Migrants and Identity in Japan and Brazil: The Nikkeijin

Migrants and Identity in Japan and Brazil: The Nikkeijin

Migrants and Identity in Japan and Brazil: The Nikkeijin

Migrants and Identity in Japan and Brazil: The Nikkeijin


Economic and social difficulties at the beginning of the 20th century caused many Japanese to emigrate to Brazil. The situation was reversed in the 1980s as a result of economic downturn in Brazil and labour shortages in Japan. This book examines the construction and reconstruction of the ethnic identities of people of Japanese descent, firstly in the process of emigration to Brazil up to the 1980s, and secondly in the process of return migration to Japan in the 1990s. The closed nature of Japan's social history means that the effect of return migration' can clearly be seen. Japan is to some extent a unique sociological specimen owing to the absence of any tradition of receiving immigrants. This book is first of all about migration, but also covers the important related issues of ethnic identity and the construction of ethnic communities. It addresses the issues from the dual perspective of Japan and Brazil. The findings suggest that mutual contact has led neither to a state of conflict nor to one of peaceful coexistence, but rather to an assertion of difference. It is argued that the Nikkeijin consent strategically to the social definitions imposed upon their identities and that the issue of the Nikkeijin presence is closely related to the emerging diversity of Japanese society.


According to the 1990 revision of the Japanese Immigration Control and Refuge Law, only foreign nationals of Japanese descent (Nikkeijin) up to the third generation, or the spouses of such people, are permitted unrestricted rights of residence and employment. This new law has led to a significant increase in the employment of people of Japanese descent from South America, in particular from Brazil. The most recent figures available (1998) suggest that the number of Nikkeijin resident in Japan is approximately 274,691, of whom 81 per cent are of Brazilian origin.

Japanese immigration policy is consistent with the image that the Japanese have formed of themselves as a racially and culturally homogeneous people. Underlying this image is the assumption that cultural traits are closely bound up with genetic traits and, therefore, Japanese 'blood' and culture are seen to be associated criteria. As a result, policy-makers appear to have assumed that migrants of Japanese descent would relieve the demand for labourers and their 'ethnic ties' would facilitate their adjustment to, and acceptance by, Japanese society. However, the Japanese who emigrated to South America and their descendants have a distinct past, a past constructed in a Latin American context, with Japan as a point of reference. Thus, while Japanese culture is not completely alien to them, at the same time they may not fully identify with Japan.

Initially, the Nikkeijin presence was numerically insignificant. However, ten years later, at the time of writing, their numbers have expanded, and at present they constitute one of the largest ethnic groups in the country. There are, moreover, signs that many of them do not intend to return to Brazil. Increasing numbers are accompanied by their families and the number of those who re-emigrate to Japan from Brazil for the second time has also been on the increase. In the space of ten years they have effectively established their own distinct communities in Japan.

The difficulties of incorporating foreigners into Japanese society have been illustrated by the experience of the Koreans and the Chinese. However, these South Americans now emigrating to Japan have Japanese lineage. Although they are officially welcomed by the government, a question remains as to whether they are equally welcome to the Japanese people. Although the issue has been frequently discussed, such discussion has been based on a virtual absence of empirical research. The extent to which people of Japanese descent can be fully integrated

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