Ronald Takaki was raised in a low-income area of Oahu, Hawaii. He was the descendant of Japanese immigrants who worked on the sugarcaneplantations. He was raised by his mother and Chinese stepfather following his father's death at age seven. As a young boy, Takaki cared more for surfing than academics, earning the nickname "10-toes Takaki." During high school a Japanese American teacher, Rev. Shunji Nishi Ph.D encouraged him to pursue college and wrote him a letter of recommendation for the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio.
His undergraduate experiences there caused him to begin asking the kinds of questions which evolved into the foundation of his career. As one of only two Asian Americans on campus, he gained a new awareness of his ethnic identity. He was awarded a bachelor's degree in history in 1961.
His graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley led to a master's degree in 1962 and a Ph.D in American history in 1967. His dissertation was on the subject of American slavery, focusing on the rationale for slavery. This work later became his first book: A Pro-Slavery Crusade: the Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade.
Takaki's personal experiences inspired him to devote his life to working for equality for Asian Americans and others. A seminal event in his life developed when his wife's family refused to accept him because they could only see him as a "jap"—not as a native-born American citizen just like any one else.
His initial teaching experience was at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he taught the first Black History course offered at that institution. When recalling his first day teaching this course, he stated, "When I walked into the classroom I discovered it was held in a huge auditorium - 500 seats and every seat was taken, and students were sitting in the aisles, and there was a loud chitter-chatter, the students were excited...As I made my way to the front of the auditorium all of a sudden a silence descended in this room and their eyes were riveted on me and I could just feel them saying to themselves, 'Funny, he doesn't look black'." One of his students on the first day asked what the class was going to learn about "revolutionary tactics," and he later recalled that his immediate response was to suggest that he hoped students would learn skills of critical thinking and effective writing—and that these could be quite revolutionary.
In 1972, he accepted a teaching position at Berkeley where his general survey course, "Racial Inequality in America: a Comparative Perspective," led the development of an undergraduate ethnic studies major and an ethnic studies Ph.D. program. For the next three decades, he continued to be an important contributor in the growth of the program. He was involved in developing the school's multicultural requirement for graduation: the American Cultures Requirement. The long-time Professor of Asian American Studies retired in 2004.
His views, his teaching and his published works led to opportunities to share his ideas in venues around the world.