Ronald Takaki at Northeastern University, 16 October 2007. Photograph by Eddric Le. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Japanese American, History
Dr. Ronald Takaki was a leading scholar on U.S. race relations and American multicultural studies. A historian and an ethnographer, he established the nation’s first PhD program in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught until his retirement in 2003.
A descendant of Japanese immigrant sugarcane workers, Takaki was born in Honolulu, Hawai`i Territory, in 1939. Though his primary interest was surfing, he was encouraged by his high school teacher, Reverend Shunji Nishi, to attend college. He earned a BA in history from the College of Wooster in Ohio (1961), and his MA (1962) and PhD (1967), also in history from the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation focused on the history of American slavery, and in the aftermath of the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, he was hired to teach UCLA’s first course on Black history and helped found the UCLA Centers for African American, Asian American, Chicano and Native American studies.
In 1971, Takaki returned to Berkeley to teach in the Ethnic Studies Department where he became chair four years later. After he published his first book, he began to explore Asian American histories, solidifying his multicultural approach to history. In his book Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835-1920 (1984), he examined the growth of sugar plantations in Hawai`i that were built on the labor of overseas Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino workers as well as workers from other countries, and the subsequent multiethnic labor strikes.
Takaki was an impactful scholar and a beloved and popular teacher. His style of scholarship was academic yet highly readable and accessible to the general public. His Pulitzer-nominated and most well-known Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (1989) combined history, oral narrative, and literature to offer a powerful account of diverse Asian American communities and was often assigned as an introductory text to Asian American studies. Takaki underscored the importance of including the voices and stories of communities that were often left out of American history “master narratives,” which were based on assumptions that European immigrants built the nation and that being American meant being“white.” His work influenced students from all backgrounds who were hungry to learn about the racial histories that were not included in traditional educational frameworks. Winner of the American Book Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, A Different Mirror: A Multicultural History of America (1993) retold American history through the eyes of marginalized groups and made ample use of their correspondence, folk songs, personal testimonies, and photographs to bring to life their lived experiences as part of the American story.
Among his other important publications for folklorists:
Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th Century America (1979)
A Larger Memory: A History of Our Diversity, with Voices (1998)
Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II (2001)