Citizens, Immigrants, and the Stateless follows the transpacific journeys of U.S.-born Japanese Americans (Nisei) who found themselves mired in the deeply intertwined histories of Asian exclusion in the American West, Japanese colonialism in Asia, and volatile geopolitical changes in Asia-Pacific. Deployed as a conceptual strategy to examine how this unique group of American migrants redefined their relationship to both the United States and Japan, a diasporic history of Japanese Americans revises the role of the United States as a national space and destabilizes the positionality of Japanese Americans as national subjects. It also uses an interimperial approach to reconstruct a borderland space in which Japanese American migrants moved back and forth between North America and the former Japanese Empire in Asia. Last, it challenges the dominant framework of loyalty and citizenship that has shaped both the academic and popular public narratives of the Japanese American experience.
This chapter focuses on the emergence of a U.S.-born Japanese American migrant community in the Japanese Empire as a process in which the history of anti-Asian racial hostility in the United States and the history of Japanese colonialism converged. From the 1920s to the eve of Pearl Harbor in 1941, more than 50,000 Japanese Americans—representing one-fourth of the population of U.S.-born Nisei—migrated to Japan and Japanese colonies in search of opportunities unavailable to them in the United States because of widespread Japanophobia and exclusionary laws in the American West. In an era of increasing diplomatic tension between the United States and Japan, Nisei migrants in the Japanese Empire developed varying impressions and perspectives on Japanese culture, politics, society, and colonialism.
This chapter explores the vulnerability of Nisei migrants' American citizenship as the most bizarre consequential result of the decades of the nativist movement to strip Asian Americans' birthright citizenship in the U.S. West. U.S. legal and judicial enactments throughout the 1920s and 1930s designed to exclude immigrants from Asia also redefined the citizenship and national identity of American-born Nisei living abroad. Many Japanese American migrants, especially Nisei women, faced the danger of becoming stateless while abroad when U.S. immigration and naturalization laws wielded unexpected legal power to strip them of their birthright citizenship. The chapter further investigates how these cases prompted Japanese American migrants to grapple with the fragility of their citizenship throughout the 1930s and on the eve of the Pacific War, as the deteriorating U.S.-Japan relations before World War II intensified the anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States that justified exclusionary immigration and citizenship laws.
This chapter offers an alternative history of the Japanese American incarceration during World War II as a critical extension of Japanese American migrants' diasporic experiences. Nearly 20,000 Nisei migrants returned from the Japanese Empire to the United States before the Pacific War in 1941. The U.S. government treated these Nisei returnees—collectively known as Kibei (one who returned to America)—as a potentially dangerous pro-Japan group despite their U.S. citizenship by birth. The social scientists hired by the U.S. government to study the behaviors of Japanese Americans in the internment camps during the war claimed that the Kibei were neither Japanese nor Americans in their cultural orientation and should be treated as new immigrants to be assimilated. The Japanese American community's effort to promote the image of the Nisei as assimilated, loyal, and patriotic Americans further solidified the marginalized and stigmatized status of the Kibei as the cultural other.
Oakland, California, native David Akira Itami's bilingual and transnational world across the Pacific offers a window into the complex diasporic experiences of Nisei migrants who lived outside dominant-nation-centered narratives. The chapter traces Itami's journeys through Kagoshima, Tokyo, Los Angeles, the Manzanar internment camp in California, and the Pacific Theater of World War II to examine the volatile history of U.S.-Japan relations that shaped his diasporic life. A real-life model for the popular 1983 Japanese novel Futatsu no Sokoku and the 1984 TV series Sanga Moyu, Itami's life at the intersection of two empires demonstrates that his articulation of cultural dualism had a far more complex meaning than the simple question of national loyalty and Japanese American ethnic identity.
The chapter recuperates the voices of Japanese American men and women who survived the war in the Pacific Theater and reexamines race and citizenship in the history of Japanese Americans beyond the U.S. political borders. The war forced the Nisei migrants in Japan and Japanese colonies to negotiate ways to deal with their national allegiance and citizenship. More important, they were forced to negotiate ways to survive the war in unfamiliar territories, from the firebombed city of Tokyo to the battlefronts in the Pacific to the POW camps in Siberia. Many U.S.-born Nisei men who held dual citizenship were conscripted into the Japanese armed forces and took arms against the United States. As a result of their service to the Japanese emperor under duress, the U.S. government stripped these Nisei's American citizenship after World War II.
This chapter documents the postwar experiences of more than a thousand Nisei who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In the decades following the atomic bombing, the cold war U.S. geopolitical interests in the Pacific shaped the struggles of Japanese American atomic bomb survivors, who were permanently crippled by their radiation illnesses. Because the very existence of these American civilian victims could potentially diminish the symbolic meaning of the bomb as liberator in the master narratives of the war, the voices of Nisei survivors were suppressed for decades after the atomic bombing. Negotiating the shifting geopolitical dynamics of the Pacific under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and the politics of citizenship, the Nisei atomic bomb survivors nevertheless have reclaimed their place in Japanese American history by reshaping the debates about Japanese American redress politics and the compensatory role of the state.
Donald Trump's assault on birthright citizenship and his administration's anti-immigration policies and rhetoric have revealed the deeply entrenched culture and politics of xenophobia in the United States. Revisiting Nisei migrants' perspectives decades after their exodus from the United States, this chapter explores the long-term transnational and generational implications of America's exclusionary cultural and political institutions on the meanings of citizenship, race, diasporic identity, and transnational families.