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«Tomoko Sakuma The University of Texas at Austin 1. Introduction In transnational and multiethnic contexts, immigrants constantly negotiate complex ...»

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Being “Japanese” in Latin America:

Language and Identity of Japanese Immigrants in Brazil

Tomoko Sakuma

The University of Texas at Austin

1. Introduction

In transnational and multiethnic contexts, immigrants constantly negotiate complex national

and ethnic identities. Japanese immigrants in Brazil represent an especially interesting group of

minorities because languages and socio-cultural norms of Japan and Brazil are highly distinctive.

Japanese society can be understood as vertically structured society, where hierarchy based on factors such as age and social position play important roles in interpersonal relationships. The hierarchical relationship is often expressed in the Japanese language with its elaborated honorific system. In contrast, in Brazilian society, closeness of relationships such as those based on friendship and kinship is emphasized more. As expected, different social norms can be found coexisting or conflicting within the Japanese immigrant community.

Within sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, studies have focused on the strategic use of language for construction of identities and interpersonal relationships (e.g. Bell, 1984; Eckert & Rickford, 2001; Le Page & Tabouret-Keller, 1985; Schilling-Estes, 1998). The notion of language ideology has played an increasingly important role in exploring the complexity of language use (e.g. Silverstein, 1979; Woolard & Schieffelin, 1994: Schieffelin, Woolard, & Kroskrity, 1998; Irvine, 2001). As defined by Silverstein, language ideology can be understood as “sets of beliefs about language articulated by the users as a rationalization or justification of perceived structure and use" (1979, p. 193).

This study examines the ways in which Japanese immigrants in Brazil construct and negotiate their multiple layers of identities through languages. Japanese immigrants can express their identities as Japanese at one moment, but they can also display their identities as members of Brazilian society at another moment. This paper focuses on how linguistic resources are ideologically understood by the members of the community and linked with their ethnicities or nationalities. The linguistic resources include knowledge in the Japanese and the Portuguese languages, as well as communicative strategies such as joking and play of words.

This is a preliminary study that leads to a dissertation on ideologies about language and ethnicity among Japanese immigrants in Brazil. The data are drawn from pre-dissertation fieldwork conducted between July 2005 and June 2006 in the cities of Belo Horizonte (Minas Gerais) and Campinas (São Paulo). The methods used for data collection are participant observation, interviews, and audio-recordings of interaction. The ethnographic and discourse data were collected on the premises of local Japanese associations and at a Japanese Brazilian household. The excerpts used in this paper are from audio-recordings and handwritten data from the field note.

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Japanese immigration to Brazil officially began in 1908. Fostered by Japan’s economic difficulties and Brazil’s labor shortage, approximately 189,000 Japanese entered Brazil during the prewar period. Although most of them intended to stay only for several years and return to Japan with wealth, it turned out that the plan was hard to accomplish. Their earnings were meager, and their lives as contract laborers in coffee plantations were harsh. Many of the immigrants eventually abandoned the hope of returning to Japan. After World War II, from 1952 to 1970, about 50,000 more Japanese immigrated to Brazil. Japanese immigrants distanced themselves from other members of the Brazilian society in the beginning of their settlement (De Calvalho 2002). They are now well integrated into Brazilian society although they still maintain a unique identity (Tsuda 2000).

The projected total population of Japanese Brazilians in 2006 is 1,941,810 although not all of them reside in Brazil (Kikumura-Yano 2002, p.146). Starting in 1980s, many Japanese Brazilians have migrated to Japan, as a result of severe recession in Brazil and acute labor shortage in Japan. These migrants are called dekasseguis1, and most of them are from the Brazilian-born generation. This dekassegui boom has reconnected the Japanese Brazilian community with the contemporary Japanese society, since many dekasseguis travel back and forth between Brazil and Japan.

In recent years, the Japanese Brazilian community has become increasingly heterogeneous 1 The Japanese word dekassegui, which originally meant, “temporarily leaving one’s hometown to earn money,” is now widely used to indicate South Americans of Japanese descent and their family members working in Japan.

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Brazilian-born descendants of different generations, non-Japanese spouses, and other Brazilians interested in Japanese culture. Many descendants, especially those from younger generations, are racially mixed as a result of intermarriage. Although most of the members have at least some knowledge of Japanese and Portuguese, the majority is fluent in only one language.

3. Negotiation of Identity through languages As a result of the racial, ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity of the community, social positioning and power relations among the community members are quite dynamic. Their interpersonal relations are constantly negotiated. For example, while original immigrants are regarded as “experts” or “authorities” on the Japanese language and culture, they can also be considered “novices” when the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture are concerned. The rest of the paper discusses how the negotiation and construction of identity can be carried out through languages.

3.1. Expertise in Japanese culture and language The first example comes from the local Japanese associations. In one of the associations, a small informal class for Japanese traditional music (minyoo) was offered. A racially-mixed, young Japanese Brazilian sansei (person of the second Brazilian-born generation) was teaching a traditional singing style to elderly isseis (original immigrants from Japan). The setting itself was intriguing, in that the direction of knowledge transfer seemed to be reversed. Noting that the

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sensei (teacher)!” With this small play of words, he humorously declared that it is not inappropriate for the original immigrants to learn traditional culture from a Brazilian-born descendant, because the descendant is indeed a teacher.

However, traditional power relationships and attention to social hierarchy based upon factors such as age are not absent from these contexts. The following is a short excerpt from an

interaction observed during the minyoo session:

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This interaction took place when the teacher demonstrated a singing style to elderly immigrants and asked one of them to try it. The young teacher, who learned Japanese as a second language, was very fluent in Japanese, but did not demonstrate traditional Japanese social norms. The student, instead of doing what she was asked to do, immediately corrected her teacher’s language.

The correction was not only a reflection on the teacher’s knowledge of the Japanese language, but also a reflection on his inability to give her the respect she deserved. The student should have been addressed in a respectful language because of her age, regardless of her status as a student. It was a correction of the power relations of that specific context in which Japanese

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told the researcher that the teacher should learn to speak “appropriate” Japanese because he was a performer of Japanese traditional music.

3.2. Racial joke and being Brazilian Traditional Japanese language and norms are not always dominant in the Japanese community. Many Japanese immigrants are also capable of employing Portuguese language and Brazilian norms. The conversation (2)-a and (2)-b below occurred at the dinner table in a Japanese Brazilian household. Yamada is the father of the family and he is an elderly Japanese immigrant. Although he is in his seventies, he still works tirelessly at a farm as a consultant and he comes back to home only on weekends. Because of his work in the field, his skin is considerably sunburnt. Yamada, his wife, his daughter (Yuka), his daughter’s fiancé (Sérgio), his son (Eduardo), and the researcher (Tomoko) were present at the dinner table when this conversation took place.

The first part of the sequence, (2)-a, starts with Yuka’s indistinguishable speech to Yamada (line 1). From her utterance in line 3, “you are preitinho (black)”, it is assumed that Yuka mentioned something about his skin color. Yuka had not seen him for a while because he was out at his farm during weekdays. Yamada laughs at Yuka’s comment and starts narrating the story about him being addressed as negrão (big black fellow) by somebody at a tollgate on a highway (lines 4 to 14). The story generates a laughter in the room (line 13), that grows bigger when Eduardo suggests with gestures, that Yamada bare his chest and show his original skin color to

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would have done so if he were 10 years younger (line 19). Yamada’s mocking performance of showing his chest and saying “do you call it negrão? no!” invites even greater laughter (line 20).

Then, Sérgio, makes a comment about the conversation so far and says that the researcher, who is recording the conversation, has a lot of interesting data to study (line 21).

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In the next part, which is omitted here, participants are joking about how the researcher would pr esent this audio-recording in the United States, as a part of her doctral dissertation. The conversa tion continues on to (2)-b. In line 31, Eduardo mentiones that what the researcher is recording is all “nonsence”. He then links the “nonsence” to the Brazilian nation, by saying that Brazil won’t advance because nobody takes anything seriously (line 33). At this point, it almost appears that t he topic of the conversation has completely shifted form Yamada’s skin color to Brazilian humor.

However, in line 35, Yamda returnes to his skin color story by saying “so, it happened on Monda y,” and concludes that “now I am a real Brazilian”.

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speaking Portuguese. Nonetheless, his communicative strategies such as gestures (lines 9 and 19) and a loud voice help him to express himself to Portuguese speakers. More importantly, for this sequence, other participants of the conversation are actively involved in Yamada’s story telling.

For example, Eduardo makes a suggestion of showing the bare chest with gesture (line 15).

Yamada repeats Eduardo’s gesture (line 19), and adds his own expression, “is it called negrão? n o!” (line 20). The repetition of the gesture and addition of Yamada’s own sentence shows that the humor is co-constructed.

In this sequence, there appares to be an ideology that links Brazilian with dark skin color, as is expressed in Yamada’s remark, “Now I am real Brazilian” (line 35). In reality, of course, Yamada’s dark skin color comes from years of work in farms. During a personal interview with him, it was revealed that he is highly proud of his job as a consultant in the farm. Japanese immigrants are known by their contribution to the progress of agriculture in Brazil (Tsuda 2000), and Yamada believes that he also played a role in it. Thus, although the dark skin color is associated with being “Brazilian” in this specific sequence, in other context, Yamada’s suntanned skin can be understood as an emblem that shows his history as a Japanese immigrant.

Another ideology constructed in this sequence is the belief that links Brazilians with humor.

As mentioned above, Eduardo expresses that “nobody speaks anything serious” and that is why “Brazil won’t advance” (line 33). It appears to be a negative evaluation of Brazilian humor and Brazil as a nation. However, it is clear that the humor is playing a crucial rule in this family conversation. Indeed, Eduardo’s statement itself is a part of that humorous conversation that

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implicitly included as a member of Brazilian society as he initiated this humorous interaction.

4. Conclusion This paper has illustrated how ethnic and national identities are constructed in a Japanese Brazilian community. Examples from two settings, both involving interactions between elderly immigrants and the descendants are presented. The first case took place during a traditional music class. An elderly immigrant negotiated her social position through her expertise in the Japanese language. The second interaction took place in a Japanese Brazilian household. There, an immigrant and his family members co-constructed the “Brazilian” side of the immigrant’s identity. Although the identities discussed in these two contexts may seem to represent a dichotomy (i.e. either Japanese or Brazilian), the Japanese Brazilian immigrants generally have multiple layers of identities. Being a member of a Japanese community and being a member of a Brazilian community do not necessarily conflict. Just like Yamada’s suntanned skin can be interpreted as that of “Brazilian” or that of “Japanese immigrant (who is an expert of agriculture)”, a single feature can be associated with different ethnic or national identities. As the data have shown, their identities are locally co-constructed through interactions, and the immigrants can actively highlight different identities at different times. This paper has also examined the language ideologies of the community. In the first example, traditional norms in the Japanese language are understood as appropriate in the context of performing a traditional Japanese culture. In the second case, use of humor is linked with Brazilian national identity.

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Sakuma, T.


5. Reference Bell, A. (1984). Language style as audience design. Language in Society, 13 (2), 145-204.

De Carvalho, D. (2002). Migrants and identity in Japan and Brazil: the Nikkeijin. London:


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