Books / Reviews

The Making of Asian America: A History

by Nicolas Gattig

Special To The Japan Times

In 1922, a Japanese immigrant to the United States named Takao Ozawa applied for citizenship with the U.S. Supreme Court. Having lived in America for almost 30 years, Ozawa was fluent in English and an active Christian, assuring the court that his skin was “white in color” and that he wished to “return the kindness which our Uncle Sam has extended me.” Still, his appeal was denied — naturalization at the time was exclusive to Caucasians.

The Making of Asian America: A History, by Erika Lee
528 pages
Simon & Schuster, Nonfiction.

A recurring theme in Erika Lee’s new book “The Making of Asian America: A History” is the humiliations of immigrant life — the “collective burden” of people who have to keep proving they are worthy. With a keen eye for telling quotes, Lee shows the human dimensions of Asian immigration to the U.S., which now spans 23 different groups and makes up 6 percent of the total population. Incidentally, she tells of a nation expanding its identity, of the inclusion of people once vilified.

From the start, Japanese sojourners feature prominently in this history, as the second largest group of Asian immigrants —the bulk being Chinese — during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hailing mostly from Okinawa, Kumamoto, Fukuoka and Hiroshima prefectures, they were mainly young men dodging military service or farmers fleeing the taxation of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) government.

The immigrant dream was soon interrupted. The “gentlemen’s agreement” between the U.S. and Japan was signed in 1908, barring all Japanese laborers from entering the U.S. This spurred illegal immigration via Mexico, and in a quirky aside Lee quotes a letter by a stateside contact named Nakagawa, who advised border-crossers laconically: “Some people go to Nogales. But sometimes they are killed by the natives. So you had better not go that way.”

The book reminds us how hedging the “Yellow Peril” was a part of U.S. immigration policy, culminating in 1924, when “immigration from Asia was banned completely, with the establishment of an ‘Asiatic Barred Zone.'”

Fitting this theme, two whole chapters here are devoted to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Imperial Navy, the “military necessity” allowed for the U.S. government to round up all persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast, without due process or proof of wrongdoing. In fact, the measure was unwarranted: reports by the FBI and other offices showed that second-generation Japanese Americans were “pathetically eager” to show their loyalty to the U.S.

More than 120,000 Japanese Americans spent the war in camps, many losing their homes and livelihood. About 5,500 internees renounced their U.S. citizenship — becoming “Native American Aliens” — and some of them were deported to Japan.

It is against this background that current presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested recently to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S., opining that “one had to be there” to judge if the internment was justified. In reality, the Executive Order has been acknowledged by U.S. Congress as a “grave injustice” and violation of civil rights.

“There is widespread condemnation,” admits author Lee, when asked if Japanese American history has allowed more awareness of minority rights. “But there is also a lot of amnesia about WWII incarceration, a lot of misinformation and misremembering. So the lesson still needs to be learned by many, and with great urgency. Our changing foreign relations will be a major factor in how we might lessen the Islamophobia that is growing today.”

Sadly, it took the demonization of Japan to elevate other Asian minorities. Wartime America distinguished between “good and bad Orientals,” as voiced by a congressman who in 1943 allowed: “All at once we discovered the saintly qualities of the Chinese people.” The same year, the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1882 was repealed, honoring Chinese American contributions to the war effort.

Twenty years after World War II a new Asian America was formed. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, a result of the Civil Rights movement, allowed in new generations from throughout Asia. Since the 1980s, American media have been praising the “rise of Asian America,” pointing to Chinese and Indian Americans who enjoy better schooling and salaries than many whites. Still, it is misleading to speak of a “model minority.” A wildly disparate community, Asian Americans also grapple with lower income and high crime rates.

For the future, Lee sees an increasingly diverse America, with growing Latino and Asian populations. Her advice to Japanese people dreaming of better lives in the U.S.? Forget Hollywood movies — and know the history of Japanese immigration.

“Asian-Americans have experienced both the promise of America as well as the racism of America,” says Lee. “As we debate what kind of America we want to be in the 21st century — with concerns about immigration policy, racial equality and our ties to the rest of the world — Asian Americans and their long history in the U.S. can inform on these issues.”

On the Jan. 10, 2016, the mention of the Japanese Imperial Army was corrected to the Japanese Imperial Navy.