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

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When I was conducting participant observation among Japanese Brazilian workers at Toyama factory in Japan, I was wearing the same uniform, doing the same type of work, spoke to them in Portuguese, and lived with them in the same company apartments. As a Japanese American anthropologist, I was a consummate insider. Nonetheless, my Japanese Brazilian co-workers and roommates would sometimes mention: “Your life in Japan must be easier than ours because you are an American (or a student or researcher).”

Of course, I was a student researcher in Japan, not a real migrant factory worker, because I was American. If I had been Brazilian, I may have very well been working at Toyama factory for the money, not for research, and for years, not for months. We were of the same Japanese ethnic origin, but because we were born in different countries, we had been consigned to very different fates as ethnic return migrants in Japan. Again, in this case, geography is destiny. This was a fact not lost to one of my Japanese Brazilian interviewees:

I think it's absolutely absurd that the Japanese Brazilians have to come to Japan to do this kind of work. It just shows how incompetent the Brazilian government is when even well-educated and middle class Brazilians have trouble surviving economically. If we were Japanese American, we would never have had to do this.

In this manner, even among immigrants of the same ethnic origin with similar educational and socioeconomic backgrounds living in the same host country, their social status, ethnic experiences, and identity consequences can be widely divergent depending on the global positioning of their home countries. Immigrants from countries with greater international stature enjoy a higher social status in the host society as well as more cultural and ethnic respect.

Migration studies scholars need to pay closer attention to the national origins or immigrants as a form of social capital, since it can have a more significant impact on their political, socioeconomic, and cultural reception than other human and social capital variables such as educational levels, occupational and linguistic skills, length of stay in the host country, or ethnic and social class background.

The case of the Japanese Brazilians and Japanese Americans in Japan illustrates how two nikkeijin ethnic return migrant groups can experience quite divergent homecomings in their ethnic homeland by virtue of their different status as Brazilian and American nationals. Although the Japanese Brazilians are racially Japanese, have developed a considerable cultural affinity with their ethnic homeland, and are highly-skilled, middle class professionals, such ethnic and socioeconomic advantages seem to be canceled out by the relatively low position of Brazil in the global order, causing them to toil as low status, unskilled migrant laborers on the margins of Japanese society.

Despite its financial rewards, transnational mobility for the Japanese Brazilians has not led to an expansive, cosmopolitan ethnic consciousness, but defensive, nationalist identities in response to social degradation and discrimination in their ethnic homeland. Meanwhile, their nikkeijin counterparts from the United States benefit from their country’s international prestige, as they migrate to their ethnic homeland as a global tourist, educational, and professional elite and are accorded the appropriate social status and respect of nationals at the top of the global order. They have emerged from their migratory experiences with a stronger transnational connection to their ethnic homeland, as well as a greater cosmopolitan confidence to engage in a global world. Likewise, as Takenaka demonstrates in the following chapter, the differential ethnic positioning of Japanese Brazilians versus Japanese Peruvians in Japan based on the higher status of Brazil over Peru in the global order causes these two groups to construct quite different ethnic identities as well.

Interestingly enough, the fateful decision by the Japanese ancestors of the nikkeijin to emigrate from Japan to either the United States or Brazil (or Peru, for that matter) was itself determined by the differential global position of these countries in the world order. Many Japanese emigrated to Brazil because of the discriminatory closing of the United States to further Japanese immigration in response to domestic anti-Japanese sentiment, starting with the “Gentlemen's Agreement” in 1908 and culminating in the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924. Although Brazil experienced a similar anti-Japanese backlash, its government decided not to ban Japanese immigration. Because of its lower international economic and political position, it could not attract sufficient labor migration from Europe, nor did it have the diplomatic stature to risk offending the government of a rising Japanese nation (Lesser 1999:Chapter 4, Tsuda 2001).

In this manner, the historical global inequalities that caused and structured the migration of the Japanese to different countries in the Americas have persisted and continue to determine the migratory opportunities and outcomes of their nikkeijin descendants. The nikkeijin in Brazil (and Peru) have been victimized by Third World economic uncertainty and like their Japanese ancestors before them, have again joined the subordinate class of unskilled labor migrants seeking better economic fortunes at the margins of the global economy.

Meanwhile, the nikkeijin in the United States have enjoyed the economic security of the First World and benefit from America’s global stature when they migrate abroad as highly-skilled students and professionals. Although the scholarly literature often celebrates the transnational hybridity, flexible citizenship, and cosmopolitan identities that are supposedly emerging in an era of globalization (see e.g., Appadurai 1996, Basch, Glick Schiller, and Blanc 1994, Kearney 1991, Ong 1999), it seems that only a privileged class of global elites, mainly from wealthy, First World nations, are able to fully partake in the opportunities of globalization by developing transnational attachments to various countries, multicultural skills, and an ethnically inclusive cosmopolitanism.

Undoubtedly, countries positioned lower in the global order have also participated in the increasingly global movement of populations, but they do so as subordinate and marginalized peoples who reproduce restrictive, local parochial attachments in response to their ethnosocial exclusion in the global ecumene. In this sense, national origins can trump cultural affinity and socioeconomic background in determining the access migrant groups have to global opportunities. Indeed, it seems that ascribed social characteristics such as race, gender, and national origins, more than personal achievements and skills, determine whether global mobility becomes truly liberating or simply perpetuates and exacerbates pre-existing systems of subordination by reproducing them in multiple localities.

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* 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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