The Chrysanthemum and the Song: Music, Memory and Identity in the South American Japanese Diaspora

By Rahkonen, Carl | Notes, June 2006 | Go to article overview

The Chrysanthemum and the Song: Music, Memory and Identity in the South American Japanese Diaspora


Rahkonen, Carl, Notes


The Chrysanthemum and the Song: Music, Memory and Identity in the South American Japanese Diaspora. By Dale A. Olsen. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004. [xxviii, 342 p. ISBN 0-8130-2764-0. $65.] Illustrations, notes, appendices, glossary, bibliography, index.

When thinking about immigrants, we in the United States tend to think first about Europeans migrating to North America. Dale Olsen's new book shows that the immigrant experience applies equally as well to the Japanese of South America. Olsen, a distinguished ethnomusicologist, has given us a detailed musical ethnography of the South American Japanese diaspora, showing how music has been a central force for creating and sustaining their ethnic identity. The UtIe of this book is a variation on the tide of Ruth Benedict's seminal ethnography, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946). The chrysanthemum, found in the Japanese imperial crest, symbolizes the "rough" aspects of Japanese immigrant life; the hard, mostly agricultural labor they endured. Song and music in general symbolize the "gentle" aspects of immigrant life; those diversions providing a means of expressing spirit and pride in their ethnic heritage.

There are very few studies in ethnomusicology that cover an entire region of the world, or that compare the same ethnic group across several countries. Olsen's study accomplishes both, while also tackling the complex issues of identity, cultural memory, and ethnicity. Olsen paints with the broadest possible brush. He looks at all the Japanese immigrants in the region, through multiple generations, with all their varieties of music. This undertaking is extremely complex. He uses the term NiMei, to denote all people of Japanese heritage outside Japan. The Nikkei in South America are of at least two varieties: the Naichi, or people from the main Japanese island group, and the Okinawans, who are culturally distinct. In addition to this there are the various generations of Nikkei, the issei, the first generation, or those who actually immigrated, the nisei, second generation, or Nikkei born in South America, the sansei, third generation, and so on. Olsen uses these, and many other Japanese terms with precision throughout the text. For those of us with only a cursory knowledge of Japan and its musical traditions, there is a handy glossary of these terms near the end of the book. Since Japanese identity could be formed from any combination of political, cultural or racial identification, Olsen uses the term "Japaneseness" to refer to a general identification with Japan as a whole (p. 10). The text is carefully written in such a way that a complex topic becomes understandable.

The early chapters lay the groundwork for the ethnography that follows. Olsen gives a highly detailed review of the current scholarly literature on ethnicity and ethnic identity. A central concept is that of memory, which can be communicative memory shaped by the formal organizations and associations within an ethnic group, or cultural memory of an idealized past cultivated though individual efforts, such as learning, performing, or listening to the music of the ethnic group. The second chapter provides an excellent brief history of Japanese emigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as Japanese class structure and the various genres of music associated with each of these classes. He also covers the general genres of Okinawan music and Japanese popular music.

The next five chapters present a detailed ethnography of Japanese music in five countries: Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia. These countries appear in the order of their history of Japanese immigration. Nearly 1.5 million Nikkei live in these countries, with the majority of them (1.3 million) in Brazil. Each chapter follows a similar pattern: a brief history of Nikkei immigration in that county, associations and music clubs, religious music, Naichi and Okinawan musical activities (including their classical music, folk music and traditional dance), visiting artists, electronic media, music at celebrations (such as the emperor's birthday, anniversaries of Japanese immigration and associations, celebratory concerts, and festivals), Nikkei involvement in the Western art music and the traditional music of the host country, and finally Nikkei musical understanding. …

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