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Diasporas that challenge a uniform national identity: Japanese in modern times

Diasporas that challenge a uniform national identity: Japanese in modern times

The 2014 Global Forum of the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies considered Japanese diasporas past and present, their role in history and their relationship to one another.

UCLA International Institute, May 20, 2014 — On May 9, 2014, the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies held its third annual Global Forum. This year’s meeting was the first of three that will address Japan’s engagement with the modern world.

This year’s conference brought together seven scholars to discuss their latest research on various Japanese historical diaspora; including Japanese immigrants to the West and their connections with colonial settlers, as well as with contemporary Japanese immigrant communities from Brazil to New Orleans to China.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block opened the forum by recalling a trip to Sendai shortly after the March 2011 disasters, where he was “moved and impressed by the resilience of its survivors.” Block also acknowledged Japan’s significant contributions to international “artistic, economic and cultural fields.”

Cindy Fan, interim vice provost for international studies, noted the Terasaki Center’s important role within and beyond UCLA, as it continues to “[h]elp find new ways to think about Japan, as well as new ways to think about the world.” Terasaki Center Director Hitoshi Abe discussed the Terasaki Center’s Global Japan Initiative as a “forward-facing mission that will guide the next three years’ forums, as well as many of our other projects and grants.”

Beyond area and ethnic studies

The panelists’ research cut across continental and chronological lines, but all of their presentations approached traditional disciplines, boundaries of scholarship or presumed national identities as subjects that warranted more critical examination.

Throughout the day, discussants returned to University of Pennsylvania history professor Eiichiro Azuma’s challenge: how to effectively bridge the theoretical and practical divides that exist between the deeply interrelated yet distinct fields of ethnic and area studies.

Azuma’s research presented one example of what such scholarship might look like. His presentation focused on early Japanese immigrants to the United States and their influence on Japanese settler colonialism in Asia?. “I argue,” he said, “that these ideas [of transporting masses of Japanese across thousands of miles] can be traced back to young Japanese intellectuals who crossed the Pacific to California and to a lesser degree, Hawaii.”

Sidney Xu Lu, assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, followed this line of inquiry by presenting a current book project on relationships between Japanese empire building in Asia and trans-Pacific migrants. He specifically introduced the concept of diasporic colonialism, which “captures the flows and linkages of Japanese migration [on] both sides of the Pacific, and reveals the often blurred boundaries between diaspora and colonialism in the overall history of Japanese empire.”

Gregory Robinson, of the University of Québec at Montréal, traced Japan’s relationship with Louisiana from the early 20th century through the 1990s. Beginning with one of Japan’s earliest and most distinguished cultural translators, Lafcadio Hearn, Robinson revealed the interplay of rising and falling racial tensions, material desires and mutual cultural fascination that drove and later thwarted Japanese immigration to Louisiana.

Tricia Toyota, who teaches in UCLA’s Asian American Studies and anthropology departments, placed Los Angeles’ newest migrants from Japan, shin-issei, in the specific historical moment of Japan’s post-bubble economy: “These shin-issei — a mostly female, middle-class group — have been able to build and utilize networks in the United States to their gain, and mostly work at Japanese companies’ U.S. branches.”

Toyota contended that these workers’ situations were tenuous, as they are dependent on the continued prosperity of Japanese import-export companies. “What will happen to these immigrants if and when these Japanese companies start to pull out of U.S. markets?” she asked.

Past and present identities

Another discussion that continued over the course of the day considered how different inflections of Japanese identities are created by different global and regional economies and cultures, exposing the Japanese national as a historically contingent category.

Emory University’s Jeffrey Lesser presented his research on the complex processes of identity formation among Japanese Brazilians, the flows of information and goods that informs their lived experience and how they “maintain a hyphenated identity within a national culture.” Lesser challenged the notion of the ethnic “community,” noting “the idea of the community is not adopted by most of the population. It’s often a concept of the elite within the population.”

The field work of Arizona State University Anthropology Professor Takeyuki “Gaku” Tsuda on yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese-American descendants, addressed this generation’s relationship to Japan, as well as to other populations that originated in Japan. “We find among the yonsei attempts as diasporic recovery” he said, together with strong interest in Japanese popular culture. Tsuda explained that this younger generation feels little affinity for other global, or even other American, Japanese diaspora.

Stanford University’s Jun Uchida’s microhistory of the travel journal of an Omi merchant turned department store owner’s examined the varied and even competing loci of regional versus national identities brought about by overseas expansion during Japan’s Meiji Era. Though the purpose of her subject’s journey was to learn about American business and sales practices for the overseas expansion of the Meiji government, Uchida stressed that the man’s journals were nonetheless “recorded from the distinct perspective of an Omi merchant.”

UCLA’s Leiba Faier, professor of geography, and Mariko Tamanoi, professor of anthropology, moderated the panels.

In his closing remarks, Seiji Lippit, associate director of the Terasaki Center and professor of Japanese literature at UCLA, reflected, “The very innovative presentations and discussions from today underscore the urgency and possibility in shaping the future of Japanese studies. . . I hope we can provide a space where these discussions can continue to take place in the years to come.”