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Global Inequities and Diasporic Return: Japanese American and Brazilian Encounters with the Ethnic Homeland: Part 3 of 10

Read Part 2 >> 

Social Class Interactions: Parochial Versus Cosmopolitan 

The Japanese Brazilians and Americans also interact with very different groups of Japanese because of their social class position in Japan. Because of their status as unskilled immigrant workers, the Japanese Brazilians primarily interact with working class Japanese, often in smaller, industrial satellite cities and towns (sometimes in the countryside), where many Japanese Brazilians work.

Not only are such blue collar Japanese less educated, most have never lived abroad, have little interaction in the past with foreigners, do not speak foreign languages, and are more parochial and insular in outlook as well as more prone to ethnic prejudice. In contrast, most Japanese Americans interact with better-educated, middle class Japanese living in Japan’s major “global” cities, such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, who tend to be better informed, more globally engaged and cosmopolitan (including Japanese who have lived abroad), and less liable to have parochial, prejudicial attitudes.

It is quite apparent that the social marginalization that the Japanese Brazilians experience in their ethnic homeland is not simply a product of their mundane and degrading immigrant jobs, but also because much of their interaction with native Japanese is mainly confined to the working class.

Despite a general Japanese reluctance to interact with the Japanese Brazilians, who are culturally foreign and generally do not speak Japanese, the tendency certainly seemed stronger among factory workers. At the factory where I conducted participant observation (which I will call Toyama), the Brazilian nikkeijin wore different-colored uniforms from the Japanese as temporary migrant workers contracted from outside labor broker firms. As a result, they were ethnically visible and immediately subject to social exclusion on the factory floor.

I was repeatedly struck by the ethnic segregation at Toyama between Japanese and nikkeijin workers, who rarely exchanged any words on the assembly line and remained apart during break and lunch hours, sitting in separate rooms or at different tables. Likewise, only a few Japanese Brazilians have sustained social relationships with their Japanese co-workers outside the factory or have contact with their Japanese neighbors.

When Japanese workers were asked about their ethnic reluctance to interact with the nikkeijin, they often mentioned the inability to effectively communicate because of the language barrier. Others stressed the difficulty they have relating to foreigners who are culturally different. A young Japanese who worked next to me on the assembly line elaborated as follows:

Because we live in an ethnically homogeneous society, we are simply bad at dealing with foreigners we don’t know well and can’t communicate well with. We don’t cope well with ethnic diversity and are not used to people who are different, like the nikkeijin. We have no way to react and adapt to foreigners in our midst, so we just prefer to stay away.

I was also struck by the relatively strong ethnic prejudice among Japanese workers toward the Japanese Brazilians (Tsuda 2003:Chapter 2), even though the ones I interviewed tended to be more open-minded individuals who sometimes even befriended the nikkeijin. I was told a number of times at Toyama about Japanese workers who did not interact with nikkeijin foreigners simply because of ethnic dislike and derogation.

Because of their globally conditioned, relatively privileged middle class status in Japan, the Japanese Americans are exposed to a better-educated and more cosmopolitan segment of Japanese society which is much more willing to socially interact with foreigners and outsiders, which results in much more engaged and positive ethnic encounters in Japan. Therefore, few of them experience the ethnic exclusion and social marginalization in Japan that the Japanese Brazilians confront on a daily basis.

Much of the interaction that Japanese Americans have with “mainstream” Japanese is in the service sector (restaurants, cafes, stores, hotels, banks, etc.), where politeness and courtesy backed by ritualistic use of honorific language is the norm that is impeccably maintained whether the customer is a native or foreigner. Of course, Japanese Brazilian immigrant workers also have plenty of contact with the Japanese service sector and report generally polite and courteous service, but most of their daily work interaction is with working class Japanese.

The Japanese Americans who are in Japan as students tend to associate with Japanese students, who are educated and cosmopolitan, quite interested in foreign students and countries, and often speak (or want to practice) English. For example, Tom, a University of California at San Diego undergraduate who lived in Japan as part of a study abroad program, recounted his experiences as follows:

I had lots of interaction with Japanese. In fact, that was the best part. It was only at school, but there was a group of [Japanese] students that we’d always meet for lunch. We became really good friends with them. They were learning to speak English, so were interested in us. They would speak some English to us and we’d try out our Japanese, but most of the time it was English, because their English was good. They’d also come to our dorms and we’d party. They loved it, because it was different for them. They were interested in foreigners.

“The [Japanese] students were always very nice,” another former exchange student in Japan remarked. “Because the university was very strong in international studies, they had an international consciousness and knew we were foreigners on exchange. So the students were always very accommodating and helpful. Some of them were curious about my ethnic background. I can’t remember any bad experiences.” Undoubtedly, because the Japanese Americans and the Japanese in this case share the same social status as students, this facilitated interaction across cultural and linguistic barriers, as Tom noted:

I didn’t feel that much difference from the Japanese students. Yes, there are cultural differences, but both of us were students. They basically wanted to do the same things I wanted to do. It was no big deal. I did feel the cultural gap—they knew about Japanese cultural things much better—but in everyday interaction, I didn’t feel much difference.

Those Japanese Americans working in Japan as professionals may be in a less congenial and more serious and formal corporate environment, but their daily social relationships are still with relatively elite and cosmopolitan Japanese and they do not experience the overt ethnic segregation of Japanese Brazilians. One third generation Japanese American who was in Japan as a spouse of a Japanese university professor (and planning to work there in the future) spoke quite clearly about this as follows:

I don't exactly interact with ordinary Japanese because most of my associations are through the university, where I’m introduced to [my wife’s] colleagues. Partly because of the language barrier, I do feel distant with them, but it’s natural to their society. They don’t open their arms and welcome everyone, even other Japanese, much less a foreigner like me. So I don’t take it personally. It’s just their culture. But I don’t feel I am not socially accepted. In fact, I feel much more accepted than I thought, based on the descriptions I had heard of the Japanese. But again, these are highly-educated people who know other cultures, not your ordinary Japanese.

In this manner, the global stature of the migrant sending country can play a significant role in determining whether ethnic return migrants have positive or negative experiences in their homeland. Of course, there are Japanese Brazilians who are in Japan as tourists, students, and professionals as well, and they undoubtedly have more positive ethnic experiences than their compatriots. However, because Brazil is a poorer, Third World country, their number is proportionately quite small compared to the Japanese Americans and does not sufficiently affect the generally negative ethnic homecoming of the Japanese Brazilians.

Part 4 >>

* 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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