Breast cancer incidence increases considerably in women who migrate from Japan to the United States. Based on the hypothesis that mammographic density in healthy mammograms reflects differences in breast cancer risk, we compared mammographic density in 3 groups of women at different levels of risk: Caucasian and Japanese women in Hawaii and Japanese women in Japan. In a cross-sectional design, pre- and postmenopausal women without a history of breast cancer and with a mammogram free of suspicious lesions were recruited in mammography clinics and completed a self-administered questionnaire. Cranio-caudal mammograms were scanned into a computer and the densities measured using a computer-assisted method. Statistical analyses included ANOVA and multiple linear regression. Breast size among women of Japanese ancestry was similar in Hawaii and Japan but 50% smaller than that among Caucasian women. Dense areas were smallest among women in Japan, intermediate among Japanese women in Hawaii and largest among Caucasian women. Percent densities were greater in Japanese women than Caucasian women because of the larger breast sizes in Caucasians. However, percent densities were significantly higher among Japanese women in Hawaii than in Japan. These results indicate that the size of the total breast differs primarily by ethnicity and the size of the dense areas differs mainly by place of residence. Therefore, when comparing ethnic groups with distinct physical proportions, the absolute size of the dense areas appears to be a better measure of breast cancer risk than the relative density. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.