Success Story, Japanese American Style (article)


Often cited popular account of Japanese American "success" by a University of California demographer, one of several such articles to appear in the '60s and '70s.

The article by William Peterson appeared in the January 9, 1966, issue of the New York Times Magazine. Spread over eight pages and including eight photographs (three historical and five contemporary), the article begins by outlining its basic thesis: that Japanese Americans, despite having faced "the most discrimination and the worst injustices" (with the caveat that this is limited "to persons alive today"), have attained great success, that

By any criterion of good citizenship that we choose, the Japanese Americans are better than any other group in our society, including native-born white. They have established this remarkable record, moreover, by their own almost totally unaided effort. Every attempt to hamper their progress resulted only in enhancing their determination to succeed. Even in a country whose patron saint is the Horatio Alger hero, there is no parallel to this success story.[1]

The article goes on to outline anti-Japanese agitation prior to the war, the wartime exclusion and incarceration, Nisei military service, and briefly analyzes the Japanese American generations (Issei, Nisei, and Kibei). As evidence of Japanese American success, he notes their higher educational attainment, lower crime rate and longer life expectancy (though he does point out that despite a higher percentage of Nikkei men holding white collar jobs than white men, their incomes are lower). He largely attributes this success to Japanese cultural values such as a group versus individual orientation and respect for authority stemming from "links to an alien culture" and "[p]ride in their heritage," specifically noting the lack of same with African Americans.[2]

Peterson's article—along with a series of other articles—most notably "Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites" in Newsweek in 1971, "Japanese in U.S. Outdo Horatio Alger" in the Los Angeles Times in 1977, and a 1966 U.S. News and World Report article on Chinese Americans titled "Success Story of One Minority in the U.S."—introduced the so-called "model minority" concept in the context of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and various "Great Society" social programs.[3] As many scholars have pointed out, this concept pitted Asian Americans who supposedly attained "success" without the help of the government against other ethnic and racial groups and was used "to support a reactionary ideology" and to criticize social programs that aided other disadvantaged groups.[4] Among Japanese Americans, these articles received a mixed reaction, with some rejecting the "success story" characterization as both wrong and troubling. As Michi Weglyn put it, "it triggered a searching self-examination..... Are we America's 'good niggers'?"[5] On the other hand, others embraced the characterization. For instance, Bill Hosokawa, in his influential 1969 book Nisei: The Quiet Americans, cited Peterson's argument about the impact of Japanese values approvingly.[6] Peterson later expanded the arguments in his article into a 1971 book titled Japanese Americans: Oppression and Success published by Random House. The core issues raised in the article and book continue to be discussed in Asian American Studies classes to this day.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

———. The Japanese American Cases: The Rule of Law in Time of War. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013.

Murray, Alice Yang. Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Osajima, Keith. “Asian Americans as the Model Minority: An Analysis of the Popular Press Image in the 1960s and 1980s.” In Reflections on Shattered Windows: Promises and Prospects for Asian American Studies. Edited by Gary Y. Okihiro, Shirley Hune, Arthur A. Hansen, and John M. Liu. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1988. 165-74.

Palumbo-Liu, David. Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Peterson, William. Success Story, Japanese American Style." New York Times Magazine, January 9, 1966, 20–21, 33, 36, 38, 40–41, 43.

———. Japanese Americans: Oppression and Success. New York: Random House, 1971.

Phu, Thy. Picturing Model Citizens: Civility in Asian American Visual Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012.

Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1976. Updated edition. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.

Wu, Ellen. The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Footnotes

  1. William Peterson, "Success Story, Japanese American Style," New York Times Magazine, January 9, 1966, 20, 21.
  2. Peterson, Success Story," 43.
  3. "Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites, Newsweek, June 21, 1971, 24; "Japanese in U.S. Outdo Horatio Alger, Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1977, 1; "Success Story of One Minority in the U.S.," U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 26, 1966, 73.
  4. For instance, Keith Osajima, "Asian Americans as the Model Minority: An Analysis of the Popular Press Image in the 1960s and 1980s," in Reflections on Shattered Windows: Promises and Prospects for Asian American Studies (Edited by Gary Y. Okihiro, Shirley Hune, Arthur A. Hansen, and John M. Liu; Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1988), 166–67; Roger Daniels, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 317; David Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 174; Alice Yang Murray, Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 192; and Ellen Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). Quote from Roger Daniels, The Japanese American Cases: The Rule of Law in Time of War (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013), 140.
  5. Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1976), 270.
  6. Yang Murray, Historical Memories, 218–19.