Daniel Linger’s thought provoking question in Searching for Home Abroad, “do Japanese Brazilians exist?”, is also a provocative one. His implied response, which I assume to be “no,” is informed by a number of factors. First, Linger recognizes that “ethnicities, races, and nations are conjured up through symbols and stories that enmesh people in webs of relatedness” (209). Thus, de-considering the Japanese Brazilian category is an example of “anthropological skepticism” that helps deconstruct exploitative essentialisms (209). Second, through a case study of two Japanese Brazilians, Moacir Aoki and César Kawada, who embrace starkly different views of their ties to Brazil and Japan, Linger has noted the difficulty in generalizing about Japanese Brazilian identity.
Some important questions for Linger would be whether he conceives of the Japanese Brazilian category as racial or cultural, and if “ethnicity” is closer to race or to culture. Race, ethnicity, culture, and citizenship seem to freely intermingle throughout his piece. Moacir says, “If I spoke Japanese…[culture] it would be a lot easier for me to get my naturalization [citizenship]” (203, text in brackets mine). Later, when talking about intermarriage, which could also be construed as cultural, he moves to talking about race. Moacir says, “My uncles also used to keep to themselves, not mixing races, but then everyone started mixing, mixing here, mixing there…” (206). Each of the above terms, however, can have very different implications.
While I understand that Linger’s question serves a more theoretical and rhetorical purpose rather than as an actual proposal to eliminate the “Japanese Brazilian” category, if his argument targets culture rather than race, his deconstructive methods of testing the limits of identity formation tread on dangerous waters.
My position is that if Japanese Brazilian is a cultural category, then “yes Japanese Brazilians exist,” and that moreover, the existence of this category is essential for having the language to talk about a range of experiences of cultural belonging and alienation. To deny this category theoretically is to deny a mode of testifying lived experience. Yes, nation-states can manipulate discourses of belonging for economic or political purposes, but people who have been psychologically impacted by migration can use these same terminologies to mediate and express rupture, communion, acceptance, bitterness, gratitude or any other number of affective experiences. That someone who acknowledges the Japanese Brazilian identity category would subscribe to the logic of the Japanese government’s problematic 1990 immigration law is a possibility but not an inevitability.
That being said, the Japanese Brazilian category should exist, but should be in a constant and infinite process of re-negotiation. In “Japanese, Brazilians, Nikkei,” Jeffrey Lesser traces the formation of Japanese Brazilian identity as framed by international political and economic decisions. His work explores the ways in which what Lok Siu has coined as “diasporic citizenship” (“the processes by which diasporic subjects experience and practice cultural and social belonging amid shifting geopolitical circumstances and webs of transnational relations”) interacts with actual citizenship (Siu 5). Other approaches to historicizing and theorizing Japanese Brazilian identity complicate and diversify Lesser’s narrative.