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Global Inequities and Diasporic Return: Japanese American and Brazilian Encounters with the Ethnic Homeland: Part 6 of 10

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Because the Japanese Brazilians and Americans feel a certain nostalgic, emotional attachment to their ancestral homelands as ethnic return migrants, their disparate diasporic homecomings have some important long-term implications for their ethnic identities. This contrasts with other types of immigrants who move to completely foreign countries to which they feel little affiliation and ethnocultural commonality.

Although the Japanese Brazilians in Brazil had developed a stronger transnational attachment to Japan than the Japanese Americans before return migration, when faced with socioeconomic and ethnic marginalization in their ancestral homeland, they distance themselves from the Japanese and reinforce their Brazilian, nationalist sentiments, which often becomes a defensive ethnic counter-identity asserted against Japanese society (see Capuano de Oliveira 1999:292-301, Koga 1995, Linger 2001: Chapter 6, Sasaki 1999:268-269, Tsuda 2003:Chapter 3, Watanabe 1995:99). Ironically, the Japanese Americans, who are more assimilated in the U.S. and feel less attachment to their ethnic homeland, develop a greater appreciation of their ethnic roots in Japan as well as a more accommodating, transnational and cosmopolitan identity in response to their much more positive ethnic homecoming.

The Japanese Brazilians: Deterritorialized Migrant Nationalism and the Search for Homeland Abroad

Before return migrating to Japan, the Japanese Brazilians felt a stronger affiliation with their ethnic homeland, not only because they are more recent immigrant minorities than the Japanese Americans, but also because of the relative global positioning of Third World Brazil to First World Japan. The Japanese Brazilians are generally well-regarded by mainstream Brazilians for their educational and socioeconomic achievements in Brazil, as well as their affiliation with the highly respected First World country of Japan and the positive cultural stereotypes about the Japanese that accompany it.

In turn, the Brazilian nikkeijin take pride in their Japanese descent and cultural heritage and identified rather strongly with positive images of Japan and Japanese culture. While acknowledging their status as Brazilian nationals, they maintain a transnational ethnic identification as “Japanese” in Brazil and believe they have retained many positive aspects of their ethnic heritage (Tsuda 2003:Chapter 1).

As a result, when the Brazilian nikkeijin return migrate, they are quite disconcerted as their Japaneseness is apparently denied in their ethnic homeland, causing them to strengthen their nationalist sentiments as Brazilians. Although they have been officially welcomed by the Japanese government as co-ethnic Japanese descendants, they are ethnically excluded in Japan because of a restrictive Japanese identity in which Japaneseness is defined not only by racial descent, but complete linguistic and cultural proficiency as well. As a result, despite their Japanese descent, the Japanese Brazilians are treated as foreigners in Japan because of their Brazilian cultural differences.

When talking about their migrant experiences, they frequently say “we were considered Japanese in Brazil, but are seen as Brazilian foreigners here in Japan.” Their previous assumptions of cultural commonality with the Japanese are seriously questioned as they realize that their supposedly “Japanese” cultural attributes, which were sufficient to be considered “Japanese” in Brazil, are woefully insufficient to qualify as Japanese in Japan, or even to be socially accepted. The remarks of one second generation nikkeijin man was representative of this type of experience:

We think we are Japanese in Brazil, but in Japan, we find out that we were wrong. If you act differently and don’t speak Japanese fluently, the Japanese say you are a Brazilian. To be considered Japanese, it is not sufficient to have a Japanese face and eat with chopsticks. You must think, act, and speak just like the Japanese.

Many Japanese Brazilians therefore realize in Japan that they are culturally much more Brazilian than they ever were “Japanese,” leading to a nationalization of their ethnic identity. For instance, although they had frequently noted their more quiet and restrained, if not shier “Japanese” demeanor in Brazil, they discover in Japan that their manner of walking, dressing, and gesturing is strikingly different from the Japanese. It was quite remarkable that virtually all of my informants claimed that it is extremely easy to tell the Japanese Brazilians apart from the Japanese on the streets because of such differences. For instance, consider the following statement by Tadashi, a good friend of mine at Toyama:

I can see a [Japanese] Brazilian coming from a mile away with about 90 percent certainty…The Brazilians walk casually with a more carefree gait and glance around at their surroundings and they are dressed casually in T-shirts and jeans. The Japanese are more formally dressed and walk in a more rushed manner. The Brazilians also gesture much more than Japanese and walk around in groups, whereas the Japanese are usually alone.

The shift in ethnic identity among the nikkeijin from an initially stronger Japanese consciousness in Brazil to an increased nationalist awareness of their Brazilianness is also a response to their experiences of social alienation in Japan. Because of their strong personal affiliation with their ethnic homeland, many expect to be socially accepted by the Japanese in a manner consistent with an ethnic “homecoming” of Japanese descendants. As a result, when such expectations are sorely disappointed by their ethnic rejection as culturally alien foreigners and socioeconomic marginalization as low status, unskilled migrant workers in Japan, the Brazilian nikkeijin feel quite alienated, as shown by their numerous reactions of disillusionment and even dismay.

A good number of my Japanese Brazilian informants were surprised, if not “shocked” by their ethnic and social marginalization in Japan. My roommate, Rodney, was certainly one of them:

In Brazil, we were always proud of our Japanese ancestry and our ties to Japan and thought of the Japanese people in positive ways. Although I don’t speak Japanese that well, I thought the Japanese would accept us because we are Japanese descendants. Coming to Japan and being treated as a foreigner despite my Japanese face was a big shock for me, a shock I’ll never forget. I think it’s unfair that we are not socially accepted here simply because we’ve become culturally different.

I was also struck by the number of times the Brazilian nikkeijin referred to their social segregation in Japan as “discrimination” or even used the more ethnically charged term of “racism.” For example, consider the comments of an older nikkeijin man:

The Japanese always keep us separated from them because of the prejudices that they have. I was offended when I first saw the social separation at Toyama. There are some Japanese who simply don’t like us and don’t trust us because we are Brazilian. If you don’t understand Japanese culture and act just like the Japanese, they discriminate against you and you can’t enter their group. The Japanese are racists, so even the [Japanese] Brazilians experience discrimination here.

Part 7 >>

* 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

dekasegi identity Japan japanese american Japanese Brazilian