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Japanese Americans:

istorically, Japanese Americans have been the most grossly persecuted of America's Asian groups. Perhaps as a direct result, they have become the most assimilated, melting quite successfully into the ethnic stew, and can be found in just about every professional, entrepreneurial and social position. But the Japanese Americans of the 21st century won't be the disenfranchised post-war apologists of the past who hid their faces from the public eye. They will be firm in their Japanese and American heritage.
"You are American Japanese because you were born in America. You would be Japanese American only if you were born in Japan, then went to America."
     The Japanese tale begins with great adversity. In 1860s America, agriculture was booming, but laborers to work the fields were in short supply. Land owners looked to Japan, among other places, where food was scarce and able bodies plenty. Enticements were promised, and villages gathered men to send off to Hawaii. These men were supposed to send money back to their villages so their families could eat. But the land owners seldom delivered. Food, clothes, shelter, equipment and whatever other costs they could deduct dwindled the Japanese laborers' pay to barely subsistence levels. As soon as their indentured servitude could be broken, many of the Japanese immigrants set sail for California's shores where, as debt-free men, most advanced from laborer to tenant farmer and then land owners. Japanese success was so prominent, in fact, that California in 1913 enacted the Alien Land Act to prevent more Japanese from acquiring land. This act excluded Japanese from becoming citizens.
     Few Japanese opted for life in the cities. Instead bedroom communities like Gardena, southeast of Los Angeles, became the first Japanese American settlements. By 1920, Japanese farmers produced well over half of all the produce consumed in Los Angeles. Some accounts claim that 40% of the city's non-white population was then Japanese. Apparently the high numbers made enough politicians nervous. The Immigration Act of 1924 placed a very restrictive quota on further Japanese-born arrivals.
     By 1940, two-thirds of the Japanese population was American-born. Most families had established small businesses for themselves, and the Japanese standard of living rose substantially.
     Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066, which assigned 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps, changed all that. Communities were turned upside down. American venom unleashed itself on farmers and nurserymen, store owners and laborers. Thousands were forced to sell their land and their businesses at pennies on the dollar. They were given only three days to pack and board the train to prison.
     At the war's end, many Japanese left America and the humiliating internment behind. Many who remained disavowed their heritage. California's former Japanese communities scattered themselves across the country, unwilling to regroup. Being too Japanese exposed them to America's underlying racism. The only solution was to blend in, to disappear within the cracks.
     Bobby Toda understands the pervasive fear Japanese Americans had of raising too high a public profile.
     "My parents, for example, were very much afraid of being too visible," he says. "They saw great virtue in keeping a low profile. It served them well, too. Back in the 1940s, it helped to be invisible, because it wasn't advantageous to be known as a Japanese American."

Japanese festivals help produce community solidarity. The community spirit has taken decades to rebuild after the World War II internment nightmare.

     A crucial part of reclaiming that firm Japanese American identity is to take part in the political process and be heard.
     "When you consider the persecution of those earliest waves of Asian immigrants, it's not surprising that so many of them would become Democrats," says Toda. "The Democrats stood for the underprivileged and had a record of fighting for the disenfranchised. However, as young Japanese Americans become more established in the mainstream of society, you will see more independence where voting patterns are concerned. It won't be a given that because you're Japanese American you'll be a Democrat. Already, I'm seeing a lot more people either switching their party registration to Republican or just declaring themselves to be independents." Page 7

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