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Global Inequities and Diasporic Return: Japanese American and Brazilian Encounters with the Ethnic Homeland: Part 4 of 10

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In addition to their higher social status in Japan, the Japanese Americans benefit from the international prominence of the United States in another way. The Japanese feel more cultural affinity toward Americans and treat them with greater ethnic respect than foreigners from other countries, especially “backward” Third World countries like Brazil, which are not accorded much stature and respect in Japan.

The Japanese Brazilians frequently complain about the lack of knowledge of Brazil among Japanese factory workers, who supposedly believe it is an impoverished, crime-ridden Third World country with jungles, Indians, and crocodiles. “All that they show in Japan [i.e., on TV] about Brazil is the Amazon, poverty, crime, and carnaval and they never show the good or developed parts of the country,” a Brazilian nikkeijin woman complained, echoing the dominant sentiments of her compatriots. “Few know about São Paulo or Avenida Paulista [the central business district in São Paulo].” The Japanese Brazilians also frequently claim that they (or their acquaintances) are asked whether Brazil has electricity, cars, TVs, and telephones. Other questions include how close they live to the Amazon, whether they wear shirts and shoes in Brazil, carry guns, or whether Indians walk naked in the streets.1

Many Japanese are also not aware that the Japanese Brazilians are middle class professionals living in developed cities in Brazil, not impoverished and desperate migrants from the Third World. A retired Japanese worker from Toyama shared this dominant perception with me:

I hear conditions are terrible in Brazil and they can’t live over there, so they come to Japan for the money and are stuffed six to a room in pig pens by labor broker companies who don’t treat them as humans. Since the cost of living here is much higher, they find they can’t survive in Japan and can’t buy anything because it’s too expensive.

Even better-informed, middle class Japanese tended to view nikkeijin immigrants as poor people from an underdeveloped country. Two groups of Japanese undergraduate and graduate students on assignments to interview the Japanese Brazilians were surprised that they were not miserable, wretched people, but lived in standard Japanese apartments (instead of in squalor) and were “properly dressed with nice shirts and socks.”

The Japanese Brazilians were acutely aware of such mistaken Japanese perceptions. “The Japanese think we were really poor in Brazil, living in favelas (shantytowns) and suffering from hunger,” one of them observed. “They have no idea that we had sufficient conditions to live in Brazil, or that many of us are well-educated.” Others went further. “The Japanese think we live like wild Indians in the Amazon without toilets and that we bathe in the river nearby,” one nikkeijin woman claimed. “I get this impression from the questions that they ask about Brazil.” A common story told by the Japanese Brazilians is about how they (or an acquaintance) showed photographs of their houses and possessions in Brazil to Japanese workers, who were surprised and amazed at their relatively high middle class living standards back home and wondered why they had come to Japan as lowly migrant workers if they had lived so well.

Many Brazilian nikkeijin in Japan are offended by the stereotypes about Brazil as a backward and primitive country with poor people and feel ethnically stigmatized by such Japanese attitudes. Few of them encounter Japanese who have respect for (or even know anything about) Brazil, Brazilian culture, or their ethnic background (although in actuality, there are a few). Some of them were even concerned that nikkeijin who acted too “Brazilian” in Japan (or even flaunted their Brazilianness) by talking loudly in Portuguese, engaging in publicly overt displays of affection, wearing loud “Brazilian” clothes, and disturbing Japanese neighbors by making noise in their apartments were worsening the already negative Japanese image of Brazilians in Japan (Tsuda 2003:Chapter 6).

In vivid contrast, the economic, cultural, and political status of the United States as a global leader has been admired and emulated by Japan for over a century, beginning with its efforts to modernize and catch up to the West during the Meiji Period to its post World War II recovery with American assistance and military protection and it’s subsequent development of close diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties with the United States.

As a result, the Japanese know a lot about the United States, study English, embrace American popular culture and media, and a good number have traveled or lived in the U.S. as tourists, businessmen, and students. Therefore, a number of Japanese I interviewed noted that they felt a much greater cultural affinity and familiarity toward Japanese Americans and could at least culturally relate to them and attempt to communicate in English whereas the Japanese Brazilians were much more culturally alien and spoke a language with which they had no familiarity. In fact, at the Toyama factory, some Japanese supervisors would try to communicate with their Japanese Brazilian workers using what little English they could speak, usually to no avail.

Therefore, although the Japanese Brazilians in Brazil have actually retained the Japanese language and culture more than their nikkeijin counterparts in the United States because they are “newer” immigrant minorities (second and third generation vs. Japanese Americans who are mainly third and fourth generation) who have faced less historical and current pressure to assimilate to mainstream society, such cultural affinities seem to be negated by the greater familiarity the Japanese have with Americans. In addition, the Japanese tend to regard Japanese Americans with greater respect as well-educated, middle class professionals from a rich country, not poor people from a backward country.

Such benefits of being American in Japan were especially felt by Japanese Americans who lived in Japan for extended periods of time and had sustained contact with native Japanese. For them, their Americanness was more of an ethnic asset and a source of interest than a disadvantage because of the cultural affinity and favorable perceptions Japanese have toward the U.S. This was quite apparent from the comments of the following two Japanese Americans:

I think Japanese attitudes towards Japanese Americans are positive. A lot of [Japanese] people wish they could go to the U.S. There’s even a sense of awe. Japanese like to come here and go to Vegas. They like American popular culture, American movies, and American franchises are everywhere, so they are pretty aware of Americans. So having an American background is quite positive.

I didn’t feel any prejudice being a foreigner in Japan, except the language thing. The Japanese friends I choose were really interested in America and American pop. culture. I was their informant about America and they seemed to like me for that. My Americanness was therefore more of an asset than anything else.

Indeed, there are even Japanese Americans who feel a sense of superiority in Japan, such as John, who was a fully bi-cultural second generation nisei (second generation) with extensive experience living in Japan. “In Japan, my ethnicity isn’t really an issue because in the end, I’m like, ‘sorry, America is above you Japan,’” he said. “You don’t tell me what to do, I tell you what to do. I’m arrogant and egotistical. I feel this superiority in Japan as an American. In fact, I make a point that I’m American.”

Even those who briefly visited Japan experienced the cultural affinity and positive perceptions that Japanese have of Americans. According to one Japanese American woman who had been in Japan as a tourist:

One time, we were stuck in a remote area at night without a train ticket with two other Caucasians and this Japanese man picked us up with his car and drove us back home. He had lived in the U.S., spoke some English, and was really kind and nice. He probably saw my Caucasian friends and assumed we were American and therefore decided to be really nice.

Unlike the Japanese Brazilians, none of my informants reported being ethnically stigmatized or denigrated in Japan. In fact, only two of my informants reported any possible negative perceptions of Japanese Americans in Japan.2

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1. My interviews with Japanese workers indicated that they are not quite as ignorant as the nikkeijin make them out to be. They also sometimes had cheerful, brighter images of Brazil, such as samba, carnaval, soccer, beaches, and Rio de Janeiro.
2. One informant mentioned that Japanese emigrants were seen as “screwups” who couldn’t make it economically in Japan. However, she was not sure whether this image came from older Japanese in Hawaii (where she was born and raised) or from her stay in Japan. She also felt it was a Japanese perception of issei (first generation Japanese immigrants), and was never applied to her specifically as a fourth generation Japanese American. Another informant mentioned that the Japanese disdain the Japanese Americans a bit because they are seen as completely American with no understanding of their Japanese heritage. However, he noted that he never experienced such perceptions personally because he is completely bi-lingual and fits in well in Japan.

* From
Diasporic Homecomings: Ethnic Return Migration in comparative Perspective edited by Takeyuki Tsuda. With the permission of Stanford University Press,

Copyright (c) 2009 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University

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