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Reviewed by:
  • The Japanese in Latin America
  • Jeffrey Lesser
The Japanese in Latin America. By Daniel M. Masterson and Sayaka Funada-Classen. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Pp. xvii, 335. Maps. Illustrations. Tables. Glossary. Chronology. Notes. Index. $49.94 cloth; $24.95 paper.

Over the last decades the study of ethnicity in Latin America has expanded markedly, with research moving from the traditional African-European-Indigenous [End Page 534] paradigm into the study of "non-white/non-black" immigrant groups and their descendants. This new scholarship, often focused on Jews, Middle Easterners and Asians, has changed the understanding of integration and national identity in the region. Recent attention has been paid to Japanese immigrants and their descendants (who often refer to themselves as Nikkei) with particular interest in the migration of Japanese-Latin Americans to Japan, a phenomenon that began in the 1980's. While some edited volumes, notably the excellent New Worlds, New Lives: Globalization and People of Japanese Descent in the Americas and from Latin America in Japan (2002), have included historical essays, a comprehensive and broad study of historical patterns of transoceanic movement and integration in Latin America has been missing.

The Japanese in Latin America fills this niche by providing a fine overview of the story of Japanese migration and the creation of Nikkei ethnicity in Latin America. Working with secondary sources based on national experiences, as well as primary sources and oral histories, Masterson and Funada-Classen navigate between temporal and regional specificities and broad patterns. This volume is thus useful for two very different constituencies: students of U.S. ethnic studies (for its careful exploration of why diasporic experiences are not limited to the United States) and scholars of Latin America and the Caribbean (who have traditionally treated race and ethnicity as a simple matter of black and white). Indeed, Roger Daniels, editor of "The Asian American Experience" series of which this book is part, is to be commended for expanding the definition of "American" outside of the borders of the United States.

The book is organized chronologically, with much attention given to the major communities in Brazil and Peru. A short chapter on the foundation of Japanese settlements in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Central America and Cuba is useful and a later chapter on the contemporary situation, particularly of the new Okinawan colonias in Bolivia, will bring readers up to the present. I found the topical focus of each chapter, ranging from questions of identity (Chapter 3: "Issei and Nisei in Mexico, Peru and Brazil, 1908-1937") to issues of global politics (Chapter 5: "The Impact of the Asian War, 1936-1952"), to be useful and intellectually challenging.

Given Masterson's research interests it is not surprising that Peru is the only country to receive its own chapter. This is a smart choice for two reasons: work on Japanese-Peruvians is much more modest than on Brazil and readers may recall that the U.S. government apologies and payments made to Japanese-(U.S.)Americans for incarceration in concentration camps during World War II were not extended to the many Japanese-Peruvians deported and placed in the same camps. The discussion of these legal proceedings in the final chapter will be particularly useful in ethnic studies and Asian-American studies courses.

The authors are to be commended for complicating notions like Japan/Japanese and Latin America/Latin American. Indeed, the first voice in the text is that of a Brazilian Nikkei living in Japan, suggesting to readers that the concepts under exploration are extremely fluid. Such a notion is important since the book's scope [End Page 535] ranges from a discussion of Japanese push factors in the Meiji period through the contemporary Pan-American Nikkei movement that seeks to assert a regional "Americas" identity. Like all books that seek to provide an overview, specialists in the national histories of the different Latin American republics will quibble with some of the specifics in each of the chapters. In addition, specialists in ethnic history or diaspora studies may find the use of terms like "homeland" imprecise at times. But these small issues do not take away from the quality of the book...


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