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Global Inequities and Diasporic Return: Japanese American and Brazilian Encounters with the Ethnic Homeland: Part 8 of 10

Read Part 7 >> 

The Japanese Americans: A Broadening of Ethnic Consciousness 

Because the Japanese Americans have a much more favorable ethnic homecoming, they do not react ethnically against Japanese society through an assertion of their nationalist sentiments. Instead, their positive experiences as ethnic return migrants increase their identification with their ethnic homeland of Japan and produce a more ethnically inclusive transnational consciousness as members of a diasporic community of Japanese descendants.

Although the Japanese Americans are also treated as foreigners in Japan, such ethnic perceptions do not bother them as much, partly because most of them did not identify with their ethnic homeland as strongly as the Japanese Brazilians to begin with. A case in point was Jamie, a fourth generation Japanese American who lived in Japan as a student:

I had no consciousness of being culturally Japanese before going to Japan. I see myself as a foreigner in Japan. Of course, I do feel some kind of affinity to Japan, but I’m still a foreigner. So it was no shock to me that I was seen as American in Japan. Even among my non-Japanese [American] Asian friends [in the U.S.], I felt very American. They’d call my dad at home and say he sounds white. So it’s pretty obvious that the Japanese are going to treat me as a foreigner.

However, the main reason the Japanese Americans do not react negatively is because they are American, not Brazilian foreigners in Japan. In contrast to the Japanese Brazilians, none of them felt socially alienated or ethnically excluded in Japan because of their foreigner status. Although the Japanese were sometimes initially confused or surprised when meeting Japanese-looking people who could not speak the language and may have initially seen them as handicapped, strange, or uneducated, the treatment is reported to be quite nice and courteous once it became apparent that they were Americans.

Again, the Japanese American experience in this regard again is quite different from the Japanese Brazilians, who are sometimes bothered by the glances and stares as well as aloof treatment they receive from the Japanese when they speak Portuguese despite having a Japanese face. According to Catherine, a third generation Japanese American who had been to Japan many times:

I think the Japanese handle people like us very well. Actually, much better than how Americans treat foreigners who don’t speak English or people of color. They never starred at us, were always courteous, and very patient with us. And it helped that we could say a few words in Japanese. I didn’t feel the Japanese treated me differently.

“It was much better than when I went to Spain,” another Japanese American observed. “There, people were kind of impatient and rude because I stuck out a lot. The locals also had a negative way of interacting with tourists that I didn’t like. In Japan, everyone treated us well. I felt I blended in better because everyone looked like me and I didn’t stick out as much as a foreigner. It was much better than the rumors I heard about the Japanese.”

Rather than being an ethnic stigma as in the case of Japanese Brazilians, a couple informants noted that it was actually an advantage when it was discovered that they were Americans, not Japanese. Takeyoshi, who had lived in Japan for many years, mentioned how his cultural difficulties as an American foreigner in Japan would even elicit a positive, friendly reception from the Japanese. He recounted his experiences as follows:

When I first lived in Japan, I couldn’t read signs very well and had trouble even ordering food at restaurants. I was embarrassed I didn’t know such simple things because I look Japanese…but some people were actually excited by my cultural incompetence. They were curious; they wanted to be my friend. I remember I went to a clothing store and the salesman was shocked an adult person didn’t know his clothing size. So I explained to him that I’m American. So then, the guy was really interested in me and became my friend and even gave me clothes for free!

A number of my interviewees claimed the Japanese could tell they were Americans by the English they spoke, their demeanor and dress, as well as the people they were with (which sometimes included white Americans, especially for those who were students or tourists) and that therefore, there was not much ethnic confusion.

Like the Japanese Brazilians, some Japanese Americans who had lived in Japan for longer periods mentioned that they would always introduce themselves as Americans to avoid the initial confusion and disorientation among Japanese who encounter Japanese-looking people who have trouble speaking the language. Yet, unlike the Japanese Brazilians, who spoke of the social exclusion that would result once it was discovered they were foreigners, none of the Japanese Americans had such experiences.

“Whenever I speak to Japanese at stores or where ever, I preface everything by saying I’m a student from America and my Japanese is not very good,” Jamie explained. “That seemed to facilitate things. They [the Japanese] seemed fine with that and I can’t remember an instance when people distanced themselves from me because of it.” Even Japanese Americans like Takeyoshi who lived in Japan for years and became fluent in the language would always introduce themselves as Americans:

For short conversations, it’s not noticeable that I’m a foreigner. So if I go into a store, I just act like a Japanese. But if I get into a longer conversation, I like to tell people I’m American. It makes things so much easier that way because otherwise, you become an idiot if you don’t know something all Japanese are supposed to know or make a mistake speaking the language. It’s a defensive mechanism and there’s no stigma about being American in Japan. In fact, people become interested and want to be my friend, not in an exploitative way, but friendly way.

In fact, only one of my informants mentioned that she received the aloof, silent treatment when it was discovered she was American. “Then they would basically be like, OK, just go away. Pay your 100 yen and just go away,” she recounted.

Part 9 >>

* 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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