A review from Contemporary Sociology, Volume 27.6
Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics
Reviewed by Leland T. Saito, University of California, San Diego
The controversy over contributions from Asian nationals erupted during the 1996 presidential campaign, providing the exception to the rule that Asian Americans rarely enter the national conversation on political matters. However, when Asian Americans have become the focus of media or scholarly attentionsuch as the revival of the "Yellow Peril" in the media's discussion of the fund-raising scandal or the profound ignorance displayed by the inaccurate depiction of Asian Americans as the "Model Minority"such work has often done more to obscure than promote knowledge. Jere Takahashi's insightful study creates a detailed and complex portrayal of the Nisei and Sansei (second- and third-generation Japanese Americans, respectively) and contributes to a more highly nuanced understanding of the construction of ethnic identities, the relationship between race and politics in the United States. It clearly demonstrates the value of going beyond the black/white paradigm that dominates our national dialogue on race.
The ideology and practices supporting white privilege connect the era of the Nisei, marked by the constitutional travesty of the US. concentration camps of World War II, and that of the Sansei, characterized by aggrieved groups' bold challenges to institutionalized racism, particularly the Black Power movement. Takahashi examines their political styles or strategies developed through "the historical interplay between human subjects and structural forces" (p. 8). The Nisei emphasized individualism and integration, which was epitomized by the Japanese American Citizen's League recommendation for cooperation with Executive Order 9066. In contrast, the Sansei were involved in political protest, construction of an Asian-American panethnic identity, and links with people of color in the Third World movement. While analyzing these tendencies within each group, Takahashi painstakingly uncovers the wide range of thought and actionsuch as active participation in the US. Communist Party and labor organizationsin each generation.
How do we understand the contrasting political styles of the Nisei and Sansei? Why was resistance to incarceration and the camps limited among Japanese Americans? Considering that the Sansei came of age when an expanding economy and changing race relations generated occupational opportunities their parents did not have, why did they shift from the integrationist perspective of previous generations to a radical critique of U.S. society? Even with educational and income levels above the national average, why is the Model Minority label misleading when applied to Japanese Americans? Takahashi's analytical framework stresses the importance of a detailed examination of the particular historical contexts to reveal the material and ideological forces that influenced the range of political activities that characterized each generation. Deftly using Michael Omi and Howard Winant's theory of racial formation, Takahashi focuses on how negotiation and conflict continually shape and transform the social, economic, and political significance of racial identities.
With meticulous research, Takahashi mines archival material from such rich sources as the Survey of Race Relations conducted in the 1920s by Robert E. Park and the Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement Study, which literally used a captive group for research. He also uses his insider knowledge to uncover lesser known but highly revealing sources, such as ethnic community newspapers, short-lived publications, and unpublished papers. The 40 interviews he conducted form the centerpiece of his work, and he uses them to create biographical sketches to illustrate the interplay between individual lives and larger structural and historical factors.
The interviews, however, are both the strength and weakness of his project, since they were conducted during the 1970s when the Sansei were relatively young and in the early stages of their working lives. While we can evaluate the Nisei experience from the vast sweep of their lives, the sketches of the Sanseialthough they incorporate a pivotal era of political activism and social changeremain incomplete. This does not diminish the importance of the knowledge we gain from those particular eras, but it leaves the reader with only a brief sketch of the following years. Considering that a number of works have already covered the preceding generations while the Sansei's latter years remain relatively undocumented, Takahashi misses the opportunity to fill a void. If he had reestablished contact and extended his interviews into the 1980s, the contrast between the era of the Black Power movement with the Reagan years would have made a fascinating addition to his work and further contributed to our understanding of racial formation in the contemporary era.