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In search of a new life and identity Down Under

by Sara Harris

FAREWELL TO NIPPON: Japanese Lifestyle Migrants in Australia, by Machiko Sato. Japanese Society Series, Trans Pacific Press, 2001, 161 pp., $29 (paper)

At the turn of the millennium, the number of Japanese permanent residents in Australia surpassed 30,000, the highest figure since emigration Down Under took off some 30 years ago. These individuals, argues the author of this slim new volume, belong to a new generation of “lifestyle migrants,” who move abroad for pleasure or to experience relative freedom from social restrictions, unlike their predecessors, who migrated for economic reasons. A writer and resident of Australia since 1973, Sato interviewed nearly 200 immigrants for her award-winning 1993 book “Shin kaigai teiju jidai: Osutoraria no Nihonjin,” the basis for the English volume under review.

The original was likely recognized for the impressive range of people Sato interviewed and the remarkable variety of their experiences. She writes of the government health official and in-demand WHO consultant who struggled early on to prove her credentials, reflects on the change in cultural mind-set it must have taken for the university professor to become a happily dish-washing husband, and rejoices with the children’s-book illustrator who found her way out of solitude through art. There is the story of the young chef who didn’t let a night in jail dampen his ambition to one day own a restaurant in Melbourne, the woman who took a stand against her violent, alcoholic husband, and the missionaries who established a church amid abuse from the surrounding community. The more than 30 stories in the book are always compelling.

Their presentation, however, leaves much to be desired. Although the interviews are grouped into five chapters (focusing on women migrants, professional women, how class can affect the immigration experience, cross-cultural marriages and a miscellaneous chapter with no clear theme), too often the narrative doesn’t support these divisions. In places the interviews read simply like a list of individual experiences, one jumping to the next with little to smooth the transition. While immigrants’ anecdotes and observations provide food for thought, the lack of narrative structure and direction within the text tend to obscure Sato’s overall arguments.

The grouping of the interviews also fails to reflect the theme that Sato seems to have wanted to explore the most: cultural identity. She returns, indirectly, to this theme again and again, highlighting immigrants’ observations and opinions of how Japanese tourists act, differences between Japanese and Australian attitudes to work, love and family, and the “national characteristics” of other immigrants or ethnic Australian communities. Whether immigrants and their children feel they are “Japanese” or “Australian” is a recurring question. To what extent can we group people by their cultural habits or tendencies? And how does the experience of immigration change one’s cultural identity? Such questions deserved treatment on their own terms.

The problems of structure are compounded by a number of errors. Some are minor: Surely the 20-year-old has not “just graduated from high school,” nor does one couple’s Japanese language classes begin Saturdays at 1:30 a.m.

Others are more serious — points which may have been clear in the original, but confuse the English reader. For one, the use of the term “permanent resident” is unclear. Sometimes it seems to be interchangeable with “lifestyle migrant.” Many of the early interviews are with women who have clearly settled in for the long term. And of course the title of the book itself implies a lasting “sayonara!” Yet Sato’s circumstantial evidence indicates that a minority consider the move truly permanent. A clarification of the terms used would have helped.

The most confounding statement, however, is in Chapter 4, which begins, “The biggest problem that Japanese migrants face on their arrival in Australia is undoubtedly the lack of an official organization to assist Japanese migrants.” It is followed, however, by a mini-history of the National Australia-Japan Club, which, as Sato describes it, is a resource for both long-term and newly arrived residents. She insists that this network of national and state-based associations is a contrast with the situation in Australia’s Italian community, whose “sheer size . . . has led to the establishment of many formal and informal support networks,” but it is never made clear how.

Alternatively shocking, frustrating, amusing, saddening and heartwarming, this collection of interviews makes compelling reading, but falls short of packing the kind of punch it could have.