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Global Inequities and Diasporic Return: Japanese American and Brazilian Encounters with the Ethnic Homeland: Part 9 of 10

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Because of their relatively positive socio-occupational and ethnic reception in Japan, none of my Japanese American informants developed negative sentiments toward Japanese society or felt alienated from their ethnic homeland. As a result, they did not experience a resurgence of an oppositional nationalist identity in Japan like their Brazilian counterparts. Some of them do mention that they feel more American in Japan, but it was more of a recognition of their cultural differences with the Japanese than a negative, defensive reaction against them. Kiyoshi, a bi-cultural nisei, was one of them:

In Japan, I probably feel my Americanness more because I notice more differences than similarities, even though I can do a decent job of getting by. I have a Japanese side I can activate, and a lot of times, I do, for courtesy’s sake. I don’t need to advertise that I’m from the U.S. But I definitely feel my Americanness. I don’t think I could go back to school there, or be a regular Japanese company employee.

Another informant mentioned he feels his Americanness in Japan because of his greater exposure and familiarity with various ethnic groups in the United States, especially in California, compared to the Japanese, who are used to living in only an ethnically homogeneous society. A mixed-descent, second generation Japanese American shared similar feelings, which were based on not only on a consciousness of cultural, but also racial difference:

Going to Japan makes me feel more American. I feel kind of awkward in Japan, like I don’t really fit in. I’m not pure Japanese [descent] and I know that’s not a good thing in Japan. I get this feeling from my [Japanese] relatives. Their attitude is like, ‘why did my father marry a white woman in America?’ The way you interact with family in Japan is much more formal, not casual like it is here. I come home [to the U.S.] and realize I like where I am. I love to travel and see things, but because it helps me to define myself better. I’m half Japanese, but I realize it’s a very small half, in terms of what it actually means to me. I’m really much more American than Japanese.

At times, this heightened sense of Americanness in Japan was a reaction to aspects of Japan my informants did not like, which did lead to some ambivalence, but nowhere as strong as among their nikkeijin counterparts from Brazil. For instance, Takeyoshi mentioned that he distanced himself from aspects of Japanese culture, such as excessive hierarchy that he did not like and was thus conflicted as he vacillated between his Japanese and American sides. “It was a sense that I could never completely fit in there. Would never be like them. If was a combination of distance and intimacy.” Consider the similar comments of Mark, a bi-cultural nisei who had worked in Japan:

When I was younger, it [his trips to Japan] probably reinforced my Americanness. I could relate to the culture and it was not hard for me to fit in, but I didn’t like it. I preferred American culture—it’s more free and not as strict. But as I got older and mature, I realized that’s just how it is. It’s not necessarily bad, just different.

An equal, if not greater number of Japanese Americans actually spoke about how their sojourn in Japan make them feel more connected to their Japanese ethnic roots and strengthened their sense of affiliation to their ethnic homeland. “I feel somewhat of a stronger affinity with Japan now,” Jamie, who had studied in Japan, noted. “It’s because I know more about Japanese culture and how it works. Now, I want to learn more, so that Japan becomes more natural for me, so when I go back, I can fit in more.” For Tom, another fourth generation exchange student, his greater affinity with his ethnic homeland was even a matter of ethnic pride:

Going to Japan and seeing everything there makes you proud that I’m Japanese [descent], that this is where I’m from. People respect Japan. I’m now prouder to be of Japanese ancestry. I felt this is where I should be, because people looked like me, even if they don’t dress like me and people there were really nice.

Even Yoriko, who was only half Japanese descent said she felt more “tied to Japan,” especially going to the town and temple where her father was raised and becoming close to her Japanese family.

I was also struck by the number of Japanese Americans for whom their Japanese sojourn produced a more expansive transnational, and even cosmopolitan consciousness that was not based on a restrictive, nationalist loyalty toward one country at the expense of the other. This was especially true among the ethnically bi-cultural nisei, who felt transnationally connected to both countries. For Mark, this was a gradual maturational process. Although he initially reinforced his American identity as a partial reaction to those aspects of Japan he did not like when he was younger, he eventually came to adopt a more accommodating, transnational ethnic consciousness:

I went [to Japan] the past summer, and the year before, and came to reinforce my sense of relating to my Japanese side, because by that time, I had grown and can appreciate Japan. I don’t act defensively anymore and say I’m American. I just totally fit in and embrace Japan. I feel cosmopolitan, especially when I feel my Japaneseness and feel connected to Japan while feeling American at the same time. When I’m in Japan, I feel great, like I could live there for a long time. But when I get back to the U.S., I feel great being back home. I can operate fine in both cultures.

For another bi-cultural nisei, John, who felt he “can be Japanese and American at the same time,” this type of transnational ethnic identity was more a product of being caught between two different cultures and countries:

Ultimately, I feel more shin-nisei (new second generation Japanese American) than either American or Japanese. I’m in a bind because I’m not Japanese, but I’m more Japanese than most Japanese Americans since I have these Japanese cultural tendencies inside me that I keep fighting. I can easily be Japanese and go to Japan and get a job and seriously be Japanese. But then, I’m here and I want to be here and stay here and want my children to stay here, so I have to be Japanese American.

At the same time, John seemed to privilege his American side, not in a restrictive, nationalist sense, but because of its more cosmopolitan, global nature compared to an insular Japanese national identity. “I get mad at myself that I have these Japanese tendencies, which don’t help me,” John remarked. “We live in a global community, and if you want to step out and compete with the Western world, you need to be more Western. I try to break stereotypes. In Japan, I don’t have to be Japanese, even if I can. It’s a global community, so I’m going to act as whatever. It’s easier to do this in Japan because many Japanese have come to and are familiar with the U.S.” The ultimate cosmopolitan statement came from Jamie, who was not fully bi-cultural and didn’t necessarily think of herself in national terms as Japanese or American:

I don’t necessarily feel a greater need to maintain my Japanese heritage after studying in Japan. My personal consciousness is to be able to adapt to any situation. To be able to act naturally in any country, whether it’s Japan, France, or Australia. I want to know how to make the least amount of friction when I’m there. My stay in Japan increased my desire to become more cosmopolitan and operate in different cultures and languages.

Again, the contrast with the ethnic identity of Japanese Brazilians in Japan is quite stark. Only one of my 45 Japanese Brazilian interviewees expressed any type of cosmopolitan ethnic consciousness after living in Japan. Most of them developed a much more restrictive, deterritorialized, Brazilian migrant nationalism in Japan that excluded the Japanese.

Part 10 (Last part) >>


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

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

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