January 6, 2021
Dr. Allison Alexy: Hello and welcome to Michigan Talks Japan, a podcast from the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. I'm Allison Alexy. In each episode I’ll talk with a scholar working in Japanese Studies – across academic disciplines, across time periods.
Today it's my pleasure to talk with Dr. Suma Ikeuchi, Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research explores migration, ethnic studies, religion, and science & technology studies. Our conversation centers on her book, Jesus Loves Japan: Return Migration and Global Pentecostalism in a Brazilian Diaspora, published in 2019 by Stanford University Press. After we recorded this, I was thrilled to learn that the book has been awarded the 2020 Francis L. K. Hsu Book Prize by the Society for East Asian Anthropology
Allison: Thank you so much for being willing to talk with us today.
Dr. Suma Ikeuchi: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
Allison: I really enjoyed reading your book. Would you mind talking a little bit about what you're arguing in the book, what the book’s about?
Suma: Yeah, so the book is about Brazilian citizens of Japanese descent who have migrated to Japan, which is their ancestral homeland, but these people are second generation, or third generation Japanese Brazilians or Nikkeis as they call themselves. If you call it a return migration, they are return migrating, quote unquote, to the land of their ancestors that they have never seen before. But many of them because their ancestors have been Japanese who immigrated to Brazil, they can look like the Japanese majority there. So they migrate there and the phenomenon started back in the 1990s. A sizeable number of them, these Japanese Brazilian migrants in Japan, have converted to after they migrate to Japan, Latin American branch of Pentecostal Christianity, which is now flourishing among migrant minorities in the peripheries of Japanese society. So I went in there, I did a year long field work between 2013 and 14, and I found these vibrant, very passionate Pentecostal Christian communities made up of these Japanese Brazilians. And I was immediately fascinated by this phenomena, not to mention because it's in Japan, less than 1% of the Japanese population is Christian. So they kind of stand out. So in the book I asked this broad question, which is why Pentecostalism, why Japanese Brazilians and why in Japan, which is technically their ancestral homeland.
Allison: Before we go forward, it might be helpful for our listeners: could you give us a little bit of a definition of Pentecostalism either in Japan or somewhere else?
Suma: So Pentecostalism is a branch of what some Religious Studies scholars call the renewalist branch of contemporary Christianity in which most of the followers believe in a divine prophecy, also biblical literalism and also glossolalia or speaking in tongues. And the style of worship is usually very passionate, very expressive, many cry, many jump. Some are slayed in the spirit. That's what they say, which is during the worship, some of them start shaking and fall onto the floor and somebody else always catches them. But, yeah, it's a branch of renewalist or evangelical Christianity that tends toward a very emotional style of worship.
Allison: And so one of the things you're making clear is that, Brazilian Nikkei, right. So we can sort of translate that as “returnees,” although you make it really clear, these are not people who likely grew up in Japan, right? So maybe their grandparents or their great grandparents left Japan. Is that right, the second or third generation? Is that correct?
Suma: Yes. The majority are second or third generation because that’s the generations that the ancestry based visa is granted to.
Allison: Could you talk a little bit more about that visa program? A different guest on the podcast mentioned it briefly. So I want to make a call back to Michael Strauss's episode. He mentions this visa category and its creation, but it's really important for the people with whom you did research. Would you mind talking a little bit more about the visa category? I think it was created in 1990, is that right?
Suma: Yeah, it's in 1990. So in 1990, the Japanese government introduced a new type of visa available for foreigners of Japanese descent up to the third generation. So that means technically at least one of your grandparents must have been a Japanese immigrant for you to qualify for this visa. The rationale behind it, scholars say was probably because in the late 1980s, Japanese government regarded the increasing number of undocumented migrants working in Japan as a problem. And by letting foreigners of Japanese descent in and letting them work in industrial sectors of Japanese society, they wanted to mitigate the risk of having so many undocumented migrants from the Middle East, for example. This new visa kind of killed two birds with one stone. One bird, one benefit is that Japanese government could have a cheap foreign labor force into the country. In this case, Japanese Brazilians. And the other bird, the other benefit is they could do so without threatening the ostensible racial harmony of the country because these Brazilians were supposed to be quote unquote Japanese in blood.
Allison: And it didn't really turn out that way. Is that right?
Suma: It didn’t really turn out that way. As anthropologists know, you don't really carry your culture in your blood.
Suma: It's nurture over nature.
Allison: Right. So then they end up with a group of people. Could you remind us how how many immigrants quote unquote returnee immigrants we're talking about? How many came back to came to Japan?
Suma: 300,000. But right now, it has come down to 200,000, around there. So that makes them that makes them the fifth largest group of foreign residents in Japan after the Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Filipino. But back in the 1990s in the heyday of this quote unquote return migration, Nikkei Brazilians constituted, I think they formed the third largest after the Chinese and Korean. My undergraduate students, whenever I talk about this phenomenon, their eyes widen like dishes because many of them don't expect Brazilians to be in Japan. And these two countries are literally on the opposite sides of the world. If you look at them on the globe, you know?
Allison: One of the things I learned in your book was that – please correct me if I'm getting this wrong – the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan is in Brazil. Is that still correct?
Suma: Yes, that is still correct. So that means there are more Japanese Brazilians in the world than there are, say, Japanese Americans.
Allison: You mentioned this, but when these Nikkei Brazilian Japanese people come to Japan, many, I think probably most of them, got work, took jobs in, often car manufacturing factories. So there's a strong association with, or a strong link between this ethnicity, Brazilian Japanese in Japan and a particular kind of labor, right?
Suma: Yes, exactly. That is correct.
Allison: Is it mostly car manufacturing in particular or is it just sort of blue collar manufacturing in general?
Suma: The latter, the blue-collar manufacturing. The people I spent a year with during my fieldwork between 2013 and 14, they mostly worked for factories related to the car industry because my fieldwork was in Toyota City, Japan, where their headquarters of the Toyota Motor Corporation is located. But if you look at Japan over all and how Nikkei Brazilians are scattered around all over Japan, but mostly in the industrial zones, many of them work in car industry, assembling auto parts on the assembly lines, but many others work in factories that produce kombini bento or convenience store box lunches. So food processing plants definitely is one of them and other kinds of electronic gadgets factories, and so on and so forth. But the majority of Nikkei Brazilians in Japan to this day work in the so-called unskilled labor, that sector.
Allison: Maybe you can't tell us exactly where you worked, but for part of your fieldwork, you were doing this kind of labor as well, right?
Suma: Yes. I think in total eight added up to five months out of a one-year long fieldwork. First I worked in an auto parts factory. And then second, I worked in a food processing plant that shipped its products to the numerous convenience stores in the Aichi prefecture. So yeah, I worked in two different kinds of unskilled labor that tended to be manned by migrant workers like Brazilians.
Allison: One of the things I really identified with when I was reading your book was that there are a few moments where you're just talking about being completely exhausted. And sometimes you're exhausted because you had to work a long shift at a factory, and then you're going out to have a kind of Pentecostal service or communion or something with members of the church where you are working.
Allison: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it felt like to do research in both of these these venues – in doing the work in the factory and also doing work, in a church community more broadly.
Suma: Yeah. Yeah. My intention there was to experience as many different kinds of life as possible, the kind of life that Nikkei Brazilians lead themselves in Japan. So to me, there were three different kinds of life that I wanted to experience and also observe because this is fieldwork. The first is, as you said, the church community, the second is the factory. And the third is the residence because I lived in perhaps the largest Brazilian enclave in Japan, which is called the “Homi Housing Complex.” And at the time of my fieldwork, there were roughly 5,000 Brazilian residents living in this one mammoth, you know, huge apartment complex. So I did all of those three things. I tried to experience as much as possible in those three different contexts. And in my view, those three kind of complemented each other and enriched the observations from each of these three contexts.
So talking specifically about how the time in the churches and my time at the assembly line, how they complemented each other. One thing I can think of is, it kind of gave me good questions because I experienced first hand, although my time in factory was very brief compared to many of the migrant laborers, I experienced firsthand how exhausting it is to just do the same repetitive thing for 10 hours, 12 hours a day, if you do the overtime work. And after that, many of the Pentecostal converts, after they finish working this exhausting work at 6:00 PM, 7:00 PM, 8:00 PM, many of them go to their churches and then do the Bible study, do the prayer group. And I'm like, how do you have the energy left in your body after this grinding work to do, what they call God's work? That was a very urgent question that I wanted to ask. And I wouldn't have conceived that question had I not tried to immerse myself into as many different contexts as possible. So quick answer to that question that I had: why do they do the church work in addition to the factory work, which is already very hard? What I say in the book is that the kind of time that these Nikkei Brazilians experience in factory and in their church are two very different kinds of time. Because the time they experience in factory is kind of like this monotone factory time, which they just have to pass somehow. And this time passes very slowly and they find this factory time very kind of torturing because they just want it to pass quickly, but it never seems to pass quickly. So that's factory time, that most of them detest, frankly. But the time that they experience in church, most of them say is very refreshing and very immersive, and it passes very quickly if you learn the art of prayer. So it's this immediate time into which they can absorb themselves. So my answer to that question was that it seems like the kind of time that they can experience in time in absorbing themselves in prayer, seems to counterbalance the monotony of the factory time that they have to subject themselves to for decades.
Allison: Wow. It's such an interesting point. I should say, we're recording this, during the sort of the COVID pandemic. I don't know about you, but my sense of time now is so weird and bad. Is it happening for you too?
Allison: It’s really confusing for me now, not to go anywhere.
Suma: I know. I'm completely with you on that. I think our sense of time is kind of warped right now ever since the stay at home order kind of hit us in many parts of the U.S. And our routines changed, our daily rituals changed and time just doesn't feel the same, right? Bringing this back to my primary discipline which is anthropology – I'm not sure how big it is today, but there's this field, a subfield, in anthropology, which is called the anthropology of time, I think. One, I think, fundamental claim that the anthropology of time makes is that time is not something we pass, but time is something that we humans make. So time is something that we construct and build on a daily basis. And no matter how much we may think that time is this objective thing out there that passes no matter what we do. In reality, the anthropology of time tells us that time is something that we're actively making, every second, every minute. So I feel that what the pandemic and stay at home order did to many of us is that because our daily practices, our daily routines, our ideas about our day, our week, our month have been so dramatically altered is that consequently, our experience and perception of time cannot be the same. Because the ways we can make time are dramatically different and dramatically limited right now. So that's probably why time feels very flat and monotone right now for me, at least?
Allison: Me too. Me too. I think that's such a helpful and thoughtful answer. I was thinking another way in which time matters and temporality matters for the people with whom you did research is that, as you describe it, when they first come to Japan, many people are saying, “Oh, I'll stay here for one or two or three years. I'll work and I'll make money and I'll save money. And then I'll go back to Brazil.” But you make it really clear that most people do not actually follow through with that plan. And many people end up staying in Japan way longer than they expected. So would you mind talking a little bit about that?
Suma: Yeah, sure. Many Nikkei Brazilians are probably what scholars call labor migrants because the majority of them did not choose to migrate to Japan because of this nostalgia or yearning for the ancestral homeland, which some people may think that that's the case when they hear the word return migration. But in reality, the majority of them chose to migrate to Japan because they heard that the Japanese government's offering this ancestry-based visa, which they qualify for. And back in the early 1990s, even working as an unskilled laborer in a factory in Japan, could earn them several times more wages than working in more white-collar jobs in Brazil because of the economic state of Brazil at the time. So many of them come to Japan with this aim of earning money and what they call, you know, the better future, because they want to earn more money to build a bigger house, to pay tuition for their offspring in Brazil, to do this and that, that they think will make the better future. And this is not just for Japanese Brazilians who come to Japan. This is for all migrant groups who move from one place to another for economic or other gains for the sole purpose of making the better future for themselves and for their kids. And the story's the same for Japanese Brazilians.
The thing is when they arrive in Japan, they feel that this shiny idea of the better future kind of gets stunted because in Japan they realize that they turn into this Latin American minority group that the Japanese ethnic majority often discriminate against. So what they thought of as this bright first world country that is called Japan, where they can make the better future, get betrayed. This image doesn't become real in their experiences. So that's when I think in the book I described the situation as a temporal limbo because they arrive in Japan thinking about this image of the bright future, and that gets stunted. So now they're like, “okay, where are we temporally?” And this kind of relates back to one of the main claims that I make in the book, which is that movement or mobility is not just physical. Mobility is experienced in a temporal way, almost always. And not just temporal, but mobility can also be psychological, can be emotional and can be political and also can be moral.
Allison: In Brazil, where are these people with Japanese ancestry were growing up, they were often sort of understood to be a model minority, right. So that they weren't often recognized as fully Brazilian but it was a positive thing.
Suma: I think you're referring to the part of the book where I write about this class or ethnic downgrade that Nikkei Brazilians experience when they cross from Brazil to Japan. Because in Brazil, as you said, they enjoy this, model minority status somewhat similar to North America, in which they are supposed to be more industrious, more intelligent, more middle class or upper class than the rest of the minority groups in Brazil. Not all of them are those things, but they enjoy those positive stereotypes in Brazil. And one scholar described this positive stereotype as Nikkei Brazilian being quote unquote “the Brazilians of the future” because the positive images that they enjoy in Brazil are associated with the country of Japan, and the image of Japan in the global imaginary is that Japan is this super high tech first world country. That's how many Nikkei Brazilians, because they received these positive stereotypes in Brazil, they expect Japan to be those futuristic things as well when they migrate to Japan. And to their disappointment, once they arrive in Japan, because they are relegated to the periphery of Japanese society, they notice that they cannot really enjoy these developed first world things. Because what they encounter in most cases, though not all, is unskilled grinding in many cases, dirty factory work. Their expectation for the bright future and this, you know, bright futuristic nation are at once betrayed when they make the crossing.
Allison: Is it correct to think that many Nikkei Brazilian people arrive in Japan not yet practicing Pentecostal belief and convert in Japan? Or are lots of people already Pentecostal when they come to Japan?
Suma: A little bit of both. The Pentecostal communities I studied, I would say roughly 70% of Nikkei Brazilians there converted after arriving in Japan and after experiencing all of these difficult things like discrimination and grinding labor. But, among the communities that I studied, a minority of them were already practicing or exposed to Pentecostalism back in Brazil. So it looks like this small number of people who were already practicing Pentecostals back in Brazil, they arrive in Japan and they see the situation in which Japanese Brazilians struggle and they start building churches. And in this context of Japan, it really starts flourishing and it starts to convert many people.
Allison: Would you mind telling us a little bit more about the church where you did a lot of your research?
Suma: I did my fieldwork at Toyota church, this church located in Toyota City, Japan, of a Brazilian Pentecostal denomination called the “missão de apoio,” that's support mission in Portuguese. And this denomination I chose because it was, depending on the source, it was the second largest or third largest Latin American Pentecostal denomination active in Japan at the time. But also because it was a denomination that was founded in Japan, by Nikkei Brazilian migrants themselves in the early 1990s. So whatever is happening with this particular Pentecostal community, I thought would reflect a lot of things that are going on with them in the context of Japan. Because it was technically speaking made in Japan, although it's a Brazilian Pentecostal denomination.
Allison: And it seems like they were incredibly welcoming of you. But also at least some of them seem to keep expecting that you will convert and become born again yourself. Is that how you felt at the time?
Suma: Yes. Many of them wanted to, in their words, save my soul. Because according to the dominant theology, for them, people who are not converted ultimately go to hell after this. That's what they wanted to do for me, according to them. To save me before I leave. But I ended up not saved to their disappointment. But we still talk on Facebook, for example. Just last summer I brought maybe 20 copies of the published book back to this particular church community. And I gave them away as a gesture of appreciation. So we're on really good terms. But even before I started my fieldwork back in 2013, I knew that there would be some dramatic differences or disagreements because they are Pentecostal slash evangelical Christians, ultimately. And I called myself a nonpracticing Buddhist while in the field because I'm from a Buddhist Japanese family, Jōdo Shinshū, so that's “True Pure Land” school of Buddhism. But I don't really practice it on a daily basis. So that's what I told them I was, and that didn't change even toward the end of the fieldwork. So I knew that there would be some balancing work that was going to happen even before my fieldwork started. So that was perhaps one of the hardest parts of my fieldwork: to anticipate and reconcile those ideological differences, I would say.
Allison: How did you figure out how to do that? What did you try? Or what worked or what didn't work?
Suma: My basic principle was honesty to the degree it's possible. I want to repeat this point that all of them were so friendly, so generous, and so welcoming. But occasionally one of them would say, “Suma, so you've been here for three months and you've seen God's grace. Have you experienced anything with God yet?” And, you know, I have to say “Not yet, but I'm open-minded. I'm not eliminating the possibility, but that has not happened yet.” If speaking in their cultural idiom, I would say the Holy Spirit has not touched my heart yet. This is not just me. I think we are kind of getting into the complexity of fieldwork and what anthropologists call positionality, which is how to reconcile the background of the ethnographer and the backgrounds of the people that the ethnographer spends time with.
Some of them thought to themselves that maybe I was there by God's will because why would I be there? And, you know, anthropology can be a weird thing, so I cannot blame them at all for thinking that question. And also to be fair to the people I spent a year with, many anthropologists do go out there and study the kinds of religions and traditions that they are part of. Say, anthropologists who are interested in Buddhism in their personal lives, go out and study some branches of Buddhism, for instance. In that sense, their question, I think, was legitimate. But it just made my fieldwork a little bit more complicated because I wanted to be truthful to them without offending them. And I was never sure if or when I was crossing that line. But at the end of the day, I had such a huge learning experience spending one year with them and I'm forever grateful to them. And I felt really happy when they were happy. When they saw the book, they were like, “Damn Suma was actually doing what she said she was going to do, writing a book about us! She was not lying!” [Both laugh] And I sat down with them and although most of them, except for the pastor, have pseudonyms in the book, I sat down with as many of them as possible, and I said that, “Hey, you are João, but in this book you are actually this name. And I wrote about you here and here and here, I'm sorry it’s in English. Here's a summary in Portuguese, but I wrote this and that.” The ethics of fieldwork are so difficult and complicated, but that's in my case, that's what I did. Be honest, as much as possible, and try to show what you did with what they told you. That's what I did.
Allison: Speaking of language, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the languages you were using in the course of the fieldwork. It seems like some of the people are maybe fluent in both Japanese and Portuguese, some are sort of fluent in one or sort of fluent in the other. How did you navigate that as a field worker? As far as I know you speak English, Japanese, and Portuguese, so you're able to switch between them. How did you make decisions about how to navigate what languages to use?
Suma: Most of the time I could tell which language they preferred. And in the case of Nikkei Brazilians in Toyota, the majority of the people I interacted with preferred Portuguese because they haven't really learned Japanese since they arrived years ago. Or in some cases, decades ago, they arrived in Japan. So you say hi, and you start talking and most of the time you could tell that, oh, okay, they prefer Portuguese. A minority of people in Toyota, the people I spent time with, they preferred Japanese and most of them were born or raised in Japan, many of them, the so-called the yonsei or fourth generation. So as I said, the visa is available to second and third generation foreigners of Japanese descent. So if these people come on the ancestry-based visa and if they bring their little kids or if they come to Japan and have kids there, then these kids, the fourth generation kids, are born or virtually, you know, raised their whole life in Japan. And naturally many of them spoke Japanese as the first language. So they prefer Japanese. So with them, I spoke Japanese. When I interviewed the Japanese teachers, neighbors and bosses at factory, I use Japanese. I would say I did my fieldwork in three languages or maybe at least three dialects because there is Portuguese there's Japanese and there is this kind of like a Creole, kind of like a hodgepodge of Portuguese and Japanese, what they call Dekasegigo. So they call themselves the “dekasegi.” In Japanese means temporary seasonal, temporary laborer. That's what the dekasegi means. But in Portuguese too, that has been adopted already by now. And in Portuguese it means Japanese Brazilians who go to Japan to earn money. So they joke that these hodgepodge of Portuguese and Japanese words that they speak in Japan is Dekasegigo, you know, it's a language of the dekasegi. So that's the third language I spoke with them. It helped a lot that I spoke both because I could, as much as possible, code switch with them, which helped.
Allison: Could you give some example of the sort of hodgepodge language?
Suma: Yeah. Because majority of them work in factory, many Japanese words that they have imported into their daily lexicon are related are related to factory labor. For example, zangyō is a very common word that even a recent Brazilian migrant who have just arrived and doesn't know Japanese at all. Even that kind of migrant would know the meaning of zangyō within the first week in Japan, because in the factory zangyō means overtime work. The Japanese boss comes and says “Hey, you haven't met your quota today. So you have to do two hours of zangyō or overtime work.” So words like zangyō overtime work, words like hirukin and yakin. Hirukin means a day shift, yakin means night shift. And these laborers must know the difference to sign up for those shifts. Words like furyō in the Toyota production system means those products that didn't meet the quality standards, so they have to weed those out at the assembly line. So even those Brazilians who don't know how to speak Japanese at all would know this particular set of words and kind of sprinkle their Portuguese with these Japanese words and they call it língua dekasegui. So that's Dekasegigo and it was, you know, kind of testament to this global and multilingual and multicultural life that they have built in Japan and also in the span of three or four generations of diaspora between Japan and Brazil, I have to say.
Allison: You were giving an example of Nikkei people who come to Japan, say third generation, and have children who grow up in Japan. And those children would be of the fourth generation. At least at the moment, birthright citizenship in the U.S. is such that if you are born in the U.S. you are a citizen. The same is not true in Japan. Would you mind talking a little bit more about that fourth generation category?
Suma: Yes, yes. I understand how this can feel a bit weird to U.S. listeners, that children of foreign migrants who were born in Japan do not receive automatic birthright citizenship, but you're right. That's exactly the case here that the fourth generation Brazilians born in Japan, they do not have Japanese citizenship because the Japanese citizenship follows the system of jus sanguinis or the principle of bloodline. So your parents must be Japanese citizens for you to receive that citizenship. And some other ways, but anyhow, being born in Japan does not give you automatic citizenship. Which, I just want to add very quickly, makes things very complicated, especially for these fourth generation youth who were born in Japan or raised in Japan, since they were two or three. So they don't remember Brazil at all. Some of them speak Japanese as their native tongue, and sometimes some of them could not speak Portuguese anymore because they were born and raised in Japan. So it's kind of like what happened to first generation Japanese immigrants in Brazil, all over again, but in Japan.
What happened to their ancestors a few generations back are happening to them now in Japan. But the difference is Brazil grants you birthright citizenship and Japan does not. They speak Japanese, some of them. Their friends are Japanese, some of them. They go to Japanese elementary school, junior high school, and high school. Their cultural references are Japanese because of the TV and other media they consume. And at the end of the day, they are told by the legal system and by the Japanese ethnic majority, that they are not Japanese. They are Brazilian, from this other country that they have never seen. So with fourth generation, the youth growing up right now in Japan, the question of identity becomes even thornier, as if it's not complicated enough already. And it really makes you question the current legal system that values blood over upbringing, simply put.
Suma: And when you see the sometimes subtle, but sometimes very sharp pain that these youth go through growing up in Japan, you have to kind of start thinking about that current system.
Allison: Would there be an example you could share with us about the kind of pain that people in that category experience?
Suma: Yeah, so, there was this family that I really liked visiting because their house was full of laughter every time I visited. They were very fun, easy-going people. The parents were third generation Nikkei Brazilians, both of them, and they migrated to Japan maybe 20 years ago. So they have been living in Japan for decades now. And they gave birth to and raised their two girls in Japan entirely. And these two girls are now in junior high school and high school. Legally speaking, they are foreigners although they were born and raised in Japan and went to Japanese schools throughout their lives. And legally speaking, they wouldn't even have the right to legally reside in Japan, had it not been for their parents who carry the Japanese blood within the legal limit and the legal limit. The legal limit for acknowledging how thick your Japanese blood is up to the third generation. So being fourth generation, these young girls who grew up in Japan entirely, how much Japanese blood they have will not be legally sufficient for them to continue to reside in Japan on their own, unless they have permanent residency, which is a wholly entirely different story. So I would visit their home, every now and then, because they're joking all the time. The parents would mostly speak to their girls in somewhat clumsy Japanese, or maybe in Portuguese most of the time. And the girls would always respond in Japanese, because that's their first language. They don't speak that well, Portuguese anymore.
So one day I went to their house and we had dinner. And then, the father, the third generation, Nikkei Brazilian started joking that, “Oh, like, my little girl, the one in the junior high, my little girl doesn’t want me to speak whenever she invites friends over to our home.” And then he laughs and I'm like, “Oh, what do you mean? Why not?” And he's like, “Because if I don't open my mouth, I look Japanese. So her friends don't need to learn that I'm a Brazilian. So whenever she invites her friends over, she tells her Japanese Brazilian dad in Japanese “Dad, so and so is coming over, just keep your mouth shut, okay? Cause they don't know we are Brazilian.” And I kind of had a sting of "oh… like that hurts” feeling in my chest, but everybody at the dining table kept on laughing because they thought it was funny and maybe, you know, they have to laugh to go through this on a regular basis. But from the perspective of this younger girl, I think it's one of those little things that she has to navigate and she has to wrap her head around, I guess. I think she's passing as Japanese if that's okay to say. She's not telling anyone actively that she, her background is Brazilian. And having to tell her father to shut his mouth whenever she invites her friends over because of a certain kind of self-image she wants to maintain in her social life as a Japanese teenager at a Japanese junior high school. I think that kind of stress could accumulate.
Some of the church members, some of them were fourth generation and they were born or almost entirely raised in Japan. And given that these are the things that they encounter quite frequently living in Japan, I think, although it sounds cliché to some of us, I think this is where the power of transcendental language of Christianity can appeal to this kind of youth. Because the language of identity in charismatic or Pentecostal Christianity is that where you come from doesn't matter, only God's grace matters. And how you have lived your life up to this point doesn't matter. It is your redemption and complete faith in God right now that matters. And also that where you were born or what blood you carry do not matter in this Christian idiom, because ultimately it is your faith. It is your Christian identity that should matter and must come first before anything else. So this kind of transcendental and the universalist language of charismatic Pentecostal Christianity seemed to do a lot of empowering work for this group of youngsters during my field work. Many of them struggle – just like their parents, frankly – but many of them struggle with this idea of “I'm Brazilian, but I'm Japanese, but they call me gaijin or foreigner.” Like “I'm all of these things, or none of these things, it's confusing.” But there's this language and it sounds banal, but it tells you that you can transcend all of those ethnic and national things and just trust in this one universal thing, which is God. I could see how that can be powerful.
Allison: It strikes me too that with such an expressive religious belief these Nikkei Brazilian people are making themselves even less typical in Japan. Typical Japanese religious belief or practice is kind of flexible so that people can be…
Suma: (laughs) Yes.
Allison: Is that, is that a way to say it?
Suma: Yes, I completely agree. And full disclosure, I'm Japanese and I grew up in Japan at least until age 23 when I came to the U.S. So I completely feel that statement. Yeah, it's flexible there.
Allison: Lots of Japanese people in their religious practice believe that it's okay to do some things that are Shinto, and there's some things that are Buddhist beliefs or Buddhist practices. And also if you occasionally go to church or if you decide to get married in a church, that's fine too. And so it's all kind of flexible. And one of the things that seems different or remarkable about the church in which you did research is that it's asking people to say, no, this is the only correct faith. Which feels really striking and like a hard difference to me.
Suma: Yeah. I think someone in one of the talks that I gave over the past few years had this question after my talk, which was “Why don't they convert to Buddhism if they want to have a better life in Japan of all places?” Because choosing, especially this kind of Christianity, is kind of making yourself more of a minority than you already are, which is Pentecostal Christianity, which is super, super rare in the context of Japan. I definitely feel you that some of the core tenants, the core beliefs of Pentecostal Christianity kind of fly in the face of the dominant religious sensibility of Japan, where most Japanese people believe that they are quote unquote non-religious or mushūkyō. And I think in Religious Studies, there are some studies on why Japanese people self identify as non-religious and what's the history behind it. Tanabe has a book called Practically Religious, which explained some of this focus on practice in Japanese folk, religious practices. And a book that I admire is called The Invention of Religion in Japan, by Jason Josephson Storm. They explained that throughout modern history, Japan has kind of sensitized its population to think of themselves as non-religious and in that process flexible religious affiliations became okay. Brazilians, because they follow a different history that lies behind Pentecostal Christianity and its rise in the global south, because they follow a different set of philosophies and ideologies articulated in evangelical Pentecostal Christianity, once they convert, although they do so for a lot of reasons, they also form a new fault line in the context of Japan because culturally they are now diverging even more from the dominant sense around religion in the Japanese society. So that was the interesting part of my research. And I think in my book, I try to address this new fault line, the new tension that arises once they convert to a very passionate branch of Christianity in Japan. It's the section called "Contested." And it's virtually about how this new faith in Pentecostal Christianity can bring up new tensions and new problems for them, although they themselves continue to find it valuable for them.
Allison: Of course when you're writing a book, one of the things you have to do is let some things go that you would like to include, but don't fit. Is there something that happened in the course of the fieldwork that you wanted to include, but it ended up falling out of the book?
Suma: Well, some very powerful narratives from some of the people I had to omit them because of the in the interest of space, as you say. For example, there was this person, a youngish woman who never knew her Japanese father back in Brazil. Back in the early days of Japanese immigration in Brazil, it was very common for first generation immigrants to forbid their second generation offspring to marry what they call the gaijin. In this context, gaijin means non-Nikkei Brazilians. In the early days, it was very common for a second-generation Nikkeis to be pressured into marry other Nikkeis and not a European or Black Brazilians. And those who married outside of their Japanese ethnic group were kind of ostracized.
This woman that I met in Toyota, I'm going to call her Layla. Layla’s father abandoned her mother and also her because back in the day, it was still banned for Japanese Brazilians to marry outside of their group. Her father, for some reason felt ashamed or something and he left. So she grew up in Brazil without ever knowing her Japanese father or her Japanese heritage. She doesn't speak Japanese at all. But when she was like a young adult, her Japanese dad showed up at her doorstep after years of no communication. And he begged for forgiveness and he explained that he's first-generation father was against the marriage. He loved her mother, but he couldn't… blah, blah. And as a way of atonement, Layla’s biological Japanese father offered her to get this ancestry visa to Japan so that she could work there and earn some good money. So to Layla the Japanese ancestry-based visa that she ended up using is this bittersweet piece of memory about her family's abandonment by the Japanese immigrant group in Brazil. So it was a very vivid story and I intended to include it somewhere, but I didn't because it just didn't work very well at the end. I have some other stories like this that I wish I could've included, but I couldn't.
Allison: Did Layla's dad stay in touch with her after he reunited with her or what happened?
Suma: Yeah. Yeah. So after he showed up again in her young adulthood, they stayed in touch. But ironically, he didn't come to Japan with her. He stayed in Brazil and it was the only Layla who came to Japan by using the information that her father gave her to enable her migration.
Allison: Thank you for sharing that. That's really, it's a really powerful story. It feels almost, as you were telling the story, it felt almost like an epic movie. Is there some moment in the book that you were particularly proud of because it was hard either in doing the fieldwork or in figuring out an idea or a theory?
Suma: Oh, it was not time consuming, but, um, well, I have a part of the book in mind that was difficult for me, but not because it took me a long time to write that part, but because of the tension that I anticipated with the people back in Toyota. It's about Leticia actually.
Allison: Oh, wonderful. I would love to hear you talk more about her. Would you mind just explaining a little bit of her story?
Suma: Yeah. So Leticia is another person who gave me just mind blowing stories. Leticia is a third generation Nikkei of Okinawan descent. So some of the Japanese people who migrated to Brazil in the 20th century, they were from today's Okinawa prefecture. And in Brazil, the descendants of Okinawan immigrants from Japan developed an identity kind of separate from the rest of Nikkei Brazilian group, because Okinawa has a distinct identity and also politically a little bit complicated relationship toward the mainland of Japan. When I met her, she identified as a proud third generation Okinawan Nikkei Brazilian. It's already complicated, but that's what, that's who she was. And when I met her, I assumed that she was just another Pentecostal convert because she was very passionate in weekly worship in church. Her Bible was very well read with post-it notes and the markers and everything. So I assumed that she was a convert. But one day I visited her apartment to interview her and one of the first things she disclosed to me was that she was not Christian. She said it rather adamantly. And she said, “No, no, no. I have this ancestral altar at home and I have not converted yet. And actually I still have a somewhat ongoing conflict with my sons who already converted to Pentecostalism and they attack me for being an idolatrist. Because in their eyes, my ancestral altar, which connects me to my Okinawan heritage, is a case of idolatry. So I have fought with my sons a lot over it. And I go to church now because my son said that they were praying for me and I want to have harmony in my household. So I go to the Pentecostal church for that harmony, but I'm not Pentecostal yet.” And by the way, her husband and her sons' father, passed away some years ago in Japan from an illness. So it was just her and her kids in the house.
In the book, she appears as, in my view, as an example of this tension between the desire to maintain this diasporic identity, the desire to foster this ongoing relationship with ancestors and, you know, keep your legacy going and keep your tradition alive. Leticia was for all of those things. So that was on one side. But on the other side, another thing that her sons had discovered, and now kind of encouraged her to follow. But if she decides to follow this one and only God, then her sons told her that she had to burn the altar because that's idolatry, right? So in the book, Leticia is this crystallization of the kinds of tensions that some Nikkei Brazilians experience in encountering Pentecostal Christianity, maybe another fault line that I speak of.
Long story short, she converts actually during my fieldwork, following her sons. But after the baptism ceremony, which is the official moment of conversion, I visited her home again. And I still see the ancestral altar there, against the official policy of the church. So to me, it's a beautiful example of how flexibility survives, even when that dominant philosophy says otherwise, and how on the ground, people are messier than this beautifully neat philosophy that come from that comes from the leaders of the church.
But when I wrote this part of the book, I was very uncomfortable because I knew I was going to bring the copies of the book back to the community once it's published. And I was going to explain everything honestly, and I knew that the leaders of the church, especially the pastor would not like me for including this story. Cause this kind of goes against the official narrative of what conversion should entail. But I wrote it regardless and brought the book back to the community last summer and I faced the pastor and I told him that “Well, as you know, as a researcher, I am sympathetic to everything you do, but I also have to be objective. And during my fieldwork, Leticia told me this story, maybe, you know, already. And I included in that book and it's here. And in my estimation, this is probably the only part that you really will not like. So I just wanted to be honest with you.” He knew that story already because between the end of my fieldwork and the publication of the book, she actually had burnt the ancestral altar with the consultation from the pastor. So he knew the whole story already, but he kind of frowned and told me that he wished that I did not include that part into the book because that might represent his community in the wrong light. But I talked to him and he was okay in the end, but there was a difficult decision I had to make about stories that are not about the stories that do not conform to the ideal of the more powerful people in the field.
Allison: Suma. I have to tell you, I'm almost in tears. I feel – obviously her choice – but I feel so sad that she burned her family altar.
Suma: She did.
Allison: it seemed to be so important to her as, as a sense of who she is, as Okinawan and, frankly, as a family member. I don't mean to sound judgmental, but I, I feel so sad that she burned it. Oh my God.
Suma: I know. I felt that way too. I think her rationale, which she repeated even in the fieldwork, was that family is the most important thing in this life. So she wanted harmony in the family. And that meant following the same path, all of them together. So what unfolded after the end of my fieldwork was that at some point she felt that she couldn't keep doing what she was doing and she consulted the pastor. And the pastor, I have to say, he was one of the most spiritual and moral men I've met in the field. He didn't judge her, didn't blame her. I heard from some members of the church that he devised, almost like he improvised a ritual in a Pentecostal style for her so that she could make emotional sense of it to burn the ancestral altar. Because for her, it's a very heavy decision. So he improvised some kind of satisfying ritual specifically for her because you never needed this kind of ritual in other parts of Pentecostal life. So he had to create it. So he improvised it. He did it. And then in some kind of improvised ritual, they burnt the ancestral altar on the riverbank, I was told, maybe a year or two after I left.
Allison: That also feels like a movie.
Suma: I know.
Allison: Would you mind talking a little bit about your writing process and how this came to be a book?
Suma: This book is based on my dissertation and I knew that I had to revise a lot, because dissertation is more of an enumeration than the story, I feel. Dissertation sometimes, or oftentimes is this, you know, kind of onslaught of information, but not really like a story. And when I was revising, many people, including some editors of some presses, told me that a book has to be a story and not just a series of information. Coming up with that storyline or through line as they call, it was very important to me in the process of revision, especially because it was a dissertation. I tried to implement that through line by dividing the book into four parts. So the first part, the first section that includes two chapters is called “Suspended.” I think that's after an introduction and then the next is “Renewed” and the next section is called “Contested.” And the last section is called “Return.” And by having that structure, I hoped that the reader can at least vaguely feel this arc that leads to conversion among many of the people I spend time with. When they arrive in Japan, they feel that their time and their life gets suspended. They feel like because they work so much, they don't live anymore. They don't truly live their life anymore because they are in factory too much. And then in the next section, they feel renewed by this conversion, the decision to convert to very expressive and vivid branch of Christianity. But then the third part is the tension that arises anew after their conversion, because being a Pentecostal Christian in Japan is difficult and they say they convert, but like Leticia, some people convert in a complicated way in which the past and the tradition linger. And then the last one is "Return," and it's kind of asking a bigger question about what does it mean to return. So I really spend most of my time kind of trying to conceive and implement and execute the storyline
Allison: Would you be willing to talk about writing a book and in your second or third language?
Suma: Oh, of course. It's hard. [both laugh]
Allison: I think what I should have said is like, how hard is it on a scale of 10 to 10? It has to be hard.
Suma: It's hard. I started reading and writing regularly in English when I was 23. I completed my college education in Japan and I came to the States for my master's degree and I stayed on for PhD. And then now I'm an assistant prof. So 23 is early for some people, but not so early to start writing in a whole new language. And yeah, writing a whole book in the language that you started practicing so late in your life was a daunting task. So I was extra happy when the book came out. Cause I really, you know, like I really had to give myself a lot of pats on my shoulders as like, you know, many of them.
Allison: Yeah. I would hope that some of our listeners are also perhaps writing in their nonnative language. Maybe that's English, maybe that's Japanese, maybe that's something else. Do you have other tips or pieces of advice or things that did or did not work for you?
Suma: My top piece of advice is know your writing brain. Because I discovered that my writing brain works the best in early morning. That's my brain. Every person's brain is different. But because of that reason, I had to make sure to get most of my writing done between like I would say between 6 and 10. I think by 10:00, my writing brain dies. [Both laugh] So while I was writing this book, I had to make sure I was optimal during those hours of my active writing brain. Every person is different. So I just feel that each one of us should know how your writing brain works and know that time zone and just optimize yourself for that window of time. That how I feel because I really couldn't write anything after 10:00 AM. Like weirdly. That was me.
Allison: That's great. It reminds me too. One of the things I struggled with was there are things that I would like to change about myself, of course. And when I was writing, I realized like this is not the time to make any changes. Figure out what you need and get it, get it somehow. So I'm also a morning writer. My brain is smartest in the morning. And so I was like, okay, then you have to write in the morning, you cannot change this just it's true.
Suma: Accept it.
Allison: Accept it. Exactly. And now that you say it in that language, it almost sort of sounds religious, doesn't it? Like, you just have to accept ourselves..
Suma: I know. You have to be religious about your writing when you're writing.
Allison: Excellent. That's exactly. That's the perfect loop. Thank you so much for doing that. Would you mind telling us a little bit about research that you're either doing right now or that you're planning for the future?
Suma: Yeah. I want to start it by saying that the research I'm doing right now for my second book has been postponed due to the current pandemic.
Allison: Of course.
Suma: Yes, of course, like everything else. My second book is going to be about broadly about the situation of caregiving in Japan right now, and specifically a comparison of three care options. The first one is the traditional caregiving provided by conventional family members like daughters-in-law in Japan. The second one is the caregiving provided by what some people call care robots or care technology. And the third, option of caregiving that I'm going to compare to the other two and also the option that I'm going to focus the most on is the caregiving provided by foreign migrants, especially Filipinos living in Japan because they constitute the largest group of certified caregivers in Japan right now. It was going to be a comparative project about who does the care, what does the care, and what kinds of politics you can glean from the competing care options or kind of, you know, messy what I call landscape of elder care. Because Japan has currently the oldest population in the world. The title tentatively is “Who Cares.”
Allison: That's great.
Suma: “Who Cares: Comparing different elder care options in Japan." And fortunately it was it's funded by the National Science Foundation and I was going to embark on eight months long field work starting this April, April 2020, which was not going to happen as you know, so I postponed it. Thankfully everybody is very understanding and I'm hoping, fingers crossed, I can start it finally, maybe next year, at the same time in April. But even that's not guaranteed because it's about elder care. And you know, the elder citizens are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, especially those in nursing homes, which I'm planning to visit. So right now I'm patiently waiting, understanding that me having to wait is really a tiny, tiny thing in the big picture of the current crisis. But I also tell myself that the silver lining in this is that when I can do the fieldwork finally either next year or maybe later, I can really think through the ramifications of this COVID pandemic in the realm of caregiving and how this pandemic really impacts and, in some cases, decimates, the caregiving activities of us humans. So that's what, that's what I'm starting to think right now because I have to wait a lot. And I occasionally check on the people in the field whom I was going to visit to make sure that things are okay.
Allison: I'm sorry that your fieldwork had to be postponed. That must have been really hard.
Allison: This has been such a pleasure to talk with you. I really enjoyed your book. I look forward to your next book. I look forward to you being able to do the research and then write the book.
Suma: Yeah, thank you.
Allison: I want to say, especially thank you for your time and willingness to be in this moment of pandemic when we're all busy with new responsibilities and handling new pressures. So I just really want to say thank you so much for making time to talk with me and to be on the podcast.
Suma: My pleasure. Precisely because in the middle of this pandemic, I'm actually like thirsting for any human connections. So I was really happy talking to you precisely because I feel a little isolated right now, so your voice is very welcome.
Allison: I understand that feeling. And maybe we can get some people, some of our listeners, to communicate with you over Twitter or something when this episode comes out.
Suma: Yes, human connection.
Allison: Well, we'll try to increase the human connection.
[Theme song begins]
Allison: Thanks for listening to this episode of Michigan Talks Japan. If you're interested, please check out other episodes, which are available where you found this one and through all podcasting platforms. We're always interested in your reactions or comments, so please reach out on facebook or twitter @umcjs. I want to thank the Center for Japanese Studies, Reggie Jackson for our theme song, and David Merchant for IT support. This podcast was co-produced by Robin Griffin, Justin Schell, and myself, and edited by Robin Griffin and Justin Schell. I’m Allison Alexy and I hope you’ll join us for the next episode, a conversation with Dr. Jolyon Thomas.