- Embodying Belonging: Racializing Okinawan Diaspora in Bolivia and Japan
Embodying Belonging, by Taku Suzuki, is an engaging and thoughtful book about an Okinawan community in Bolivia (Colonia Okinawa) and the migration of its second-generation descendants (nisei) to Japan as unskilled migrant workers (dekasegi). The book is a welcome addition to the literature on the Okinawan diaspora and is one of the few studies on Okinawan Bolivians (a small community with a population of 13,000). It is also a contribution to the growing number of studies on Japanese descendants (Nikkei) in Latin America. Suzuki’s work has historical material about both Okinawan emigration to Bolivia and the development of the Nikkei community in the country, and he conducted multisited fieldwork in Bolivia and Japan. Thus, the historical and geographical coverage of the book is quite broad. Suzuki primarily focuses on the socioeconomic and ethnic experiences of Okinawan Bolivians and their perceptions of non-Nikkei (non-Japanese descent) Bolivians as well as mainland Japanese (Naichi-jin) when they migrate to Japan and how such ethnic encounters are structured by essentialized [End Page 455] stereotypes. The wealth of in-depth ethnographic material is valuable and presented in a clear and well-organized manner.
Suzuki conducted research in Bolivia by working as a Japanese language instructor at the local Colonia Okinawa school, which created a favorable fieldwork situation. However, in Japan, he was only able to do a few interviews with Okinawan Bolivian migrants because they were busy with work and it was hard to find additional interviewees. Therefore, much of the account of their immigrant experiences in Japan is based on interviews with returnees in Bolivia (which are thus reconstructed accounts). Although this is a methodological problem, Suzuki was able to conduct participant observation in Japan by working in an Okinawan Nikkei-owned electrical installation firm. Some of the accounts from this fieldwork are quite engaging, although other information (especially about detailed work routines) is less interesting.
The book starts with a history of emigration from Okinawa to Bolivia during and after World War II and the general experiences of Okinawan immigrants in Bolivia during both periods. The emigration history is aptly placed in the context of Japan’s annexation of the Okinawan islands before World War II and their subsequent military occupation by the United States. Okinawan immigrants in Bolivia generally strengthened their identification as “Japanese” (instead of as Okinawan) in relation to the non-Nikkei Bolivians they encountered and the relative lack of conflict with mainland Naichi-jin Japanese immigrants. Eventually, they become successful, large-scale, landowning farmers (with financial assistance from the Japanese government) and hired local non-Nikkei Bolivian workers. Nonetheless, because of the destabilization of farming, high debt levels, and hyperinflation, the second-generation nisei began return migrating to Japan in the 1980s as unskilled dekasegi migrant workers to work in the booming Japanese economy.
Suzuki describes the privileged socioeconomic status of Okinawan Bolivians in Bolivia as upper-class rural patrones (large-scale farmers) and the non-Nikkei Bolivians who work for them in the fields. Although this seems partly to contradict the previous description of the financial instability that caused some of them to return migrate as dekasegi to Japan, Suzuki makes clear that their economic success has not translated into socioeconomic mobility for the second-generation nisei in urban Bolivia and that those who could not succeed outside Colonia Okinawa are the ones who have migrated to their ethnic homeland. Although the non-Nikkei Bolivians who work for the Okinawan Bolivians in Colonia Okinawa are exploited (which is common in the Bolivian lowlands), they are treated better than those employed by other Bolivian landowners. Nonetheless, the Okinawan Bolivians have strong ethnic prejudices about their workers, whom they regard as lazy, untrustworthy, irresponsible, and dependent on government assistance. [End Page 456]
The book then examines Okinawan Bolivians who have migrated to Japan and their experiences as unskilled workers at the bottom of the stratified Japanese labor market who are segregated from Naichi-jin Japanese. Much of...