In the new Hoover Institution Press publication, Roots of the Issei: Exploring Early Japanese American Newspapers, Andrew Way Leong examines the emergence of the generational terms issei, nisei, and sansei, which have long been used to organize early twentieth-century Japanese American narratives.
Using digitized Japanese American newspapers, Leong discovered that these widely-used generational concepts are in fact a recent construct and provides a complex and nuanced picture of the Japanese American community.
The 19-page essay was published under the auspices of the Hoover Institution Library & Archives and the Japanese Diaspora Initiative. Roots of the Issei was the award-winning paper presented at the Japanese Diaspora Initiative workshop held at the Hoover Institution in 2017.
The work presents a complex and nuanced picture of the Japanese American community in the early twentieth century: a people challenged by racial prejudice and anti-Japanese immigration laws trying to gain a foothold in a new land while remaining connected to Japan. Against this backdrop, Leong examines the emergence of generational terms that have long been used to organize Japanese American narratives: issei (first generation), nisei (third generation), and sansei (third generation). In the process, he suggests these widely-used generational concepts are in fact a recent construct.
Leong’s illuminating research is made possible by the Hoji Shinbun Digital Collection, the world’s largest open-access, full-image, and searchable online digital collection of Japanese American newspapers. With this technology, Leong is able to analyze materials that until recently were regarded as beyond computer-aided analysis, due to difficulties presented by the Japanese language and the unorthodox text orientations used by newspaper publishers of the time.
Leong presents a complex and nuanced picture of the Japanese American community in the early twentieth century. Challenged by racial prejudice, hostile immigration laws and more, first-generation Japanese Americans sought to gain a foothold in a new land while remaining connected to Japan. Their children and grandchildren faced their own unique struggles. As they moved together through uncertain times—including the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and its direct and tragic impact on Japanese Americans—a vibrant world of newspapers told the story.
Fortunately for students of history, those newspapers also captured the language, rhythms, hopes and values of a population during a formative time. With Roots of the Issei, Leong demonstrates technology’s unique ability help scholars unearth new and illuminating historical truths, drawing on the authority of these primary sources to deepen our understanding of how the Japanese American community understood itself.
Leong is an assistant professor of English and Asian Languages and Cultures at Northwestern University.
Clifton B. Parker, Hoover Institution: 650-498-5204, cbparker [at] stanford.edu