In August 2014 I moved to Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, and started working as an assistant language teacher at a high school through the JET Programme. Over time, I have come to know many different cultural communities outside of the usual Western expat circles. I would also interact with yonsei (fourth-generation) Nikkei Brazilian and Peruvian students daily and hear about their experiences in adapting to Japanese society.

As a first-generation Pakistani-American who grew up in an immigrant community myself, these students’ stories resonated with me and inspired me to pursue ethnographic research here. Since 2016 I have been researching the lives of Brazilian and Peruvian residents throughout the Tokai region and Okinawa. In particular, those who were born and raised in Japan face many challenges, ranging from prejudice and discrimination to a lack of access to fairly paid jobs and higher education.

This past August I heard about an upcoming event in Hamamatsu called The Gaijin Day. The pre-publicity for the event went viral in many expat groups on social media, and posts were flooded with comments. If the organizers chose to call this event Gaijin Day to get attention, it certainly worked. When I attempted to ask the organizers, the Executive Committee of Gaijin Day, about the reasoning behind the name, the person on the other end of the line hung up on me.

At first, I thought that the name meant that foreign artists would be flying into the country to take part, but the majority of the performers turned out to be sansei (third-generation Nikkei) and yonsei. Referring to such an established part of the Japanese diaspora as “gaijin” — meaning “foreigners” or “outsiders” — was at the very least inaccurate and, at most, deeply offensive.

While reading through some of the comments backing the idea of referring to the performers as “gaijin,” I realized that some responders, Japanese and foreign, were unaware of the history and legacy of Japanese immigrant communities. Many of the sansei and yonsei were born and raised in Japan and speak Japanese as their first language. Most of my students from these communities have never been to their parents’ or grandparents’ “home” countries. Their cultural identity is significantly Japanese, yet they are routinely labeled as “gaijin” simply because they have multicultural or multiethnic backgrounds.

Some members of the Nikkei communities here may not be offended by the label because they arrived in Japan as adults. However, those who were born and raised here identify strongly with Japanese culture. These nisei, sansei and yonsei are being pigeonholed as “gaijin” by other people, not by choice. Why should having another culture to be proud of negate their eligibility to be treated as “Japanese”?

On Sept. 1, I attended the event. Sure enough, not only most of the performers but also the vendors were sansei or yonsei. Companies were marketing towards them in Japanese, Portuguese and English. The emcees were a Japanese radio host and a Brazilian sansei from Nagoya. Some of what they said irked me at times: “Today, we are all gaijin!” they joked. “Why do you have all these signs in Japanese? The Brazilians can’t read them!”

Some may argue that the fact the day went ahead at all is a sign of progress — after all, it was supporting local businesses and performers and celebrating multiculturalism — but I felt that the way the event was staged and promoted reinforced stereotypes. The whole event was built upon the premise that these communities don’t feel Japanese and do not define themselves as such. The Japanese diaspora may be the only one in the world where the general view from “back home” is that possessing any other heritage or culture automatically excludes you from being a true member of that home culture.

Another surprise was that the city itself and the Hamamatsu Foundation for International Communication and Exchange (HICE) had lent support to the event, given its controversial title.

“Personally, I don’t feel comfortable about the word ‘gaijin,’ and also, there are some people in the community that didn’t participate in this event due to the name — including me and the other HICE staff,” said HICE Coordinator Lissa Kikuyama in an email. “On the other hand, some people think that the word ‘gaijin’ is acceptable because it’s common to use it in Brazil and has no negative connotation.

“HICE was only a kōen, or a supporter” of Gaijin Day, Kikuyama stressed. “As a kōen, neither HICE nor the city funded this event and instead we only let them use HICE and the city’s name for promotion purposes. Likewise, neither HICE nor the city also planned or helped in the planning of this event.

“In the end, HICE didn’t support the word ‘gaijin’ and there are two opinions regarding this word in the foreign community — especially for Brazilians,” Kikuyama concluded. “Maybe it could be a good opportunity for foreigners living in Japan to discuss about it, don’t you think?”

Some views from Hamamatsu on the G-word and the naming of the Gaijin Day event can be found here.

Japan, Brazil and Peru: The blood ties that bind

Japan has a rich intercultural diaspora that dates back to the late 1800s. Peru and Brazil have the oldest and largest Japanese communities in the world — communities born out of immigrant dreams rather than colonialism.

These issei and Nikkei would later develop a portmanteau of Japanese culture in many ways, from inventing staple dishes such as ceviche and tiradito to importing the term “decassegui” (from the Japanese dekasegi) to describe working away from their home countries.

Now, many of the descendants of these families are living in Japan. Hamamatsu has the country’s largest Brazilian community, accounting for 9,000 of its nearly 24,000 foreign residents. This community has more than halved since 2007, when the Japanese government offered payments to Nikkei of around ¥300,000 per worker and ¥200,000 per dependent to leave Japan permanently. About 20,000 Nikkei took the offer and the population eventually shrunk by over 87,000. The permanent-leave requirement was later lifted and many former residents returned seeking jobs.

Here is a brief timeline of the to and fro between Japan, Brazil and Peru:

  • 1873: Peru and Japan sign the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation. Peru is the first Latin American country to permit Japanese immigrants. Rumors of gold and good pay for farmers prompt hundreds of Japanese to migrate.
  • 1908: The first Japanese immigrants land in Brazil on the Kasuto Maru.
  • 1914: World War I begins, coinciding with a boom in Japanese migration to Brazil.
  • 1939: Brazil severs relations with Japan during World War II; Japanese schools are shut down, imports confiscated and thousands of Japanese residents are arrested and displaced.
  • 1942: During WWII, Japanese-Peruvians deported from Peru to the U.S.
  • 1980s: Known as the “lost decade” in Brazil due to the Latin American foreign debt crisis.
  • 1990: Alberto Fujimori is elected as the first Japanese-Peruvian president.
  • 1990s: In dire need of cheap labor, Japan permits Nikkei to enter during the bubble era, assuming that their Japanese lineage would allow them to integrate easier into Japanese society than non-Japanese immigrants would.
  • 2009-2011: Thousands of Nikkei and sansei are paid to return to Latin American countries permanently.
  • 2013: Ban on Nikkei reentry lifted; Nikkei, sansei and yonsei come to Japan.

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