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Nisei (二世, "second generation") is a Japanese-language term used in countries in North America and South America to specify the ethnically Japanese children born in the new country to Japanese-born immigrants (who are called Issei). The Nisei are considered the second generation, and the grandchildren of the Japanese-born immigrants are called Sansei, or third generation. (Ichi, ni, san are Japanese for "one, two, three"; see Japanese numerals.)


The children of these Japanese-Brazilian (Nipo-brasileiros) immigrants would be called Nisei.

Although the earliest organized group of Japanese emigrants left Japan centuries ago, and a later group settled in Mexico in 1897,[1] the four largest populations of Japanese immigrants and their descendants live in Brazil, Canada, Peru, and the United States.

American Nisei[edit]

Some US Nisei were born after the end of World War II during the baby boom. Most Nisei, however, who were living in the western United States during World War II, were forcibly interned with their parents (Issei) after Executive Order 9066 was promulgated to exclude everyone of Japanese descent from the West Coast areas of California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. It has been argued that some Nisei feel caught in a dilemma between their Nisei parents and other Americans.[2] The Nisei of Hawaii had a somewhat different experience.

In the United States, two representative Nisei were Daniel Inouye and Fred Korematsu. Hawaiian-born Daniel Ken Inouye (井上 建, Inoue Ken, 1924–2012) was one of many young Nisei men who volunteered to fight in the nation's military when restrictions against Japanese-American enlistment were removed in 1943. Inouye later went on to become a U.S. Senator from Hawaii after it achieved statehood.

Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu (是松 豊三郎, Korematsu Toyosaburō, 1919–2005) was one of many Japanese-American citizens living on the West Coast who resisted internment during World War II. In 1944, Korematsu lost a U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the wartime internment of Japanese Americans but gained vindication decades later.[3] The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, was awarded to Korematsu in 1998. At the White House award ceremonies, President Bill Clinton explained, "In the long history of our country's constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls. Plessy, Brown, Parks ... to that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu."[4]

The overwhelming majority of Japanese Americans had reacted to the internment by acquiescing to the government's order, hoping to prove their loyalty as Americans. To them, Korematsu's opposition was treacherous to both his country and his community. Across the span of decades, he was seen as a traitor, a test case, an embarrassment and, finally, a hero.[5]

Brazilian Nisei[edit]

Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, estimated to number more than 1.5 million (including those of mixed-race or mixed-ethnicity),[6] more than that of the 1.2 million in the United States.[7] The Nisei Japanese Brazilians are an important part of the ethnic minority in that South American nation.

Canadian Nisei[edit]

Within Japanese-Canadian communities across Canada, three distinct subgroups developed, each with different sociocultural referents, generational identity, and wartime experiences.[8][9]

Peruvian Nisei[edit]

Among the approximately 80,000 Peruvians of Japanese descent, the Nisei Japanese Peruvians comprise the largest element.

Cultural profile[edit]


Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians have special names for each of their generations in North America. These are formed by combining one of the Japanese numbers corresponding to the generation with the Japanese word for generation (sei 世). The Japanese-American and Japanese-Canadian communities have themselves distinguished their members with terms like Issei, Nisei, and Sansei which describe the first, second and third generation of immigrants. The fourth generation is called Yonsei (四世) and the fifth is called Gosei (五世). The Issei, Nisei and Sansei generations reflect distinctly different attitudes to authority, gender, non-Japanese involvement, and religious belief and practice, and other matters.[10] The age when individuals faced the wartime evacuation and internment is the single, most significant factor which explains these variations in their experiences, attitudes and behaviour patterns.[8]

The term Nikkei (日系) encompasses all of the world's Japanese immigrants across generations.[11] The collective memory of the Issei and older Nisei was an image of Meiji Japan from 1870 through 1911, which contrasted sharply with the Japan that newer immigrants had more recently left. These differing attitudes, social values and associations with Japan were often incompatible with each other.[12] In this context, the significant differences in post-war experiences and opportunities did nothing to mitigate the gaps which separated generational perspectives.

Generation Cohort description
Issei (一世) The generation of people born in Japan who later immigrated to another country.
Nisei (二世) The generation of people born in North America, South America, Australia, Hawaii, or any country outside Japan either to at least one Issei or one non-immigrant Japanese parent.
Sansei (三世) The generation of people born to at least one Nisei parent.
Yonsei (四世) The generation of people born to at least one Sansei parent.
Gosei (五世) The generation of people born to at least one Yonsei parent.[13]

The second generation of immigrants, born in Canada or the United States to parents not born in Canada or the United States, is called Nisei (二世). The Nisei have become part of the general immigrant experience in the United States and Canada to become part of the greater "melting pot" of the United States and the "mosaic" of Canada. Some Nisei have resisted being absorbed into the majority society, largely because of their tendency to maintain Japanese interpersonal styles of relationships.[14]

Most Nisei were educated in Canadian or American school systems where they were taught Canadian or American national values as national citizens of those countries of individualism and citizenship. When these were taken away in the early 1940s, the Nisei confronted great difficulty in accepting or coming to terms with internment and forced resettlement. Older Nisei tended to identify more closely with the Issei, sharing similar economic and social characteristics.[8] Older Nisei who had been employed in small businesses, in farming, in fishing or in semi-skilled occupations, tended to remain in blue-collar work.[15] In contrast, the younger Nisei attended university and college and entered various professions and white-collar employment after the war.[12] This sharp division in post-war experiences and opportunities exacerbated the gaps between these Nisei.

In North America, since the redress victory in 1988, a significant evolutionary change has occurred. The Nisei, their parents and their children are changing the way they look at themselves as individuals of Japanese descent in their respective nations of Canada, the United States and Mexico.[16]

There are currently just over one hundred thousand British Japanese, mostly in London; but unlike other Nikkei terms used centered from Japan to distinguish the distance from Japanese nationality elsewhere in the world, these Britons do not conventionally parse their communities in generational terms as Issei, Nisei, or Sansei.[17]


The kanreki (還暦), a traditional, pre-modern Japanese rite of passage to old age at 60, was sometimes celebrated by the Issei and is now being celebrated by increasing numbers of Nisei. Rituals are enactments of shared meanings, norms, and values; and this Japanese rite of passage highlights a collective response among the Nisei to the conventional dilemmas of growing older.[18] Aging is affecting the demographics of the Nisei. According to a 2011 columnist in The Rafu Shimpo of Los Angeles, the obituaries showing the number of Japanese Americans in their 80s and 90s — Nisei, in a word — who are passing is staggering"[19]


The Japanese-born Issei learned Japanese as their mother tongue, and their success in learning English as a second language was varied. Most Nisei speak Japanese to some extent, learned from Issei parents, Japanese school, and living in a Japanese community or in the internment camps. A majority of English-speaking Nisei have retained knowledge of the Japanese language, at least in its spoken form. Most Sansei speak English as their first language and most marry people of non-Japanese ancestry.[12]


An illustrative point-of-view, as revealed in the poetry of an Issei woman:

By Meiji parents
Emigrants to Canada
The Nisei were raised to be
Canadian citizens
Of whom they could be proud.

— Kinori Oka, Kisaragi Poem Study Group, 1975.[20]


There was relatively little intermarriage during the Nisei generation, partly because the war and the unconstitutional[21] incarceration[22] of these American citizens intervened exactly at a time when the group was of marrying age. Identification of them with the enemy by the American public, made them unpopular and unlikely candidates for interracial marriage. Besides this, they were thrown, en masse, into concentration camps[23][24] with others of the same ethnicity, causing the majority of Nisei to marry other Nisei.

Another factor is that anti-miscegenation laws criminalizing interracial marriage, cohabitation, and sex were in effect in many U.S. states until 1967.

This is why third generation Sansei are mostly still of the same racial appearance as the Issei, who first immigrated to the U.S. The Sansei generation has widely intermarried in the post WWII years, with estimates of such unions at over 60 percent.



When the Canadian and American governments interned West Coast Japanese citizens, Japanese American citizens, and Japanese Canadian citizens in 1942, neither distinguished between American/Canadian-born citizens of Japanese ancestry (Nisei) and their parents, born in Japan but now living in the U.S. or Canada (Issei).[25]

World War II service[edit]


Japanese American redress[edit]

In 1978, the Japanese American Citizens League actively began demanding be taken as redress for harms endured by Japanese Americans during World War II.

In 1980, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) The commission report, Personal Justice Denied, condemned the internment as "unjust and motivated by racism rather than real military necessity".[26]

In 1988, U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided for a formal apology and payments of $20,000 for each survivor. The legislation stated that government actions were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership".[27] The Civil Liberties Act Amendments of 1992, appropriating an additional $400 million in order to ensure that all remaining internees received their $20,000 redress payments, was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, who also issued another formal apology from the U.S. government.

Japanese and Japanese Americans who were relocated during WWII were compensated for direct property losses in 1948. These payments were awarded to 82,210 Japanese Americans or their heirs at a cost of $1.6 billion; the program's final disbursement occurred in 1999.[28]

Japanese Canadian redress[edit]

In 1983, the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) mounted a campaign demanding redress for injustices during the war years.[29] NAJC hired Price Waterhouse to estimate the economic losses to Japanese Canadians resulting from property confiscations and loss of wages due to internment. On the basis of detailed records maintained by the Custodian of Alien Property,[30] it was determined that the total loss totalled $443 million (in 1986 dollars).[29]

In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney gave that long-awaited formal apology and the Canadian government began to make good on a compensation package—including $21,000 to all surviving internees, and the re-instatement of Canadian citizenship to those who were deported to Japan.[31]



Notable individuals[edit]

The number of nisei who have earned some degree of public recognition has continued to increase over time; but the quiet lives of those whose names are known only to family and friends are no less important in understanding the broader narrative of the nikkei. Although the names highlighted here are over-represented by nisei from North America, the Latin American member countries of the Pan American Nikkei Association (PANA) include Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay, in addition to the English-speaking United States and Canada.[32]

See also[edit]


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  3. ^ Lewis, Neil A. "President Names 15 for Nation's Top Civilian Honor", New York Times. January 9, 1998.
  4. ^ Goldstein, Richard. Fred Korematsu, 86, Dies; Lost Key Suit on Internment, New York Times. April 1, 2005.
  5. ^ Bai, Matt. He Said No to Internment, New York Times. December 25, 2005.
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Further reading[edit]

  • Asahina, Robert. (2007). Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad. New York: Gotham Books. ISBN 1-59240-300-X
  • Harrington, Joseph D. (1979). Yankee Samurai: The Secret Role of Nisei in America's Pacific Victory Pettigrew Enterprises. ISBN 978-0-933680-11-1
  • McNaughton, James. (2006). Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service During World War II. Washington, D.C. : Department of the Army.
  • Moulin, Pierre. (1993). U.S. Samurais in Bruyeres : People of France and Japanese Americans: Incredible Story. Luxembourg: CPL Editions. ISBN 2-9599984-0-5
  • Sterner, C. Douglas (2008). Go For Broke: The Nisei Warriors of World War II Who Conquered Germany, Japan, and American Bigotry. Clearfield  : Utah American Legacy Historical Press. ISBN 978-0-9796896-1-1

External links[edit]