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Japanese Brazilian Return Migration and the Making of Japan's Newest Immigrant Minority

Japanese Brazilian Return Migration and the Making of Japan's Newest Immigrant Minority

Dr. Takeyuki Tsuda (UC San Diego) asks: Are Japanese Brazilian Migrants in Japan a Transnational Community?

By Richard Gunde

Their views of Brazil, which may have been quite critical when they resided in Brazil, became quite positive when they resided in Japan.

Early in the twentieth century a combination of factors -- a demand for labor for Brazil's booming coffee plantations, the U.S. exclusion of Asian immigration beginning in 1924, the Japanese government's encouragement of emigration (beginning in 1925 the government subsidized the travel expenses of emigrants), and others -- created the conditions for a wave of Japanese immigration to Brazil. From the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, the heyday of the immigration, boatloads of Japanese immigrants, entire families, offloaded in Brazil's ports almost on a daily basis. Today Brazilians of Japanese descent number 1.3 million, by far the world's largest group of Nikkeijin ("overseas people of Japanese descent").

By the 1980s, however, the flow began to reverse direction. A deep and prolonged economic crisis in Brazil combined with the arrival of a spectacular boom in Japan (the so-called Japanese miracle) plus a sympathetic government policy (the Japanese authorities welcome Nikkeijin migrants with very liberal immigration policies) drew many Japanese Brazilians -- the vast majority of them second and third generation -- to Japan. Most came intending merely to sojourn in Japan, perhaps for two or three years, to make some money, and in due course to return to Brazil with their savings in hand. Some, however, for various reasons have stayed on in Japan; a few have decided to settle there permanently. Today, Brazilians resident in Japan number around 250,000, making them the second largest foreign population in Japan.

A Japanese-Brazilian Economy

Japanese Brazilian migrants remit to Brazil around US$2 billion each year, an amount equivalent to around 6 percent of Brazil's export trade. Obviously, such a contribution is of huge importance to the Brazilian economy.

The contribution Japanese Brazilians make to the Japanese economy may be harder to measure, but is undoubtedly of great significance. During the bubble years of the 1980s, Japan suffered from a labor shortage. An obvious solution might have been to import migrant labor from nearby Asian countries. And, to some, limited extent, this was done. However, there was a strong cultural preference -- which was translated into policy -- for ethnically Japanese migrants, if such were available. The Japanese government, and the people too, by and large tended to believe that Japan is a special, "different," even "unique" society, and one that outsiders cannot really understand deeply. Therefore, it was felt that importing foreign migrant workers would inevitably lead to serious problems: an inability to communicate (since few non-Japanese speak Japanese, and few Japanese speak anything but Japanese, or Japanese plus a smattering of English) with all the problems that entails, a growth in crime, pollution of the Japanese cultural landscape (with behaviors and values antithetical to those cherished in Japan), and so on.

Thus, migrant Nikkeijin from Brazil seemed to be an excellent solution. They were, after all, ethnically Japanese, and presumably they understood, to some degree, Japanese culture, they could (it was hoped) speak some Japanese, and they believed in, and could act according to, Japanese customs and values (at least to a reasonable extent).

This image that Japanese held of Nikkeijin from Brazil was mirrored by the image that Japanese Brazilians had of Japan, and of themselves. In Brazil, Nikkeijin were perceived as a socially prominent and culturally respected positive minority. Moreover, Nikkeijin themselves maintained a prominent "Japanese" minority identity. Although Japanese Brazilians experienced considerable social integration and cultural assimilation, they continue to be strongly differentiated as an ethnic minority, one that is esteemed by most Brazilians for their supposed positive, "Japanese" cultural attributes, their affiliation with the highly respected First World nation of Japan, and their middle class socioeconomic and educational status. It is safe to say that Japanese Brazilian migrants tended to think that they would fit in Japanese society fairly well.

In fact, things did not turn out that way. The expectations of both native Japanese and Japanese Brazilian migrants were not met.

Japanese Brazilians: A Transnational Community?

In a talk presented for the Center for Japanese Studies on January 26, Takeyuki Tsuda (associate director of the Center for Immigration Studies, UC San Diego) discussed the identity of Japanese Brazilian migrants. Based on twenty months of fieldwork -- including nine months conducting interviews in Brazil and one year of interviews and of participant observation in Japan -- Dr. Tsuda concluded that Japanese Brazilian migrants do not often develop a transnational identity, that is, a strong, positive feeling of attachment, and belonging, to (in this case) two nations. They do not, in other words, characteristically surrender their old identity and adopt a new, transnational ethnic identity. Instead, their experiences in Japan tend to make Brazilian Japanese feel more Brazilian and less Japanese.

Dr. Tsuda suggested that this outcome is the result of both the characteristics of the Japanese Brazilians and the characteristics of the Japanese. Most Japanese Brazilian migrants are second and third generation, and so are both subjectively and objectively assimilated to Brazilian culture. They speak little -- often very little -- Japanese. And typically whatever Japanese they may speak is nonstandard and perceived by native Japanese as countrified and "low class." Actually, most Japanese Brazilian migrants are well educated, and were white-collar workers or businessmen in Brazil. However, because of their limited Japanese, and other factors, with few exceptions the only work in Japan they are qualified for are low skill and low status positions, such as assembly line work. Although such work pays five to ten times what the migrants had earned in Brazil as members of the middle class, the downward social mobility nonetheless wounds their pride. It also reduces their status in the eyes of the native Japanese.

More than that, some Japanese Brazilian migrants believe that their job assignments are a form of discrimination. In other words, they believe they are given the most menial, backbreaking, unpleasant work because of who they are. Dr. Tsuda reported, however, that according to his observations this was not so. It is true that the jobs are a comedown from what they enjoyed in Brazil, but lacking fluency in Japanese they do not qualify for better jobs. In any case, the perception of discrimination is enough to drive a wedge between native Japanese and Japanese Brazilian migrants.

In addition, significant differences in customs divide native Japanese from Brazilian Nikkei migrants. Generally speaking, Japanese culture values behavior that is quiet, restrained, and subdued. Aesthetics echoes these characteristics. Needless to say, none of these adjectives comes immediately to mind when one thinks of Brazil.

The differences are complicated by the way Japanese situate Nikkei migrants vis-à-vis other foreign residents. This is largely a matter of the expectations of the Japanese. Since Japanese do not expect foreigners to understand Japanese culture and society, they do not expect them to follow Japanese customs. They do, of course, expect them to respect Japanese customs, and thus not engage in behavior that would be considered disgraceful, reprehensible, or even illegal. Short of that, a great deal of leeway is accorded foreigners. Thus, many behaviors that almost all Japanese would consider inappropriate (for Japanese) might be not merely tolerated in foreigners, but positively celebrated as interesting and exotic.

The problem here is the ambiguous status of Nikkeijin migrants. At least initially, in the 1980s, Japanese tended to view the migrants as sufficiently Japanese that they should be subject to more or less the same mores as native Japanese. Thus, the migrants were not entitled to the same tolerance of difference accorded to most other foreigners. Inappropriate behavior that Japanese might find amusing in foreigners -- since such behavior could be excused as the result of ignorance -- they would find not the least bit amusing in Nikkeijin migrants, since they should know better. Even in bearing and demeanor -- the way one carries oneself, the way one walks, one's physical gestures, and so on, all of which is of course deeply engrained and usually totally unconscious -- Japanese Brazilians could be perceived as transgressing. This then became another wedge driving the two communities apart.

Samba in Oizumi-machi

In reaction to the virtual impossibility of "fitting it," Japanese Brazilian migrants tend to accentuate their otherness. This they accomplish by public displays that clearly set them apart from native Japanese: wearing gaudy (by Japanese standards) clothing, talking loudly (in Portuguese), greeting each other with kisses, and so on. Such behavior marks them as "foreign," a result that is, Dr. Tsuda argued, exactly what they want.

Interestingly, these public displays are often studied and staged. Dr. Tsuda spoke of performances of samba on the streets of Japan. Many of the participants do not know how to dance the samba, do not care much for the samba, and in fact may even disdain the samba. However, performing the samba is, of course, an effective way of demonstrating their foreignness. Thus, people who would never think of dancing the samba when they were in Brazil, join in the samba when in Japan.

Subjectively, most Japanese Brazilian migrants also come to highlight their "Brazilness." Dr. Tsuda's interviewees often spoke of how the question of identity did not much enter their mind until they came to Japan. Then, in Japan, constantly faced with issues of identity, interviewees came not just to feel Brazilian but to revel in it. Their views of Brazil, which may have been quite critical when they resided in Brazil, became quite positive when they resided in Japan. Such people, Dr. Tsuda concluded, do not fit the usual notion of a transnational community.

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Takeyuki Tsuda received his B.A. in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1990 and his Ph.D. in anthropology in 1997 from the University of California, Berkeley. For his dissertation research, he conducted close to two years of fieldwork in both Japan and Brazil. Dr. Tsuda is now the associate director of Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of, among others, Strangers in the Ethnic Homeland: Japanese Brazilian Return Migration in Transnational Perspective (Columbia University Press, March 2003). Dr. Tsuda may be reached at

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies