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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Hierarchy in Social Minority Groups Vol. 2: Why Do People Separate Themselves?

My last blog post, Hierarchy in Social Minority Groups Vol. 1: The Structure of Separation in Lima and Tokyo, proved that minority groups tend to create hierarchic structure in their community and differentiate people. By showing the examples of Japanese-Peruvian immigrants and Chinese immigrants, this blog post explains the reason why people make hierarchy and separate themselves.

First of all, many Japanese-Peruvians established their community, and there was discrimination against peasants, Okinawans and the poor in the associations. However, they were also inferior to upper-class immigrants and Japanese embassy or mainland Japan. For example, in Peru, “upper-class, high-ranked Japanese Peruvians, such as the owners of major corporations and former President Fujimori, tend to stay away from community activities” (473).

In addition, the Japanese embassy in Peru and mainland Japan were also in superior position to the Nikkei community. Takenaka argues, “Japanese-Peruvians have always kept a subordinate position to Japan since the beginning. The hierarchical relationship reflects the nature of financial assistance that Japan has extended to community associations…” (477). Therefore, the whole picture of hierarchy is divided into three major groups: upper-class immigrants and Japanese embassy on the top, middle-class immigrants, association members, in the middle, and the poor at the bottom.

Next, Chinese immigrants in social dance party labeled themselves by education and region. However, they were also discriminated against by upper-class immigrants. One Northeasterner did not socialize with other Northeasterners in the dance party because he thought “Reberu (level) are different” (663). In the dance party, they were superior to the Fujian people and others, but even the Northeasterners were discriminated by high-class immigrants.

Both Japanese-Peruvians immigrants and Chinese immigrants were subordinated, and therefore, these community members discriminated against people and made hierarchy within the community. In general, all human beings always want to stay in advantageous status. But when they find someone in superior positions, they make hierarchy within their community and discriminate lower-class people for many reasons, such as lack of education, region and socioeconomic status. By creating hierarchic structure, people can stay on the top of social pyramid. This is the reason of hierarchy and separation of social minority groups.

Works Cited

Farrer, G.L. (2004). The Chinese Social Dance Party in Tokyo: Identity and Status in an Immigrant Leisure Subculture. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 33 (6), 651-674.

Takenaka, A. (2003). The Mechanism of Ethnic Retention: Later-Generation Japanese Immigrants in Lima, Peru. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 29 (3), 467-483.

by Masayuki Tanaka