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Issei (一世, first generation) is a Japanese language term used in countries in North America, South America and Australia to specify the Japanese people first to immigrate. Their children born in the new country are referred to as Nisei (second generation), and their grandchildren are Sansei (third generation). All them come from the numbers "one, two, three" in the Japanese language, as Japanese numerals are "ichi, ni, san."

Brazilian, American, Canadian and Peruvian citizens

Although the earliest organized group of Japanese emigrants settled in Mexicomarker in 1897, the four largest populations of Japanese and descendants of Japanese immigrants live in Brazilmarker, the United Statesmarker, Canadamarker and Perumarker.

Brazilian Issei

The first Japanese Brazilian immigrants arriving aboard the Kassato Maru in 1908.

Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japanmarker, numbering an estimate of more than 1.5 million (including those of mixed-race or mixed-ethnicity), more than that of the 1.2 million in the United Statesmarker. The Issei Japanese Brazilians are an important part of that ethnic minority in that South American nation.

American Issei

The first members of the Issei did not migrate directly to the United States, but to Hawaiimarker (which was at the time American-controlled but not yet part of the U.S.). These migrants—the first of whom arrived on board the steamship City of Tokio in February 1885—were common laborers escaping hard times in Japan, and their emigration was subsidized by the Hawaiian government, which needed cheap labor for its sugar plantations. A large number of Japanese eventually settled in Hawaii.

Direct migration of Japanese to the United Statesmarker began a little later in 1885 with the arrival of "student-laborers". The earliest of these migrated to San Franciscomarker, and their numbers constantly expanded in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Their purpose of moving to America was to gain advanced knowledge and experience in order to develop the modern society at home. Both students and laborers were attracted by the image of America as a country that welcomes foreigners. When they first arrived in the U.S., they had no intention of living there permanently and were merely students or laborers whose purpose was to learn from Americans and to bring knowledge back to their own country.

Canadian Issei

Within Japanese-Canadian communities across Canada, three distinct subgroups developed, each with different sociocultural referents, generational identity, and wartime experiences. The narrative of Issei Japanese-Canadians include post-Pearl Harbor experiences of uprooting, incarceration, and dispersal of the pre-war Japanese-Canadian communities.

Peruvian Issei

Among the approximately 80,000 Peruvians of Japanese descent, the Issei Japanese Peruvians comprise only a small number. Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was the Nisei son of Issei emigrants from Kumamoto, Japanmarker. Fujimori's political opponents tried unsuccessfully to prove that he was actually born in Japan -- in which case, he would have been Issei like his immigrant mother and father.

Cultural profile


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. 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.

The term Nikkei (日系) was coined by a multinational group of sociologists and encompasses all of the world's Japanese immigrants across generations. 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. In this context, the significant differences in post-war experiences and opportunities did nothing to mitigate the gaps which separated generational perspectives.

Generation Summary
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, Latin America, Australia, or any country outside of Japan either to at least one Issei or one non-immigrant Japanese parent.
Sansei (三世) The generation of people born in North America, Latin America, Australia, or any country outside of Japan to at least one Nisei parent.
Yonsei (四世) The generation of people born in North America, Latin America, Australia, or any country outside of Japan to at least one Sansei parent.

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 and their pattern of accommodation to the non-Japanese majority.

There are currently just over one hundred thousand British Japanese, mostly in Londonmarker; but unlike other Nikkei communities elsewhere in the world, these Britons do not conventionally parse their communities in generational terms as Issei, Nisei, or Sansei.


The first generation of immigrants, born in Japan before moving to Canada or the United States, is called Issei (一世). In the 1930s, the term Issei came into common use, replacing the term "immigrant" (ijusha). This new term illustrated a changed way of looking at themselves. The term Issei represented the idea of beginning, a psychological transformation relating to being settled, having a distinctive community, and the idea of belonging to the new country.

Issei settled in close ethnic communities, and therefore did not learn English. They endured great economic and social losses during the early years of World War II, and they were not able to rebuild their lost businesses and savings. The external circumstances tended to reinforce the pattern of Issei being predominantly friends with other Issei.

Unlike their children, the tend to rely primarily on Japanese language media (newspapers, television, movies), and in some senses, they tend to think of themselves as more Japanese than Canadian or American.

Issei women
Issei women's lives were somewhat similar, despite differences in context, because they were structured within interlocking webs of patriarchal relationships, and that consistent subordination was experienced both as oppressive and as a source of happiness. The Issei women lived lives of transition which were affected by three common factors: the dominant ideology of late Meiji Japan, which advanced the economic objectives of the Japanese state; the patriarchal traditions of the agricultural village, which arose partly as a form of adjustment to national objectives and the adjustment to changes imposed by modernization; and the constraints which arose within a Canadian or American society dominated by racist ideology. Substantive evidence of the working lives of Issei women is very difficult to find, partly for lack of data and partly because the data that do exist are influenced by their implicit ideological definition of women.

Within the framework of environmental contradictions, the narratives of these women revealed a surprisingly shared sense of inevitability, a perception that the events of life are beyond the control of the individual, which accounts for the consistency in the way in which Issei women, different and individual in many ways, seem to have structured their emotions -- and this quality of emotional control was passed to their Nisei children.

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.


The experience of emigrants is inevitably affected by a range of factors directly related to the Japanese society they left behind. As immigrants, the conflicts between the old country and the new played out in unique ways for each individual, and yet common elements do begin to appear in the history of the Japanese Canadian and Japanese American communities.

Emigrants from Japan

Japan was a closed country for more than two centuries, 1636 to 1853, since military rulers from the Tokugawa family wanted to keep foreigners away from Japanese society. The only exceptions were Chinese and some Dutch people, but even they were discouraged from associating with Japanese citizen. Also, it was strictly prohibited by law for ordinary Japanese citizens to go abroad. Change came around the early 19th century when the visit of an American fleet commanded by Commodore Perry caused the new Japanese government to replace the Tokugawa system of economics and politics during the Meiji era in order to open its door to trade and contact with the outside world.

After 1866, the new Japanese government decided to send students and laborers to the U.S. in order to bring back the knowledge and experience necessary for the nation to grow strong.

After 1884, emigration of working classes from Japan is permitted; and the first issei begin to arrive in North and South America soon after. For example, in 1890, only 25 Issei live in Oregon. By 1891, 1,000 Japanese live in Oregon. In 1900, 2,051 Japanese have come to live in Oregon. By 1915, Japanese men with savings of $800 are considered eligible to summon wives from Japan.

Immigrants in America

Few Japanese workers came to North America intending to become immigrants. Initially, most of them came with vague plans for gaining new experiences and for making some money before returning to homes in Japan. This group of workers was overwhelmingly male. Many Issei arrived as laborers. They worked in employment sectors such as agriculture, mining, and railroad construction.

The Issei were born in Japan, and their cultural perspective was primarily Japanese; but they were in America by choice. Despite a certain nostalgia for the old country, they had created homes in a country far from Japan. If they had not been prohibited from becoming citizens, many would have become citizens of the United States.

In 1913, California's Alien Land Law prohibited non-citizens from owning land in the state. This included the Issei, Japanese residents born in Japan, but not their children, the Nisei, who were born in United States or Hawaii, and who therefore were American citizens by birth. Many of the Issei responded to the law by transferring title to their land to their Nisei children.

Americans' first impression of Issei

Americans generally viewed the Issei as a crude, ill-educated lot. Possible reasons for this may be the fact that most Japanese were forced to work in menial jobs in the U.S., such as farming. Since there were many immigrants working in the U.S., Americans were relatively predisposed to have a negative view toward the immigrants. In fact, most of the Issei were well-educated. Most of them were better educated than the general Japanese public, and also compared with the average American population back then. Sixty percent of them actually completed middle school, and 21 percent were high school graduates.

Whether Christian, Buddhists, or nonbelievers, the Issei almost never caused trouble in the civil authority. The arrest rate for the Issei from 1902 to the 1960s was relatively lower than for any other major ethnic group in California. The only exceptions were that some young Issei committed crimes relating to gambling and prostitution, which stemmed from different cultural morals in Japan.

Since Buddhist social morals were deeply ingrained, the Issei tended to refrain from antisocial behavior. Also, they were concerned about the Japanese government, that the national image should not be sullied by misbehavior in the U.S.

Racial segregation and immigration law

The post-1900 cause to renew the Chinese Exclusion Act became generalized protests against all Asian immigrants, including the Issei. Since many Chinese immigrants left the U.S., hostility fell on the Issei. American labor organizations took an initiative in spreading Anti-Japanese sentiment. White Americans wanted to exclude them since they did not want any Asians to take their jobs away. As a result, they formed the Asiatic Exclusion League that viewed Japanese and Chinese as a threat of American workers. The protest of the league involved picketing and beatings of the Issei. In October of 1906, amid this anti-Japanese milieu, the San Francisco School Board, carrying out a campaign promise of the mayor, ordered all Japanese and Korean pupils to join the Chinese students at a segregated school. The Issei were displeased with the situation and some reported to Japanese newspapers. This caused the Japanese government to protest against the former President, Theodore Roosevelt, and as a result, they signed the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907. This agreement led the period of settling and family building to come.

By 1911, almost half of the Japanese immigrants were women who landed in the U.S. to reunite with their husband. After the Gentleman's agreement, a number of Nisei, the second-generation Japanese, were born in California. Yet, it did not stop some white Americans from segregating Japanese immigrants. The Issei were a role model of American citizens by being hardworking, law-abiding, devoted to family and the community. However, some Americans did not want to admit the virtues of the Issei.

The Immigration Act of 1924 represented the Issei's failed struggle against the segregation. The experiences of the Issei extend from well before the period before July 1, 1924, when the Japanese Exclusion Act came into effect.

The Issei, however, were very good at enhancing rice farming on "unusable" land. Japanese Californian farmers made rice a major crop of the state. The largest Issei community settled around Vacaville, Californiamarker, near San Franciscomarker.


When the Canadian and American governments interned West Coast Japanese in 1942, neither distinguished between those who were citizens (Nisei) and their non-citizen parents (Issei). When the apology and redress for injustices were enacted by the American Congress and the Canadian Parliament in 1988, most of the Issei were dead, or too old for it to make any significant difference in lives that had been disrupted.

Notable individuals

The number of issei 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 issei from North America, the Latin American member countries of the Pan American Nikkei Association (PANA) include Argentinamarker, Boliviamarker, Brazilmarker, Chilemarker, Colombiamarker, Mexicomarker, Paraguaymarker, Perumarker and Uruguaymarker, in addition to the English-speaking United Statesmarker and Canadamarker.


  1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Japan-Mexico Foreign Relations
  2. Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Japan-Brazil Relations
  3. US Census data 2005
  4. Tate, E. Mowbray. (1986). Transpacific Steam: The Story of Steam Navigation from the Pacific Coast of North America to the Far East and the Antipodes, 1867-1941, p. 231.
  5. Sakata, Yasuo. (1992). Fading Footsteps of the Issei, p. 1.
  6. McLellan, Janet. (1999). Many Petals of the Lotus: Five Asian Buddhist Communities in Toronto, p. 36.
  7. Oiwa, Keibo and Joy Kogawa. (1991). Stone Voices: Wartime Writings of Japanese Canadian Issei, p. 18.
  8. "Fujimori Secures Japanese Haven," BBC News. December 12, 2000.
  9. McLellan, p. 59.
  10. "What is Nikkei?" Japanese American National Museum.
  11. McLellan, p. 37.
  12. McLellan, p. 68.
  13. Itoh, p. 7.
  14. Kobayashi, Audrey Lynn. Women, Work and Place, p. xxxiii.
  15. Kobayashi, p. 45.
  16. Kobayashi, p. 58.
  17. Kobayashi, p. 56.
  18. Doi, Mary L. "A Transformation of Ritual: The Nisei 60th Birthday." Journal Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology. Vol. 6, No. 2 (April, 1991).
  19. Spickard, Paul R. (1997). Japanese Americans: The Formation and Transformations of an Ethnic Group, p. 7.
  20. Tamura, Linda. (1998). The Hood River Issei: An Oral History of Japanese Settlers in Oregon's Hood River Valley, p. xxxvii.
  21. Tamura, p. xxxviii.
  22. Yenne, Bill. (2007). Rising Sons: The Japanese American GIs Who Fought for the United States in World War II, p. xv.
  23. Yenne, p. 12.
  24. Spickard, p. 15.
  25. Spickard, p. 57.
  26. Mercier, Laurie et al. "Historical overview," Japanese Americans In the Columbia River Basin, Washington State University web project.
  27. Kirmura, Yukiko. (1988). Issei: Japanese Immigrants in Hawaii, (abstract).
  28. Dinnerstein, Leonard et al. (1999). Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration, p. 181.
  29. National Association of Japanese Canadians: PANA
  30. DiscoverNikkei: Asakawa bio
  31. U.S. House of Representatives: Mazie Hirono.
  32. International Skating Union: Rena Inoue. April 15, 2009.
  33. Appelo, Tim. "University of the Future: The physical transformation into a premier independent university," Seattle University Magazine. Summer 2008.
  34. Imagine Peace, Yoko Ono], 2009.
  35. PBS: People Behind the National Parks, George Massa
  36. Internet Movie Database: Masi Oka.
  37. "Biographical Snapshots: Jokichi Takamine," Journal of Chemical Education.


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