A Discontented Diaspora

Japanese Brazilians and the Meanings of Ethnic Militancy, 1960–1980

A Discontented Diaspora

Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: 29 illus., 8 tables, 1 map Published: September 2007

Author: Jeffrey Lesser

Asian American Studies, Latin American Studies > Brazil, Theory and Philosophy > Race and Indigeneity

In A Discontented Diaspora, Jeffrey Lesser investigates broad questions of ethnicity, the nature of diasporic identity, and Brazilian culture. He does so by exploring particular experiences of young Japanese Brazilians who came of age in São Paulo during the 1960s and 1970s, an intensely authoritarian period of military rule. The most populous city in Brazil, São Paulo was also the world’s largest “Japanese” city outside of Japan by 1960. Believing that their own regional identity should be the national one, residents of São Paulo constantly discussed the relationship between Brazilianness and Japaneseness. As second-generation Nikkei (Brazilians of Japanese descent) moved from the agricultural countryside of their immigrant parents into various urban professions, they became the “best Brazilians” in terms of their ability to modernize the country and the “worst Brazilians” because they were believed to be the least likely to fulfill the cultural dream of whitening. Lesser analyzes how Nikkei both resisted and conformed to others’ perceptions of their identity as they struggled to define and claim their own ethnicity within São Paulo during the military dictatorship.

Lesser draws on a wide range of sources, including films, oral histories, wanted posters, advertisements, newspapers, photographs, police reports, government records, and diplomatic correspondence. He focuses on two particular cultural arenas—erotic cinema and political militancy—which highlight the ways that Japanese Brazilians imagined themselves to be Brazilian. As he explains, young Nikkei were sure that their participation in these two realms would be recognized for its Brazilianness. They were mistaken. Whether joining banned political movements, training as guerrilla fighters, or acting in erotic films, the subjects of A Discontented Diaspora militantly asserted their Brazilianness only to find that doing so reinforced their minority status.


A Discontented Diaspora is an important contribution to our understanding of Brazilian culture and society.” — James N. Green, Hispanic American Historical Review

“In A Discontented Diaspora, Jeffrey Lesser investigates broad questions of ethnicity, the nature of diasporic identity, and Brazilian culture. In conclusion I highly recommend Lesser's book to anyone interested in Latin American Studies, Asian American Studies, and issues of race and ethnicity. I also recommend this book in light of the centennial of the Japanese immigration to Brazil which was celebrated in 2008.”

— José de Arimatéia da Cruz, The Latin Americanist

“Jeffrey Lesser adds significantly to our appreciation of the complexity of ethnic and racial relations in Brazil with this study of Japanese Brazilians during the period of military dictatorship. . . This is an important book that examines issues of the Brazilian Nikkei ethnic identity in unique ways. Lesser has done his research well.” — Daniel Masterson, Journal of Latin American Studies

“Jeffrey Lesser’s examination of Japanese Brazilians provides insight into a unique Japanese phenomenon. . . . This book is a fascinating analysis of a unique population that gives us a glimpse of the might-have-been world of Japanese migrants in countries such as the United States or Australia where World War II effectively halted or even reversed the establishment of large Nikkei communities.” — Yuriko Nagata, Asian Studies Review

“One of the lasting contributions of this book . . . will be to make scholars of broader themes in Brazilian and Latin American history more aware of the need to consider ethnicity in their analyses, much as earlier scholarship has helped make such categories of analysis as race, class, or gender fundamental elements of any historical study.” — Jerry Dávila, Diaspora

“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.” — Kristine Dennehy, Journal of World History

“Written by one of the leading scholars on ethnic minorities in Brazil, this book presents unique perspectives on ideologies about Japanese ethnicity and construction of national identity in that country. . . . Lesser’s research adds to the growing body of literature on this population. This work should be of great interest to those engaged in Brazilian studies, as well as to scholars of Japanese
descendants in the Americas.” — Tomoko Sakuma, Latin American Politics and Society

"A Discontented Diaspora should be read by anyone interested in ethnicity, gender, and national identity, and should be a 'must-read' for students of the Brazilian military regime." — Victoria Langland, The Americas

"[T]his study serves to fill a 'missing link' of scholarly work on Japanese-Brazilians. . . . Lesser offers valuable information regarding the experiences of Nikkei in Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s and examines the connection of ethnicity, national identity and diasporic identity from a unique angle, focusing on films and political militancy.” — Mariko Nagoshi, Pacific Affairs

A Discontented Diaspora is the best work that I have read on the people of Japanese descent in Latin America, bar none. Jeffrey Lesser’s research does no less than create a whole new vocabulary for the study of evolving Nikkei personal, artistic, and political identities. This is a book that I wish I had written.” — Lane Hirabayashi, senior editor of New Worlds, New Lives

“Two books in one: a lively and engaging examination of Brazil’s ‘model minority,’ and a probing analysis of the ambiguities and complexities of Brazilian ‘racial democracy.’ Highly recommended.” — George Reid Andrews, author of Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Jeffrey Lesser is Winship Distinguished Research Professor of the Humanities, Professor of History, and Director of the Program in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Emory University. His books include Searching for Home Abroad: Japanese-Brazilians and Transnationalism and Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil, both also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations and Tables ix

Preface and Acknowledgments xi

Abbreviations xv

Prologue: The Limits of Flexibility xviii

Introduction: The Pacific Rim in the Atlantic World 1

1. Brazil’s Japan: Film and the Space of Ethnicity, 1960-1970 25

2. Beautiful Bodies and (Dis)Appearing Identities: Contesting Images of Japanese-Brazilian Ethnicity, 1970-1980 47

3. Machine Guns and Honest Faces: Japanese-Brazilian Ethnicity and Armed Struggle, 1964-1980 74

4. Two Deaths Remembered 108

5. How Shizuo Osawa Became “Mario the Jap” 122

Epilogue: Diaspora and Its Discontents 148

Notes 153

Glossary 189

Bibliography 191

Index 215
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Honorable Mention, 2010 Roberto Reis Book Award (presented by the Brazilian Studies Association)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4081-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4060-7
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