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European and Latin American Nisei girls

Nisei (二世, "second generation") is a Japanese-language term used in countries in North America and South America to specify the ethnically Japanese children born in the new country to Japanese-born immigrants (who are called Issei ). The Nisei are considered the second generation, and the grandchildren of the Japanese-born immigrants are called Sansei , or third generation. (Ichi, ni, san are Japanese for "one, two, three"; see Japanese numerals.)



The children of these Japanese-Brazilian (Nipo-brasileiros) immigrants would be called Nisei. Japanese Immigrants in Immigrant's public lodge.jpg
The children of these Japanese-Brazilian (Nipo-brasileiros) immigrants would be called Nisei.

Although the earliest organized group of Japanese emigrants left Japan centuries ago, and a later group settled in Mexico in 1897, [1] the four largest populations of Japanese immigrants and their descendants live in Brazil, Canada, Peru, and the United States.

American Nisei

Some US Nisei were born after the end of World War II during the baby boom. Most Nisei, however, who were living in the western United States during World War II, were forcibly interned with their parents (Issei) after Executive Order 9066 was promulgated to exclude everyone of Japanese descent from the West Coast areas of California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. It has been argued that some Nisei feel caught in a dilemma between their Nisei parents and other Americans. [2] The Nisei of Hawaii had a somewhat different experience.

In the United States, two representative Nisei were Daniel Inouye and Fred Korematsu. Hawaiian-born Daniel Ken Inouye (井上 建, Inoue Ken, 1924–2012) was one of many young Nisei men who volunteered to fight in the nation's military when restrictions against Japanese-American enlistment were removed in 1943. Inouye later went on to become a U.S. Senator from Hawaii after it achieved statehood.

Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu (是松 豊三郎, Korematsu Toyosaburō, 1919–2005) was one of many Japanese-American citizens living on the West Coast who resisted internment during World War II. In 1944, Korematsu lost a U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the wartime internment of Japanese Americans but gained vindication decades later. [3] The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, was awarded to Korematsu in 1998. At the White House award ceremonies, President Bill Clinton explained, "In the long history of our country's constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls. Plessy, Brown, Parks ... to that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu." [4]

The overwhelming majority of Japanese Americans had reacted to the internment by acquiescing to the government's order, hoping to prove their loyalty as Americans. To them, Korematsu's opposition was treacherous to both his country and his community. Across the span of decades, he was seen as a traitor, a test case, an embarrassment and, finally, a hero. [5]

Brazilian Nisei

Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan, estimated to number more than 1.5 million (including those of mixed-race or mixed-ethnicity), [6] more than that of the 1.2 million in the United States. [7] The Nisei Japanese Brazilians are an important part of the ethnic minority in that South American nation.

Canadian Nisei

Within Japanese-Canadian communities across Canada, three distinct subgroups developed, each with different sociocultural referents, generational identity, and wartime experiences. [8] [9]

Peruvian Nisei

Among the approximately 80,000 Peruvians of Japanese descent, the Nisei Japanese Peruvians comprise the largest element.

Cultural profile


Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians have special names for each of their generations in North America. These are formed by combining one of the Japanese numbers corresponding to the generation with the Japanese word for generation (sei 世). The Japanese-American and Japanese-Canadian communities have themselves distinguished their members with terms like Issei, Nisei, and Sansei which describe the first, second and third generation of immigrants. The fourth generation is called Yonsei (四世) and the fifth is called Gosei (五世). The Issei,Nisei and Sansei generations reflect distinctly different attitudes to authority, gender, non-Japanese involvement, and religious belief and practice, and other matters. [10] The age when individuals faced the wartime evacuation and internment is the single, most significant factor which explains these variations in their experiences, attitudes and behaviour patterns. [8]

The term Nikkei (日系) was coined by a multinational group of sociologists and encompasses all of the world's Japanese immigrants across generations. [11] The collective memory of the Issei and older Nisei was an image of Meiji Japan from 1870 through 1911, which contrasted sharply with the Japan that newer immigrants had more recently left. These differing attitudes, social values and associations with Japan were often incompatible with each other. [12] In this context, the significant differences in post-war experiences and opportunities did nothing to mitigate the gaps which separated generational perspectives.

Generation Cohort description
Issei (一世)The generation of people born in Japan who later immigrated to another country.
Nisei (二世)The generation of people born in North America, South America, Australia, Hawaii, or any country outside Japan either to at least one Issei or one non-immigrant Japanese parent.
Sansei (三世)The generation of people born to at least one Nisei parent.
Yonsei (四世)The generation of people born to at least one Sansei parent.
Gosei  (五世)The generation of people born to at least one Yonsei parent. [13]

In North America since the redress victory in 1988, a significant evolutionary change has occurred. The Nisei, their parents and their children are changing the way they look at themselves as individuals of Japanese descent in their respective nations of Canada, the United States and Mexico. [14]

There are currently just over one hundred thousand British Japanese, mostly in London; but unlike other Nikkei terms used centered from Japan to distinguish the distance from Japanese nationality elsewhere in the world, these Britons do not conventionally parse their communities in generational terms as Issei,Nisei, or Sansei. [15]

The second generation of immigrants, born in Canada or the United States to parents not born in Canada or the United States, is called Nisei (二世). The Nisei have become part of the general immigrant experience in the United States and Canada to become part of the greater "melting pot" of the United States and the "mosaic" of Canada. Some Nisei have resisted being absorbed into the majority society, largely because of their tendency to maintain Japanese interpersonal styles of relationships. [16]

Most Nisei were educated in Canadian or American school systems where they were taught Canadian or American national values as national citizens of those countries of individualism and citizenship. When these were taken away in the early 1940s, the Nisei confronted great difficulty in accepting or coming to terms with internment and forced resettlement. Older Nisei tended to identify more closely with the Issei, sharing similar economic and social characteristics. [8] Older Nisei who had been employed in small businesses, in farming, in fishing or in semi-skilled occupations, tended to remain in blue-collar work. [17] In contrast, the younger Nisei attended university and college and entered various professions and white-collar employment after the war. [12] This sharp division in post-war experiences and opportunities exacerbated the gaps between these Nisei.


The kanreki (還暦), a traditional, pre-modern Japanese rite of passage to old age at 60, was sometimes celebrated by the Issei and is now being celebrated by increasing numbers of Nisei. Rituals are enactments of shared meanings, norms, and values; and this Japanese rite of passage highlights a collective response among the Nisei to the conventional dilemmas of growing older. [18] Aging is affecting the demographics of the Nisei. According to a 2011 columnist in The Rafu Shimpo of Los Angeles, the obituaries showing the number of Japanese Americans in their 80s and 90s — Nisei, in a word — who are passing is staggering" [19]


The Japanese-born Issei learned Japanese as their mother tongue, and their success in learning English as a second language was varied. Most Nisei speak Japanese to some extent, learned from Issei parents, Japanese school, and living in a Japanese community or in the internment camps. A majority of English-speaking Nisei have retained knowledge of the Japanese language, at least in its spoken form. Most Sansei speak English as their first language and most marry people of non-Japanese ancestry. [12]


An illustrative point-of-view, as revealed in the poetry of an Issei woman:

By Meiji parents
Emigrants to Canada
The Nisei were raised to be
Canadian citizens
Of whom they could be proud.

Kinori Oka, Kisaragi Poem Study Group, 1975. [20]


There was relatively little intermarriage during the Nisei generation, partly because the war and the unconstitutional [21] incarceration [22] of these American citizens intervened exactly at a time when the group was of marrying age. Identification of them with the enemy by the American public, made them unpopular and unlikely candidates for interracial marriage. Besides this, they were thrown, en masse, into concentration camps [23] [24] with others of the same ethnicity, causing the majority of Nisei to marry other Nisei.

Another factor is that anti-miscegenation laws criminalizing interracial marriage, cohabitation, and sex were in effect in many U.S. states until 1967.

This is why third generation Sansei are mostly still of the same racial appearance as the Issei, who first immigrated to the U.S. The Sansei generation has widely intermarried in the post WWII years, with estimates of such unions at over 60 percent.



When the Canadian and American governments interned West Coast Japanese citizens, Japanese American citizens, and Japanese Canadian citizens in 1942, neither distinguished between American/Canadian-born citizens of Japanese ancestry (Nisei) and their parents, born in Japan but now living in the U.S. or Canada (Issei). [25]

World War II service


Japanese American redress

In 1978, the Japanese American Citizens League actively began demanding be taken as redress for harms endured by Japanese Americans during World War II.

In 1980, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) The commission report, Personal Justice Denied, condemned the internment as "unjust and motivated by racism rather than real military necessity". [26]

In 1988, U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided for a formal apology and payments of $20,000 for each survivor. The legislation stated that government actions were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership". [27] The Civil Liberties Act Amendments of 1992, appropriating an additional $400 million in order to ensure that all remaining internees received their $20,000 redress payments, was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, who also issued another formal apology from the U.S. government.

Japanese and Japanese Americans who were relocated during WWII were compensated for direct property losses in 1948. These payments were awarded to 82,210 Japanese Americans or their heirs at a cost of $1.6 billion; the program's final disbursement occurred in 1999. [28]

Japanese Canadian redress

In 1983, the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) mounted a campaign demanding redress for injustices during the war years. [29] NAJC hired Price Waterhouse to estimate the economic losses to Japanese Canadians resulting from property confiscations and loss of wages due to internment. On the basis of detailed records maintained by the Custodian of Alien Property, [30] it was determined that the total loss totalled $443 million (in 1986 dollars). [29]

In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney gave that long-awaited formal apology and the Canadian government began to make good on a compensation package—including $21,000 to all surviving internees, and the re-instatement of Canadian citizenship to those who were deported to Japan. [31]



Notable individuals

The number of nisei who have earned some degree of public recognition has continued to increase over time; but the quiet lives of those whose names are known only to family and friends are no less important in understanding the broader narrative of the nikkei. Although the names highlighted here are over-represented by nisei from North America, the Latin American member countries of the Pan American Nikkei Association (PANA) include Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay, in addition to the English-speaking United States and Canada. [32]

See also

Related Research Articles

Internment of Japanese Americans Internment of Japanese Americans in the United States

In the United States during World War II, about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom lived on the Pacific Coast, were forcibly relocated and incarcerated in concentration camps in the western interior of the country. Approximately two-thirds of the internees were United States citizens. These actions were ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt shortly after Imperial Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

<i>Issei</i> First generation of Japanese people who immigrated to the Americas

Issei is a Japanese-language term used by ethnic Japanese in countries in North America and South America to specify the Japanese people who were the first generation to immigrate there. Issei are born in Japan; their children born in the new country are nisei ; and their grandchildren are sansei.

Sansei is a Japanese and North American English term used in parts of the world such as South America and North America to specify the children of children born to ethnic Japanese in a new country of residence. The nisei are considered the second generation; grandchildren of the Japanese-born immigrants are called Sansei; and the fourth generation yonsei. The children of at least one nisei parent are called Sansei. Sansei are usually the first generation of whom a high percentage are mixed race, since their parents were usually born and raised in America themselves.

Japanese diaspora Japanese emigrants and descendants residing in foreign countries outside of Japan

The Japanese diaspora and its individual members known as nikkei (日系) or as nikkeijin (日系人), comprise the Japanese emigrants from Japan residing in a country outside Japan. Emigration from Japan was recorded as early as the 15th century to the Philippines, but did not become a mass phenomenon until the Meiji period (1868–1912), when Japanese emigrated to the Philippines and to the Americas. There was significant emigration to the territories of the Empire of Japan during the period of Japanese colonial expansion (1875-1945); however, most of these emigrants repatriated to Japan after the 1945 surrender of Japan ended World War II in Asia.

Japanese American Citizens League Asian-American civil rights charity based in San Francisco, California

The Japanese American Citizens League is an Asian American civil rights charity, headquartered in San Francisco, with regional offices across the United States.


Obasan is a novel by the Japanese-Canadian author Joy Kogawa. First published by Lester and Orpen Dennys in 1981, it chronicles Canada's internment and persecution of its citizens of Japanese descent during the Second World War from the perspective of a young child. In 2005, it was the One Book, One Vancouver selection.

Japanese Peruvians

Japanese Peruvians are Peruvian citizens of Japanese origin or ancestry.

Nisei Week

Nisei Week is an annual festival celebrating Japanese American (JA) culture and history in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Nisei means 2nd generation in Japanese, describing the first American born Japanese, a group which the seven-day festival was originally meant to attract. Though named for the Nisei generation, Nisei Week is no longer targeted at Niseis, nor is the festival still contained within a week. Nisei Week Foundation president for 2006, Michelle Suzuki, described the festival as "the opportunity for people of all backgrounds to celebrate Japanese heritage and culture".

Bill Hosokawa

William Kumpai Hosokawa was a Japanese American writer and journalist. While interned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, he was the editor of the internment camp's newspaper, The Heart Mountain Sentinel. After being freed from the camp in 1943, Hosokawa worked as a columnist and editor at The Denver Post for 38 years. He retired from the newspaper industry in 1992, at the age of 77.

People from Japan began emigrating to the U.S. in significant numbers following the political, cultural, and social changes stemming from the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Japanese immigration to the Americas started with immigration to Hawaii in the first year of the Meiji period in 1868.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 relocating over 110,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast into internment camps for the duration of the war. The personal rights, liberties, and freedoms of Japanese Americans were suspended by the United States government.

Japanese Canadians are Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry. Japanese Canadians are mostly concentrated in Western Canada, especially in the province of British Columbia, which hosts the largest Japanese community in the country with the majority of them living in and around Vancouver. In 2016, there were 121,485 Japanese Canadians throughout Canada.

George T. Sakato

George Taro "Joe" Sakato was an American combat soldier of World War II who received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award for valor.

Hisaye Yamamoto was an American author known for the short story collection Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, first published in 1988. Her work confronts issues of the Japanese immigrant experience in America, the disconnect between first and second-generation immigrants, as well as the difficult role of women in society.

Monica Sone, born Kazuko Itoi, was a Japanese American writer, best known for her 1953 autobiographical memoir Nisei Daughter, which tells of the Japanese American experience in Seattle during the 1920s and 1930s, and in the World War II internment camps and which is an important text in Asian American and Women's Studies courses.

Japanese Americans Americans of Japanese birth or descent

Japanese Americans are Americans of Japanese ancestry. Japanese Americans were among the three largest Asian American ethnic communities during the 20th century; but, according to the 2000 census, they have declined in number to constitute the sixth largest Asian American group at around 1,469,637, including those of partial ancestry. According to the 2010 census, the largest Japanese American communities were found in California with 272,528, Hawaii with 185,502, New York with 37,780, Washington with 35,008, Illinois with 17,542 and Ohio with 16,995. Southern California has the largest Japanese American population in North America and the city of Gardena holds the densest Japanese American population in the 48 contiguous states.

Yonsei is a Japanese diasporic term used in countries, particularly in North America and in Latin America, to specify the great-grandchildren of Japanese immigrants (Issei). The children of Issei are Nisei. Sansei are the third generation, and their offspring are Yonsei. For the majority of Yonsei in the Western hemisphere, their Issei ancestors emigrated from Japan between the 1880s and 1924.

History of Japanese Americans history of ethnic Japanese in the United States

Japanese American history is the history of Japanese Americans or the history of ethnic Japanese in the United States. People from Japan began immigrating to the U.S. in significant numbers following the political, cultural, and social changes stemming from the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Large-scale Japanese immigration started with immigration to Hawaii during the first year of the Meiji period in 1868.

Gosei is a Japanese diasporic term used in countries, particularly in North America and in Latin America, to specify the great-great-grandchildren of Japanese immigrants (Issei). The children of Issei are Nisei. Sansei are the third generation, and their offspring are Yonsei. The children of at least one Yonsei parent are called Gosei.


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Further reading