Japan in Diaspora / Diaspora in Japan (2)

Continued from my earlier post , here are some more impressions from Düsseldorf University’s recent “Japan in Diaspora” symposium.

Day two of the symposium started with Bochum’s Ludger Pries offering a more theoretical approach to the Japanese diaspora. Summarizing recent sociological discourse on the concept of social and geographical spatiality, Pries explained in his presentation how the classic notion of the concept of “community” and “society” has been deeply permeated by what he called “methodological nationalism” throughout the history of the modern social sciences. Communities have traditionally been regarded as sets of social relationships operating within certain geographically spatial, regional or national boundaries – what Pries termed “geographic container space,” or an “absolutist” notion of reciprocally exclusive communal spaces marked by clear geographical borders. Pries contended that this notion, even though it might have reflected reality to some degree at least in the Western world throughout the modern era, ought to be replaced with a more differentiated model of social and geographical space.

Citing Ulrich Beck as one of his influences, Pries went on to map out a “relativist” integrated concept that treats space as a framework of positional relations of both social and geographical elements or objects. The complex processes that shape and reconfigure geopolitical space today could accordingly be explained as the boundary-crossing interplay of three “relativist” ideal types of internationalization. These he defined as 1) Globalization, i.e. the strengthening of global ubiquitous phenomena, 2) Glocalization, the strenthening of interrelations between global and local forces, 3) Diaspora type internationalization, which he defined as the interrelations between a nation and her local dependencies – a framework which knows an imagined or real center of common identity, and 4) trans-nationalization, a set of social relations between local planes that are spanning nation states and transgressing their boundaries; it could be characterized as rather rhizomatic and thus different from the other types. If all this sounds rather too idyllic, it should be noted that Pries also acknowledged parallel processes that serve to strengthen rather than subvert the absolutist notion of space – such as the process of re-nationalization in former Yugoslavia. All in all, Pries gave a solid and thoughtful theoretical overview of current notions of spatiality in the social sciences that sparked some interesting discussions. While some of the concepts he advanced might appear to offer not much new to French theory buffs, hearing this stuff at a Japanese Studies conference in academically rather conservative Germany can be refreshing.

Up next was a contribution by Mori Hiromasa on a very specific case of Japanese diasporas – Japanese miners in Germany. While the huge guest worker programs for Italians and Turks prompted by the wirtschaftswunder that West Germany experienced during the 1950s/1960s are a well-known historical fact, few people know that there was a similar, albeit much smaller program for Japanese miners as well. Between 1957 and 1962, more than 400 miners worked in mines in the Ruhr area. They were sent as part of a government program to help modernize Japanese mining technology and were mainly supposed to acquire modern Western knowledge in this field, but the Japanese government also hoped that they would “experience Western democracy” and help promote understanding between the two countries by alleviating the shortage in the West German workforce. Although Mori did not discuss the political and diplomatic implications much, one could imagine that programs like this also provided an opportunity to rebuild diplomatic relations between the two former Axis partners in an uncontroversial way. The guest workers selected for the program came from the elite of the Japanese mining industry and had to undergo a careful screening and vetting process; they were not just required to be physically fit (with a height of more than 164 cm and a weight of no less that 56.3 kg), but also needed a middle school diploma and at least three years of job experience in their field, and they had to be of “impeccable character.” Only single men between 21 and 30 were accepted. Fascinatingly, the jobs seemed to have been so much in demand that two men even filed for divorce in order to be able to apply for the program. The high wages offered (twice as high as in Japan) only partially explain the massive popularity of the program, since there were were far more applicants than places.

Unfortunately, the highly motivated miners who passed the selection process were in for major disappointments as they started working in German coal shafts after an all but rudimentary training phase, which included classes in basic German. The German mining companies were looking for regular miners and appeared generally unwilling to properly teach the Japanese workers the advanced technology they desired. Only after significant pressure from the Japanese side did they offer some advanced training courses (Hauerkurs). Moreover (and defying the stereotype), German working conditions appeared to have been surprisingly hard for even these elite miners from Japan. They routinely complained that they were not allowed to rest during work or that they had to present a medical certificate if they wanted to abstain from work when they were feeling too tired.

On the positive side, the German population greeted the miners in a very friendly fashion; all newspapers in the region carried major stories whenever a new group of these exotic guest workers arrived, German women asked them for autographs in the street, or wanted to have their pictures taken with them, and many miners found themselves invited for dinner by German families over the weekend. They also used the comparatively long holidays in Germany to travel around Europe long before groups of Japanese tourists became a regular sight there. Around 30 of the workers even decided to stay in the country after the program had ended; most of them ended up marrying German wives. While numerically not in any way comparable to the phenomenon Italian and Turkish guest worker migration, or even the Korean miner exchange program of the 1960s, these people did form an early Japanese diaspora in Germany, and certainly are a worthwhile object of study. Many of them kept some kind of connection to the country even after their repatriation and stayed organized in groups such as the “Glückauf kai”.

I myself (and this might be the reason I was so fascinated by Mori’s presentation) met one of these veteran miners in 2006 at a meeting of the Japanese-German Society Tokyo (日独協会), where he was one of the most active members. Apparently, they still meet every year shortly after the New Year festivities. He showed me pictures of him and his colleagues at work in post-war Gelsenkirchen. One of those photos showed a union-organized demonstration – the Japanese miners apparently supported the German Kumpels during strikes. Another one displayed six of these young Japanese looking very solemn onto a coffin that held one of their comrades. Mining was a dangerous occupation back then, and no less than five of the 436 Japanese guest workers that visited Germany died in the coal shafts.

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