Questioning Complacency & A Call for Nuance: Japanese Brazilians and the complexities of race and colonialism historically

In the U.S., it is undeniable that racism exists, and that white people are the primary beneficiaries of it. We understand through race analysis that the world is saturated in white supremacy. Further, the influence of Western states in domestic disputes/apartheid abroad and the pervasiveness of white colonialism in state formation in many countries are pervasive examples of the global of reach of white supremacy.

Within this understanding of racism and white supremacy, I find myself increasingly interested in the ways brown people and non-Western countries participate in white supremacy and colonialism. What do we make of the rise of the Japanese nationalist right in the face of U.S. top-down law changes, enforced by military occupation? The fact that Mexico has increased it’s own border policing? How are we to think of the fact that Japanese Internment also happened in Peru?

Throughout these conversations, I find myself hungry for more nuanced conversations that go beyond simply describing brown people and/or non-Western countries as actors without agency, only enacting oppressive behaviors in order to survive within the global political arena. Can we really wash our hands of responsibility in being complicit in the oppression of others simply because we ourselves experience oppression? What does accountability look like when we know our hand is being moved, in many ways, by the influence of the West?

The purpose of this article is to explore this idea, using the case example of Japanese Brazilians.

Case Example: Japanese Brazilians, a brief history

In the Tokugawa period (1603–1867), emigration was prohibited in Japan. Then, during the Meiji period (1868–1912), Japan faced serious economic problems, and looked to emigration as a simple way of solving overpopulation. As a result, half a million Japanese people left Japan due to overpopulation and heavy taxes. Most went to Manchuria or Korea, others went to the Philippines, Hawaii, and the US mainland.[1] However, most Western countries stopped welcoming Japanese people, essentially due to racism. Australia preferenced European immigrants in 1901, the US created the gentleman’s agreement in 1908 and created immigration quotas that were highly racialized, and Canada similarly tightened immigration in 1895.

As a result, Japanese people started looking to South America. At the same time, Brazil was experiencing a shortage of labor, primarily on coffee plantations, due to the abolishment of slavery. Initially, Brazil preferenced Italians for this work (1880 to 1900), however the Italian government caught wind of complaints of poor working conditions and began to limit emigration to Brazil. Therefore, Brazil began looking to other countries to fill its low-wage labor needs, and consequently signed contracts in 1907 to open the doors to the Japanese. Interestingly, they refused to open doors to China and only opened the doors to the Japanese, because Japan was gaining a reputation as a modernized country at that time.

Here, it is important to point out that “mixing pot” ideology has been weaponized in Brazil like it has in other South American countries. The narrative of harmonious coexistence of races conveniently erases 492 different categories of racial delineations and a history of racist practices in Brazil. As it relates to Japanese people, narratives around Japanese being a “model minority” formed just as it did in the U.S., even though preference for white immigrants was clearly enunciated in 1910, preferring “white races” to settle in Brazil over all others.

Thus, due to Brazil’s labor shortages and the unwelcoming/discriminatory stance of the West, Brazil became a primary destination for Japanese emigrants. Today, Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.

While working in Brazil, Japanese people maintained Japanese cultural practices, celebrating Japanese holidays and maintaining patriarchal family structures. The first generation of Japanese immigrants resisted mixed-marriages (zakon), partly due to Japanese nationalism, but also because most first generation Japanese people (Issei) lived in rural areas with dark-skinned Brazilians and did not want to associate with dark-skinned people.

Additionally, Japanese schools were also established during this time, and Japanese nationalist education was adopted in the 1930s just as it was in mainland Japan. However, Brazil prohibited this in 1937 in fear of Japanese rebellion and in fear of Japanese expansionism. Brazil also instituted compulsory assimilation programs, required that Japanese could not travel within brazil, forbid meetings of 3 or more Japanese people, and prohibited the use of Japanese outside of the home. This broke diplomatic relations between Japan and Brazil.

The Japanese surrender after the war had a major impact on the Japanese-Brazilian community, splitting them into two factions: those who couldn’t believe the loss and felt it was America taking credit for Japan’s win (kachi gumi), and those who accepted the loss (make gumi). Within the kachi gumi, there began a rumor that the Emperor was concerned about his loyal subjects in foreign countries and were sending ships to retrieve them. This rumor was so pervasive that people sold their belongings and waited for ships that never came. Even when the emperor accepted defeat on public radio, people could not accept the Japanese surrender.

In 1946, an ultranationalistic group of Japanese kachi gumi people who believed in the Emperor’s rule of all people of Japanese ancestry set fire to farms and buildings in order to send a message against the messaging around Japan’s defeat in the war. In response, Brazilian civilians attacked Japanese people as well. Anti-Japanese sentiment spread, using slogans such as “fanatic yellows.” Japanese kachi gumi accused the make gumi of being wealthy Japanese who profited from the war, and called them “traitors” and “jews” due to the association of Jewish people with money.

A note on Japan and “Race”

The Japanese self-identity is one that is racially homogenous. Japanese identity is conceived of as the collective essence of a nation of homogenous people with little experience dealing with foreigners and which, owing to a long period of seclusion, developed a unique social culture. National identity is grounded in the idealization of consanguineous relationships, and heavy emphasis is placed on the idea of “Japanese blood” in the political construction of Japanese ethnicity.

So how do we make sense of all that? Detangling the webs of power

Through reading the summary above, most would agree that this history requires a complicated analysis of power and global structural violence. In other words, we can’t just blame white supremacy and call it a day, nor is it clearly a situation where Japan/Japanese people or Brazil/Brazilian people obviously hold systemic power over the other. Yet, oppression is still happening, and oppressive behavior is still happening. The Brazilian government forced Japanese people to assimilate in fear of Japanese colonization, and Japanese people resisted. Yet, Japanese Brazilians also responded with hyper-nationalistic devotion to Japanese imperialism and invoked their own concepts of racial and ethnic hierarchy to build their lives in Brazil.

So what is the web of power for Japanese Brazilians? As most are well aware, Japanese imperialism was the major source for the development of a Japanese nationalist identity which justified conquest. For Japanese Brazilians, their access to power is built through a collection of Japanese global power as an empire, and consequently the ability of the Japanese government to lend support to it’s migrants abroad as a result of the profit of expansionism. However, Japanese nationalism does not work to only benefit Japanese people: nationalism usually operates to control marginalized people, and most Japanese Brazilians are or were previously living in extreme poverty. It is my understanding that Japanese nationalism operated to task Japanese Brazilians with maintaining a commitment to their homeland, and create a messaging of “sacrifice for your country.” Today, patriotism and nationalism mimics the pattern of poor whites in the U.S., in that it is predominantly poor rural Japanese people that continue to vote for conservative, small-government minded politicians. Here, a conversation about class mobility is crucial to a nuanced, intersectional analysis of who benefits from racist/nationalistic narratives. Without understanding classism, it is hard to imagine how one would parse out what accountability could look like on part of Japanese people who participate in nationalistic narratives.

Furthermore, power is also provided to Japanese Brazilians through Brazilian racial hierarchy. Japanese Brazilians acquired relative “success” in Brazil also due to having lighter skin, and because of the model minority narratives that helped bolster relative Japanese racial power contingent on whether they distinguish themselves from darker-skinned people (much like the U.S.). Therefore, although anti-Asian sentiment, poverty, and the struggles of migration generally impacted Japanese Brazilians tremendously, their access to power is also shaped by Japanese nationalism (both for their benefit and to their detriment).

As for Brazil, there are elements of simply having to participate in global politics that informed it’s political decisions to enforce assimilation. Further, slavery was introduced to Brazil by the Portuguese in the 1500s through colonization, and whiteness and Western racial hierarchy was also imported at this time. However, simply because a system of oppression was introduced by colonizers does not excuse Brazilian people today from participating in it. The racialized way that Brazil decided to think about filling it’s labor forces (i.e. preferencing white people, Japanese people second) speaks volumes to this reality. Furthermore, today, “melting pot” and colorblind ideology operated to distract from the tremendous racialized wealth divide, and the adaptation of model minority narratives fit neatly to bolster messaging around bootstrap theory just as it does in the U.S. Pegging Brazil as simply trying to “keep up” with global politics and merely “passively accepting” white supremacist values imposed by the West is a weak excuse for the fact that nearly 50% of Brazilians are Afro-Brazilian, yet only 2% of government positions are held by Afro-Brazilians.

Accountability where the situation is complicated

When having discussions about this particular situation, or about race in Latin/South America generally, I often see conversations become stagnant at the point of simply stating that white supremacy was imported by colonizers and internalized by brown people. While this is an important historical truth to unpack, simply stopping there is not enough if we want to create a world where accountability is normalized.

First, this idea that brown people are merely “doing what they need to do” to survive by buying into racist ideologies supports the trope that brown people have a monolithic experience of trauma and marginalization, not impacted by other intersections of power and privilege. Ironically, this position reinforces old colonial ideas that “brown” governments are incapable of real government power that reinforced westward expansion in the first place. We should question this tendency to lose our analysis of systemic racism and colonialism when it comes to interrogating historically marginalized people, because this process robs brown communities from being seen as complex and nuanced, but also robs them of the ability to be accountable because it robs them of agency.

Additionally, it is my position that in the conversation of marginalized people “just doing what they need to do” or “just trying to survive”, it matters a great deal what exactly they are trying to survive. The politics of self-care and self-preservation have, through being popularized, become ways for those with access to social justice lingo to be able to skirt accountability in the name of “self-care.” To combat this, I think each instance of marginalized people buying into oppressor’s logic needs to be interrogated with what exactly that marginalized person or community is trying to survive. I have no personal qualms against individuals who use bootstrap theory in order to present a case not to be deported. If a person needs to use oppressive logic to stay alive or avoid extreme hardship and suffering, I believe this is exactly the situation where it makes sense that that person was “just doing what they need to do.” However, I think it is unaccountable to use this logic in all situations that involve people with marginalized backgrounds. For example, in legislative efforts to pass DACA/DAPA, many immigrant rights groups bought into bootstrap theory and anti-black tropes around which people are “criminals” and which people are not. While DACA and DAPA are certainly helpful legislative wins that provide more tools for surviving oppressive immigration laws, throwing other marginalized people under the bus to gain this tool should be critiqued.

I have no intention of drawing lines about what type of suffering is “enough” in order to qualify for sympathy. In fact, this isn’t an analysis of whether a person deserves sympathy. Rather, I am interrogating situations where people/communities do not step up to accountability, and do so in the name of “just trying to survive.”

Finally, the fact of the matter is that most interpersonal situations are not ones where there is an obvious oppressor and a perfect victim that are readily identified by the public eye. Marginalized people are complicated — they participate in the violence of the privileges they hold, they enact abusive behaviors in the midst of a trauma response. Accountability can still exist even when we recognize that an individual/communities’ behaviors and choices were informed by survival mentality.

As we continue to have discussions around Latin/South America and unpack the complicated histories around racial formation and global politics, it is clear that most situations are more nuanced around power than simplified ideas around white v.s. other imply. Even in instances where white colonialism bears the majority of the weight of a social problem, there is usually incredible complexity. Most situations do not follow the bad oppressor-perfect victim paradigm, and allowing for that complexity is the type of humanizing analysis racial justice advocates should be striving for if we want to create an equitable world. Rather than succumb to the simplistic analysis of having their hand forced by white imperialism, I believe that Lat Crit theorists and theorists of other areas of study focusing on marginalized people should find ways to recognize the agency of marginalized people by holding them accountable.

[1] By 1898, Japanese people constituted 40% of the total population of Hawaii.