Introduction: Asian Americans and Educational History

“Asian American” is a relatively recent term that was first used by non-Asians and then adopted by Asian Americans themselves during the late 1960s in the heyday of ethnic and political activism that emerged on the heels of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Further energized by the anti-Vietnam War protests, activists in communities and on college campuses rejected the category of “Oriental” and instead self-identified as Asian American.[1]

Encompassing highly diverse ethnic peoples descended from immigrant forbears from vast and varied regions of the world, this social construct is ambiguous at best. Yet notwithstanding its dubious nature, the Asian American grouping has persisted, both to the detriment and benefit of the people so classified. On the one hand it has homogenized and essentialized the diversity within; on the other it has facilitated coalition building for political and economic (e.g., federal funding) benefits. [2]
Because the rate of immigration from Asia has multiplied in recent decades, Asian Americans have become one of the fastest-growing groups in the country. As a result, they have been increasingly visible in the popular mind. But despite their previous invisibility, Asian Americans have had a long history in the United States. As early as the 1500s some Chinese, and in the 1700s some Filipinos and Asian Indians, had arrived in North America.

Asian American history can be divided roughly into four periods: from 1850 to 1940, a time of immigration restrictions and discrimination; the World War II period that was dominated by the incarceration of Japanese immigrants and their American children; from 1943 through the 1950s, when Congress loosened immigration and naturalization laws; and the past three decades following the 1965 Immigration Act.

The first period began with the Chinese. Extreme poverty and warfare in China caused many to look outside their native land for a better life. The discovery of gold in California in the mid 1800s, followed by work on the transcontinental railroads, provided incentives for more than 300,000 Chinese to make the transoceanic journey.[3] A smaller number of Chinese also migrated to the kingdom of Hawai‘i primarily to work on the sugar plantations there.[4]

A xenophobic reaction among whites on the United States West Coast led to laws aimed at restricting further immigration, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country for ten years. In 1892 Congress extended that exclusion for another ten years, and in 1902 extended it indefinitely. Because these laws prevented Chinese women from immigrating, the Chinese population was predominantly male; as a result, the American-born Chinese population during this time remained relatively small.[5]

The Japanese followed the Chinese, migrating by the thousands to Hawai‘i beginning in 1885 to work on sugar plantations. By 1924 about 180,000 had arrived, becoming the largest ethnic group in the islands. After Hawai‘i became a territory in 1900, some thirty to forty thousand moved to the West Coast of the United States, augmenting the 2,500 or so Japanese student-laborers who had been living there since the 1880s.[6]

As with the Chinese, the influx of Japanese led to hostile white reactions. In 1906 the San Francisco school board ordered Japanese and Korean students to a segregated Chinese school. Strong protests from Japan, which had emerged as a strong military power, led President Theodore Roosevelt to move more cautiously in dealing with the Japanese than it had with the Chinese. Through diplomatic channels, the United States government negotiated the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907–1908, in which the school board would rescind its order and Japan would volunteer to bar laborers from leaving for the United States, while allowing nonlaborers, former residents, and family members of current residents to do so. Meanwhile in 1907 Congress passed a law that barred the entry of Japanese and Korean laborers via Hawai‘i, Canada, and Mexico.[7] As a result of the Gentlemen’s Agreement, large numbers of Japanese wives and picture brides entered both Hawai‘i and the continental United States, bringing family life and stability to the immigrant community.[8] This was in contrast to the predominance of men in the Chinese community.

The huge influx of Japanese women fired the passions of anti-Japanese agitators, and Congress responded with the 1924 Immigration Act, which prohibited the entry of all Asians except Filipinos, who were American nationals. The law was aimed at the Japanese because a 1917 statute had already excluded other Asians.[9]

Compared to the Chinese and Japanese, relatively few Koreans and Asian Indians arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Between 1903 and 1905, some 7,000 Koreans went to Hawai‘i to work on the sugar plantations. Some of them migrated to the mainland United States. Others reached the continent as political refugees who fled Korea, which had become a protectorate of Japan in 1905 and a colony in 1910.[10] While a few Asian Indians were in the United States in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more significant numbers migrated to the West Coast after 1900. By 1924 about 13,000 had entered the country, most being Sikhs from the Punjab region in north India.[11]

Filipinos were the next group of Asians to arrive; like the Chinese, Koreans, and Asian Indians, they were predominantly male. Aside from the few Filipinos who had migrated to various parts of the United States, including those who had settled in Louisiana during the eighteenth century, it was only after 1900 that greater numbers arrived. When the Philippines became an American colony after the Spanish-American War of 1898, Filipinos became American nationals instead of aliens. That distinction enabled them to avoid the restrictions placed upon other Asians. Between 1903–1910, several hundred students took advantage of United States government scholarships and enrolled in institutions of higher education. Others, an estimated 14,000, arrived between 1910 and 1938 with the intention of studying, but lack of finances prevented them from continuing their schooling. Many turned to manual labor, while others who succeeded in graduating returned to the Philippines to become leaders in government and business.[12]

Hawai‘i was another destination. Between 1906 and 1932, some 126,000 men left the Philippines to work on the islands’ sugar plantations. The 1935 Tydings-McDuffie Act, which granted future independence to the Philippines, stopped the migration to the continental United States by imposing an annual quota of fifty Filipinos. Because of a provision in the law that allowed them to enter Hawai‘i for plantation work, however, more than 7,000 migrated to the islands in 1946 in order to meet a labor shortage.[13]

It is important to note that of the thousands of Asians who entered the United States during the decades before World War II, about half eventually returned to their home countries. This was similar to the movement of Europeans who arrived in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[14]

As the foregoing indicates, this first period of Asian American history, from about 1850 to 1940, was marked by immigration restrictions and exclusion. During this time Asian immigrants and their children worked in backbreaking, labor-intensive, and sometimes dangerous jobs, including the building of the transcontinental railroads, lumbering, fishing, farming, working in canneries and factories, operating laundries and restaurants, and serving as shopkeepers, carpenters, houseboys, maids, and gardeners. In California, Chinese and Japanese farmers played a vital role in boosting crop production, and in Hawai‘i Asians provided most of the labor on sugar plantations.

While their children were American citizens, having been born on American soil, Asian immigrants were denied the right to become naturalized American citizens.[15] Furthermore, a series of land laws prevented them from owning and leasing land.[16] Despite discrimination, xenophobia, and violence aimed at them, however, many of the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Asian Indians, and Filipinos who migrated to the United States during this period decided that they could improve their lives and eventually chose to make America their home.

In 1940 there were 490,000 people of Asian ancestry in the United States, which was less than 1 percent of the population in the country.[17] Most of them lived in Hawai‘i and on the continental West Coast, particularly in California. The Japanese were the most numerous, followed by the Chinese. The three essays selected for this special issue focus on the Japanese and Chinese during this first period of Asian American history. More will be said about these essays later in this introduction.

The entry of the United States into World War II marked the second period of Asian American history. During the war, 120,000 Nikkei—people of Japanese ancestry, immigrants and their citizen children—were forced to leave their homes on the West Coast to live in government camps. Roger Daniels’s essay review in this issue discusses this period of incarceration.

During the war and in the decade that followed there was a gradual loosening of restrictions. In recognition of China’s role as an ally of the United States, Congress passed the Magnuson Act in 1943, which repealed the Chinese exclusion acts and opened the door for Chinese immigrants to become naturalized American citizens. Furthermore Congress allowed a small quota of 105 to immigrate annually. The War Brides Act of 1945 and its amendments opened the door to thousands of Chinese females. These and other liberalizing laws brought dramatic changes in the demographic composition of the Chinese American community.[18] As with the Chinese, the War Brides Act and its amendments permitted the migration of thousands of Japanese wives of United States servicemen.[19] Furthermore, the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, influenced in part by the heroism of Japanese American soldiers during the war, allowed all Asians to become naturalized American citizens.

When Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1965, which opened the door to those formerly excluded, its focus was on southern and eastern Europe. Lawmakers gave little thought to Asia. To their later surprise, however, because of a provision in the Act that allowed for family reunification, millions of Asians responded.[20] In 1960, for example, only 9 percent of all immigrants were Asian, increasing to 25 percent in 1970, 53 percent in 1982, and 37 percent in 1992.[21] Chinese, Koreans, Asian Indians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian groups arrived in unforeseen and unprecedented numbers. An exception to this influx was Japan. As a result of its prosperity in the 1970s and later, relatively few desired to leave their country, and Japanese Americans, who constituted the largest of the Asian American groups before 1970, saw its proportion shrink to sixth place three decades later, after the Chinese, Filipinos, Asian Indians, Koreans, and Vietnamese.[22] By 2000 Asian Americans constituted 4 percent of the population, a proportion that is projected to increase to 10 percent by 2050.[23]

The preceding paragraphs discuss the Chinese and Japanese in the decades before World War II more than they discuss other Asian American groups because the three essays in this issue focus on the two groups during this period. Similarly, the many essays that were originally submitted for this special issue were primarily on Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans. This was to be expected, since more historical data are available on these two groups, who predominated numerically until the latter decades of the twentieth century.

The first essay, “Mandating Americanization: Japanese Language Schools and the Federal Survey of Education in Hawai‘i, 1916–1920” by Noriko Asato, analyzes the controversy in Hawai‘i surrounding the Nikkei—people of Japanese ancestry—who were the most numerous of all ethnic groups living in this American territory. Asato examines events leading up to and involving a 1919 federal survey of education, highlighting the perceived threat posed by the predominance of Nikkei in the islands and efforts to eliminate their language schools. As Asato points out, the storm over Japanese language schools in Hawai‘i spread to the United States West Coast, where a similar effort transpired.

The second essay, “‘The Pacific Era Has Arrived’: Transnational Education among Japanese Americans, 1932–41” by Eiichiro Azuma, examines the education of Kibei, second-generation Japanese Americans who went to Japan to live and study and later returned to the United States. With few previously published works on this important subgroup of Japanese Americans, this study adds much to our understanding of their experiences. Moreover, the essay provides an important historical backdrop to the more recent phenomenon of transnational education. Furthermore, the issue of nationalism versus internationalism, which Azuma analyzes, reverberates in our understanding of twenty-first-century transnationalism.

The third essay, “Crafting a Delta Chinese Community: Education and Acculturation in Twentieth Century Southern Baptist Mission Schools” by Sieglinde Lim de Sánchez, moves beyond the black-white dichotomy by examining the ways in which the Chinese negotiated their way between the two groups. Neither black nor white but “yellow,” the Chinese sought to provide the best education possible for their children in the period of de jure segregation, albeit to the detriment of children of mixed African American and Chinese descent.

In this period of exclusion, discrimination, and labor, Asian immigrants and their children pursued the promise of America. Taking to heart the American ideals of equality and economic opportunity, they defended their rights under the law. As Asato notes, when the legislature of the Territory of Hawaii attempted to cripple and extinguish the language schools, the Japanese took their case all the way to the United States Supreme Court and won.

Their successful legal challenge was not the first to seek redress against discriminatory actions that deprived Asian American children of equal access to education. In 1885 the parents of eight-year-old Mamie Tape, an American child of Chinese descent, won their case in the California Supreme Court when it upheld a lower court’s decision that affirmed the right of Americans of Chinese ancestry to attend public school. In response the California legislature enacted a law that allowed local school boards to establish segregated schools. The San Francisco school board then established a Chinese Primary School, to which Tape was forced to enroll.[24] Forty years later in Mississippi, as Lim de Sanchez notes, Gong Lum sought redress in the courts when his American-born daughter was excluded from a white public school. Although the United States Supreme Court ruled against him in 1927, his case helped pave the way for future challenges and demonstrated—as did the Tape and language school cases—that Asian Americans would not sit idly by while their rights were being denied.[25]

As part of their pursuit of the promise of America, Asian Americans sought to be part of the American mainstream. Azuma shows how Japanese immigrants and their children sought acceptance and cultural understanding within the wider community. Second-generation Japanese Americans took seriously their role as unofficial ambassadors and as bridges of understanding between the United States and Japan.

All three essays depart from the norm in Asian American history, which has situated most studies on the West Coast and particularly California. While understandable because of the predominance of the Asian American population in that region of the United States mainland, Asato’s study redirects the reader’s attention to the Territory of Hawaii, where over half of all Japanese Americans lived during the first half of the twentieth century.[26] Also placing her study away from the West Coast, Lim de Sanchez examines the Deep South, where small communities of Chinese raised their American-born children. Azuma takes the reader beyond any one particular locale, discussing Japanese American youths from the continental United States, Hawai‘i, and Canada who went to Japan to live and study.

Common to these three essays is the theme of ethnic and cultural identity. Asato notes that immigrant parents sought to have the language schools help perpetuate Japanese language and culture. Azuma highlights the second-generation Japanese Americans who studied in Japan in order to better understand their parents’ language and cultural heritage. Lim de Sanchez shows how the Mississippi Delta Chinese sought to maintain aspects of their culture as they negotiated their lives between black and white.

Following these three articles is a review essay by Roger Daniels, the pioneer historian of Asian American history and the foremost authority on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Daniels discusses two new books on the education of children who lived in the Relocation Centers and in the Immigration and Naturalization internment camps. Daniels weaves into his review essential information on the schooling of youths who lived in the camps and provides useful notes that will aid researchers interested in delving into the education of those who were incarcerated.[27]

As the essays in this special issue demonstrate, Asians and their children—despite rejection—persisted in seeking inclusion and full participation in American life. In resisting their exclusion and marginalization, the historian Gary Okihiro argues, Asian Americans “helped to preserve and advance the very privileges that were denied to them, and thereby democratized the nation for the benefit of all Americans.” Their challenges “to the dominant paradigm” and their struggles ultimately helped to transform American society. In fact it has been those on the margins of American society in contrast to those in the mainstream, according to Okihiro, who have enlarged the meaning of American democracy. Furthermore, not only did Asian Americans help to redefine the meaning of equality, they moved the understanding of American identity beyond the notion of white and black.[28] For even as Asian Americans lost in the courts, as they did in cases such as Gong Lum v. Rice, they brought their in-between-ness into public debate and thereby transformed their status from invisible to visible.

The essays in this issue offer readers new insights in understanding the history of Asian American education. As I discussed at some length in an earlier essay in this journal, there have been many recent studies on Asian American history and on Asian American education, but relatively few scholars on Asian America have turned their attention to both history and education in order to produce works on Asian American educational history.[29] This special issue of the History of Education Quarterly (HEQ) seeks to address this deficiency.

This issue is the result of a three-year effort. My heartfelt appreciation goes to the HEQ editor, Richard Altenbaugh, whose professionalism and warm encouragement enabled this project to proceed smoothly. I am deeply grateful to James Anderson, Barbara Beatty, Linda Eisenmann, Michael Fultz, Robert Levin, Bruce Nelson, John Rury, and the anonymous reviewers. This issue would not have been possible without their expert advice and support.

Eileen H. Tamura is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Foundations, College of Education, University of Hawai‘i Manoa.


1 William Wei, The Asian American Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 11–15, 37–43; Yen Le Espiritu, Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 5–7, 13.

2 Spaniards brought the Chinese to California in the sixteenth century and Filipinos arrived in Louisiana during the eighteenth century. In the late eighteenth century, Asian Indians arrived as indentured servants and slaves. See Timothy P. Fong, The Contemporary Asian American Experience: Beyond the Model Minority (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998), 10; and Harry H. L. Kitano and Roger Daniels, Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995), 83.

3 Judy Yung, “Chinese,” in A Nation of Peoples: A Sourcebook on America’s Multicultural Heritage ed. Elliott Robert Barkan (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), 119–122; Morrison G. Wong, “Chinese Americans,” in Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues ed. Pyong Gap Min (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1995), 59; Fong, The Contemporary Asian American Experience, 11.

4 Clarence E. Glick, Sojourners and Settlers: Chinese Migrants in Hawaii (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1980), x–xi, 12, 18, 23.

5 Wong, “Chinese Americans,” 63.

6 Eileen H. Tamura, Americanization, Acculturation, and Ethnic Identity: The Nisei Generation in Hawaii (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 27; Yuji Ichioka, The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885–1924 (New York: The Free Press, 1988), 8–9. An earlier attempt in 1868 to use Japanese laborers in Hawai‘i had been largely unsuccessful. See Eileen H. Tamura, “Japanese,” in A Nation of Peoples: A Sourcebook on America’s Multicultural Heritage ed. Elliott Robert Barkan (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), 311.

7 Bill Ong Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850–1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 29; Tamura, Americanization, Acculturation, and Ethnic Identity, 18, 20.

8 For a discussion of how the practice of picture-brides derived from traditional Japanese marriage practices, see Tamura, “Japanese,” 312–313.

9 Tamura, Americanization, Acculturation, and Ethnic Identity, 79.

10 Pyong Gap Min, “Korean Americans,” in Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues ed. Pyong Gap Min (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1995), 200–202; Fong, The Contemporary Asian American Experience, 13.

11 Kitano and Daniels, Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities, 96–97; Manju Sheth, “Asian Indian Americans,” in Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues ed. Pyong Gap Min (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1995), 170–171.

12 Kitano and Daniels, Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities, 83–86.

13 Tamura, Americanization, Acculturation, and Ethnic Identity, 5.

14 Ibid., 27–28.

15 Ichioka, The Issei, 211–226.

16 Tamura, Americanization, Acculturation, and Ethnic Identity, 78.

17 Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991), 351; Roger Daniels, “No Lamps Were Lit for Them: Angel Island and the Historiography of Asian American Immigration,” Journal of American Ethnic History 17 (Fall 1997): 14.

18 Wong, “Chinese Americans,” 65–66.

19 Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi, “Japanese Americans,” in Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues ed. Pyong Gap Min (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1995), 98–100.

20 Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America, 3, 39–41.

21 Pyong Gap Min, “An Overview of Asian Americans,” in Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues ed. Pyong Gap Min (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1995), 11–13; Kitano and Daniels, Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities, 18–19.

22 Min, “An Overview of Asian Americans,” 13, 29; Nishi, “Japanese Ameicans,” 100–101; United States Census Bureau, “Race Alone or in Combination for American Indian, Alaska Native, and for Selected Categories of Asian and of Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander: 2000,” American FactFinder,, revised January 29, 2002, downloaded March 10, 2002.

23 United States Census Bureau, “Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000,” American FactFinder, , revised January 29, 2002, downloaded March 10, 2002; Larry H. Shinagawa, “The Impact of Immigration on the Demography of Asian Pacific Americans,” in Reframing the Immigration Debate, ed. Bill Ong Hing and Ronald LeeN (Los Angeles: LEAP and UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1996), 61.

24 Tape v. Hurley, 66 California 473 (1885); Victor Low, The Unimpressible Race: A Century of Educational Struggle by the Chinese in San Francisco (San Francisco: East/West Publishing, 1982), 60–73; Charles M. Wollenberg, All Deliberate Speed: Segregation and Exclusion in California Schools, 1885–1975 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 28–43.

25 Asian Americans also went to court to challenge discrimination in non-schooling issues. For a discussion of the struggle to become naturalized American citizens, see Ichioka, The Issei, 210–226. For a discussion of the challenge to discriminatory land laws, see ibid., 153–56, 226–43; and Roger Daniels, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 141–47.

26 Paul R. Spickard, Japanese Americans: The Formation and Transformation of an Ethnic Group (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996), 47.

27 The scholarly literature on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II is massive. Those less familiar with this history might begin with publications such as Roger Daniels, Prisoners without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993); idem, Concentration Camps: North America, Japanese in the United States and Canada During World War II (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing, 1993); Jeffery F. Burton, Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord, and Richard W. Lord, Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites (Tucson, AZ: Western Archeological and Conservation Center, National Park Service, 1999); and Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied (Washington, D.C. and Seattle: The Civil Liberties Public Education Fund and University of Washington Press, 1997).

28 Gary Okihiro, Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 151, 155, 175.

29 Eileen H. Tamura, “Asian Americans in the History of Education: An Historiographical Essay,” History of Education Quarterly 41 (Spring 2001): 58–71.