This is a review of research carried out in Japanese Americans that points towards possible approaches to prevention of type 2 diabetes mellitus. The natural history of type 2 diabetes usually includes both insulin resistance and beta-cell dysfunction. Insulin secretion may compensate for insulin resistance. Alternatively, enhanced insulin sensitivity may mask an insulin secretory defect. Epidemiological data support the view that in the vast majority of cases of type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance is essential to the pathogenesis of hyperglycemia. Increased diabetes prevalence as ethnic groups migrate to more urban or westernized regions has been attributed to increased occurrence of insulin resistance. Research among Japanese Americans in Seattle, Washington, showed a higher prevalence of type 2 diabetes than in Japan, which suggested that factors associated with 'westernization' might be playing a role in bringing out underlying susceptibility to diabetes. Our research has shown that these impressions were correct and that the abnormalities that characterize the metabolic syndrome play a significant role. Due to increased intra-abdominal fat deposition, Japanese Americans were likely to be 'metabolically obese' despite relatively normal BMI. A diet higher in animal fat and lower levels of physical activity were risk factors leading to increased intra-abdominal fat deposition, insulin resistance, and diabetes. Information from epidemiological studies such as these may be used to determine whether diabetes may be prevented through changes in lifestyle or application of specific therapies targeted towards identified metabolic abnormalities.