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Global Inequities and Diasporic Return: Japanese American and Brazilian Encounters with the Ethnic Homeland: Part 2 of 10

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Unskilled Immigrant Workers Versus Tourists, Students, and Professionals

The main reason for the divergent diasporic homecomings of the Japanese Brazilians and Japanese Americans is their very different social class status as immigrants in Japan, which is a direct product of their countries of origin’s position in the global order and not differences in their socioeconomic background.  Although both groups of nikkeijin are solidly middle class, highly educated (both are overrepresented at top universities), and are predominantly white collar professionals or business owners in their respective countries of origin, because of Brazil’s much lower global position, the Japanese Brazilians are manning Japan’s factories as unskilled migrant laborers, whereas their nikkeijin counterparts from the United States are in Japan as part of the global educational and professional elite.  As a result, the Japanese Brazilians have much more negative experiences in their ethnic homeland than the Japanese Americans.
The return migration of the Japanese Brazilians was caused by a severe economic crisis in South America in the late 1980s and a labor shortage in the Japanese economy during the same period.  Because of the significant difference in per capita income between Third World Brazil and First World Japan, the Brazilian nikkeijin were more than eager to return migrate and fill low-level factory jobs in their ethnic homeland where they could earn five to ten times their middle class Brazilian incomes.  With a current immigrant population of close to 300,000, they have become the second largest group of foreigners in Japan after the Chinese and their numbers continue to increase at a steady pace.1  
Many of the negative experiences that the Japanese Brazilians have in Japan are conditioned by their low socioeconomic status as unskilled immigrant workers.  For them, migration involves a dramatic declassing as those who were middle class professionals in Brazil become unskilled laborers toiling away in dirty, dangerous, and difficult factory jobs that most educated, native Japanese actively shun.  Although they go to Japan psychologically prepared to take on such degrading jobs because of the financial incentives, the sudden decline in social class status still comes as a shock to many of them.  For instance, a second generation Brazilian nikkeijin woman remarked:

You go to Japan ready for the low level jobs you have to do in the factory.  We know our social status will decline in Japan and you accept this as a necessary consequence in order to earn money.  But still, when you first put on that factory uniform and take your place on the assembly line, it really hurts.  It damages your pride. 

Many Japanese Brazilians also complain about the monotonous, tedious, repetitive, and physically demanding nature of factory work. 

Because of their status as unskilled migrant workers, many Brazilian nikkeijin experience social marginalization and supposedly negative and discriminatory treatment at the hands of the Japanese.  In contrast to the relatively congenial working environment they enjoyed in Brazil as white collar professionals in air conditioned offices, they are subjected to a noisy, alienating factory work environment where social interaction on the assembly line is quite minimal and often limited to Japanese supervisors barking out orders or chastising workers for mistakes. 

In addition, the Japanese Brazilians are employed in the most peripheral sector of the Japanese labor market and are used by Japanese companies as a disposable labor force of temporary contract workers who are borrowed from outside labor broker firms and then returned when no longer needed (Tsuda 1999).  As a result, they are sometimes segregated in nikkeijin-only work sections, eat in separate lunchrooms, not invited to company outings and events with Japanese workers, and excluded from Japanese social groups on the factory floor as company outsiders.  They are also the first to be fired during a production downturn.  Although Japanese temporary and part-time workers are treated in a similar manner, the Japanese Brazilians, as immigrant minorities, are more likely to be offended by such treatment, viewing it as ethnic “discrimination.” 

Because of such experiences of socioeconomic marginalization and discrimination, the Japanese Brazilians come to perceive the Japanese as “cold,” unaffectionate, and unfriendly people who mistreat and discriminate against even Japanese descendants from abroad (Tsuda 2003: Chapter 3).  The comments of the following Brazilian nikkeijin worker is quite illustrative of this collective experience:

In Brazil, people always talk to each other during work, unlike the Japanese who just work and don't say anything....The Japanese are cold and don't have human warmth, even amongst themselves….The Japanese always keep us segregated from them because of the prejudices that they have.  I was almost offended when I first saw this at the factory.  There are some Japanese who simply don't like us…So they don't try to talk with us or make friends--they don't even speak one word to us…In Brazil, this type of ethnic discrimination exists only toward blacks.

Yes, there is discrimination against the [Japanese] Brazilians on the job.  The Japanese have the power to decide who does which task, so they always choose the easiest work for themselves and the worst jobs come to the Brazilians…And when a recession comes around, we are the first to be laid off.

In contrast, the Japanese Americans, living in the most prosperous country in the world, have never experienced an economic crisis in recent decades that threatened their middle class socioeconomic status, nor would they earn higher wages working in Japanese factories.  As a result, only a relatively small number of them migrate to Japan and they do so as students, business personnel, highly-skilled professionals, and tourists.  Of my sample of 14 Japanese Americans who had been to Japan, three went for professional or work-related reasons, six as students, and five as tourists.
Because the Japanese Americans enjoy a much more privileged social status in Japan based on the higher global economic position of the United States compared to Brazil, they have considerably more positive experiences in their ethnic homeland.  Not surprisingly, those who went to Japan as tourists spoke highly, if not raved, about their trips, recalling nostalgic images of cherry blossoms and festivals, shrines and gardens, art and pottery, beautiful and idyllic scenery, bullet trains, good restaurants and food, and a generally clean, orderly, and safe society.2 Most of them had little interaction with ordinary Japanese beyond brief encounters in restaurants, hotels, and department stores, where they are in the privileged position of customers. 

Those Japanese Americans who went to Japan as students (usually at the college-level on exchange programs with Japanese universities) reported almost equally positive experiences.3  Most of them interacted almost exclusively with Japanese students who were quite eager to meet and talk with American students and they experienced the fun that accompanies student life in Japan, where academic pressures are low and social and club opportunities are abundant.  For example, Barbara Kitamura, a sansei (third generation) from Hawaii recounted her experiences quite fondly:

It was overall a very positive experience.  There were few expectations for students.  You didn’t even have to go to class.  The Japanese [university] students didn’t study.  They just wanted to go out and play.  They had an international section at the university, so I joined the student clubs there.  Being a student in Japan was so much fun.  I mean, you just go out all the time and drink and everything was to have fun.  But I know it would be very different had I gone to Japan to work.

Because of their relatively short sojourns (weeks or months compared to years, as is the case with the Japanese Brazilians), Japanese American tourists and students have a rather superficial encounter with Japan through a type of external touristic gaze and fascination that does not delve sufficiently into Japanese society to discover its negative underside. 
The three Japanese Americans who went to Japan for professional/work-related reasons also had generally positive experiences based on their privileged occupational status in Japan.  However, because they had lived in Japan for longer periods and have more extensive experience, they tended to give more balanced and ambivalent accounts.  Consider the comments of Takeyoshi, a second generation professor who had lived in Japan as both a student and researcher.

Over time, I started getting disenchanted with the romantic visions I had of Japan, because you start seeing all the warts, in addition to the cherry blossoms.  I had this image of [Japanese] aesthetics that I was attracted to, so I used to love going to temples and gardens.  Also museums to see the artwork.  I was attracted to the exotic part of Japan.  But being in Japan longer, you get this critical distance--not just how beautiful the artwork is.  I was stuck by things that are Japanese characteristics that I didn’t like, such as the overexcessive social hierarchy, and I distanced myself from that.  That was what was the most disturbing.  And also the racialized nationalism.

“At first, you think everything is perfect in Japan,” said Yoriko, a bi-racial Japanese American who had gone to Japan continuously since she was three years old (although never to work).  “Then, when I’d go to Japan later on, I started to see the negative aspects, such as the alcoholism and the strong racism there, which I sense personally, even among my family [relatives in Japan]” 
Nonetheless, such ambivalent comments were quite rare among my Japanese American interviewees who had been to Japan.  Again, this is quite a contrast to the Japanese Brazilians, among whom negative comments and criticism about the Japanese and Japanese society were quite frequent and positive impressions were rare, demonstrating how the differential socio-occupational status of migrants in the host society, caused by the very different positioning of their countries of origin in the global order, can produce diverent ethnic homecomings.

Part 3 >>


1. This is excluding the approximately 650,000 Korean-Japanese who are still registered in Japan as "foreigners."  Although 80 per cent were born in Japan, they are not granted Japanese citizenship and many have not naturalized. 
2. Unlike China and Korea (Kibria 2002:298, Louie 2001, 2002), the Japanese government does not sponsor ethnic heritage tours for nikkeijin.   Since tourists are brief visitors and therefore very different from other types of migrants and immigrants, this chapter will not deal much with them. 
3. Even ethnic return migrants from the Third World who are students tend to have more positive experiences than other types of immigrants (see Choi n.d., Yang n.d.).

* 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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