Participating Scholars
Lane Hirabayashi

Project Description


Institutional Participants



Staff and Advisors

English Japanese
Spanish Portuguese

Japanese American
National Museum

Lane Hirabayashi, Professor of Asian American and Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is a key figure in the development of Asian American Studies. He has published works in both Spanish and English which focus on indigenous peoples in Mexico and on various aspects of the Japanese American experience. These works include pioneering studies on Nikkei in Gardena, California and in American concentration camps during World War II, the most recent publication titled Inside An American Concentration Camp: Japanese American Resistance at Poston, Arizona (1995) and The Politics of Fieldwork: Research in an American Concentration Camp (forthcoming, 1999).


Research Proposal Abstract
Comparative Political Empowerment: Nikkei in Gardena, Hawai'i and Peru

Dr. Lane Hirabayashi proposes to conduct a qualitative, exploratory study that entails a comparative examination of Nikkei political empowerment. "Empowerment" in this context refers primarily to the attainment of formal political office, via electoral process, in a democratic, multi-party, state. Although there has been comparatively little examination of Asians in politics outside of their countries of origin, he is fascinated by the few select cases on the record that have to do with Nikkei political empowerment. The three cases that stand out, however, represent very different levels of analysis: (1) the city level (as in the case found during the 1907s and 1980s in Gardena, California); (2) the state level (as in the state of Hawai'i, and especially the island of Oahu, since World War II); and, (3) the national level (as represented in the case of President Alberto Fujimori in Perú during the 1990s). Dr. Hirabayashi proposes that these cases can be systematically examined in order to develop a better understanding of how, why, where, and when people of Japanese descent in the Americas have attained a measure of political power within a larger, multicultural society.


This paper presents a qualitative, comparative and exploratory examination of Nikkei political empowerment in the Americas. "Empowerment" refers primarily to the attainment of formal political office, via an electoral process, in a democratic, two- or multi-party state.

The basic framework that I utilize was developed by the political scientist Peter K. Eisinger. Esinger selects the emergence of an "ethnic political tradition" (or ETP) as his main focus. Based on an empirical analysis of American ethnic groups, Eisinger identifies three broad
conditions, which appear in three stages, that must be fulfilled before a given group is able to develop a viable EPT. In brief, these conditions are: (A) economic stability, including the ability to overcome a sustained period of "group trauma"; (B) the consolidation of community organizations and leaders, which must be able to engage in "aggressive" advocacy on behalf of ethnic compatriots; and, (C) an initial entree into
mainstream political parties and the political system. Eisinger's framework thus provides resources for the comparative analysis of Nikkei political empowerment in the Americas, although it has limitations and must be adjusted accordingly.

Mill's "indirect method of difference" is an appropriate methodology for the comparative analysis of Nikkei EPTs in the Americas, given the scant number of qualitative case studies presently available. There are clear limitations to this approach, but additional data would be needed before more sophisticated (but related) Boolean algebraic techniques could be deployed.

In order to provide a modest "test" of Eisinger's framework, I present six synoptic (non-randomly selected) case studies. Three cases pertain to city, state, and national settings that entail "positive" empowerment outcomes: namely, Gardena; Hawaii; and Brazil. These cases are contrasted with three "weak to negative" case studies representing,
basically, the same levels of analysis: the city of San Francisco; the state of California; and the country of Mexico. In other words, following the provisions of the "indirect method of difference," I assemble six cases that represent both positive and negative manifestations of
empowerment, and then compare and contrast these in order to assess whether Eisinger's framework and conditions are relevant or not.

My findings are that, first, and at least in terms of these six cases, a demographic base must be extant before Eisinger's conditions are pertinent. Beyond this, I identify three distinct "pathways to power," all of which might be significant for Nikkei EPTs, although it is hard to be sure, as of yet.

One "pathway" appears when Nikkei are twenty percent or more of the population. A second involves multi-ethnic coalitions, in situations in which Nikkei are present in significant numbers, but their relative percentage vis-a-vis the total population is low. A third, having to do with Nikkei politicians who build a political base that does not revolve
around ethnic compatriots, is unclear. In some cases, Nikkei politicians are autonomous, while in others, articulation with compatriots is still at least possible.

My overall conclusion is that Nikkei in the Americas are not inherently apolitical. Rather, a range of factors, including "critical mass" and intra-group heterogeneity, tend to impede Nikkei consolidation in the sphere of formal electoral politics, across the board.

March, 1999