Comparing Japanese-American and Cuban-American Experiences

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Japanese-Americans and Cuban-Americans are two important, medium-sized racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States. Neither is the largest group within the full number of Americans of Asian and Latino ancestry, but both are sizable. There are many differences in the history of how the two groups first came - and continue to come - to the United States, but there are also some similarities. Within the Asian-American and Latino communities, both Japanese-Americans and Cuban-American are relatively better educated and wealthier than most other sets of Asian- and Latin-based immigrants, which is sometimes a source of envy or hostility by other members of their own racial sets. There are major differences in the relationship that members of the Japanese-American and Cuban-American communities have with their ancestral countries. I think that the current circumstances within the United States for both Japanese-Americans and Cuban-Americans are generally favorable, but as a group both have challenges that will test their unity and influence in the years ahead.

In a Nutshell

Japanese-Americans are the sixth-largest category of Asian-Americans, with about 1.4 million members, according to a major study in 2017 by the Pew Research Center. In order of numbers, Japanese-Americans follow Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Korean ethnicities among all Asian-Americans. Ethnic Japanese Americans are much larger, however, than such other groups of Asian-Americans as ethnic Thais, Cambodians, Indonesians, and Malaysians. In a similar way, Pew lists Cuban-Americans as the fourth-largest Latino group in the United States, with approximately 2.1 million individuals - far behind Mexicans but rather near the number of Puerto Ricans and Salvadoran and well ahead of Peruvians, Colombians, and Panamanians, for example. (Source: Pew Research Center, 'Key Facts About Asian-Americans: A Diverse and Growing Population, 8 September 2017. Pew Research Center, 'How the US Hispanic Population is Changing,' 18 September 2017.). I chose these two groups partly because they are about the same size, which makes them easier to compare in a fair way, but also because they interest me.

In addition to their size, both Japanese-Americans and Cuban-Americans are better educated and wealthier than most Asian-American and Latino groups. Our textbook notes that 46% of Japanese-Americans have a Bachelor's degree and that the poverty rate of Japanese-Americans is just 8%. Similarly, 24% of Cuban-Americans have a Bachelor's degree, the highest among the top six Latino sets, and that the Cuban-American poverty rate of 18% is the lowest of the largest six groups. By comparison, about 29% of White Americans have a Bachelor's degree and approximately 10% live in poverty. It surprised me that Japanese-Americans, overall, are better educated and wealthier than White Americans and that Cuban-Americans are not far behind White Americans in both categories. I wonder if the fact that Japanese are typically light skinned and that many Cubans are also light skinned has helped them in their lives in the United States.

Immigration Differences and Similarities

There are several important ways in which the immigration to the United States of Japanese and Cubans have been very different and other ways in which they are similar. The first key difference is the timing and pattern of their immigration. Japanese began to come to the United States in the late 19th century, mostly as farmers, and over the course of the next 120 years have gradually emigrated here. There have been periods of higher and lower immigration from Japan but there has not been an enormous surge that stands out. I guess a good analogy would be a faucet that drips steadily but does not gush water. Although there were small numbers of Cubans in the U.S. from the early days of our nation, by far the largest influx of Cuban-Americans resulted from the Cuban revolution by Fidel Castro in 1959. Our textbook points out that there were just about 80,000 Cubans in the United States before Castro, which is only about four percent of the total living here today. (Source: textbook, p. 216). The analogy here would be a faucet that is mostly dry and then explodes suddenly in an outburst of water. So we can see that the pattern and timing of immigration of the two groups is quite different.

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A second difference is in the motivation for coming to the United States. As with many groups of immigrants over the years, Japanese tended to come to the United States for economic reasons - to seek greater opportunities. However, they also came because Japan was becoming more Westernized after the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century - and the United States had prestige. In other words, from the early part of the 20th century, Japanese were relatively more comfortable moving to the United States - in terms of culture and traditions- than Chinese-Americans, for example, who had not already been Westernized to the same extent. Cubans, on the other hand, left their island in large numbers after 1960 mostly for political reasons and, because for many of them, their lives were at risk. After Fidel Castro took over, many Cubans were killed, had their property seized, were jailed and tortured, and were persecuted by the Castro regime in many ways. I do not think that I can really appreciate how difficult the rise of Castro was for many Cubans. Most of those who left Cuba in the early years, and the textbook notes there were several hundreds of thousands of them, were intellectuals, wealthy landowners, teachers, and political opponents who could escape. (Source: textbook, p. 216). My Dad told me that, when he was young, he had several Spanish teachers who had fled Cuba and that each of them told him of their hatred for Castro and communism and how they had lost everything in Cuba after 1960.

A third way in which immigration varied for Japanese-Americans and Cuban-Americans is the way they were treated once they arrived in the United States. Laws were passed in California - California and Hawaii were where the vast majority of Japanese lived at the time - in the early part of the 20th century that made it illegal for Japanese to own their own land. Consequently, Japanese immigrants increasingly were forced to move to the cities, where those who had traditionally been farmers had to transition to new jobs. (Source: textbook, p. 291). An even worse treatment occurred after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Because of suspicions among many White Americans that Japanese-Americans had helped, or would help, Japan in its war against the United States, the U.S. Government forced 80-90% of the ethnic Japanese population of the U.S. living outside of Hawaii into internment camps in western states. This was done by President Roosevelt without any legislation or court rulings, just by presidential order. Although the Japanese were not mistreated in these camps, I am sure that the isolation they felt, and the forced removal from their homes, was depressing and demoralizing and singled them out in an unfair way. (Source: textbook, p. 291). After nearly three years, and in the final year of World War II, the camps were closed and the Japanese were at last allowed to return to their homes. Cuban-Americans, on the other hand, were warmly welcomed into the U.S. after 1960. This was because of the strongly anti-communist views of most Americans and because there was sympathy for those who had lost so much at the hands of the Castro regime. I can easily understand this because my Mom is an immigrant from Vietnam who is very proud to be Vietnamese but strongly dislikes the communist government in Hanoi.

One way in which the two groups have had a similar immigration experience, however, is the relatively negative attitudes toward them by other members of their own race - that is, by other Asians and Latinos. Attitudes toward Japanese-Americans by other Asians have probably been strongly influenced by negative historical experiences that some Asians - particularly Chinese and Koreans - have had because of past Japanese treatment of them. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll showed, for example, that 90% of Chinese and 86% of Koreans have a negative attitude toward Japan. (Source: Pew Research Center, 2013). At times, these attitudes have carried over in the United States between the groups. Many Chinese-Americans were hostile toward Japan in the 1930s and 1940s because of Japan's aggression in China and some eagerly took over businesses of Japanese who had been moved into the World War II internment camps, according to journalists. (Source:, 2015). Koreans have long been discriminated against in Japan and so their attitudes toward Japanese-Americans are often negative. There may also, I think, be instances of envy in the U.S. toward Japanese-Americans by those who are less well-educated and poorer. In a similar way, Cuban-Americans are at times seen by other Latinos as receiving favorable treatment because of the circumstances of their coming to the U.S. as well as their relative wealth and influence. (Source:, 2015). Cuban immigrants dominate politics and business in south Florida and are no doubt resented for it by other Latinos and some Whites. One clear instance of anti-Cuban prejudice by another Latino was shown in 2013 when a prominent Mexican-American politician publicly stated that a US Senator whose father is a Cuban immigrant was 'not Hispanic.' (Source: Although the politician was later forced to clarify his statement, his comment was, I think, a reflection of the jealousy or resentment that many other Latino groups have toward Cuban-Americans.

Differing Attitudes Toward Ancestral Home

Japanese-Americans and Cuban-Americans have very different feelings for Japan and Cuba, respectively. For many Japanese-Americans, Japan is not only far away across the ocean but is also their homeland from very long ago. This is particularly true for those who are third- or fourth-generation Japanese-Americans and have never been to Japan and who do not know the language. Their feelings toward Japan are, of course, much less deep than their grandparents or great-grandparents who came to the U.S. generations ago. In addition, Japanese-Americans are scattered all across the United States and do not live in ethnic communities in the same way that some other Asian-Americans - including Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese groups do. Cuban-Americans, however, have a deep and abiding feeling for Cuba. Some of this is common sense, I think. 70% of Cuban-Americans live in Florida, most of them in south Florida - for them, Cuba is close, just 90 or so miles away. A much higher percentage more were born in Cuba than present day Japanese-Americans were born in Japan. In addition, most Cuban-Americans can and do still speak Spanish in their daily life. Of course, I do not think this means that Japanese-Americans do not care about Japan or that they never think about their ancestral homeland. However, for most Cuban-Americans, Cuba is in their thoughts and very near to their hearts on a daily basis.

Favorable Positions in U.S. Society - but Challenges Ahead

Japanese-Americans, as a group, have risen to a favorable position in US society. They are generally respected by the majority White population in a way that was not true a generation or two generations ago. One study states that over two-thirds of Japanese-Americans were born in the United States - the highest percentage of all Asian-American groups - probably making assimilation easier. (Source: The prejudice and discrimination they experienced during World War II has faded - in part helped by the heroic fights in Europe of Japanese-American soldiers from Hawaii during World War II. They have also been successful in business in the United States in the last 40 years. Although Japanese citizens in Japan have their own strong racial and ethnic prejudices - toward Blacks, Koreans, South Asians, and others - those biases seem to be unknown by other Americans with no experience in Japan, and so are generally not a major issue in US society. The challenge for Japanese-Americans going forward might be whether they will be able to preserve their ethnic identity and culture as a distinct and obvious group.

Cuban-Americans have also risen to a place in the United States where they are respected. Similar to Japanese-Americans, they have succeeded in business and culture. Cuban food, for example, is well known and popular around the U.S., just like Japanese food. In contrast to Japanese-Americans - who are not generally active in political leadership outside of Hawaii - ethnic Cubans have been a strong influence in politics. Cuban-Americans are in the US Senate and US House of Representatives, have run for President of the United States, and are a powerful political force in Florida. I believe that one of the challenges going forward could be a generational divide in the Cuban-American community. Younger, US-born Individuals appear to be leaving behind some of the strong anti-communist and anti-Castro feelings of their parents and grandparents. (Source: The New York Times, 'The Cuban-American Generation Gap,' 16 August 2016). This might change the overall political unity that Cuban-Americans have enjoyed until now.


Japanese-Americans and Cuban-Americans are two significant groups of US citizens with Asian and Latino origins, respectively. Although neither group is the largest in its racial category, each is still relatively large and is wealthier and better educated than many other Asian-American and Latino groups. Japanese and Cuban immigrants have taken mostly different paths to get to the United States in terms of the timing and patterns of their immigration, their motivations for coming to the U.S., and the treatment they received once they were in this country. Each has been the object of some negative attitudes by other Asian or Latino groups. The attitudes toward and feelings about their respective ancestral homelands are quite different, with Cuban-Americans having a much more abiding relationship with Cuba than Japanese-Americans have with Japan. Lastly, both Japanese-Americans and Cuban-Americans enjoy a favorable position in US society at present - compared to many other Asian and Latino groups - but both face challenges, maybe of different types, in the years ahead.

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