Issei and Nisei: Definition & WW2

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  • 0:04 Issei
  • 1:36 Nisei
  • 2:19 World War II
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Imagine being taken from your home and forced to live somewhere else. This was a reality for over 100,000 Japanese living in the United States during World War II. Let's learn about the Issei and the Nisei and their plight during the war.


The United States has always been considered the land of opportunity: a place for people to get a fresh start, to pursue their dreams, and to find a better life. During the 1800s and 1900s, the United States saw a massive influx of immigrants, or people moving from one country to another, who wanted to create a new home for themselves. A large percentage of these immigrants came from Japan. From the mid 1800s to mid 1900s, hundreds of thousands of Japanese immigrated to Hawaii (which was not a state until 1959) and the United States.

The first men and women from a family to establish a new home in a foreign country are referred to as first generation. First generation Japanese immigrants are called Issei. The Issei faced widespread discrimination when they came to the United States. Many of them found low-paying jobs harvesting sugar or other crops. Discrimination against Issei continued to grow in Western states like California, where Japanese immigration was the highest. In 1900, Congress passed a law that prevented first generation Japanese from becoming U.S. citizens, and state laws enforced segregation. Depending on the state, some Japanese immigrants weren't even allowed to buy or own property. Despite this overwhelming 'You're unwelcome' message from the United States, the Issei were undeterred and worked tirelessly to build a better life for themselves.


Now you're probably well aware that many men and women have children and start families. The Issei were no different; their children became second generation immigrants, or people born in a country who have at least one parent who was born somewhere else. Second generation Japanese were known as Nisei. Unlike their Issei parents who could not legally become U.S. citizens, the Nisei were automatically citizens. According to the 14th Amendment, anyone born in the United States is a naturalized citizen. The Nisei faced the same discrimination as their Issei parents, even though they were born and raised in the United States, went to American schools, and spoke English.

World War II

Life for Japanese Americans was hard enough during the early decades of the 20th century, but things became much worse for the Issei and the Nisei on December 7, 1941. The Japanese government had planned a surprise attack on a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, located in Hawaii. Within the coming days and weeks, widespread panic flooded the United States. Were the Japanese families living in the United States responsible for the attack? Did they help their former country bomb Pearl Harbor? In reality, the vast majority of Issei and Nisei living in the United States had kept many of their Japanese traditions, but were fully committed to their new home and their new government.

But as you probably know, when people panic, they do irrational things. In this case, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order to create the War Relocation Authority. Over 100,000 Japanese people were removed from their homes and forced to live in one of ten internment camps located around the country.

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