Japanese American Positionality in Hawaii and on the mainland

Seminar Paper 2002 35 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Contents


A Racial Formation Theory (Omi & Winant).
B Hawai'i
1. Japanese Americans in Hawai'i 1950s – 1990s.
2. Hawai'i 1950s – 1990s
a. The Fifties
b. The Sixties
c. The Seventies
d. The Eighties
e. The Nineties
3. Politically Active Groups in Hawai'i.
a. Democrats
b. Republicans
c. The Labor Movement / The Communist Party
d. Native Hawaiians
4. Racial Formation and Japanese American Positionality in Hawai'i
C Mainland United States.
1. Japanese Americans on the Mainland
2. Development of the Japanese American Community 1950s – 1990s
3. Key Groups on the Mainland
a. Japanese American Citizens League (JACL)
b. The Asian American Movement
4. Japanese Americans Ambiguous Social and Economic Position
5. Major Themes
a. The “Model Minority” Myth
b. Redress and Conam Nobis Cases
6. Racial Formation and Japanese American Positionality on the Mainland





From the beginning of the Twentieth Century, there have been quite a number of watershed events in American as well as World History. The term “watershed” refers to a turning point in history. Examples are the Great Depression in the 1930s, World War Two in the 1940s, the Cold War beginning in the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movements in the US (and Third World Liberation Movements, their international counterparts) beginning in the 1960s, the downfall of communism and the rise of terrorism in the 1980s, and 9/11 in 2001. Those watersheds have had political, social and economic consequences on different groups and in different spheres, ranging from local to global dimensions.

Japanese Americans and their position in American society were effected by all those watershed events. Western Colonialism in Asia envisioned the Japanese as the primitive “Other” of the modern United States1. After having opened Japan by force in 1853, the US welcomed Japanese immigrants for a short time as a cheap source of labor. Long before the Great Depression hit the United States, however, anti-Japanese American sentiment, which was due to racial hatred and supposed economic competition, grew bigger and bigger, culminating in the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924. During the Second World War, Japanese Americans residing primarily on the West Coast were put into internment camps. Dubbed a “military necessity,” this internment of approximately 110.000 persons of Japanese ancestry, a majority of whom were American citizens, was, in reality, solely triggered by racial hatred. In the 1950s, during the Cold War, Japan, as Asia’s only democracy, switched roles with Communist China and became an ally of the United States. This had immediate consequences on the attitude towards Japanese Americans in the US. The Civil Rights

Movement and the Third World Liberation Movements were closely linked to the Cold War in that of all the anti-communist countries, the United States was the only one which had not been economically ruined by the preceding war. Thus, the United States was expected to be the guardian of democracy and had to live up to its proclaimed ideals of equality and freedom. The Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement gave Asian Americans in general, and Japanese Americans in particular, unprecedented opportunities, such as electoral empowerment, the repeal of exclusion laws, and to a certain extent social mobility.

However, this was true for some segments of the Japanese American community more than for others. Despite the basically identical initial formal conditions for Japanese Americans on the mainland and in Hawai'i, i.e. their arrival as cheap laborers and their being subject to all kinds of American laws stipulated by racial attitudes, they have developed a quite distinct political standing and integration into the social structure that surrounds them. This is especially evident in the post-World War Two era.

This paper will be a comparative analysis of Japanese Americans in Hawai'i and on the mainland with a focus on political positionality. I will first give a basic summary of Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation Theory2, on which the subsequent comparison will be based. My second step will be an analysis of Japanese Americans in Hawai'i covering the period from the 1950s to the 1990s. This will include key historical developments and lead to a consideration of the positionality of Japanese Americans in the islands. My third step will be a rough outline of the different Japanese American positionality on the mainland, particularly California. I will look at postwar progress, important politically active groups, Japanese Americans’ ambiguous social and economic position, and major themes concerning the community, namely the “Model Minority” myth and the redress movement. The final step will be a review of similarities and differences for Japanese Americans in both locations.


A Racial Formation Theory (Omi & Winant)

Michael Omi, currently an associate professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley, and Howard Winant, who presently teaches in the Sociology Department at Temple University, published their first edition of Racial Formation in the United States in 1986. Over a period of about three decades, they had witnessed an ebb and flow in the politics of race and concluded that the definitions of the concept of race prevailing at the time were inadequate.

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement brought race to everyone’s attention and contested its very meaning. In the 1970s, conflicts receded as reforms were gradually institutionalized. Finally, in the 1980s, these very reforms were attacked by the government. According to Omi and Winant, neither the left, center or right views on race were correct, nor those of the New Right and Neo-Conservatives. The Left had only romanticized illusions about race, whereas the Center and Right retreated into a kind of reductionism, abandoning democratic and egalitarian ideals of race. The New Right exercised subtextual race baiting, while the Neo-Conservative racial doctrine theoretically endorsed but practically abandoned equality. Furthermore, the two scholars observed that, for mainstream society, race is a problem of policy, social engineering, and state management, submerging into other social relations. In other words, ignoring the immediate US context, the powers of the intellect, i.e. art, religion, science, and politics, are used to explain racial distinctions and to suggest how they may be maintained, changed, or abolished.

The theory Omi and Winant have come up with as an alternative holds that far from being an irregularity in, race is a historically flexible element of the social structure of American life. It has always been at the center of the American experience and has structured US society from top to bottom. Racial legacies of times long past, such as slavery, continue to influence today’s race relations. Race is an autonomous field of social conflict, political organization, cultural and ideological meaning 3 . In other words, there are no essential racial characteristics but race is a social construct that is permanently contested and transformed on both the micro-level and the macro-level of life in the US. Arbitrarily chosen attributes shape politics and polity, love and hate, life and death, identity, state and civil society. The apparent difficulty of finding an appropriate definition gives a hint of the actual complexity of the concept of race. Race, for Omi and Winant, is “an unstable and decentered complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle.”4

Even though it may look like US society might be better off without this complex social and political phenomenon, it is impossible to simply abandon it, since it is crucial for Americans to an understanding of the social world and their very identity. However, race is located on various levels of centrality in institutions, policies, conditions, rules, and social relations.

The effects of this classification into racial categories can be found in everyday life and social conflict. Under the “racial dictatorship”5 of the United States, belonging to one specific category determines political rights, one’s location in the labor market, one’s sense of identity, one’s access to employment, housing, funds, political power, and the like.6

What Omi and Winant call “Racial Formation” is a

“sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.”7

This process is the result of society-wide interaction of racial projects which can be found everywhere in society, especially on the political or macro-level where they shape policy and are standardized in institutions or organizations, but also on the everyday or micro-level where they convey a sense of (racial) identity. This sense of identity is shaped by institutions and the social structure as much as it shapes itself one’s understanding of a supposedly fixed meaning of race, which in turn, manifests itself in new institutions and organizations. These racial projects interpret, represent, or explain racial dynamics and are an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along racial lines8. They are involved in a constant battle for hegemony. One of the projects finds itself in a position of hegemony and organizes and rules society according to its own principles. In a democracy, the hegemonic force consolidates its rule not only by coercion but also by consent. Consent may be created by implanting specific views in the minds of the non-hegemonic part of society, for example through the media. This specific views will soon be considered as “common sense” maintaining the present order. However, some of the other projects may not simply give in to the hegemonic force and take over this artificial common sense. They will challenge the existing order by redefining it and using it against its creators. This goes back to the colonial idea of “we vs. them,” which has made its way from the religious sphere, via the scientific sphere, into the political sphere. The pressure put on the hegemonic force develops into an “unstable equilibrium” and may, finally, escalate into a crisis. This is the point where the hegemonic force makes some minor concession in order to absorb the major part of the members of the racial project in question. This leaves the more radical part insulated and creates a new unstable equilibrium, since they reformulate their racial project for another attack on the prevailing hegemonic force.9 This dynamic of an unstable equilibrium being challenged by diverse racial projects is the reason why political channels are a victory for minorities and democracy. Even though the existing order may not be overthrown, modifications can be achieved. And the more modifications will be achieved, the closer we should theoretically get to a real democratic society with equality for all10.

B Hawañ

1. Japanese Americans in Hawai'i 1950s – 1990s

Compared to many states in the United States, Hawai'i has already been an outstanding and progressive state in the 1950s as far as Japanese Americans are concerned. Japanese Americans in Hawai'i have always constituted a large part of the total population. Percentages have ranged from 37 % in 1950 to 24 % in 1990. Immigration has dropped from 30 % in 1950 to 10 % in 1990, so that most Japanese Americans are born in Hawai'i. As far as occupation is concerned, manual labor was gradually replaced by tourism and service industry from the 1950s, which was also the starting point for their upward mobility into the middle class and into politics. In the 1990s, Japanese Americans ranged second after Caucasians in upper level jobs and Japanese American families were the top earners on the islands.11 Politically speaking, for a long time ever since the 1950s, Japanese Americans made up the largest ethnic group in the electorate and a majority of the ruling Democratic Party, with percentages slipping since the mid-1980s.12 Altogether, Japanese Americans have not had the minority status of their mainland counterparts and are closer to what might be considered a “white” position in society, i.e. a position associated with political power and social status.

2. Hawai'i 1950s – 1990s

a. The Fifties

A lot of changes have occurred in postwar Hawai'i in the political, educational, economical, and social sphere.

The greatest changes occurred in the political sphere. With the GI Bill of 1944, education had become affordable for Nisei veterans. They returned as professionals to their homeland, and some got involved in politics and the government, such as Senator Daniel Inouye. Japanese Americans gained more and more power as leaders in politics and legislature. This growing power was partly aided by the 1952 Walter-McCarran Act. This act gave citizenship and the right to participate to the Issei, who had, until then, been politically frustrated and been longing for political action. With the help of their votes, the Nisei were elevated into a position where they could, for example, influence new policies in the educational system. They had soon gained so much power, that their problems suddenly became Hawai'i’s problems, and their leadership Hawai'i’s leadership.


1 For a closer explanation of the concept of the “Other“ see: Edward Saïd, Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

2 Michael Omi & Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States. From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge 1994.

3 However, it is not a completely autonomous field in that it intersects with other “regions” of hegemony such as class, gender, sexuality. (Omi and Winant, p. 68)

4 Omi and Winant, p.55.

5 ibid., p. 65.

6 I will not further elaborate here how this categorization effects Americans of mixed heritage or Americans not so obviously belonging to one or another racial or ethnic category (Filipinos, Asian Indians, or Asians mistaken as belonging to an ethnic group other than their own)

7 Omi and Winant, p. 55.

8 Some racial projects may be racist, but one must make a clear distinction between racial essentialism (or racism) and racial awareness and appreciation.

9 This is what Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks refers to as a “war of position.”

10 I.e. if the racial project gaining more and more ground does not eventually take over the rule and transform itself into an exact duplicate of the overthrown hegemonic force leaving the system intact while replacing the protagonist.

11 This is not to say that individual income is the highest but rather that more families have two or more working members contributing to the total income.

12 Data from Michael Haas, Multicultural Hawai’i. Chapters 8 & 10.


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San Francisco State University – Ethnic Studies
Japanese American Positionality Hawaii




Title: Japanese American Positionality in Hawaii and on the mainland