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Exporting Japan: Politics of Emigration to Latin America (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 36, Number 2, Summer 2010
pp. 464-469 | 10.1353/jjs.0.0185

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Toake Endoh's book is an important addition to the growing literature on the history of Japanese emigration to Latin America and on the various Nikkeijin communities in the region. Like much of this literature, the book is mainly descriptive and does not make any significant theoretical contributions. Therefore, it will probably interest only Nikkeijin specialists. However, the book is not content merely to outline the facts; it takes a strong analytical stand and highlights the active role of the Japanese state in instigating, managing, and perpetuating Japanese emigration to Latin America, an issue that has been relatively neglected in previous studies. In fact, the role of emigration policies of sending governments in structuring immigration flows has been an understudied topic in migration studies in general.

Endoh mainly focuses on Japanese emigration to Brazil, although there are brief sections and accounts of emigration to Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, and even the Dominican Republic. He covers both the pre- and postwar periods. He repeatedly points out that this emigration was "anomalous" and "paradoxical" because it was directed from a rapidly developing country to impoverished and uninhabited peripheral areas in South America, and many of the migrants came from Japan's southwestern region, which was not the poorest in Japan. Moreover, the emigration persisted until well after World War II, when Japan was rapidly recovering and beginning to enter an era of high economic growth. Endoh attributes these unusual characteristics of Japanese emigration to its state-driven nature, namely, the Japanese government's emigration policy and its important role in establishing numerous agricultural settlements in various Latin American countries. Although it initially appeared that the government actively promoted emigration in order to deal with the country's overpopulation problem, Endoh argues that its real motive was more insidious. Emigration was actively used as a means to reduce and quell dissent and protest among Japan's poor (and its burakumin minority) and was ultimately part of an imperialist project to expand its sphere of influence to overseas territories.

There is no doubt that few migration flows have involved such active intervention by the sending country's government, and Endoh is very right to emphasize and analyze this special aspect of Japanese emigration. As he (too briefly) notes, most analyses of the causes of migration focus on economic forces or social network connections between countries, and the active role of governments and emigration policy has been relatively neglected or downplayed. In the Japanese case, emigration clearly would not have been instigated and sustained without the active role of the sending state.

For the specialist, there is much detailed information here that is interesting, and the book in general is quite engaging and only lags in a few sections. The relatively extensive material on postwar Japanese emigration (which has been understudied) was welcome. Nonetheless, I often wondered throughout the book whether Endoh overstates the Japanese state's attempts to use emigration to undermine internal political dissent as well as its supposed imperialist motives and whether Endoh downplays other important factors that influenced Japanese emigration patterns.

Endoh often states that Japanese emigration was counterintuitive and anomalous because the migrants moved from a "high to lower economy," that is, from a rapidly developing Japan to less developed Latin American countries. The clear implication is that (unlike other migration flows) there was little economic incentive or pressure for Japanese to emigrate to Latin America and that, therefore, the migration flow was artificially created by the state to promote its political agenda. This is rather misleading because the emigrants originated from impoverished rural regions of Japan, which were plagued by overpopulation, declining agricultural prices, increasing debt, and an inequitable land tenancy system that left many without a sustainable economic livelihood. In fact, a number of rapidly developing countries often have had impoverished rural migrants who emigrate because of economic reasons (for example, Korea in the past, China today). Likewise, postwar Japanese emigration was driven by the economic devastation of World War II and the country's inability to support many of the Japanese returning from former overseas colonies. However, Endoh does not pay sufficient attention to the economic push factors that caused Japanese emigration, which are mentioned on only a...