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Global Inequities and Diasporic Return: Japanese American and Brazilian Encounters with the Ethnic Homeland: Part 5 of 10

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The global prominence of the United States has also created another, less apparent transnational cultural affinity between Japan and the United States: a small, but younger generation of truly bi-cultural, cosmopolitan Japanese Americans able to be socially accepted in both societies. As Japan become economically prosperous after World War II, large scale Japanese labor migration to the Americas ceased. However, because of its international stature, a small number of Japanese continued to migrate to the United States for educational, professional, or business reasons and a number of them settled permanently.

This produced a new postwar second generation of Japanese American children, a number of whom attended Japanese Saturday schools for the children of Japanese businessmen temporarily residing in the United States. In addition, because their Japanese parents were from a more higher and elite segment of Japanese society (in contrast to earlier Japanese immigrants who were predominantly from poor rural areas), they tended to maintain strong ties to Japan and often traveled back with their children, enabling them to experience both countries.

Unlike the older pre-World War II nisei, who suffered from discrimination, were interned in concentration camps, and felt the need to assimilate and demonstrate their loyalty as Americans, these new second generation nisei grew up in an American society that has come to accept multiculturalism, and where Japan’s postwar rise to global prominence has made it acceptable, if not advantageous to identify with Japan and maintain transnational cultural and social connections to their ethnic homeland in a globalized era where such cross-border affiliations have become quite common.

Three Japanese Americans from my sample were fully bi-lingual and bi-cultural nisei who had traveled often to Japan since childhood and attended Japanese Saturday schools in the United States with Japanese children. For such cosmopolitan individuals,1 Japan was never truly a foreign country and they are able to sufficiently speak and “act Japanese” to the point where they have no trouble being socially accepted in Japan and feel quite comfortable living there. Consider the experiences of Mark, a bi-cultural nisei who had worked in Japan:

My experiences in Japan are quite positive. I can easily switch to a Japanese identity. Otherwise, if you stick out, you make things difficult for yourself there. I know how to be Japanese because growing up, my mom taught me Japanese manners, customs, and spoke both languages to me. I had plenty of Japanese friends growing up and related well to my teachers and peers at Japanese school, so knew what Japanese culture was like. Interacting with Japanese in general is pretty natural for me. So in terms of living in Japan, it was very easy and comfortable for me…It was sort of a reproduction of my Japanese school experiences in the U.S.

In fact, such Japanese Americans have the ability to assert whichever ethnic identity makes their adaptation to Japan easier. “I can be totally accepted as Japanese in Japan if I want,” remarked John, another bi-cultural nisei. “I used to be really sensitive about acting Japanese in Japan. It used to bother me when the Japanese saw me as different. So I felt I had to be more Japanese than other Japanese people. But now I make it clear that I’m different, that I’m American. That’s fine in Japan because so many Japanese come to the states, so they are familiar with the U.S. It makes it easier that way because I don’t have to be Japanese and can act whatever way I want.”

“I make a conscious effort to blend in in Japan and speak mostly Japanese,” said Kiyoshi. “When I talk loudly with my sister in English in the subway, people start looking at you. But there are certain times when I identify as American because I don’t care, and speak English with my sister.”

Because of Brazil’s lower socioeconomic status, it did not attract Japanese middle class and business elites after World War II, nor did it create transnational economic, cultural, or political ties with Japan that would help foster such transnational, bi-culturalism among Japanese Brazilians.

This is not to say there are no bi-lingual second generation Japanese Brazilians. As noted above, the Brazilian nikkeijin have done a better job of maintaining the Japanese language than the Japanese Americans for various reasons. However, most Brazilian nisei did not have opportunities to travel to Japan (until they began doing so as immigrant workers in the late 1980s) or attend special schools with Japanese children from Japan. In some cases, fully bi-cultural Brazilian nisei in Japan felt almost as alienated as their more Brazilianized compatriots, as their socioeconomic marginalization seemed to over ride their Japanese cultural competence.

Part 6 >>


1. According to Ulf Hannerz (1996:Chapter 9), cosmopolitans are people who have cultural competence in foreign societies.

* 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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