that could not be fulfilled.
Early Chinese and Japanese immigration was a response to this demand. In an advanced capitalist economy, the demand for immigrant labor is more differentiated: skilled professional and technical labor fills empty positions in the primary labor market and, with the traditional unskilled low-wage labor, creates two immigrant streams.
The high levels of education attained by the descendants of Chinese and Japanese immigrants and their concentration in strategic states such as California paved the way for the movement of the second generation into the expanding primary labor market in the advanced capitalist economy that existed after the Second World War.