Japanese Diaspora at ASPAC

As I mentioned here and here, I had some great discussions about the question of diaspora at ASPAC. The dividing line between Asian studies and Asian American studies is starting to blur, and I think that’s going to be very productive.

That was actually one of the main points of Jane H. Yamashiro’s lively talk on “The Japanese Diaspora?: Rethinking connections between people of Japanese ancestry”: that disciplinary boundary-crossing is productive, but that the very different origins, political and disciplinary stances of Asian Studies and Asian American Studies raise problems. Fundamentally, each views the question from a very different place, with a center of focus that affects the kind of issues which are possible to study and discuss. One example of the problem is in terminology: are people of Japanese ancestry who go to Japan “return migrants” or “foreigners” or “going to the homeland”? This is precisely what Yamashiro studies: the experience of Japanese Americans constructing a new identity as they live long-term in Japan, but the very naming of such an experience prefigures some of the answer: how can a first-time visit be a “return” unless identity is more ancestral than individual? And she explicitly rejects the term “diaspora” because, she argues, it fixes the center of the Japanese American experience in Japan instead of in America.

Yamashiro cited Stewart Hall’s two definitions of culture — as a form of continuity1 or as a historical becoming2 — then argued that these are not part of a binary dilemma3, but are rather positions which the individual migrants use and integrate with their experiences. Individual migrants, in other words, sometimes emphasize the ancestral nature of culture (Asian-ness as race came up here) and sometimes emphasize the civilizational (language, especially), but rarely cleave to just one definition during the re-migration experience. Which concept dominates the experience depends a great deal on previous exposure to the culture of origin: generational position, mainland US v. Hawai’i, and prior expectations all play a big role in self-definition during the experience.

Over the next few days, Jane and I continued to have a discussion about whether “diaspora” was a useful term or not. Her view, as I understand it, is that the term is too widely used without a clear definition to be useful as a category of analysis. My view, as I understand it, is that the term isn’t really being used as a category of analysis, but a descriptive shorthand for processes which are still being fleshed out in the literature, and that previous attempts to create analytic categories have previously produced a complete breakdown of communication.4 But she insisted that using the term without defining it, at least in a minimal fashion, is intellectually irresponsible, and I have some sympathy for that position. Fundamentally, my feeling is that the question of definition goes to a divide — cultural or methodological, I’m not sure — between sociologists and historians.

On the last day of the conference, Jane very kindly gave me a photocopy of an article by Rogers Brubaker which takes a position very similar to her own.5 Brubaker provides quite a collection of references arguing that the reification of the term has become problematic

Diasporas are treated as ‘bona fide actual entities’ and cast as unitary actors. They are seen as possessing countable, quantifiable memberships. … Enumerations such as this suggest that discussions of diaspora opportunistically combine elements of strong and weak definitions. Strong definitions are used to emphasize the distinctiveness of diaspora as a social force; weak definitions to emphasize numbers (and thereby the import of the phenomenon). (pp. 10-11, citations removed)

He goes on to argue that the term is fundamentally political:

As a category of practice, ‘diaspora’ is used to make claims, to articulate porjects, to forumulate expectations, to mobilize energies, to appeal to loyalties. It is often a category with strong normative change. It does not so much describe the world as seek to remake it. (p. 12, emphasis in original)

As a result, of course, we should abandon the term as a unit of analysis, or else define it in a precise fashion and limit our discussions of diaspora to those that can be meaningfully compared. Brubaker does provide a definition — dispersion, homeland orientation, and boundary-maintenance — though he also makes it clear that these are common understandings and that all of these components have been severely stressed in the process of expanding the use of the term from early “paradigmatic” and “classical” diasporas6 to newer “long distance nationalist” diasporas and “labour migrants who maintain (to some degree) emotional and social ties with a homeland” (p. 2). These reasonably well-defined categories have “attenuated” to include transnational linguistic and religious communities, assimilated ethnic emigrants, and even “putative ethnocultural or country-defined diasporas” (p. 3, where he finally mentions the Japanese) and cultural/regional/functional communties.7

This is where I realized the problem. It’s not that sociologists like definitions and historians don’t, though I do think historians tend more towards description and less towards comparison-oriented categorization. More to the point, ‘diaspora’ as Brubaker describes it is a static category of the present; For diaspora as I study it is a process in which the definitional slippages which Brubaker notes (up to a point) are a result of the variety of choices made by migrating peoples. I would define it as an outward migration producing communities in multiple locations with some degree of multi-directional communication and intercourse. I’m leaving off the boundary-maintenance/assimilation binary entirely, because either cultural enclaves or integration can be results of emigration, and in most cases I can think of, both happen to some extent. Most importantly, diaspora isn’t a thing at one point in time, but the development of a population across boundaries over time; when I speak of “the Japanese Diaspora,” I don’t mean “Japanese-descent groups in Brazil, Hawai’i and North America today” but rather “the dispersion of Japanese from Japan to other countries and colonial territories, resulting in an expanded sense of Japanese community and ongoing cultural and personal connections.”8 In a historical sense, I’d say that diaspora is not the community which results from migration, but is the migration itself, and as long as people continue to move — with or without a homeland, but at least within the diasporic communities — then the diaspora exists.9 After movement with in the diaspora largely ceases, then what you have are immigrants, not members of a diaspora. I’m loath to get too deep into this, though: too precise a definition just leads to “is it or isn’t it” questions which are unproductive; I’m more inclined to an intuitive “is it like this or like that” comparative process based on rich description than I am to a taxonomy of migration, diaspora, transnationalism and identity which sucks energy out of the investigative process.

Speaking of rich description, I also enjoyed the presentation on Japanese migrants in the Philippines which put a cap on the session in which I presented.10 Frederico V. Magdalena’s “Dabao-kuo and the Construction of the Philippine State” was a fantastic case study of a very obscure chapter in Japan’s pre-WWII history. Japanese workers began to be recruited for road-building labor in the Davao region of the Mindanao island in the Philipine archipelago in 1903. At that point, Mindanao was a largely unintegrated region of the Philipines, with indigenous populations but little central government control; also at this point the US had recently taken over from the Spanish, and had only recently brought the Philipine rebellion to a close. By 1918 there were ten thousand Japanese settlers working over half the abaca plantations in the Davao region. By 1939 there were eighteen thousand, and their farms accounted for four-fifths of Davao abaca, almost half of the abaca exports from the Philipines; they also produced all the export lumber and half the coconuts, as well as operating over half the powered fishing boats11. By that point the Japanese in Davao had constructed over three hundred kilometers of roads, and paid between a half and two-thirds of the taxes from Davao. This was a very successful diaspora community.

By the 1930s, both US administrators (including Governor-General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.!) and Philipine leaders were sounding the alarm about Japanese colonization in Davao; while some of it was pretty overblown, it’s worth noting — as the talk title suggests — that the term Dabao-kuo was used by the Japanese in Davao, and the reference to Manchukuo was deliberate. Philipine and American writers also made reference to the Japanese colonial expansions in Korea, Taiwan, and the Asian mainland. From the mid-1930s on there were concerted efforts to bring settlers down from Luzon and Visayas, including Christian-organized missions and government-supported agricultural settlements. The “Filipinization” movement was fairly successful — by the late ’30s, Christians were a plurality over natives and Japanese — and helped to inspire the growth of a stronger nationalistic identity among Philipinos. The end of WWII devastated the Japanese community: those who weren’t killed by locals at the end of the war were repatriated, leaving behind thousands of local spouses and mixed children. Their descendants were discriminated against for decades, but by the 1990s a “Nikkeijin movement” began to arise, and interest in Japanese connections has grown with the availability of Nikkei visas. Some five thousand — out of an estimated eighty thousand — nikkei Mindanaoans have gone back to Japan at this point, at least for a short stay.

Is the Japanese-descent population in the Philipines part of the Japanese diaspora? I think the answer depends on what direction you’re looking at it from. In the Philipines, I’d say that it was not really a community so much as an ethnicity, nor did it have connections to other Japanese-descent groups; it was largely immobile. From the perspective of the Japanese, though, who believe in nationality by blood rather than by culture, the Davaoan group remained a part of the Japanese diaspora, so that when it opened its doors to remigration, they were included.12 And from the standpoint of a historian, the movement to Davao was part of the great diaspora, but largely stopped being part of it after 1945.

  1. “one true self, a common understanding, an unchanging reference frame in which differences are recent and superficial  

  2. shared experience of devleopment, the “play” of history, culture and power, open-ended and vulnerable to change  

  3. I have “of course” in my notes, though as an historian I have a bias towards the second definition  

  4. I’m think of the life-cycle of “feudalism” as the ur-term: the precise definitions created in Western European history; the attempts to overlay that definition on Asian histories; the seemingly endless debate about “kinds” of feudalism and whether they “really are” feudalism; the gradual abandonment of the term (even in Europe) as more descriptive and complex histories emerge; the lingering footnote skirmishes; the purging of the term from scholarship, then titles, then textbooks; the realization that we now have no general term for a broad swath of human history and the gradual recovery of a minimal use of the term…. to be continued  

  5. Rogers Burbaker, “The ‘diaspora’ diaspora,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1 (January 2005), pp. 1-19. It’s not in any of the full-text databases on my campus, but here’s the publisher link.  

  6. Now often refered to as “catastrophic” or “victim” diasporas, and “mobilized” or “trading” diasporas  

  7. including Southerners, Yankees, various political and religious sub-groups, non-heterosexuals, the deaf and terrorists.  

  8. By this definition, actually, you could argue that the Japanese diaspora ended at the end of WWII. I’m not prepared to argue that yet, but it’s an issue.  

  9. this definition is pretty limiting for sociological use, though I get the impression that sociologists wouldn’t mind having a narrow definition for analytical purposes  

  10. there was also a talk on Japanese neo-nationalism which seemed pretty basic, and a discussion of the intersection between Philipine national and religious narratives and political turmoil, particularly the role of martyrdom and resistance.  

  11. most of the tuna they caught was exported to Japan  

  12. I’m going to be exploring this dichotomy further in the near future.  


  1. Fascinating discussion of diaspora. But, I think the term has a simple and useful meaning at least for people not caught up in theory and social science jargon. Robin Cohen explained it best I think. I am parapharsing, but he basically defined it as a national group dispersed across several states that maintained its connection to its original homeland across generations. This connection could be political or cultural. Of course the connections are not stagnant. The connection of the Jewish diaspora or Irish diaspora in the US to their imagined homeland in the 21st century is very different than it was in the 19th century. This change contrary to social babble people like Brubaker, however, does not invalidate the concept.

  2. Cohen was a name that came up in the discussion, as I recall.

    I don’t think the problem is “social babble” (though I do think sociologists are prone to jargon) as it is a lack of historical perspective in sociology.

  3. hello! I am currently an undergraduate here in the Philippines and am currently doing research on the topic of socio-economic effects of Japanese migrants in Davao. However, I find myself with limited resources and would appreciate some book and article recommendations. 🙂

  4. The best thing I could recommend is to contact Frederico Magdalena: pretty much everything I know about the subject came from his talk! He’s at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, so you should be able to find an email address for him through the UH directory.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.