Japanese was the only language spoken at George Wakiji's childhood home in Pasadena, Calif. During his youth, he attended "Japanese school" in the summer and spent his Sundays at Pasadena's Japanese community center to keep up with the language and customs of his parents' homeland.
But in 1950 when Wakiji was 21 and inducted into the U.S. Army, all that changed. It marked not only the first break with his closely-knit ethnic community, but the start of a long process of Americanization, during which he moved to the East Coast, married an Irish-American employed as a public affairs officer for a major federal program.
Like many second generation Japanese Americans today, Wakiji is now finding it a struggle to keep a balance between the forces that have made him "feel American" and the memory of the Japanese culture and traditions he grew up with.
That struggle is reflected in a recently completed study of three generations of Japanese Americans that documents their social and economic gains over the past 75 years and the simultaneous extension of their ethnic identity.
Written by Prof. Darrel Montero of the University of Maryland and commissioned by the Japanese American Citizens League, the report says that today's Japanese Americans are better educated than any other group of Americans and have a median income higher than that of the U.S. population. In addition, they are considerably more likely to hold professional jobs than the typical American.
At the same time, according to the study, their ties to their ethnic communities, organizations and traditional religion have steadily declined.
Ironically, says Montero, the traditions that catapulated Japanese Americans to their current status - an emphasis on thrift, dedication to education, hard work, strong family support and aid from the community - are beginning to crumble as Japanese Americans move further from their heritage and further into American culture.
It's an evolution, though, that many Japanese Americans say was inevitable - and that they welcome.
"Sure, Japanese culture was thriving themselves (working) in vegetable stands," said Grant Ujifusa, a third generation Japanese American who is an editor at Random House in New York.
Some outsider will come along and say 'Gee, isn't this terrible, you can't see lovely Japanese culture in America' . . . Well, I don't want my kid working in a vegetable stand," said Ujifusa, who as a child worked on his father's vegetable and grain farm in Wyoming.
Noting that many of the Japanese immigrants were given hard, dirty labor when they first came to America, Ujifusa said, "I'm sure that my grandfather did not want me to have the same kind of life."
Many Japanese came to the West Coast at the turn of the century to work as laborers. By the time World War II borke out they had prospered and were farming the rich valleys of California , Oregon and Washington State.
During the war, though,their tightly knit communities were torn apart as more than 100,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants were placed in detention camps. Some lost their proper. The War Department's decision to intern the Japanese is now widely held as an unjust move since neither the German Americans nor the Italian Americans suffered the same fate.
It had an irrevocable effect on the Japanese communities for they never regained their cohesion after the war. Immgrant families mixed more and more with the other ethnic groups.
"Our homes were broken up, we were scattered to the four winds," said Patrick Okura, an assistant director at the National Institute of Mental Health whose family was sent to the camps.
Today, about 35 years after the encampment experience, Japanese Americans rate high on many of the indicators that sociologists use to determine an ethnic group's degree of assimilation. Using a smaple of over 3,000 second and third generation Japanese Americans, Montero found that only 3 percent of the second generation members (called nisei) could not speak Japanese. In the third generation (the sansei) Montero discovered that almost 35 percent could not speak Japanese-one of the strongest indpercent could not speak Japanese - one of the strongest indhe perfect 'yellow wasp,'" said William H. Marumoto president of The Interface Group Ltd., a high level executive recruiting firm in Washington. "We have our electric hibachis, two-car garages, our mortgage payments . . . We worry about out kids smoking marijuana. We're just the epitome of Westernization."
At one time, sociologists labeled Japanese Americans as too clannish, too tied to their traditions.
"It's remarkable that within a generation, they've been able to out-achieve the total U.S. population. And they have done this against the backdrop of very irregular immigration patterns and against a great deal of discrimination," Montero said.
That same generation has mixed in with Americans society while they have achieved success. The rate of intermarriage between Japanese Americans and non-Orientals - another important indicator of assimilation - jumped from 10 percent among the nisei to 40 percent among the sansei.
The number of Japanese Americans who list non-Orientals as their two close friends has increased while the number who live in the same neighborhood as one or more of their relatives or who belong to a Japanese ethnic organization has declined. Yet they still retain close ties with their families. The sansei visited their families almost as often as the nisei, according to the study.
At the same time that they have assimilated, the Japanese Americans have fought for equal rights. Besides their camp experience, the Japanese were restricted twice from emig rating to the United States - in 1907 and 1924. Other old laws prevented the immigrants from taking medical, dental or bar exams and from owning land.
Many Japanese American leaders say there is still "latent racism" against them. They contend that Japanese Americans are underrepresented in high positons in government and private industry.
They have also tried to keep alive their culture and traditions for themselves and their children, according to a series of recent interviews. But it hasn't been easy, said Hideki (Dick) Hamamoto of the Japanese American Citizens League. Hamamoto said it has been particularly difficult here. Their ethnic group numbers less than 8,000 in the Washington area and their children are surrounded by non-Orientals at school and in their neighborhoods.
There are 588,324 Japanese-America according to the 1970 census.
There are 588,324 Japanese-Americans in America according to the 1970 census.
Some of the traditions live on in the third generation, says Ujifusa like the emphasis placed on education. It's just that the notion of stressing education now has "some middle class frills" attached to it, Ujifusa has found. "It's the idea that gee, it's great you're getting all A's in calculus, but it's even better that you're getting all A's and are on the student council and the tennis team."
Then there is the Japanese physical characteristics-as Raymond Murakami, a Bethesda dentist puts it - which places Japanese Americans apart from other Americans.
"About 50 percent of my patients know I'm Japanese American . . . Others will come in and ask me 'Did you come here to study and then decide to stay here?. . . I'm third generation!" Murakami recounted.