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April 4 , 2003

Brokered Homeland: Joshua Roth Explores Barriers to Belonging in Japan

Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Joshua Roth

“In Brazil, I’m called Japones, and here in Japan, I’m called ‘gaijin’ (foreigner). I have no home.”
— comment by a Brazilian of Japanese descent working in Japan, in Joshua Roth’s Brokered Homeland

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Joshua Hotaka Roth moved to Tokyo in 1987, hoping to teach English, solidify the Japanese language he had learned at Columbia University, and connect with the country of his mother’s birth and his own earliest childhood. He made a wide range of friends, both Japanese and foreign, including several Japanese Brazilian scholarship students who made him aware of the boundaries of belonging within Japanese society, boundaries that kept even immigrants of Japanese descent from feeling at home. Five years later while doing graduate work in anthropology at Cornell University, Roth returned to Japan to study the factors that divide Japanese from overseas Japanese (Nikkeijin). He focused particularly on Japanese Brazilians who were increasingly seeking work in Japan’s automobile and electronics factories. Roth describes his research in Brokered Homeland: Japanese Brazilian Migrants in Japan (Cornell University Press, 2002).


From 1994 to 1996, Roth lived and worked in Hamamatsu, a large industrial city south of Tokyo to which many Nikkeijin migrated during the 1980s and ’90s, a period of economic boom in Japan and bust in Brazil. He found numerous social regulations dividing Nikkeijin and Japanese workers there, from segregated factory dormitories and baths, to different-colored hard hats and uniforms. Such regulations, Roth writes, have led Nikkeijin and Japanese to a new self-consciousness about their identity and, increasingly, to what he calls “oppositional florescence,” the overemphasizing of cultural differences between the two groups.


Roth discovered that many Hamamatsu factories hire Japanese Brazilians and other Nikkeijin through employment brokers unregulated by the government. Feeling less responsibility for brokered workers than for direct hires, Roth explains, managers deny health coverage, accident insurance, and other basic legal protections to Nikkeijin employees. Some even blame Nikkeijin for workplace injuries caused by faulty safety equipment and withhold the apologies and compensation offered to injured Japanese employees. When he interviewed Japanese Brazilians injured on the job, however, Roth found that most wanted to reconcile with employers—a stereotypically Japanese gesture of loyalty and sacrifice—but felt forced to seek justice in the courts instead when confronted by unsympathetic attitudes on the part of employers. As a result, they are further marginalized as “troublesome, self-interested foreigners” who lack respect for Japanese culture and tradition.

Roth found that Nikkeijin have a slightly better social experience outside the workplace and beyond the government-sponsored internationalization efforts that tend only to amplify differences between Japanese and “other.” A Japanese neighborhood reached out to Roth, for instance, by including him in preparations for its city kite festival, a traditional Japanese celebration of first-born sons and neighborhood solidarity. One family even invited Roth, four Japanese, and two Brazilians to play the Latin samba drums at its kite festival party. “The communitas achieved between Japanese and Brazilians during the kite festival may be significant in that it offers an alternative vision of how these two groups may relate to each other,” writes Roth. “It is a vision of a mutually enriching relationship rather than one in which one group is forcibly incorporated by another.”


Such positive interactions were few and far between, however, and Roth concludes that reform of immigration and employment systems that inhibit community are the only hope for true multiculturalism in Japan. “It is an easy and frequent assumption that cultures just don’t mix,” says Roth. “I’m trying to elaborate a much more complex relationship than that, one in which economic and legal structures can foster or discourage a sense of community.”


On sabbatical last year, Roth continued his study of Japanese Brazilians, this time considering their community identity in Brazil. In one paper from that study, Roth argues that Japanese Brazilians have successfully promoted themselves as “model Brazilians, fully compatible with Brazilian society,” pointing out that Japanese-style croquet is the only ethnic-exclusive sport given free public playing space in Sao Paulo. Currently Roth is looking at the appropriation of Japanese images by Brazilian popular culture and the blending of geisha, samurai, and other Japanese icons with samba music and other things “quintessentially Brazilian.”


Roth will read from Brokered Homeland at the Odyssey Bookshop, Tuesday, April 8, at 7 pm.

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