Like other second generation children, the children of Japanese immigrants during the first half of the 20th century struggled to understand their place in American society. However, unlike other groups, the second generation Japanese, or Nisei, experience was unique because of anti-Asian sentiment in California and international politics.
Among Asian American groups, Japanese Americans had the largest number of American born children in the U.S. before World War II. Though they faced much of the same discrimination and severe immigration restrictions as the Chinese, the Japanese situation differed markedly from the Chinese. Beginning in 1882, the federal government passed a series of Chinese exclusion laws that made Chinese migration into America illegal. With the exception of merchants, diplomats, and students, no Chinese were allowed to enter America. Congress passed these exclusion laws in response to a growing tide of working class anger over Chinese labor in California. With a valuable source of cheap labor gone, American employers began recruiting labor from Japan to work in California’s growing farms, mines, and factories. Threatened California workers, particularly San Franciscans, reacted angrily to what they saw as yet another wave of cheap Asian labor. However, by the early 20th century Japan had become a rising world power. Banning the Japanese as had been done with the Chinese would have made tense relations with Japan even worse. President Theodore Roosevelt moved quickly to halt Japanese immigration without upsetting U.S.-Japanese relations. Roosevelt successfully quelled Californians’ demands and averted offending Japan through the 1907-1908 Gentleman’s Agreement, a series of informal letters between American and Japanese leaders. This agreement virtually halted all Japanese contract labor to America.
However, the Agreement did allow the continuation of the picture bride system. In the early 20th century, the advent of photography modernized traditional arranged marriages in Asia. Photographs and letters replaced face-to-face meetings between families and matchmakers. For the first time, prospective couples living in different parts of Japan could be introduced. Japanese immigrants living in California also took full advantage of the new technology and the stipulation in the Gentlemen’s Agreement that allowed them to bring wives to America. By 1940, approximately 61% of California’s Japanese American community was American born, or Nisei. In comparison, American born Chinese comprised 52% of the Chinese American community by 1940.
For Nisei, the question of identity became progressively more difficult to handle in the decade preceding World War II. By the mid 1930s, the Japanese Americans, 70% of which lived in California, were in a state of heightened alert. Anti-Japanese sentiment was rising to dangerously new levels with Japan’s increasing expansion in Asia. Little Tokyos in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other West Coast cities were also dying. While Nisei wanted to spend their money in fancy downtown department stores, not in Little Tokyos, they still depended on them for jobs. Racism made it extremely difficult for Nisei to find jobs outside the ethnic economy, even with degrees from schools like UCLA and UC Berkeley. The only work many Nisei could find was on their parents’ farms or in Little Tokyo stores. With no new immigration since the 1924 National Origins Act, no one was shopping in Little Tokyo anymore. Both generations knew that if they did not revitalize the ethnic economy, the effects would be disastrous.
The Nisei found the answer to these pressing problems by crafting an identity as bridges of understanding. As bridges, Nisei sought to become the mediators between Japanese American communities and white American society as well as cultural ambassadors between Japan and America. The Nisei originally formulated their bridge identity in response to a multitude of demands and expectations from the ethnic community, Japanese government, American progressive educators, politicians and civic leaders, all of which envisioned a certain role for Nisei in American society. In response, Nisei wove together an identity broad enough to encompass all these competing visions. By creating an identity that stressed culture, the bridge metaphor not only satisfied Issei, Japanese officials and intellectuals, it also fit into the cultural pluralism of progressive social scientists and educators.
Nisei crafted their bridge identity through public displays of ethnicity (performative ethnicity) such as the Nisei Week festival in Los Angeles (1934 - present), Golden Gate International Festival (SF) 1939, the Chi Alpha Delta sorority at UCLA, and other public events. These events advertised Little Tokyos as exotic places where White Americans could experience Oriental culture by consuming the food, buying souvenirs and trinkets, and participating in tea ceremonies. Nisei wore kimonos, performed ondo dances and performed tea ceremonies, while simultaneously waving American flags, strutting in marching bands and wearing the latest American fashions. Ironically, many Nisei knew much more about American cultural traditions than Japanese cultural traditions. However, they also understood that because they looked different, some Americans would not accept them as American.
The bridge metaphor challenged this racist assumption by proclaiming an inclusive American identity. The Nisei took part in public displays of “Japanese-ness,” because it played into the emerging idea of cosmopolitanism during the 1920s and 1930s. The precursor to our modern idea of diversity, progressive educators began championing the idea of cultural understanding beginning in the 1920s. They claimed that individuals were not tied to any one culture, but could be a citizen of the world. This idea emphasized the ability of people to move across cultural boundaries. As bridges, Nisei could be all things to all people. They claimed their Americanness, not based on narrow a set of White Anglo Saxon racial and cultural standards, but on an American identity that celebrated the cultures of all people living in America. It not only shaped Nisei identity in the pre-WWII period, but literally turned Little Tokyos into tourist attractions. In the context of the bridge metaphor, the performative ethnicity presented at festivals, fairs, and other cultural events played into American perceptions of Japanese difference without sacrificing Nisei American-ness.
However, by controlling the display of Japanese ethnicity, Nisei managed to keep the bridge metaphor alive for well over a decade while simultaneously revitalizing Little Tokyos. Nisei responded to anti-Japanese pressures by downplaying their connections to Japan, adopting hyper-American rhetoric, recasting Issei as American pioneers, and tempering their cultural displays with displays of American loyalty. Nevertheless, the bridge identity was short-lived. Ultimately, the bridge was unable to withstand the hysteria following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After December 7th, 1941, the bridge metaphor died fast and quiet as Nisei signed loyalty pledges in mass numbers and second generation leaders began advocating a singular American identity.
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