Japanese Language Education of the Earlier Generations: From 1885 to World War II

Japanese School [photograph].(1935). Layton, Utah. Ted Nagata Collection. Densho Encyclepedia. Retrieved on December 17, 2015 from http://encyclopedia.densho.org/sources/en-denshopd-p162-00018-1/

Masako Douglas

California State University, Long Beach

Japanese people officially began migrating to Hawai’i in 1885 and, at the turn of the century, the migration spread to the western continental United States. The immigrants left an economically troubled homeland and came to these shores in search of prosperity and the chance to provide a better life for their children. Nearly 200,000 Japanese immigrated to Hawai’i and 180,000 arrived in Alaska, California, Oregon, and Utah up until 1924, when the Immigration Act terminated immigration from Japan (Kikumura-Yano, 2002). After this period, the restrictive immigration laws prevented all Japanese migrants from coming to the U.S., a situation that lasted until the end of World War II. Most emigrants, who had arrived prior to these restrictions, planned to return home with money after a few years of contract work at their destination of migration, but many decided to stay permanently. For this reason, the composition of Japanese- American communities shifted over the years from single males to families (Kikumura-Yano, 2002).

[Video].(n.d.). Library of Congress. Retrieved on December 17, 2015 from http://www.loc.gov/item/00563593

With an increase in the number of American-born children, Japanese language education became a concern for first-generation immigrants. To ensure their children could easily transition to schools upon their return to Japan and to eliminate the language barrier between Japanese speaking parents and their English speaking children, the first generation parents established Japanese language schools (Hosokawa, 2002; Nakamura, n.d.; Yano, 2011). Those who decided to stay permanently in the United States believed that the Japanese language could offer the American-born generation new opportunities in the society. In addition to sending their children to Japanese language schools, a number of parents sent their youth to Japan during the 1930s for secondary or higher education in order to promote a truly bicultural experience for the second generation (Azuma, 2002).

The first Japanese language school was established in 1893 on the island of Hawai’i, followed by others in Maui and Oahu in subsequent years. Between 1898 and 1902, five more Japanese language schools were opened in Hawai’i. By 1919, there were 163 schools providing instruction for 20,000 children in the Territory of Hawai’i (Asato, 2006). On the continental United States, the first Japanese school was established in Seattle in 1902, followed by others in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles in subsequent years (Yano, 2011). The number of Japanese schools in California increased from 28 schools in 1913 to 240 by 1940 (Morimoto, 1997). Most institutions were community-based, affiliated with religious groups, or established by independent non-religious organizations (Igawa, 2003). In general, second-generation children attended the Japanese language schools for one to two hours every day after their public schooling (Asato, 2006). The parents primarily supported the schools through tuition, while the community also provided subsidies (Nakamura, n.d.). The rate of attendance in Japanese language schools was considerably different in each region. For instance, 97 percent of school- aged students (over 20,000 second-generation youths) attended Japanese language schools in Hawai’i in 1920, while 42 percent of all Japanese-American students in California public schools (3,000 students) and 30 percent of students (498 students) in Washington attended Japanese language schools (Asato, 2006).

Japanese store, Honolulu [photograph]. ( n.d.). Detroit Publishing Co. Retrieved on December 17, 2015 from http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994018100/PP/

Community language education faced great tribulations between 1885 and World War II as anti- Japanese agitation intensified, in both Hawai’i and the continental United States. The dominant society attacked the Japanese language schools, accusing them of teaching students to worship the Emperor and fostering anti-American sentiment (Yano, 2011), and the opposition brought successive legislative actions against Japanese language schools both in Hawai’i and the mainland in the early 1920s. Consequently, the number of the schools drastically declined (Asato, 2006) and the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II forced the closure of all remaining Japanese language schools, which aggravated the loss of the language among the second-generation. Hosokawa (2005) notes that when the U.S. army was recruiting Japanese- Americans for intelligence work during the early days of World War II, only 10 percent of the 3,700 second-generation men who were interviewed were sufficiently fluent in Japanese to be functional for the required assignments. The vast majority of Japanese-Americans, on the other hand, were less fluent in Japanese than had been previously believed (Nakamura, n.d.).

The economic, political, and social tribulations that Japanese-Americans had endured factored into the increased intergenerational instability of Japanese language maintenance, but they were not the sole reasons for language loss. The curricula of the Japanese language schools may have also contributed by failing to take into consideration the pedagogical needs of second-generation Japanese-American children who were born and raised in the United States. Japanese language education for these children had begun more than one hundred years before the full-scale research carried out at the turn of the 21st century on immigrant groups’ language education, or “heritage language” pedagogy. The Japanese language schools had adopted Japan’s national curriculum and recruited many teachers from Japan (Asato, 2006). Japanese language education at that time was identical to the Japanese language education given to children born in Japan, which failed to consider the linguistic and cultural needs of the U.S. born second-generation.

Researchers of Japanese heritage language education nowadays emphasize the importance of clearly distinguishing an approach for teaching Japanese as a heritage language from that for teaching Japanese as a native language in Japan (Douglas, 2013). Although there had been continuing efforts to compile new textbooks for Japanese language schools in the 1920s and 1930s, the pressing issue centered around the content for moral education and not on language pedagogy. Instead, the debate focused on whether schools should teach loyalty and patriotism towards the Emperor as manifested in the Japanese national textbooks or follow the Americanization program of the new textbooks (Morimoto, 1997). Despite this difference in the content, the teaching methodology used by the Japanese language schools was identical to that in Japan, which heavily focused on reading skills using Japanese basal readers as textbooks and learning Chinese characters.

The schools failed to accommodate the linguistic and cultural needs of the second-generation children who grew up in bilingual and bicultural environments, and who identified themselves as Japanese-Americans, not as Japanese in America. Consequently, the curricula demotivated children from learning their heritage language. Hosokawa (2002) highlights that “many Nisei (the second generation) resented the time they had to devote to Japanese language school as well as the discipline they had to endure.” For second-generation children, Japanese language schools were places to enjoy socializing, but not to learn the Japanese language (Asato, 2006).


Left image: View of Weller Street in Little Tokyo looking toward City Hall (1938). Retrieved on December 17, 2015 from http://waterandpower.org/museum/Early_City_Views%20(1925%20+)_Page_3.html
Right image: View of Onizuka Street, formerly named Weller Street, in Little Tokyo looking toward City Hall. Photographed by Douglas, M. (2014).

Nevertheless, there are striking similarities between the Japanese language education of more than 100 years ago and the current education for Japanese-American children. These youth also have “new first generation” Japanese parents who initially came to the United States during the post-war period, mostly in the 1980s, for a temporary stay, but who later decided to remain permanently. Japanese parents today also pay tuition to send their children to community- supported schools that nurture and maintain the linguistic and cultural heritage of the second- generation, while operating outside the public educational system. In addition, these schools adhere to the Japanese national curriculum and use similar teaching methods based on basal readers. This similarity in curriculum and instruction, in particular, draws our attention, because of the ineffectiveness of utilizing the Japanese national curriculum, as shown by the pre-war Japanese language education (Asato, 2006; Hosokawa, 2002). This pedagogical situation highlights the pressing need to differentiate the pedagogy for heritage language education from native language education in the majority of today’s Japanese language schools.


Asato, Noriko. (2006). Teaching Mikadoism: The Attack on Japanese Language Schools in Hawaii, California, and Washington, 1919-1927. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Azuma, Eichiro. (2002). Japanese American Historical Overview, 1868-2001. In Akemi Kikumura-Yano (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Japanese Descendants in the Americas:An Illustrated History of the Nikkei. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press. 276-292.

Kikumura-Yano, Akemi. (Ed.). (2002). Encyclopedia of Japanese Descendants in the Americas: An Illustrated History of the Nikkei. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press.

Douglas, Masako. (2013). Japanese. Teaching Heritage Languages, Module 3: Heritage Language Teaching: Language-Specific Topics and Approaches. Teaching Heritage Languages: An Online Workshop. Retrieved from http://startalk.nhlrc.ucla.edu/default_startalk.aspx.

Hosokawa, Bill. (2002). Nisei The Quiet American. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado.

Igawa, C. (2003, January). Nanka nikkei shakai ni okeru nihongo kyooiku no konnichiteki kadai [Issues of Japanese language education in Japanese American society in Southern California]. Rafu Shimpoo.

Morimoto, Toyotomi. (1997). Japanese Americans and Cultural continuity. Maintaining Language and Heritage. New York: Garland Publishing.

Nakamura, Kelli. (n.d.). Japanese Language Schools. Densho Encyclepedia. Retrieved from http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Japanese%20language%20schools/

Yano, A. K. (2011, May 2). Issei Pioneers - Hawaii and the Mainland 1885-1924 - Part 18. The Discover Nikkei. Retrieved from http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2011/5/2/3911/