On Immigrants ‘Semi-Adapting': Self-Defense, Not Resentment

by Robert Moorehead

In all social processes, you have to have the word ‘inclusion’. … without that word, I’m not going to change the world, and they’re not going to change me, because they’re going to have that culture of defense [from me]. Not resentment, but defense.

Lately I’ve been working on a paper for a conference, and I’ve been fixated on an interview with an immigrant father. Juan (a pseudonym) is a Peruvian of Japanese descent who migrated from Peru to Japan more than 20 years ago. Juan expresses his frustration over what he sees as the lack of inclusion of Peruvians and other migrants from developing countries in Japan, in contrast to the greater openness to foreigners from the United States or Europe.

I don’t have a voice (in Japan), and I never will have it, because they (the Japanese) will never know what I think. But, in this case, if an American or someone who speaks English and who has been to school … they’d say ‘Ah, he’s American,’ but in our case, Japanese descendants, all we have the surname and the face. That’s all I have in this society.

Sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza (2006) notes that we learn our place in society through social interaction, including whether to expect inclusion or exclusion. Based on his interactions, a married Japanese man in Japan may expect that his voice will be listened to, and that his relationship with his romantic partner will be valued. In contrast, a member of a subordinate group, such a racial, ethnic, or sexual minority, may learn instead to expect to be ignored, denigrated, or otherwise marginalized. In Juan’s case, he’s learned to expect to be excluded from decision-making at work, to be asked when he’s leaving the country, to have weak relations with his Japanese neighbors, and to be treated as if all Peruvians were alike.

Precisely what are we Peruvians missing in Japan? (Respect, I reply.) Exactly. Because we don’t have it. … We all have different amounts of education, and other experiences, but the Japanese don’t see us that way. They see us all the same. …

Thus, even as many Peruvians in Juan’s housing complex diligently follow the local housing rules and keep quiet to avoid bothering the neighbors, they still risk being blamed when problems occur. As Karen Tei Yamashita writes in her brilliant novel Circle K Cycles:

A tour of Homi Danchi [housing complex] … gives you a sense of an oppressive quiet—the sound of sleeping people who work the night shift, the sound of a silent majority who want very badly to be accepted, the sound of people trying very hard to be quiet. Even the children seem to play quietly. This is as quiet as Brazilians can possibly be. This is probably as ruly as it gets.

And yet, loud music blaring from an apartment will bring suspicions that the offending party is Peruvian or Brazilian. If the guilty party is found to be a Japanese teen, the prior suspicions will still be justified, as one time,  years earlier, it really was a foreigner.

For example, what I see in the factory, the highest position you could get is leader. Leader of who? The Japanese? No. Leader of the foreigners, foreigners like Brazilians, Paraguayans, and others. But here I can’t achieve more, I’m never going to achieve more. I’m never going to be a permanent [employee]. So that whole situation, it’s not resentment toward the Japanese, because my father and mother were Japanese, if they weren’t I wouldn’t be here. But it’s not a feeling of resentment, it’s more that the Japanese need to be more open toward foreigners ….

In a situation like this, how do subordinates respond? How can they respond? Openly complaining about poor treatment risks further marginalization, including having your complaints seen as proof that foreigners are incapable of integrating into social life in Japan—a logical fallacy that confuses cause and consequence and blames foreigners for their own marginalization.

Subordinates can, and often do, resist in many ways, as James Scott notes in Weapons of the Weak. Juan describes avoiding integrating further into Japanese society, saying “they’re not going to change me” and that he has only “semi-adapted.”

What we do is, we haven’t gotten used to it, we’ve semi-adapted. Semi. … I am more included, semi-included, in Japanese society than others. Why? Because of my physical features and my last name (which are Japanese).

This pattern of only “semi-adapting” means that Juan is done trying to fit in. It’s less a sign of resistance than of self-protection. If Japan includes him as a member of Japanese society, and not as a ‘foreign guest,’ then he’s happy to participate. But “you have to have the word ‘inclusion.'”

Whether the second generation will follow this pattern is unclear. Juan’s children are fluent Japanese speakers and envision their future lives as adults in Japan. As Juan notes, such an approach is essential for their future employment prospects in Japan. However, they may still face the stigma of their foreign ancestry.

Here in Japan, I’ve always thought that if you’re thinking of living here in Japan, in my children’s case, with semi-liberty practically (laughs). But they’re going to live here, so they’re going to have to study more, to be able to compete in whatever profession as foreigners with Japanese, because they’re fighting against one thing, that they’re not Japanese.

I’m hoping to decipher the contours of this pattern of ‘semi-adapting’ in a journal article. In the meantime, these blog posts will hopefully stimulate the analytical process, keeping things moving. What other examples are there of this approach? How can we better understand the experiences of assimilation/integration/incorporation of first-generation immigrants?

References

  1. Golash-Boza, Tanya. 2006. “Dropping the Hyphen? Becoming Latino(a)-American through Racialized Assimilation.” Social Forces 85(1):27-55.
  2. Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  3. Yamashita, Karen Tei. 2001. Circle K Cycles. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press.
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4 thoughts on “On Immigrants ‘Semi-Adapting': Self-Defense, Not Resentment

  1. This is very interesting. I can’t wait to see more of your work on Japanese-Peruvians. I have spent many years in Peru and this article brings to life the cultural hurdles I imagine exist.

    • Thank you for reading the post, and for the positive comment. Your point about learning our ‘racial place’ through interaction got me thinking about the lessons Japanese Peruvians, and other Peruvians, are learning in Japan.

  2. They don’t even see all Peruvians as the same, they see “nikkei”, without making much of a difference between the nationalities.

    Actually, the japanese side was very open to them when they first invited all the workers. Because obviously, Nikkei are of japanese ancestry, so they should fit in just fine, right? Then they realized that the current idea of “being japanese” is not in the genes. It was a big shock.

    And in a way they were unlucky that most Nikkei live in South America (as opposed to Scandinavia f.ex.), because the hispanic way of life, an openness and joy of life that doesn’t mind being noisy or chaotic, couldn’t be more different from the current japanese one, that places the most value on not causing “meiwaku” for others, to a point were any needless interaction between people is avoided and the beautiful sound of a piano is considered noise. So they were bound to clash. And once the damage is done, Japanese don’t forget or forgive very easily, i.e. the bad first impression hasn’t been redeemed yet.

    Personally, it makes me kind of sad when foreigners become all quiet and stuff, because they live in constant fear that any tiny misstep might offend their neighbors.

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