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Reconsidering Ethnic Culture and Community: A Case Study on Japanese Canadian Taiko Drumming

From: Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 4, Number 1, February 2001
pp. 35-56 | 10.1353/jaas.2001.0004

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Journal of Asian American Studies 4.1 (2001) 35-56

Conceptualizing Ethnicity and Community

Ethnicity" has long been the most important reference point of analysis in Asian American studies. Many past works on ethnicity have treated it as something primordial, deriving from ancestry and particular to a nation-state. They assume, for example, that Japanese Americans possess Japanese ethnicity, Chinese Canadians, Chinese ethnicity, and so on, when they discuss the content or nature of ethnicity. However, because of the increased rate of intermarriage and the subsequent rise of multiracials, and because of the influence of post-structuralism on ethnic studies that render problematic fixed and rigid subjectivities, it is difficult to determine who are included in an ethnic group, or the constitution of ethnicity. Moreover, varying degrees of assimilation among the different segments of Asian Americans and Asian Canadians and their diversification by class positions have made it impossible to describe a unified ethnic culture or a homogeneous ethnic community. The following questions thus arise for ethnic studies in the United States and Canada. Is it relevant to study ethnic culture and community in a multicultural society, particularly of those ethnic groups that appear to be well assimilated into the mainstream social structure? And if so, how can one understand ethnic culture and identity without stereotyping or essentializing?

Many studies of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians have focused on biology or descent as the basis of ethnicity. For example, Tomoko Makabe's Canadian Sansei describes the sansei, or the third-generation Japanese Canadians, as a homogenous group, assimilated, middle class, with few ethnic affiliations. Intermarriage is generally considered a "problem," because, relying exclusively on bloodline, intermarriage jeopardizes the maintenance of the ethnicity and ethnic community. Judging from the little involvement in the ethnic organizations and the decreasing social interactions with the fellow Japanese Canadians among her interviewees, Makabe goes so far as to predict the "extinction" of the Japanese community in Canada.

Stephen Fugita and David O'Brien, on the contrary, emphasize the persistence of ethnicity in the Japanese American population. Their book, Japanese American Ethnicity, points out that Japanese Americans maintain high levels of involvement in ethnic volunteer organizations and social relationships among group members, while achieving remarkable upward social mobility. By attributing this persistence of ethnicity to traditional Japanese culture, however, Fugita and O'Brien fall into a similar essentialism that limits Makabe's analysis. Although Fugita and O'Brien insist that the sansei retain their ethnicity as much as the nisei, or the second generation, the meaning and the content of ethnicity may be different between sansei and nisei, considering the different social contexts in which they spent their formative years. It is also problematic to assume that the immigrant generation from Japan already had the "clear sense of peoplehood" before they arrived in the United States, and this sense was preserved unaltered for the last 100 years. Downplaying the diversity among Japanese Americans and the particular experiences of Japanese Americans as a racialized group in the United States (in contrast to those of white European immigrants) for the formation of their particular forms of ethnicity, Fugita and O'Brien fail to explain the complex process of the construction of ethnicity and ethnic culture in North America.

Scholars of ethnicity who take a social constructionist view, in contrast, see ethnicity as something constructed through the interaction between the mainstream society and the ethnic minorities. For example, according to Joan Nagel, the number of people who reported American Indian as their race tripled in the U.S. Census between 1960 and 1990, a figure that cannot be explained by population growth or immigration. Nagel attributes it to "ethnic switching," where individuals who previously identified as one ethnic group switched to another in a later census. This indicates that ethnicity, at least in this reckoning by the state, is not completely determined by one's bloodline, but is partly the result of personal choice. Studies of ethnicity, accordingly, must consider both "structure" and "agency" in the construction of ethnic identity. On the one hand, ethnicity is imposed by the majority, and that naming is sometimes arbitrary and novel, as in the case of "Asian American" or "Native American." On...