About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at jokamura@civilbeat.org.

The selection and use of terms including American or native provides meaning and substance to their identities, such as being native or American.

When I began writing my column for Civil Beat, I made a conscious decision to refer to some ethnic groups in Hawaii without including the term American, such as in the case of Japanese Americans. I did so because the names of these groups, including Chinese and Portuguese, are commonly used by people in Hawaii when referring to themselves or others who live in the islands and not abroad.

I also was aware that I was writing for a much larger and more diverse audience than the academics and college students my scholarly publications are directed to, which is one of the primary reasons I wanted to become a columnist. In contrast, in my academic writing and teaching, I long have used Filipino American, Korean American, and so forth following the established practice among race and ethnicity scholars, especially in my field of Asian American studies. 

One can ask if it really matters whether American is included in the names of those and other ethnic groups. I would argue that it does because these names are identities and therefore have meanings and values that a group can impart to itself and assert to others. 

Obvious differences exist between, for example, Japanese and Japanese Americans. The former category refers to Japanese nationals, including tourists and visiting students, while the latter term consists of those who are American citizens or permanent residents who have immigrated to the U.S.

This significant difference didn’t mean much to the U.S. government and most Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 10 weeks later. It resulted in the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans residing in the Western U.S., two-thirds of whom were American citizens by birth, while the remainder were immigrants permanently settled in the country.

Consequently, on the continent, Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans do not fail to include “American” when referring to their respective ethnic communities, organizations or themselves in order to remind others of their long-term presence in the U.S. and to claim their full rights and status as Americans. 

A plaque dedication and blessing of the Honouliuli National Historic Site takes place Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, in Kunia. Japanese-Americans and those of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned here without due process when it was called Honouliuli Internment Camp during World War II. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A plaque dedication and blessing of the Honouliuli National Historic Site took place earlier this year in Kunia. Japanese Americans and those of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned here without due process when it was called Honouliuli Internment Camp during World War II. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

In Hawaii, perhaps because there isn’t a significantly large Japanese immigrant population, people understand that when the term Japanese is used, it refers to Japanese Americans, such as when referring to Japanese voters.

Filipino Americans Or Just Filipinos?

But for other ethnic groups with a substantial immigrant segment, such as Filipino Americans, the difference between that term and Filipino may be less apparent to nonmembers of the group and thus more important to maintain. While local (Hawaii-born) and immigrant (Philippine-born) Filipinos can be distinguished, the cultural and social differences between the two categories may not be apparent to many non-Filipinos.

This lack of awareness of the differences between the two groups is generally to the detriment of local Filipinos. They may find themselves mistakenly treated or discriminated against because they are misperceived as an immigrant who, as a result of racist stereotyping, is assumed to be less educationally and occupationally qualified compared to someone born and raised in the U.S. 

Other groups in Hawaii are much less concerned about having American included in their name. When was the last time you heard or saw the term Hawaiian American? For me, it was 1974 when a book “Ain’t No Big Thing: Coping Strategies in a Hawaiian-American Community,” by a University of Hawaii anthropologist, was published.

Before then, the term was not commonly used in Hawaii, including by academics and, since the emergence of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement during the same decade, has not surprisingly disappeared. To emphasize their indigeneity instead of their Americanness, the term “Native Hawaiian” came to be invoked by them and later Kanaka Maoli, or the real or true people of Hawaii.

Sovereignty Impact

These initiatives in identity construction by Native Hawaiians, led by sovereignty leaders such as Haunani-Kay Trask and Kekuni Blaisdell, need to be recognized not simply as exercises in naming themselves but as collective efforts to advance their political movement for self-determination.

Asserting their unique identity and status as the Indigenous people of Hawaii using their own language is a strong demonstration of their continued resistance to assimilation into American culture and society. In contrast to Asian American groups, Kanaka have much less interest in a collective claim to being considered American because of their colonized status in their ancestral homeland.

TMT demonstrators chant as State Sheriffs stand on Mauna Kea Access Road. Demonstrators were angry about a gate installed along Mauna Kea Access Road.
The assertions by Native Hawaiians of their unique identity and Indigenous status can be a strong demonstration of their continued resistance to assimilation into American culture and society. Many in the community protested the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Other Pacific Islander groups in Hawaii also do not include American in their names, as in the case of Samoans, Tongans and the various Micronesian groups. But as settlers in the islands, they have different reasons from those of Native Hawaiians for doing so. 

With regard to Samoans from American Samoa and Chamorros from Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, while they may not affirm an American identity comparable to that of Asian Americans in the continental U.S., their island homelands remain U.S. territories. Economic dependence on federal funding of government operations has contributed to containing movements for self-determination or independence.

Adding An ‘X’

I need to return to Filipinos because of the somewhat recent use of the term “Filipinx” by some academics and graduate students in Hawaii but generally not by others in the Filipino community. Their rationale is that the letter “x” affirms gender neutrality, as opposed to the terms “Filipina” for females and “Filipino” for males, and thus emphasizes inclusivity.

Another related argument is that deploying Filipinx supports gender fluidity rather than the view of gender as primarily binary. In this regard, the term “Filipina/o” previously used by many scholars in Filipino American and Asian American studies can be said to reinforce the binary perspective of gender. 

I’m not sure if Filipinx will replace Filipino or Filipino American, especially in their larger community, but I do recall another term that was invoked by Asian American, including Filipino, academics in the late 1970s — Pilipino. The argument was that the term was used by Filipinos in the Philippines and the U.S. to refer to themselves and thus was more politically and culturally appropriate. Pilipino American hence replaced Filipino American, at least for a while.

At that time, the issue for scholars like myself who researched and wrote about Filipinos in the U.S. was whether “to P or not to P.” While working in Manila in the mid-1980s, I became aware that Philippine academics did not P, at least while writing in and speaking English, so I didn’t bother following what never became a common practice in Asian American studies. 

The origins of the use of the letter “x” among some Filipinos can be traced to Latinos in the continental U.S., who earlier began referring to their community as “Latinx” for some of the same reasons as Filipinos. Thus, “Aloha Compadre, Latinxs in Hawaii,” was published this year by my friend Rudy P. Guevarra Jr., a professor at Arizona State University. 

In his book, he notes that, when referring to specific ethnic groups or individuals, such as Mexicans, he uses the terms they identify with and only uses Latinx when he’s “writing from (his) perspective and analysis about the population as a collective.” This disclosure seems to indicate that Latinx is not commonly used among Latino people in Hawaii to refer to themselves, which I’m not surprised to learn.

Like Asian American, the racial categories Latino and Latinx don’t appear to have much significance here, and individuals are more likely to claim Puerto Rican, Mexican or Cuban as their primary ethnic identity.

Insofar as they are identities, ethnic, racial and Indigenous group names may be highly significant for a group and its individual members. By selecting and asserting particular names for themselves, these groups seek to define themselves by providing meaning and substance to their identities, such as being native or American.

Identities, such as Kanaka Maoli, can in turn be deployed to mobilize and organize a group to pursue its collective political and economic interests in society.   


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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at jokamura@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Why no mention of AJA? IMO, it's a more descriptive, accurate, and concise than 'Japanese-American.' Among locals of a certain age, it seems more commonly used than 'Japanese-American,' including AJAs themselves self-identifying as such.It is also more reflective of AJA history. Jonathan, how do you self-describe? AJA? Japanese-American? Something else?

Rob · 2 months ago

If you dont like being "American " there is a simple solution to that. Move and change your citizenship. I like the response that the Black actor Morgan Freeman gave to this strange question:Ifm an American. Just like you. If one hold a USA Passport, you’re American. There is no hyphen needed. There is no such thing as "African American." For instance, my ancestors came over to USA in 1760 from the Netherlands, am I supposed to ask,people to call me "Dutch American" Of course not.

User716 · 2 months ago

Just because you can make a career out of something doesn't mean you should

ItsOK2bHaole · 2 months ago

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