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Global Inequities and Diasporic Return: Japanese American and Brazilian Encounters with the Ethnic Homeland: Part 7 of 10

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The social alienation that Japanese Brazilian ethnic return migrants experience in Japan therefore completely undermines their previously favorable images of and nostalgic attachment to their ethnic homeland of Japan. As Japan comes to take on a quite negative meaning for them, many of them emotionally distance themselves from the country and no longer experience it as an ethnic homeland.

Homeland is not simply a place of origin—it must be imbued with positive emotional affect as a place of desire and longing to which the individual feels a strong sense of attachment and identification (cf. Al-Ali and Koser 2002:7). Therefore, even though Japan technically remains the country of ethnic and ancestral origin for the Japanese Brazilians in an objective sense, it is no longer associated with the feelings of affiliation and fondness that make homelands subjectively meaningful.

As the Japanese Brazilians are alienated from their ethnic homeland of Japan, they strengthen their nationalist attachment to Brazil as the natal homeland where they truly belong and originated. In this manner, their country of birth is reconceptualized in nationalist terms as the true homeland in contrast to their country of ethnic origin. Milton, one of my good friends at Toyama, expressed this common sentiment:

We come to Japan and realize Japan is not our country. It is the country of our parents and grandparents. Although we are Japanese descendants, we don’t belong here. We can’t enter Japanese society because the Japanese don’t accept us. Instead, our country is Brazil. It is where we were born and where we grew up.

However, Brazil does not become the true homeland for the Brazilian nikkeijin simply because they have been denied their ethnic homeland in Japan. In order for a country of origin to become subjectively meaningful and significant as a real homeland, and therefore as a source of nationalist identity, it must be viewed in a positive and desirable manner.

For the Japanese Brazilians, Brazil emerges as the true homeland through the migration process because it is imbued with positive meaning and affect when contrasted with the negative social experiences they have in Japan (cf. Linger 2001:266-267). When they return migrate and are confronted by the exclusionary nature of Japanese society that marginalizes even Japanese descendants, they begin to value and appreciate the ethnically receptive and inclusive nature of multi-ethnic Brazil to a much greater extent than before. The supposedly cold and impersonal nature of Japanese social relationships causes many of them to reminisce (almost nostalgically) about the emotionally warm and affectionate social relationships they had in Brazil.

Others (especially nikkeijin women) also note the gender inequality prevalent in Japan, both at the workplace and in spousal relationships in contrast to which they portray Brazil as a society of more equality and mutual respect among the sexes. Other aspects of the Japanese which are frequently brought up for specific criticism are their excessive dedication to work and company at the expense of fulfilling family or social lives, their group conformity and obedience, and the overly restrictive and structured nature of their lives, which many nikkeijin again contrast with their more favorable social experiences of Brazilians and their ability to enjoy life.1

In this manner, as they discover many of the negative aspects of Japan and distance themselves from their previous ethnic identification as “Japanese,” the Japanese Brazilians simultaneously rediscover and reaffirm the positive aspects of Brazil that they had previously taken for granted, which produces a renewed appreciation of their status as Brazilian nationals.

As Brazil is favorably reconstituted in this manner by the Japanese Brazilians abroad, it no longer remains simply an affectively neutral place of birth, but suddenly becomes an emotionally charged, almost idealized object of desire worthy of a true homeland. As a result, many of them ironically feel a greater sense of nationalist loyalty and identification with Brazil in Japan than they ever did in Brazil.

Some of my informants (especially those who had been living in Japan for several years) recalled their natal homeland with rather fond memories. Although the Japanese Brazilians were frequently critical of many aspects of Brazilian society back home, I observed a notable tendency among them to praise Brazil in Japan, even to an exaggerated extent. Brazil is still characterized as a country with serious political, economic, and social problems, but other aspects of Brazil are spoken of highly and contrasted favorably with Japan, such as its people, culture, material living conditions, natural resources and agriculture, sports heroes, and food. One of my informants spoke about this positive reassessment of Brazil in the clearest terms:

Brazilians always think other countries are much better. The Japanese Brazilians saw Japan in this way too. But now, I realize we were wrong. We didn’t know what we had in Brazil. There is no better place than Brazil to live, especially because we were born there and have no cultural problems. The people are better there and so are the conditions of living. I value Brazil much more now.

Some Brazilian nikkeijin in Japan even used affect-laden terms such a nationalism, patriotism, and love to express their renewed, emotional affiliation to their natal homeland. “In Brazil, I never gave too much value to the country, but now I do,” a sansei woman said. “I feel more patriotism towards Brazil.” Another declared: “my sentiments for my homeland of Brazil and my love for the country will never leave me no matter how long I stay in Japan.” Others expressed similar feelings.

A number of Japanese Brazilians also assert their Brazilian nationalist identities in their daily behavior as an ethnic minority counter-identity in opposition to a negatively-perceived Japanese society. This ranges from constantly identifying themselves as a Brazilian foreigners to avoid being mistaken as Japanese, to more overt, if not defiant, demonstrations of their cultural Brazilianness by wearing “Brazilian” clothes, speaking Portuguese loudly in public, dancing samba in the streets, and “acting Brazilian” in other ways (Tsuda 2003:Chapter 5).

This greater sense of Brazilian national allegiance and pride among the nikkeijin in Japan is also symbolized by the prominent display of the Brazilian flag in their ethnic stores and restaurants, although the flag is hardly ever displayed in Brazil.2 During the 2002 World Cup (held in Japan and Korea), thousands of Japanese Brazilians waving the Brazilian flag and dressed in national colors showed up in stadiums all over Japan to cheer on their national team, causing the American TV broadcasters to wonder why so many “Japanese” were so fervently rooting for the Brazilian team!3

In this manner, the dislocations of migration can produce a form of deterritorialized nationalism where national loyalties to natal homelands are articulated outside the territorial boundaries of the nation-state. In fact, countries of birth are often discovered and articulated as homelands in the process of migration and travel (cf. Clifford 1997) since it is frequently absence from a place of origin which allows it to be conceptualized as a homeland. Migrants’ encounters with foreign societies frequently disrupt the taken-for-granted nature of their own country, causing them to re-evaluate it in a much more favorable light when compared to the negative experiences of social rejection and alienation abroad. This produces a greater sense of national allegiance and identification toward the country of origin as the true homeland.

Part 8 >>


1. It is quite evident that the negative perceptions that the Brazilian nikkeijin develop of Japan are being structured by some common stereotypes of the Japanese and Brazilians.
2. The only exception is during the World Cup when the Brazilian flag is sold by the thousands and is literally plastered on every store, office, home, car, and T-shirt.
3. The explanation they finally came up with is that because of the number of Brazilians playing on Japanese teams, Brazilian soccer has quite a following in Japan.

* 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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