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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .

Nisei/Sansei: shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics
Jere Takahashi

(Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1998)
261pp. Pb.: $19.95. ISBN 1-56639-659-X.

Jere Takahashi has written an innovative, nuanced work that should be widely read by students of race relations or Asian American history. His book, Nisei Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics, examines the diverse political styles of Japanese Americans spanning three generations and fifty years. The two-fold strength of the book is Takahashi's ability to simultaneously view Japanese Americans as agents of social change and as subjects limited by structural forces, and to contextualize their political actions within specific conditions and time periods.

Through Omi and Winant's racial formation theory, Takahashi paints a picture of Japanese Americans as political actors. This contrasts with the typical monolithic portrayals of Japanese Americans as "Quiet Americans" or "model minorities." It also contrasts with ethnicity-based approaches that examine how societal forces impinge on people of color, forcing them along the path of assimilation into dominant society.

By mixing historical documents, demographic data, and case studies, Nisei Sansei captures the interplay between the individual actor and social institutions. The neoconservative politic of some younger Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) is shaped by their middle-class position--first granted when the expanding postwar economy opened up lower-echelon white-collar jobs to Japanese Americans. Their conservativism functioned to "justify and defend [their] privileges" (p. 142). Despite the rebellion of some Nisei progressives and radicals, most older Nisei, especially Nisei leaders, "adopted a defensive and often conservative style emphasizing the law and the courts, hard work, and a gradualist approach to racial change" (p. 201). In the context of strong anti-Japanese hostilities, the older Nisei leaders felt they had to submerge their ethnicity to prove their American loyalties. To a large degree, their political style coincided with that of their parent's generation, who "without the vote, numbers, and political contacts...devised a defensive political style rather than a direct confrontational one" (p. 198). It was the next generation of Japanese Americans who adopted radical politics and directly confront institutional racism. The Sansei came of age during the 1960s when the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements were challenging the racial hegemony and changing the method of protest. Though Sansei activists were a minority within their generation, their militancy shaped the political discourse of Japanese America and challenged people to consider other avenues of resistance.

Through a careful study of the heterogeneity of political styles within and across generations--though more attention could have been paid to gender dynamics--Takahashi demands that we consider how specific historical, economic, and cultural forces influence one's responses to racism and simultaneously how one's racial formation impacts US race relations.

Diane Fujino

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