Japan in Diaspora / Diaspora in Japan (1)

Though occupied with preparing a talk on studying in Japan and cramming for my exams, I managed to attend at least part of the symposium on Japanese Diaspora Studies at Düsseldorf’s Heinrich-Heine-Universität that I wrote about earlier. This was, to the best of my knowledge, the first conference on this topic in German Japanese Studies. It was quite lively, with contributions from German, Japanese-American, Chinese and Japanese scholars and discussions routinely held in three languages, as befit the subject. In this first post, I will summarize the opening speeches by Shingo Shimada and Harumi Befu. I will try to provide summaries to some of the other contributions later, notably Kyungsik Suh’s well-received account of his zainichi identity and language politics, and Ludger Pries’s more theory-focused paper on the concept of trans-national space.

In his introduction, host and organizer Shingo Shimada emphasized the potential for further theoretical development that the conference offfered to Japanese Studies in Germany, especially since paper dealt with both Japanese diasporas abroad and foreign diasporas in Japan. He explained how he had always focused on issues of identity, otherness and alterity rather than on traditional Japanese Studies subjects in his research, and how diaspora studies tied in with his personal background as a Japanese expat teaching in Germany. Shimada expressed his hope to turn Düsseldorf University into a center of Japanese Diaspora Studies in Europe by cooperating with international researchers.

Düsseldorf, of course, is home to the biggest Japanese diaspora community in Germany. In absolute numbers, the Japanese population is rather small when compared to e.g. certain U.S. west coast cities- there are 7,000 Japanese people in the city of Düsseldorf, and 11,000 in all of Northrhine-Westphalia. But here is perhaps the place in Europe where you are most likely to meet a Japanese person while walking down the street, since these few thousand people constitute over two percent of the city population. Düsseldorf’s Japanese are mostly business men and their families who stay for a couple of years before returning to Japan. They form their own tightly-knit community with their own parallel institutions (from schools and super markets right down to a Shin Buddhist temple) and don’t interact much with the locals, except perhaps on Japan Day, which draws huge crowds every year. In that they are quite similar not just to Japanese diasporas all over the world, but perhaps to expat communities from every background, everywhere (e.g., the gaijin crowd in Hirō isn’t exactly famous for its openness towards Japanese society, either). In short, Düsseldorf does indeed seem like a promising environment for what Shimada intends to build.

Stanford’s Harumi Befu delivered the keynote speech to the conference. After apologizing for contributing to “English language imperialism” by speaking English (most people seemed unsure wether they were supposed to laugh here), Befu gave what came down to a general, roughly chronological outline of the history of the Japanese diaspora. He distinguished between three types of diasporas – dekasegi-type migrant worker diasporas, war-driven colonial diasporas and those business communities like Düsseldorf that owe their existence to the forces of the global market. He went on to characterize each type in detail, focusing on the (post-)Meiji versions of these types, but also tying each to certain pre-modern predecessors – e.g., the dekasegi migrants emulated a pattern of migration already existent in Tokugawa Japan, where impoverished villagers would move to the cities to make a buck, while ‘global market’ type communities had their predecessors in pre-sakoku overseas settlings of Japanese merchants throughout East/SE Asia. In the last part of his speech, Befu commented on the problem of integrating these migrant communities into their respective (local, rather than national) host society. He noted that small communities of overseas Japanese out of necessity tend to interact a lot with the local population, while the larger ones like the Düsseldorf diaspora form rather impenetrable ethnic clusters, develop hierarchies between newcomers and long-stayers and keep almost exclusively to themselves. The paradoxical development in the inter/transnational Japanese ethnoscape thus seems to be that even while Japan itself is slowly becoming more international and open, its growing international dependencies become more and more ingrown and static.

All in all, the first day felt like a good start to this symposium. Nice food at the reception, too.


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