08 January 2004

Japanese Brazilians in Japan: Japanese, Brazilians, or ...?

Faced with an aging workforce, Japanese firms are hiring foreign workers in ever-increasing numbers. In 1990 Japan's government began encouraging the migration of Nikkeijin--overseas Japanese--who are presumed to assimilate more easily than are foreign nationals without a Japanese connection. More than 250,000 Nikkeijin, mainly from Brazil, now work in Japan.... Considered both "essentially Japanese" and "foreign," nikkeijin benefit from preferential immigration policy, yet face economic and political strictures that marginalize them socially and deny them membership in local communities.
Several university presses have recently published books on this phenomenon: Brokered Homeland: Japanese Brazilian Migrants in Japan (whose promo blurb appears above), by Joshua Hotaka Roth (Cornell U. Press, 2002); Strangers in the Ethnic Homeland: Japanese Brazilian Return Migration in Transnational Perspective, by Takeyuki Tsuda (Columbia U. Press, 2003); No One Home: Brazilian Selves Remade in Japan, by Daniel T. Linger (Stanford U. Press, 2001).

Japanese Peruvians are also coming to work in Japan in large numbers. Nikkeijin who work in Japanese factories can earn 5-10 times what they can earn as white-collar workers back in Brazil or Peru. However, rather than assimilate back to their ancestral culture, many appear to react by accentuating their Latin American culture. In the language of these academic studies, they are "negotiating identities" and "constructing discourses." Identification with Japan is enhanced by emphasizing the "narrative of suffering and overcoming"--a very powerful narrative for both parties. But countervailing tendencies also come into play.
Elderly Japanese immigrants in Brazil have often constructed Japan as an object of nostalgic longing.... Once in Japan, however, [their offspring] soon begin to construct Brazil as the object of their patriotic identification. [Roth, p. 35]
The new, modernizing Meiji government allowed the first Japanese emigrants to leave for work in Hawai‘i, Guam, and California as early as 1868, but the first official emigration to Brazil didn't happen until 40 years later. Many early emigrants thought of themselves as sojourners, not permanent settlers, and were able to hang on to many aspects of Japanese language and culture.
In the latter 1930s, however, the Vargas government's assimilationist policies forced the closure of Japanese language schools and newspapers throughout Brazil. Along with the start of the Pacific War and spread of Japanese ultranationalist propaganda, a backlash arose among Japanese propagandists in Brazil .... The restrictions placed on the Japanese community, the spread of nationalist ideology, and the lack of Japanese language media coverage created conditions that fostered a millenarian movement among the Japanese migrants and their children. Many within the Japanese community supported the ultranationalist kachi-gumi ['win faction'], which refused to acknowledge Japan's defeat until several years after World War II. Members of this group cowed skeptics into silence by murdering numerous leaders of the realist make-gumi ['lose faction']....

At different points before and after the war, however, many first-generation migrants developed a strong sense of themselves as distinct from Japanese in Japan even while continuing to value their ties with Japan.... They no longer thought of themselves negatively as Japanese displaced to Brazil, but positively as the parents and ancestors of Brazilians. Even some who had been Japanese ultranationalists in the 1940s became ardent patriots of Brazil. [Roth, pp. 22-23]
Karen Yamashita's novel Brazil Maru (Coffee House Press, 1992) vividly portrays this period.

Nikkei Brazilians and Peruvians working in Japan have hung onto the language and culture of their own homelands, helping to make Japan a bit more multicultural. A trilingual news portal illustrates how linguistically diverse this community is. Of course, amid the ups and downs of cross-cultural accommodation, there is always a horror story.

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