Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Ronald Takaki, pioneering Asian American historian, 1939-2009
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Ronald Takaki, pioneering Asian American historian, 1939-2009

Historian and author Ronald Takaki, who died May 26, 2009There are very few non-fiction books that I would insist that anyone interested in Asian American history and culture must read. There are other important books, but these are the ones that have helped me form my sense of identity as an Asian American.

They include Helen Zia’s “Asian American Dreams,” Bill Hosokawa’s “Nisei: The Quiet Americans,” Phoebe Eng’s “Warrior Lessons,” Ben Fong-Torres’ “The Rice Room” and Ronald Takaki’s “Strangers from a Different Shore.

Ronald Takaki, who wrote or co-authored more than a dozen books about Asian American identity and race in America, passed away May 26, too young at the age of 70. His landmark book, “Strangers from a Different Shore” was the one that helped me understand the historical flow of Asians to the United States, ethnic group by ethnic groups, and their struggles to be accepted by their new country. If Bill Hosokawa’s “Nisei” helped me realize who I was as a Japanese American, Takaki, along with Helen Zia’s “Asian American Dreams,” helped me figure out my place in a larger context.

Taken in that larger context, Takaki taught me how the wave of Chinese immigration during the gold rush years led to the invitation for Japanese to come work in the U.S. And then as each immigrant group became established and deemed a threat to the European-rooted mainstream, they were iced out and another group invited to be cheap laborers, from Filipinos to Indians.

He explained the waves up through the populations that settled here after the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the waves of legislation that controlled the numbers of immigrants or limited our rights over the decades.

Takaki was born in Hawai’i, the most multicultural of all the United States, to immigrant parents from Japan. He attended college in Ohio, which must have been a culture shock. Wikipedia cites a C-Span interview in which he explained his interest in Asian American identity came in part from his in-laws’ reaction to him being a “Jap” instead of an American-born citizen, when he married his wife.

Takaki went on to earn a graduate degree in American History at the University of California at Berkeley in 1967, and moved to UCLA to teach the very first Black Studies course there. In 1972 he returned to the Bay Area to teach in the new first ethnic studies department at Berkeley. He was a giant in not just Asian American studies, but any serious study of race in America — all races.

His books and teachings helped establish the idea that America is a multi-racial country, and that immigrant groups — especially Asian Americans in particular — have too often been made invisible and left out of the spotlight. He was one of the leaders shining the light on us all.

I never got to meet Takaki, but had kind of hoped I might someday. I couldn’t have written my own book without first being informed through Takaki’s intellect and research, and I owe him a great debt of gratitude.

My thoughts go out to his wife and children.

AsianWeek has created a tribute section that includes some of Takaki’s own articles, videos of Takaki, AsianWeek’s obituary, and memoirs submitted by readers.