Academic journal article Studies on Asia

The Transpacific Origins of the "Model Minority" Myth of Japanese Americans

Academic journal article Studies on Asia

The Transpacific Origins of the "Model Minority" Myth of Japanese Americans

Article excerpt

Introduction

Construction of the "model minority" myth as it was affixed to Japanese Americans began soon after the first Japanese immigrants arrived to the United States. This impulse to tailor the image of Nikkeijin, or people of Japanese ancestry, into something more readily acceptable to mainstream American society was largely in reaction to bigoted treatment meted out by individuals and anti- Japanese organizations. This animosity was infamously codified into legal systems with Alien Land Laws, the first of which was passed in California in 1913. Social elites on both sides of the Pacific Ocean partnered to rework the image of Japanese in the Unites States, and the modus operandi for this endeavor was a series of reform campaigns that targeted and sought to modify immigrant ways of presenting and conducting themselves. Existing scholarship dovetails with my assertion that the "model minority" myth originated from the calculated efforts social elites, but points to the reactionary and controversial wartime activities of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and their partners as the beginning of efforts to recast this ethnic group into an ideal minority. My argument, however, is that these efforts commenced decades earlier than the existing scholarship has previously cited, as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. As Ellen Wu has argued, the social and political crisis of internment was a catalyst for the Japanese American elite to take measures to form a society they envisioned would be better accepted by mainstream Americans. Eiowever, it was not the first such crisis to prompt elites to strategize a re-ordering of the ethnic enclave. My examination of the construction of the "model minority" myth for Japanese Americans dates to the "Gentlemen's Agreement" of 1908, a diplomatic understanding between the United States and Japan aimed at stopping Japanese immigration to the United States. Central to this study is a group of elites known as the Japanese Association of America (JAA), who were greatly frustrated with the maltreatment of Japanese in the new country. This group fervently believed that the problem could be mitigated by altering the behavior of the immigrant population; to this end, they mobilized their influence within communities to curb what they considered immoral activities, promote permanent settlement over return migration, and to push for cultural assimilation along American cultural normative lines. Rather than necessarily stemming from a genuine desire to become "good Americans," these campaigns were a way to combat the "yellow peril"2 sentiment on the American West Coast. The JAA constructed a discourse about Japan and modernity within the ethnic communities which held that in addition to potentially affording better treatment for individuals, forming a settled community could elevate the image of Japan, especially if members lived as model residents in the United States. In this way, Japanese immigrants in the United States became unofficial ambassadors, physical embodiments of Japanese modernity living within an American society that powerbrokers, such as the JAA and reformers in Japan, very much wanted to favorably impress.

In my analysis I have made use of a variety of primary and secondary source materials in English and Japanese. To ascertain the mindset of proponents of the JAA's various reform campaigns, I relied heavily on an under-studied Japanese-language book Zaibei Nihonjin Shi (History of Japanese People in the United States). Written by the JAA, and printed in Japan in 1940, but never available for purchase, this book tells a history of Japanese living in the United States from the earliest castaways on mid nineteenth-century American steamers. To gage the level of hostility Japanese faced in their new country, I turned to American newspaper articles and diplomatic records contemporaneous to my period of study.

Within the historiography of Japanese immigrants to the United States, a great deal of attention has been devoted to the struggles of laborers and the agency born of their everyday lived experiences. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.