Japanese American Ethnicity
Recently the focus of historical studies of different ethnic groups in the United States has shifted from the transformation of ethnic identity to its preservation. Whereas earlier historians argued that the ethnic identity of various immigrant groups to the United States blended to form an American national character, the new scholarship has focused on the transplantation of ethnic cultures to the United States. Fugita and O’Brien’s Japanese American Ethnicity provides an example of this recent trend; it also exemplifies a problem that is common to such scholarship.
In comparing the first three generations of Japanese Americans (the Issei, Nisei, and Sansei), Fugita and O’Brien conclude that assimilation to United States culture increased among Japanese Americans over three generations, but that a sense of ethnic community endured. Although the persistence of community is stressed by the authors, their emphasis in the book could just as easily have been on the high degree of assimilation of the Japanese American population in the late twentieth century, which Fugita and O’Brien believe is demonstrated by the high levels of education, income, and occupational mobility achieved by Japanese Americans. In addition, their data reveal that the character of the ethnic community itself changed: the integration of Sanseis into new professional communities and nonethnic voluntary associations meant at the very least that ethnic ties had to accommodate multiple and layered identities. Fugita and O’Brien themselves acknowledge that there has been a “weakening of Japanese American ethnic community life.”
Because of the social changes weakening the bonds of community, Fugita and O’Brien maintain that the community cohesion of Japanese Americans is notable not for its initial intensity but because “there remains a degree of involvement in the ethnic community surpassing that found in most other ethnic groups at similar points in their ethnic group life cycle.” This comparative difference is important to Fugita and O’Brien, and they hypothesize that the Japanese American community persisted in the face of assimilation because of a particularly strong preexisting sense of “peoplehood”. They argue that this sense of peoplehood extended beyond local and family ties.
Fugita and O’Brien’s hypothesis illustrates a common problem in studies that investigate the history of ethnic community. Like historians who have studied European ethnic cultures in the United States, Fugita and O’Brien have explained persistence of ethnic community by citing a preexisting sense of national consciousness that is independent of how a group adapts to United States culture. However, it is difficult to prove, as Fugita and O’Brien have attempted to do, that a sense of peoplehood is a distinct phenomenon. Historians should instead attempt to identify directly the factors that sustain community cohesion in generations that have adapted to United States culture and been exposed to the pluralism of American life.