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When ‘home’ holds uneasy welcome


BROKERED HOMELAND: Japanese Brazilian Migrants in Japan, by Joseph Hotaka Roth. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002, 161 pp., $16.95 (paper)

The story that was once told about citizens of foreign countries who could demonstrate Japanese ancestry was that even if they had never been to Japan, even if they couldn’t speak the language, they nevertheless remained, in some essential way, Japanese. Thus the Japanese government believed that if such people were to emigrate to Japan, they could and would fit smoothly into Japanese life. They were, after all, simply coming home.

Acting on this belief, Japan decided, in the 1980s, to give these Japanese-Peruvians, Japanese-Argentineans, Japanese-Brazilians and other members of the diaspora preferential visa status. That the foreign workers necessary to keep Japan Incorporated running needn’t be entirely foreign seemed a solution to the problem of internationalizing Japan’s workforce, while at the same time maintaining the social harmony thought to be possible only in a homogeneous culture.

This version, as Joshua Hotaka Roth demonstrates in “Brokered Homeland: Japanese Brazilian Migrants in Japan,” was accepted and propagated not only by the Japanese government, but also, at least in the early days, by many of the nikkeijin themselves. Economic factors were, of course, largely responsible for the huge jump during the ’80s and ’90s in the number of nikkeijin who chose to move to Japan, but, even so, many of these immigrants chose not to explain their residence in Japan in economic terms. They preferred to think of it “as a return to homeland that offered a possibility of self-understanding.” “Brokered Homeland” focuses on the way in which these people’s self-understanding — as well as other people’s understanding of them — shifts as a result of their experiences in Japan.

Roth, an anthropologist, rather than attempting to study from the outside the Brazilian-Japanese in whom he is primarily interested, chooses instead to be a participant-observer. That is, he joins the nikkeijin (and the Japanese with whom they interact) as a coworker on the assembly line of an automobile manufacturer, as an active participant in the endeavors of the Brazilian Cultural Center in downtown Hamamatsu, and as a member of a neighborhood group preparing for the Hamamatsu Kite Festival. The chapters Roth devotes to these experiences, along with one discussing “accidents, apologies and compensation” and one describing the Conference for Overseas Japanese, form the meat of the book, and as Roth is an astute observer and a graceful writer they are a pleasure to read.

Roth’s experiences as an employee at “Yusumi Motors” (a pseudonym) serve to illuminate the gap that exists between the story which has it that nikkeijin are welcomed into the Japanese family, and the true story of the workplace in which it is made clear — beginning with segregated dormitories and bathing facilities — that they are not. Rather than openness to these quasi-Japanese from overseas we find — in a manner that is all too typical — that dissatisfaction which Japanese workers had formerly directed at their employers was often redirected and transformed into resentment of the foreign workers in their midst.

Indeed, as Roth argues, rather than giving rise to a more international outlook among Japanese workers and managers, “. . . the presence of foreign workers revived assumptions of cultural homogeneity based on supposedly traditional workplace practices.” Foreign workers, it was assumed, were incapable of abiding by these traditional practices, and thus these workers were not welcomed into the workplace community.

It is true, of course, that in certain cases the foreign workers did not abide by these “traditional workplace practices,” but this is hardly surprising when one considers that Japanese workers didn’t either. An anonymous Japanese manager, for example, complains of foreign workers that “even though you’ve worked with them a while and taught them a lot, they’ll quit in an instant if a good paying job comes up, or if there’s something that bugs them.” In fact , as Roth points out, “the majority (roughly 70 percent) of new workers left their firms within five years of starting.” The “traditional practice” of loyalty to one’s employer, it turns out, is nothing but a myth contradicted by the behavior of both Japanese and nikkeijin workers.

In his chapter on accidents, apologies and compensation Roth attacks the notion that foreign workers are treated differently because, culturally maladjusted, they are troublesome. Rather, focusing on workplace accidents, he demonstrates that the opposite is the case. Nikkeijin are not treated differently because they are troublesome; if they are troublesome it is often because they are treated differently. Roth’s research suggests that when, after accidents, employers express sincere remorse and offer compensation comparable to what Japanese workers would receive the injured nikkeijin tend not to cause difficulties for their employers by, say, taking them to court.

Rather, as Roth explains, “Nikkeijin were often driven to pursue justice in the legal realm only after desires for reconciliation and amicable relations within the workplace community were frustrated. . . .” That Roth argues this point by providing examples not only of Japanese companies which deal dishonorably with their employees but also of those which treat their workers fairly demonstrates that, though his sympathies clearly lie with the nikkeijin, he has no interest in bashing Japan.

This may be because he believes that “. . . anthropological research should be directed toward ‘assist[ing] society in solving social problems,” and bashing is unlikely to do that. Likewise, a uniformly bleak picture of nikkeijin life in Japan would be of little help. Thus Roth, by offering a hopeful glimpse of what a successfully internationalized Japan might look like, gives his book a happy ending.

In his chapter on the Hamamatsu Kite Festival, Roth shows us how, in the case of one blue-collar neighborhood, elements of Brazilian culture were successfully blended with traditional Japanese aspects of the celebration to create a whole that was greater than its parts and which was greatly enjoyed by the festival participants. “That Brazilians could be incorporated within a festival symbolic of Japanese tradition,” he writes, “suggests that foreigners could be more easily incorporated in other contexts.”

One hopes so, but remembering that carnivals, rather than providing models for how to live when the carnival is over, typically turn everyday life on its head, and realizing that the happy blending of cultures which occurred at that year’s Kite Festival was an isolated incident, one wonders. Still, if one is to effectively help society solve social problems one must imagine what society will look like when those problems are solved. Thus this chapter, like the rest of Roth’s book, is a welcome contribution to the study of multicultural Japan.