- A Discontented Diaspora: Japanese Brazilians and the Meanings of Ethnic Militancy, 1960-1980
In this engaging text, Lesser explores the relationship between the city of São Paulo, the country of Japan, and the Japanese Brazilian (Nikkei) ethnic group roughly during the period of Brazil's military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. He wants to know how ethnicity operated in this context, but is most concerned with the "unplanned effect of certain policies on ethnic identity" (p. 22, emphasis added). He tells us that he is "not trying to piece together a factual chronology of events" (p. 23) but rather provides a synthesis of largely unconventional and sometimes even amusing source material, ranging from movie posters to rare interviews with Nikkei militants from that time period, as he argues that "Nikkei in São Paulo, more than any other ethnic group in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, were essentialized by the majority and they essentialized themselves" (p. xxv). Lesser forces us to question monolithic portrayals of Japanese Brazilians, particularly those that reinforce the model minority stereotype, and intentionally draws our attention to realms that are not generally associated with Nikkei, namely sexuality in cinema and political militancy during these post–World War II decades. While figures from these arenas are not necessarily typical, and would even self-identify as "community outsiders," Lesser draws from their experiences to argue that in the very process of asserting their Brazilianness in a militant way, for example through "immodest" acting jobs or guerrilla tactics against the state, they unwittingly served to reinforce their minority status among Brazil's population.
Lesser invokes the term "surplus visibility" in his examination of the Nikkei minority in mid twentieth-century Brazil, where discussions of race tend to perpetuate the dichotomy of impoverished blacks and wealthy whites and focus primarily on issues of class and politics, as opposed to ethnicity per se. For students and teachers of world history who are interested in the dynamics of diasporic populations and questions of ethnicity, Lesser challenges us to see how ethnicity is often used in strategic ways, both at the grassroots level as well as by the state. For example, the Nikkei guerrilla fighter Shizuo Osawa, known as "Mário the Jap" was readily entrusted with clandestine information by other militants and could easily rent an apartment for subversive activities because he could count on other Brazilians associating him with the stereotypical, well-behaved "Japanese" man. This is one of [End Page 302] the ways that "Japan" functioned—as a marker of high quality, so to speak, both for its postwar industrial exports as well as for members of its imagined diaspora. Another case involved the Popular Revolutionary Vanguard member Massafumi Yoshinaga. By highlighting elements associated with his Japanese heritage, the press (as well as the regime, Lesser argues) took him "out of the category of militant and placed him into the category of 'ethnic'" (p. 116) when he faced the media in 1970 after surrendering to authorities and renouncing his past militancy.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is Lesser's innovative use of primary sources such as advertising images and interviews with Japanese Brazilians and others who were associated with Brazilian cinema and radical politics during the 1960s and 1970s. He brings together an impressive array of materials in multiple languages and guides the reader through an analysis that is informed by sophisticated interdisciplinary techniques drawn from fields such as anthropology and cultural studies. Furthermore, the interviews and other more informal conversations about ethnicity that Lesser has had in Brazil over the years are a valuable part of this study. However, it is somewhat problematic to call them "oral histories" (p. 22), especially since he does not appear to have presented his subjects with open-ended questions about their experiences, in the same way that a stricter methodological approach to conducting oral history would require. Rather, he assumes that a kind of "ethnic experience" existed and directs his line of questioning...