Daily RC Article 73

Japanese American Ethnicity


Paragraph 1

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.

Paragraph 2

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.”

Paragraph 3

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.

Paragraph 4

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.

Topic and Scope:  

Studies of ethnic identity; specifically, Fugita & O’Brien’s study of the ethnic history of Japanese Americans.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author’s purpose is to show why Fugita & O’Brien exemplify both a new trend in ethnic studies (the new focus on the preservation of ethnic identity) and a problem within that trend (the hard-to-prove assumption that some sort of ethnic consciousness preexists within a people).

Paragraph structure:

Paragraph 1 is sweet, providing in one fell swoop all of the following: the scope of the passage; a conflict between new and old methods; and a strong indication of what must follow. Scope: We see the author clearly and rapidly narrow the scope from ethnic studies in general, to an interest in “preservation” of ethnicity in the U.S. in particular, to this one particular study by Fugita & O’Brien. Conflict is present between the earlier historians—who have focused on assimilation or “transformation”—and the new ones, of whom Fugita & O’Brien are the exemplars. What must follow? The last sentence articulates, about as clearly as any one sentence could, the overall structure of what we’re about to read: how Fugita & O’Brien’s work is a good example of the new trend, and how it reveals “a common problem.” We know the passage won’t end until both issues are raised.

Paragraph 2 is interesting. No sooner has the author presented the main thesis of Fugita & O’Brien’s book—that Japanese ethnic identity sustained itself among the first three generations in the U.S.—than he announces that their very data could just as easily be used to support the notion that Japanese Americans were highly assimilated! (Remember, that would be the thrust of the “earlier historians” mentioned in Paragraph 2. We don’t expect to see recent-trenders Fugita & O’Brien support that old-fashioned idea. But there it is.) The rest of Paragraph 2 keeps piling on the assimilation ideas, ending with that which we are surprised to hear Fugita & O’Brien “themselves acknowledge”: that indeed, the Japanese American ethnic community has been weakened as the later generations have become part of the overall American fabric.

Are they backtracking? Betraying the new trend? Not really. In Paragraph 3 we learn that Fugita & O’Brien stay in step by arguing how remarkable it is that, despite all the assimilation movement and pressure, so much Japanese American ethnic identity has survived, and we learn that they ascribe this to the sense of “peoplehood” that, Fugita & O’Brien posit, has kept the community cohesive. And the promised “problem” surfaces around just this peoplehood issue in Paragraph 4. The author doesn’t see the sense in positing a sense of peoplehood separate from a group’s assimilation, because it can’t be proved; one can’t put one’s finger on it. Don’t give an arguable and imprecise term like “peoplehood” the credit for keeping ethnic communality alive, our author advises; instead, enumerate the specific and concrete factors that “sustain community cohesion” simultaneously as that ethnic group is adapting to the pluralistic culture.

The Big Picture:

  • Always watch how an author narrows his scope in the course of the 1st Paragraph  or two. Not all authors do so quite as blatantly as this one, but “scoping out the scope” is always a necessary task. Unless and until you perceive precisely where the author’s interest lies, you cannot have a handle on the overall passage or its parts.
  • Many Reading Comp. passages (and many questions on those passages) depend on contrasts. In your initial reading, look to identify contrasts and keep them under control. Here, we have the basic difference between the two trends in ethnic studies (the different interests in assimilation vs. preservation), and also between the avowed aim of Fugita & O’Brien and the points that the author claims their book actually raises. Both broad contrasts are central to the questions and answers that follow.

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