The term "Asian American" is credited to the historian Yuji Ichioka who, in the late 1960s, used it to describe members of a new pan-ethnic radical political identity who shared common histories, experiences, and goals. This term has largely replaced the now-deprecated term "oriental", which was popularly used before the 1990s to describe East Asian peoples regardless of nationality, upbringing, or origin.
Although immigrants from the "Middle East" (Western and Central Asia) are geographically Asian, they have generally neither been sufficiently visibly distinct as a group in America nor have they historically arrived in such large numbers to warrant attention as a major American racial or ethnic group until very recently (see 9/11). As a result, they are not considered by most Americans to be typical Asians or Asian Americans, but identified by other means, such as "Arab Americans". For these same reasons, northern Asians such as Siberians and peoples from former USSR Central Asian states are usually not spoken of as "Asian Americans" either. In fact, until the late 1960s, the people formerly known as "orientals" were much less diverse than they are now.
Depending on whether multi-racial populations are included, the 2000 census recorded between 10 million and 12 million Asians, slightly more than 3% of the U.S. population. The largest ethnic subgroups are Chinese (2.3 million), Filipinos (1.9M), Asian Indians (1.7M), Vietnamese (1.1M), and Koreans (1.1M). The Asian American population is heavily urbanized, with approximately 40% of all Asian Americans living in the metropolitan areas around Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City. Half of all Asian Americans (5.4M) live on the West Coast or Hawaii, mostly in California (4.2M).
Immigration trends of recent decades have dramatically altered the statistical composition and popular understanding of who is an Asian American. The dramatic transformation of Asian America, and of America itself, is largely credited to the removal of over 75 years of discriminatory immigration laws that banned Chinese, then subsequent Asian ethnic groups, from becoming immigrants or citizens of the United States.
Asian Americans have largely been perceived as members of the East Asian ethnic groups, specifically Chinese and Japanese, the two largest ethnic groups before 1965, as well as Filipinos who became colonial subjects of the US in 1898 due to the Spanish-American War. However, Asian America now also includes many Koreans, Filipinos of different classes and educational achievements, and Southeast Asians. Asian America includes people from South Asia -- India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The term includes Thai, Burmese, Lao, Cambodians, Hmong, Tibetans, Nepalese, and other Southeast Asian immigrants to the US, and sometimes also Pacific Islanders such as Samoans, Tongans, Fijians, Guamanians (Chamorro), and Native Hawaiians.
This rapid change in Asian American demographics occurred after enactment of the 1965 immigration reforms. This act replaced exclusionary immigration rules of the Chinese Exclusion Act and its successors, such as the Reed-Johnson Act or 1924 immigration act, which effectively excluded "undesirable" immigrants, including Asians. The 1965 rules set across-the-board immigration quotas for each country, opening the borders to immigration from Asia for the first time in nearly half a century.
Two other influences, however, have been equally worthy of attention. First, in the wake of World War II, immigration preferences favored family reunification and attracting highly skilled workers to meet American workforce deficiencies. Secondly, the end of the Korean War and Vietnam War or so-called "secret wars" in Southeast Asia brought a new wave of Asian American immigration as people from Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia arrived; some, in the case of the Korean War, were war brides, who were soon joined by their families; others, like the Southeast Asians, were either highly skilled and educated classes or subsequent waves of refugees seeking asylum.
Japanese Americans and South Asians are emblematic of the recent trends. Japanese Americans are widely recognized as an Asian American sub-group. In 1970, there were nearly 600,000 Japanese Americans, making it the largest sub-group. Today, Japanese Americans are the sixth-largest group, with relatively low rates of births and immigration. In 1990 there were slightly fewer South Asian in the US than Japanese Americans. However, Indian Americans nearly doubled in population between 1990 and 2000 to become the third largest group, and high rates of immigration from across Asia will make Asian America increasingly representative of the continent itself.