RONALD TAKAKI, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, was back East recently when a taxi driver praised his English and asked how long he had been in the United States.
"I had to tell him that my grandfather came to this country in 1886," Dr. Takaki recalled. "To a lot of people, I don't look American."
Like all Asian Americans, those of Japanese descent wear their ancestry and ethnicity on their faces. But Japanese Americans have had a particular experience in the US, and they face particular changes and challenges.
Only about 4,000 Japanese emigrate to the US each year, about one-fifth the allowable immigration quota. Most of any increase in the number of Japanese Americans thus comes from those born here. Also, the community is becoming less "Japanese," as most children now are of mixed ethnic background.
"This will redefine our community's issues and perspective," says Carole Hayashino, associate director of the Japanese American Citizens League. "It creates a new Japanese-American identity. It raise issues of assimilation and acculturation."
Japanese Americans have endured "Japan bashing" tied to issues like trade, including increased incidents of racial slurs and violence. And for many, the internment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II (two-thirds of whom were US citizens) remains a defining event.
"What separates us [from other Asian Americans] is the camp experience," says Lawson Fusao Inada, an English professor at Southern Oregon State College in Ashland and a published poet who spent three years as a child interned with his parents. "That's the watershed, the main reference point, and it had tremendous aftereffects."
The Japanese-American community of about 850,000 really is two communities: Half on the US mainland (most along the West Coast), and half in Hawaii. Those in Hawaii did not experience internment and are part of a majority Asian culture there.
"There were very different racial dynamics operating in Hawaii," says Takaki, an expert on multiculturalism. Japanese Americans in Hawaii organized labor unions on the sugar plantations, became less isolated by working with other groups from Asia, had more role models in positions of authority and influence, and became politically active.
The result, says Takaki, is that "Japanese Americans from Hawaii [like himself] exude a certain amount of self-confidence," contrasted with the "insecurity so symptomatic of Japanese Americans on the mainland."
Economically and educationally, Japanese Americans often are referred to as a "model minority." Many in fact are successful and relatively well off. Yet many also perceive limits to their advancement based on race.
"We have a fairly high level of education, but we don't have commensurate jobs," Takaki says. "We're engineers, but we're not managers."
The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), founded in 1929, has 24,000 members in 113 chapters. Among the civil rights and cultural organization's objectives are to increase equal employment opportunities, ensure that the $20,000-per-person government reparations program for those interned during World War II is carried out, and improve the portrayal of Asian Americans in the media.
The group has drafted a public-school curriculum guide on "The Japanese American Wartime Experience 1941-45." JACL also is working with other groups concerned that the film "Rising Sun," to be released this Friday, will provoke a wave of anti-Asian violence. "All the main Japanese characters [in the film] are one-dimensional," Ms. Hayashino says. "There's the old stereotype of being sneaky and inscrutable."
Japanese Americans are among the most prominent Asians in US politics. Of the six Asian Americans in Congress, five are of Japanese descent. Dennis Hayashi, former director of JACL, recently was appointed director of civil rights in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Yet for their high level of assimilation into US culture, many Japanese Americans still feel strong ties to Japan and to those of similar background.
"There's this tremendous sense of history and heritage and connectedness with folks," says Lawson Inada, who has never been to Japan. "I don't go around bowing and stuff, and I don't want to make it seem all strange and esoteric, but there's a way you act and a way you are."
Carole Hayashino, who only recently made her first trip to Japan, enrolled her children in a bilingual preschool and brings them into San Francisco from their home north of the city to take part in Japanese cultural and church festivals.
"It's important to me that they appreciate and feel proud of their Japanese ancestry," she says.