The bluegill sunfish, Lepomis macrochirus, is a notorious exotic species in many freshwater ecosystems, currently expanding its distribution worldwide. In 1960, a small group of bluegills captured in the Mississippi River at Guttenberg in Iowa were imported to Japan as a gift from the mayor of Chicago to the Japanese government. The offspring of these fish were released into the wild in Japan and also in Korea. Over 40 years after this first introduction, L. macrochirus now occupies all the freshwater ecosystems of both countries. We compared invading populations of L. macrochirus in Japan and Korea with native populations in the USA, using PCR–RFLP (polymerase chain reaction–restricted fragment length polymorphism) analyses of mitochondrial DNA, to estimate the origin and dispersal of L. macrochirus in Japan and Korea. Five haplotypes of mitochondrial DNA detected in Japanese and Korean populations completely coincided with the haplotypes of the Guttenberg population. Haplotype diversity of invading populations was shown to be highest in populations established in the 1960s, while genetic variability was lower in more recently established populations. Our results suggest that all L. macrochirus in Japan and Korea have originated from the 15 fish first introduced in 1960. Low haplotype diversity in newly established populations is probably due to genetic drift arising from repeated population bottlenecks, while the high similarity of haplotypes among neighbouring populations is considered to reflect the history of transplantation by humans.