Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Return to the Ancestral Homeland

There are books that make me want to ask for my dissertation back so I can cite them and add to my bibliography. Redefining Japaneseness:  Japanese Americans in the Ancestral Homeland by Jane Yamashiro is one I really regret not having read before I submitted.

This work is based on a study and fieldwork on Americans of Japanese origin who came to Japan to live and work.  In this very clear, very well-written book, Yamashiro has some fascinating insights about their experiences.  There are a few areas where I would respectfully disagree with her, but overall her arguments and conclusions are cogent and worth reading by anyone interested in migration.

Yamashiro declines to use terms like return migration or diaspora in favor of her own term:  ancestral homeland migration.  She makes a very good case that her term is more accurate and more useful in the context of her research on Japanese-Americans in Japan.  Return migration is inaccurate, she says, because the Japanese have been migrating to the US for centuries and it's their children, grand-children or even great-grand-children who move to Japan.  How can they "return" to a place they have never been before, to a land that is often only a distant memory passed down through family members?   As for the term diaspora, she argues that this assumes an orientation toward that distant homeland that many second, third or fourth generation children of immigrants just don't have. Ancestral homeland migration, she argues, is a better fit because it doesn't use the language of "return" and it doesn't imply that there is any sort of active transnational connection between them and the land of their ancestors.

I found this argument to be very persuasive and I like the term. "Ancestor" implies distance while "homeland" acknowledges the connection to the destination country.  "Migration" (without the "return") completes it because they are indeed on the move.  Furthermore, I can see how is an elegant and appropriate way of describing, say, a Polish-Canadian's or Irish-American's move to Poland or Ireland.  The connection may be distant but it is there.

Yamashiro also investigates something that we do not think about enough when we look at migration: the role of regions and sub-regions within a larger nation-state.  Migrants do not just come from France, Canada, Brazil, they came at specific times from specific regions, towns, or cities.  In Choquette's work on the French who came to Canada, she found that many came from urban areas which is surprising since they moved toward a rural life in Canada.

Yamashiro looked at where Japanese-Americans grew up in the United States and found a clear division between those who were from the continental US and those who came from Hawai'i.  In the continental US (even areas in the West that were destinations for Japanese immigrants) Japanese-Americans are a minority.  Some of her informants grew up in places where they were the only Asian family in the neighborhood.  Not so in Hawai'i where Asians are not a minority and the Japanese-American community has influence and socioeconomic status.

These things have an impact on integration in Japan, Yamashiro argues.  The ability to "pass" as Japanese in Japan is a kind of privilege that European or African Americans in Japan do not have.  In my own research this was cited consistently by my Japanese-American participants as a reason they felt comfortable and integrated in Japan.  They were presumed to be Japanese as they walked down the street in Tokyo or rode the metro to work.   However, when they interact with Japanese, their Japanese phenotype clashes with their accent and their non-native level of language ability and cultural knowledge.

What is most fascinating are the strategies her Japan-American study participants used to get around their unveiling as "stealth migrants."  Those from the continental US would make it clear that they were Americans with native-level English.  Those from Hawai'i emphasized their regional identity over the national (US) one.  Hawai'i has a very favorable image in Japan and it is a common tourist destination for Japanese tourists and emigrants.  This is a very deft use of race, nationality, reginal identity, and language to create a favorable space within Japanese society.  And it is one that they are uniquely qualified to use.

My quibbles with Yamashiro's work are minor but I will mention two areas where I have a different view.

I felt that she made assumptions about "white privilege" and a preference for whiteness in Japan that have been challenged.  The idea that some migrants are automatically privileged because they are "white" is something that may have been true at one point in Japan, but is it still true?  I see a lot of evidence that this is not necessarily true now.   I would have liked to have seen a more nuanced presentation of this race-based "privilege" that points to research that contests these assumptions.  Also, the idea that a preference for white skin in Japan is linked to Europeans and white North Americans has been challenged by Hiroshi Wagatsuma (1967) who showed that this preference goes back to the Nara period (8th century) and predates the presence of Europeans in Japan by centuries.

The other assumption that deserves a closer look is the notion of English Language Teaching (ELT) as a white-collar "privileged" profession.  One has only to look at the research and the media reports in Japan to begin questioning that assumption.  I would argue that it was, indeed, a profession with status at a certain point in time in Japan.  The picture is very different today.

But those are relatively minor quibbles.  None of these assumptions are directly linked to her main arguments which are, in my view, thoughtful and persuasive.  The short review I have written here does not begin to do justice to the entire work.  I highly recommend you read it for yourself.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I lived in southern Japan many years ago, where I was constantly pointed at and heard 'gaijin' whispered everywhere in my wake, so it was a relief to get to Europe, where I could 'pass'. I married a German and was actively grateful for the anonymity my race gave me-- I congratulated myself whenever anyone asked me for directions or assumed I was a native. Two of my grandparents immigrated to the US from Germany, so I think it was easier for my family to accept the 'ancestral home migration', as Germany was already in the family lore. (My husband referred to it as a 'Corrections', based on the title of a novel that was popular at the time.) Knowing that I am half German gives me more tolerance for the culture -- well, maybe not; I have found it extremely hard to adapt, but I also live quite rurally here, so it is a milieu change-- but definitely I feel more secure in my absolute right to be here, although I am not allowed citizenship unless I renounce my US allegiance.
I am appreciating your thought- provoking articles!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Anonymous, Thank you so much for reading the Flophouse and for talking about your experience. I completely understand that relief in arriving in a place where you aren't a visible minority and you can go about your business without anyone even noticing you. Being able to blend is a kind of freedom. I'm very intersted in how your family reacted to your move to Germany. I hadn't thought of it that way but yes I can see how a move to an ancestral homeland that is still alive in some way in family lore could be viewed positively. What would be really interesting to study is to what extent the pull of a homeland is a factor in the migration of people of European origin to Europe. And to what extent it helps in the integration process. Fascinating stuff. Thank you!!!!!!

rabia said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.