Published Date

January 1, 1996

From Why Become a Historian? (1996)

El Camino Community College

My ancestors emigrated from Japan four generations ago. I was born in Honolulu during World War II. My family was not wealthy, and I worked in a pineapple factory to support my studies. That grubby and exhausting job did more than simply pay for books and tuition. It served as a reality check that alerted me to the omissions and distortions that made American history irrelevant to me in Hawaii.

With few exceptions, at all levels of instruction, history courses and textbooks perpetuated blatantly chauvinistic, sexist, and racist assumptions about every facet of public and private life in America. U.S. history focused primarily on areas east of the Mississippi River, and world history covered mostly northwestern Europe. There was no mention of trans-Pacific immigrants to America, nor were Asian civilizations included. Indeed, when I was growing up, histories were written and taught to exclude rather than include those groups. And so, like Alex Haley, I was forced to search for my own roots as an American of Japanese ancestry. Upon completion of a master’s degree in Japanese studies, I received a scholarship to study in Japan, where I met another fourth-generation Japanese American who later became my husband. Don was also in Japan in search of identity. Today, we continue to teach, research, and write about Asian Americans.

A degree in history opens the door to a variety of professional careers, such as law, journalism, and historic preservation. In addition to teaching and writing, historians can have a significant impact on public policy. Service on public commissions and committees, for example, requires the research skills and human perspective of a trained historian. Administrative and elective positions make good use of a historian’s ability to place events and issues in their appropriate context.

Contemporary American society is a multicultural mosaic with enormous resources that can enrich us all. Unfortunately, too few of these diverse dimensions are represented in the ranks of professional historians. And therein lies both the need and opportunity for you to join in making American history and America’s historians realistically reflective of all people of the United States.

Next essay: Thomas Cleveland Holt