A Different Mirror reflects the reality of Takaki’s own life. He was born in Hawaii in 1939; his father was a Japanese immigrant and his mother was a Japanese American who had been born in the US. His neighbors came from a variety of countries, and they spoke pidgin English together. The students at his school were not expected to attend college, and most of his family members received little education. However, they managed to withdraw Takaki from public education and send him to a private school. A passionate surfer, he wanted to surf professionally, but in his senior year one of his teachers—who was the only Japanese American he knew with a PhD—inspired him to apply to the College of Wooster, in Ohio.
The opportunities Takaki experienced and the upward social mobility represented by the trajectory of his life are examples of the American dream. Yet at the same time, Takaki has shown in the book that his experience is not necessarily representative of immigrants overall. In many cases, ethnic groups remain held back not by a lack of skill, ambition, or desire to assimilate, but by entrenched racism and discrimination, which can prove impossible to overcome.
At college, Takaki experienced a “culture shock,” and found that those around him did not believe that he was American. He met his future wife, Carol Rankin, in his sophomore year. She was white, and her parents despised the idea of her marrying a Japanese man. However, after the birth of Carol and Takaki’s first child, Carol’s parents’ hostility turned into love. After completing his PhD, Takaki gained a job teaching black history at UCLA in 1967. Many of the young black students in his class were confused by the fact that he wasn’t black.
Takaki’s story of success and flourishing in the US is moving, but, as the rest of A Different Mirror shows, unusual. Indeed, the book implies that if people embrace the reality that the US is a multiethnic nation, more and more people will be able to have a life like Takaki’s, rather than one blighted by intractable prejudice and discrimination.
Despite enormous success early in his career, Takaki was denied tenure. However, a silver lining came when he took a position in the brand new Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Takaki came to have a definitive role in the newly formed field of Ethnic Studies. Meanwhile, Takaki’s family has expanded to include people of Jewish and Mexican heritage. He concludes the book by arguing that one must understand the past to create positive change for the future.
Takaki’s role in founding the academic field of Ethnic Studies helps contextualize the work that A Different Mirror seeks to do. Whereas existing academic fields such as African American Studies and Native American Studies focus on particular groups, Ethnic Studies deliberately deploys a comparative perspective.