The Japanese Diaspora in Japan

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The Japanese Diaspora in Japan
Illustrations by Luan Banzai

This article was originally published in Kyoto Journal 106: Cultural Fluidity, in February 2024.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE JAPANESE?

What does it mean to be Nikkei, a member of the Japanese diaspora? By being simultaneously Japanese and non-Japanese, Nikkei are forcing a re-evaluation of Japanese identity. Japanese identity is complex and often oversimplified, its nuances underappreciated. Through interviews with Nikkei—particularly those who have returned to their an-cestral homeland—I hope to shine a light on their experiences as outliers of Japanese identity, find common threads, and gain a deeper insight into the edges and unspoken essence of Japaneseness—what it means to be Japanese.

The Japanese diaspora represents all walks of life. My interviewees for this article include artists, designers, factory workers, public servants, an investment banker, a farmer, and a Pilates instructor. Some are genetically 100% Japanese, and others are mixed race. Before returning to Japan, they lived in countries including Canada, America, Spain, and Brazil for a minimum of 6 and a maximum of 35 years. Their temporal connections to Japan also vary dramatically. Issei (一世, 1st generation Japanese) are those who were born in Japan but moved abroad (and for the purposes of this article eventually returned to Japan). Nisei (二世, 2nd generation), were born outside of Japan to at least one Issei parent; Sansei (三世, 3rd generation) were born to a Nisei parent, and Yonsei (四世, 4th generation) were born to a Sansei parent. All of these groups are collectively referred to as Nikkei (日系). Although this term is particularly associated with Japanese Brazilians, I use it as a catch-all term for global Japanese who have spent a significant part of their life abroad.

PARALLEL REALITIES

To be Nikkei is to be between two cultures and fighting for your right to belong in both. For those settling abroad as well as those returning to Japan, a similar struggle has unfolded across generations. Many Issei left Japan with few material possessions and limited foreign language skills; their descendants have been returning to Japan and facing a similar fight: to learn a challenging new language, to be accepted, and to build a better life. Different generations of Nikkei vary in values and outlook, but this immigrant struggle is an experience they all relate to.

The Japanese Diaspora in Japan

Nikkei living abroad experience a broad spectrum of Japaneseness. Some grow up immersed in Japanese ethnic enclaves, speaking Japanese at home and on the street, while others have almost no cultural connection to Japan. Some report trying to hide their Japanese culture after being mocked for things like taking shoes off inside or eating sushi. Brazilian Nikkei interviewees described the experience of growing up in a majority-Japanese community. “My family spoke Japanese and Portuguese at home, but on the street, especially with older generations, we often spoke Japanese. Probably 80% of my neighborhood was Nikkei. I studied Japanese at the temple school and ate Japanese food every day. I don’t feel very Brazilian.” With personal, familial, and social identity all built around Japaneseness, the local matsuri festival became a focal point for Nikkei identity, culture, and pride. Tradition and education were tools used to protect Japanese language and culture.

The Japanese Diaspora in Japan

In Japan a parallel reality has been unfolding. Nikkei return to Japan for economic opportunity, safety, accessible healthcare, and affordable cost of living. Often, they are influenced by a golden image of Japan passed down from previous generations and are surprised to discover an unfamiliar country. While returning Nikkei have some familiarity with Japan, they report finding Japanese people less informed of the world outside the archipelago, mentioning that classmates assumed Brazilians “live in the jungle.” Issei returnees found that old friends had become insular, with little curiosity about other cultures. Without common ground, these old relationships withered. Abroad, interviewees are valued for their “Japanese perspective” but in Japan they feel that they are considered unrefined. “In the U.S., I can be the ‘true me’, valued as an individual, but in Japan I’m just a trained monkey.” Instead of rejoining the great Japanese family, many Nikkei find themselves outsiders. Perhaps on realizing they were less Japanese than assumed, their identity re-centered around Brazilianness. The same group of people who were branded ‘Japanese’ by Brazilian society became ‘Brazilian’ in Japan.

Interviewees described living in a Brazilian bubble, with Portuguese being the predominant language spoken in school, work, the home, and stores. These communities are often localized, mostly around auto plants in Aichi and Shizuoka, rather than in major cities. Brazilian food, music, and pastimes like football, Carnaval, and BBQing are unifying symbols of Nikkei Brazilian identity that help them “feel at home.” Far away from their hometowns overseas, Nikkei form surrogate families among neighbors. They describe sharing every experience together: songs, photos, news of the day—both good and bad.

The Japanese Diaspora in Japan

Whether in Japanese or Brazilian ethnic enclaves, Nikkei typically don’t grow up with rigid concepts of nationality or border. By osmosis, they acquire multicultural knowledge from both their ethnic community and majority society. Dekasegi Portuguese, a dialect with a generous helping of Japanese words, is the lingua franca for Latin Americans in Japan. Similarly, the Japanese dialect spoken in Brazil borrows tones and vocabulary from Portuguese. Some Nikkei resonate very deeply with both cultures, describing themselves as amphibians. “I feel neither Brazilian nor Japanese, my nationality depends on the day.” They have stayed connected to their roots while learning from their adopted countries, acquiring a mix of cultural values from the education system and their life experiences. Some Japanese cultural values mentioned include always returning a lost wallet and never taking shortcuts that compromise the quality of work. Western culture taught the value of free expression, thinking for oneself, enjoying life, and openly sharing with others. Being minorities in both countries, many interviewees try not to judge others because they’ve been judged themselves and are passionate about accepting differences.

NEITHER JAPANESE NOR BRAZILIAN

As cultural bridges, Nikkei have managed to straddle two different cultures from opposite sides of the planet, and yet are not considered full members in either. “Nikkei understand Japan better than Brazilians, and Brazil better than Japanese, but we don’t fully belong in either of them.”

One of the downsides to having this bicultural fluency is the challenge of filling in gaps in knowledge of both cultures. Attending a Brazilian school, one interviewee mastered Brazilian history, but has major gaps in Japanese history. This slightly-less-than-perfect cultural competency sometimes has major disadvantages, especially in sensitive areas. Nikkei Americans complain that a lack of fluency in advanced Japanese such as highly formal keigo expressions has limited their success in Japan, by causing them to appear uneducated.
Sometimes students lack fluency in both languages, causing frustration both at home and the classroom, where in turn parents, teachers, and classmates expect complete bilingual competency. The brother of one interviewee suffers from bipolar disorder and struggles to communicate his experience with Japanese and Brazilian psychiatrists alike. He is currently searching for a bicultural mental health professional who can understand his specific circumstance as a person between cultures. His condition makes it challenging to hold a steady job, but because he is not a Japanese citizen, it’s more difficult to get government assistance. He is considering natural-izing as Japanese to get more support.

BARRIERS TO INTEGRATION

Education System

Under Japanese law, foreign children living in Japan aren’t required to be educated. Many Nikkei children fall through the cracks as overworked parents are less able to monitor their attendance. They are often academically behind their Japanese peers. Parents also struggle with the Japanese language and are unable to tutor them, and remedial Japanese classes vary in quality. Cultural misunderstandings and parent-teacher miscommunication are common. Parents complain about the lack of bicultural and bilingual counselors.

There is also the challenge of navigating an education system infamous for bullying; individuals with a katakana name or a mixed-race complexion can be targets. Coming from multicultural countries, the Japanese diaspora feels Nikkei children in Japan are discouraged from speaking other languages or standing out in any way. To fit in, they must deny a large part of who they are. “In Canada there is more internationalism, kids are free to speak other languages. In Japan, kids are shy to stand out by speaking English. My son likes other foreigners because he can talk to them in English.”

The Japanese Diaspora in Japan

Xenophobia
Nikkei’s understanding of the process of immigration comes from stories passed down from Issei, or the lived experience of moving to diverse countries with a greater history of multiculturalism. On returning to Japan, many Nikkei expected Japan to have a similar functional openness to what their Issei forebears experienced but have found Japanese wary of anything not Japanese.

“Brazil was open to Japanese immigrants. People tried to talk to them, even if they couldn’t speak Portuguese and despite some jokes and racism. But in Japan people are afraid of foreigners—scared of anything different—even Japanese Brazilians.”

Japanese culture stresses unity, like a magnet pulling everyone towards the center. Being different goes against this collective identity and associating with foreigners can mark one as different.

“Japan is a xenophobic country. Unlike Brazil and the U.S.—which are composed of immigrants and contain people of all appearances and a mix of many cultures—Japan only opened its borders in the late 1800s due to military pressure. There’s a history of violence against foreigners. Foreigners only came recently. It’s easy to be racist when you’re not used to seeing foreigners.”

In the last 20 years, however, with more and more Nikkei able to speak Japanese, Japan is becoming more accepting, fostering communication and cultural exchange.

Segregation by Language

Language barriers make human barriers. Nikkei typically come to Japan for financial gain, working overtime with the goal of returning home after a few years. They mostly find work in places that don’t require communication in Japanese. With a busy schedule, they have little free time to invest in language study, and don’t require fluency as they can live in a Brazilian enclave. Some Nikkei have been in Japan for 25 years but still can’t communicate because all their needs can be met in Portuguese. One city, Homidanchi, is located deep in an industrial area and is almost completely Brazilian. Most services there can be accessed in Portuguese.

Structural segregation in the workplace also hinders language learning. In many factories, Brazilian and Japanese workers use different entrances and work in different wings of the building. They even wear different uniforms, with Brazilian workers wearing the uniforms of their employment agency and Japanese wearing factory uniforms. Not all companies treat Nikkei workers differently, but many do. Without opportunity or necessity to use the language, workers have little incentive to learn it.

The Japanese Diaspora in Japan

Some cities offer programs to help foreigners, such as translators at city hall, language classes, and public announcements in common immigrant languages. Many Japanese language textbooks emphasize formal, polite Japanese over functional language, but some public servants offer government services in yasashi nihongo (easy Japanese). Exposure to English is also helping to provide a common means of communication. However, almost all Nikkei interviewees described language barriers as a major barrier in their life.

Citizenship and belonging

Nikkei find irony in the fact that they are allowed to live in Japan because of their supposed blood connection to Japan, yet face many obstacles to becoming Japanese citizens, including required tests of language fluency beyond that of even native Japanese speakers. Because the Japanese government doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, Nikkei are forced to either cut their connection to their overseas roots or remain in Japan as permanent residents without the same benefits as citizens. “Some interpretations of Japanese citizenship leave little room for multiculturalism.”

One interviewee compared settling in Japan to the Issei experience of settling abroad. “When my family came to Brazil, they couldn’t speak Portuguese and were very poor, but still could immigrate and become part of the country. Japan still has weird rules about who can be a citizen. Some Japanese don’t accept foreigners into their family, which is uncommon in Brazil.”

Some Issei became dual citizens before Japan eliminated that option. Despite carrying a Japanese passport, many Issei feel more connected to the political values and culture of their adopted country. After decades in Japan, one interviewee’s parents returned to Brazil because they missed the “easy-going culture.” Although there is some discrimination against Nikkei in Brazil, they still feel more at home there. On the other hand, even after marrying into Japanese families, many Nikkei in Japan say that they never feel fully accepted. Many interviewees said they hope to immigrate to Europe or North America because of the barriers to full citizenship and lack of belonging in Japan.

The Japanese Diaspora in Japan

Mistreatment

Nikkei describe mistreatment by Japanese coworkers, some of whom outrightly refuse all communication, but there is also bullying by other Nikkei for acting overly Japanese. Higher-status Nikkei who can speak Japanese more fluently harass their less fluent colleagues to keep competitors down or even sexually harass female workers. Some interviewees complained that Brazilian areas have more trash on the streets, and many fellow Nikkei don’t value Japanese social norms. There are also many positive experiences, however, and great variation in workplace acceptance. If some Nikkei were sick, co-workers offered to take them to the doctor and help fill out forms. On the last day of a work contract, their Japanese colleagues cried. “We made some money here, but we made friends and family more than money.”

WHAT NIKKEI CAN CONTRIBUTE TO JAPAN

Due to their lived experience abroad, Nikkei are a natural link between two cultures. They can broaden awareness in both societies, creating opportunities for cross-cultural pollination beneficial to Japan.

Nikkei are often vocally passionate about topics Japanese typically avoid discussing publicly, such as politics and religion. Some interviewees intend to become Japanese citizens primarily to obtain voting rights. One enterprising Nikkei claims that “Japanese society stays as advanced as the preferences of old men.” Others want to stimulate a deeper reflection on life and its meaning through spirituality and religion. Shaking up business leadership is another area of contribution. One Japanese startup founder credits the Nikkei community with teaching him to take risks, value an international team, and challenge the unwritten rules and assumptions that guide Japanese behavior.

Nikkei are the ubiquitous and invisible labor that keeps Japan running. For example, the ready-to-eat meals sold at convenience stores across Japan are often cooked by Nikkei and other immigrants. “Japanese contributed a lot to the economic development of Brazil and other countries, working on coffee plantations, farming, and building infrastructure. Likewise, Nikkei contribute to Japan’s economic vitality.”

Especially compared with Latin Americans, the Japanese are not known for their warmth or emotional openness. Interviewees expressed discomfort with the rigid stoicism and lack of emotional intelligence in Japan and have worked to reduce the stigma of direct expressions of feelings. “People in Brazil emotionally help each other. Sometimes you need a hug, need to cry. Japanese aren’t open to sharing their feelings—they don’t hug, kiss, or hold hands. Nikkei can give affection.” Perhaps due in part to this openness, Nikkei Brazilian suicide rates in Japan are lower than the national average. Nikkei often become impromptu life coaches. Understanding both physical and emotional pain, one Pilates instructor’s clients sometimes cry for hours, as a result of finding themselves in an empathetic environment. She often coaches Japanese women to be independent and take charge of their own lives by sharing the wisdom of her international experience. One interviewee mentioned that he goes out of his way to share his culture’s food and music, simply because “Life is not about sadness, but about learning and sharing. Brazil is a ‘sunshine country’, bringing happiness, coffee, food, samba, and Carnaval. We want to show the good things that all countries have in common.” This forth-right and exuberant connection can help dispel misunderstandings, open minds, and improve Japanese mental health.

JAPAN SHIFTING OPEN

As cultural bridges, Nikkei have helped lay the foundation for Japan to become a more diverse society. Recently, other intercultural exchange through social media, such as the Korean Wave, have also stimulated curiosity and engagement. This increased international contact is gradually opening Japan to the world.

Historically, Japan undergoes rapid cultural change only under duress. After living decades abroad, one Ikkei returnee remarked, “Japan is still stuck in the Showa era, (which ended in the late 1980s) only the surface has changed.” In contrast to superficial changes like fashion, deep cultural change is made only as a last resort. “Unlike in other countries, some Japanese never change their opinion, even if it hurts them.”

Economic necessity is driving diversity. Many believe that maintaining Japan’s current standard of living without any immigration is virtually impossible. The elderly are the majority in Japan, and they vote in lawmakers who maintain the status quo. As one Nikkei reported, “Despite the international image, Japanese people don’t care about efficiency or the tangible benefits of a policy. They don’t like change. Instead, Japan is forced to accept immigrants in order to maintain their current levels of prosperity.” Ironically, the retirement and pensions supporting these older generations fuel the economic need for immigrant workers. Accepting immigrants helps Japan avoid catastrophic changes in quality of life.

Nikkei play a profound role in the future of Japan. They force a re-definition of Japanese identity and challenge the myth of Japanese uniformity—that all Japanese people share the same genetics, language, culture, and nationality. In the 21st century, a broader and deeper definition of Japaneseness is emerging that is compatible with multiculturalism.

THE FOUNDATIONS OF FUTURE JAPANESE IDENTITY, ACCORDING TO NIKKEI

Japanese identity is not monolithic. It is diverse enough to encompass various sub-groups such as Okinawans and Hafu. Other groups could also be included under the Japanese banner. To Nikkei, the core of Japanese identity isn’t strictly genetic, but is tied to a lived experience both physical and mental. Is it in the posture of how you hold your body, perhaps earned by many years kneeling on tatami? Is it in listening deeply—to others, to situations, to the seasons? Is it cultural knowledge, such as the omotenashi spirit of hospitality? It can’t be explained, only lived. “There is no such thing as a ‘Japanese person’, only people ‘living Japanese culture’.”


LUAN BANZAI is a Kyoto-based Brazilian artist whose work ranges from drawing and painting to dance, film, animation and live performances. www.luanbanzai.org