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Reviewed by:
  • A Discontented Diaspora: Japanese Brazilians and the Meanings of Ethnic Militancy, 1960–1980
  • Mieko Nishida
Lesser, Jeffrey. A Discontented Diaspora: Japanese Brazilians and the Meanings of Ethnic Militancy, 1960–1980. Durham & London: Duke UP, 2007. 256 pp.

Jeffrey Lesser, a distinguished historian of race and ethnicity in modern Brazil, has produced another fine monograph that focuses on the educated Nisei (second-generation Japanese Brazilians), who reached adulthood during the 1960s and 1970s in metropolitan São Paulo, home to the greatest concentration of Nikkeis (Japanese descendants) in the world outside Japan. Lesser makes the best use of not only archival sources but also films, paintings, posters, stamps, popular songs, published interviews, and his own interviews to examine Japanese Brazilian identities during Brazil's military regime (1964–1985). A Discontented Diaspora successfully fills out the time gap in his own studies on Japanese immigrants and their descendants, between his previous monograph, Negotiating National Identity (1998), an examination of pre-war Japanese immigration to Brazil, and his edited volume Searching for Home Abroad (2003), focused on Japanese Brazilians' "return" labor migrations to Japan (known as dekassegui) starting in the mid-1980s. Furthermore, unlike Negotiating National Identity, in which Lesser's arguments on Japanese Brazilians' historical creation of a hyphenated identity are mainly based on an elite male public discourse, A Discontented Diaspora brings up the important issues of generation, class, and gender for the educated Nisei youth in their attempts to become Brazilians and/or "whiten" themselves, by separating themselves from their Japanese immigrant parents and their ethnic Japanese community.

Lesser begins his book by introducing Japanese Brazilian history from the start of subsidized Japanese immigration (1908) up to the 1960s, by when the majority of the Japanese descendant population had been urbanized, through their large-scale migrations. In the city of São Paulo, in particular, some Niseis were ascending quickly by attending the most prestigious yet tuition-free University of São Paulo (known as USP) and becoming medical doctors, dentists, engineers, and lawyers. Thus such educated Niseis appear to have been quickly assimilated into Brazilian society through their integration into urban upper-middle classes as (true) Brazilians. Ironically this is when they found themselves caught between the Brazilian nation and their inerasable otherness visibly represented by their common "Japanese face" and "slanty eyes." Coincidentally, according to Lesser, around the same time, the military took over the Brazilian government. As a result, Lesser claims that educated Niseis, who were not content living within the ethnic boundaries of their Japanese diaspora, developed two distinctive forms of "militancy" to fight for their Brazilianness. The first was "artistic militancy," revealed mainly in films (chapters 1–2), and the other was "political militancy," represented by involvement in counterinsurgent guerrilla/terrorist movements against the military government (chapters 3–5). In both cases, Lesser argues, the educated Nisei's agency was limited inevitably by the structure of racial hegemony in Brazil, as exemplified most notably [End Page 223] by case of Shizuo Ozawa, who participated in the kidnapping of the Japanese general consul Nobuo Okuchi (1970), despite their shared Japanese ancestry. Regardless of his Brazilian loyalty, Osawa was given the code name of Mário japa (Mário the Jap), which Lesser claims that Osawa came to accept as his identity.

I have only a few minor concerns about this fascinating monograph. Firstly, the sampling of informants is rather limited not only in quantity but also in quality. Lesser conducted only 17 interviews (with 14 Nikkeis and three non-Nikkeis), including one assisted by a Japanese translator, and another done by another American historian. Lesser mentions difficulties in finding appropriate informants as "some participants had died and others were unreceptive to my approaches" (p. 23), without explaining exactly how he sampled his potential informants and why each of them agreed or refused to be interviewed. Secondly, I wonder why numerous other printed primary and secondary sources in Japanese on the subject were not utilized for this book. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Nisei, most of whom had grown up in Japanese agricultural settlements in the Brazilian countryside, formed their own ethnic associations in the city, commonly known as Nisei clubs. These clubs were...


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