Marginalization of Japanese Peruvian Immigrants


A review of You Can’t Go Home Again: Japanese Peruvian Immigrants and the Struggle for Integration and Identity in the Japanese Homeland, by ROBERT STEVEN MOOREHEAD.

Robert Steven Moorehead’s dissertation explores the marginalization of Japanese Peruvian immigrants in Japan through an ethnographic study of Shiroyama Elementary School, a public elementary school, and kenju, a nearby local public housing complex, in central Japan. Most studies tend to focus on the experiences of the larger population of Brazilian Nikkeijin (Japanese descendants) in Japan. This study helps to fill a gap in immigration scholarship through its focus on Peruvian Nikkeijin immigrant incorporation in Japan via the lenses of school remedial education and local community. The work’s intellectual genealogy follows scholars such as Jeffrey Lesser, Daniel Touro Linger, Joshu Hotaka Roth, Takeyuki Tsuda, and Keiko Yamanaka writing mostly on the Brazilian Nikkeijin immigrant experience in Japan, Ayumi Takenaka on Peruvian Nikkeijin, and other notables, including John Lie and Hiroshi Komai, on implications for Japanese ethnicity, nationality, and citizenship. Moorehead analyzes the efforts of Peruvian parents both to settle permanently in Japan and to instill a Peruvian ethnic identity in their children. The dissertation offers insights into Japanese immigration policy, explores how schools reproduce inequality and reveal relationships between structure and agency in immigrant identity formation, and examines Peruvian efforts to integrate into the local community.

Chapter 1 begins with a narrative about the ambivalent identity of Peruvian Nikkeijin and how they are excluded in both Peru and Japan. It discusses several phenomena, including the racialization of Peruvian Nikkeijin in Peru as “Chinos” (Chinese) (p. 7), the sites of analysis, community demographics, Japanese migration to Peru, and the role of the Japanese state and Nikkeijin ethnic associations in sustaining a Nikkei identity in Peru. The chapter also analyzes how the 1990 Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act has facilitated Nikkeijin emigration to Japan as a “back door” for unskilled labor. Moorehead notes the similarities between the Brazilian and Peruvian Nikkeijin experiences of “ethnic denial” in Japan, but argues that in contrast to Brazilians who may strengthen their ties to Brazil, the Peruvian experience of exclusion in Peru mitigates their identification (p. 16). He goes on to address foreign identity stigmatization, social and economic marginalization, school as a path to incorporation, and specialized terminology.

Chapter 2 introduces the school and kenju and explains the methodology, research setting, and Moorehead’s balancing of school obligations and research.  He describes how his status as a Fulbright Fellow and a trilingual American (Spanish, Japanese, and English) helped him gain access to the school and local community through his local adviser. The chapter discusses his rapport building with teachers, administrators, and community members through translating, interpreting, tutoring, assisting remedial and homeroom classes, and interacting with parents. Moorehead also references the gathering of data beyond the school via school ties and how this allowed him to triangulate his findings from multiple sources and avoid the “ethnographic fallacy” (p. 42).

The third chapter explores key issues in the incorporation of Peruvian and other foreign children into Shiroyama Elementary and other public schools in Japan. Moorehead identifies Japanese teachers’ lack of training and experience with foreign children, the role of the school’s Amigos room (remedial education) in warehousing Peruvian students (p. 84), and the language counselor as critical components. He points out that education is not compulsory for foreign children in Japan and argues that the combined impact of the Japanese educational principles of “egalitarianism” and “coordinated communalism” (p. 65), teachers’ tendencies to treat structural challenges as individual problems, and Shiroyama Elementary’s lack of remedial Japanese language programs limit incorporation. Moorehead also observes that Shiroyama’s teachers don’t make reference to tabunka kyōsei or multiculturalism, but rather focus on assimilation (p. 73).

Chapter 4 examines parent-teacher interaction and discusses how specific practices reinforce Peruvians’ foreign status. This includes teachers’ constant questions regarding future migration plans and doubts about commitment to living in Japan, particularly as manifested in a school oath requirement for foreign parents (p. 112) and the emphasizing of an “ethnic boundary” by identifying positive and negative behaviors as respective Japanese and foreign traits (pp. 124-5).  Moorehead contends that these practices perpetuate a cycle in which parents respond by instilling a Peruvian identity, which fosters more teacher resentment, which, in turn, leaves Peruvian parents feeling that Japan is not home. He argues that teachers view Peruvian children as having the potential to be Japanized, but see parents as obstacles to their assimilation  (p. 110). The chapter highlights how these interactions impact parents’ overall sense of belonging and concludes that the “current ethnoracial order” in Japan does not recognize hybrid identities (p. 145).

Chapter 5 looks at Peruvian parents’ efforts to incorporate into kenju and the local community. Moorehead contends that complaints about breaking the rules often develop along ethnic lines (p. 147).  He points to improper garbage sorting and noise being attributed to Peruvians (pp. 148-52) as examples of how Peruvian foreign status is “foregrounded” (p. 151). Moorehead describes parents’ attempts to distance and displace themselves from negative stigma with “ethnic othering” (pg. 154) by saying that stereotypes apply not to themselves, but to other foreigners. Moorehead also indicates that the notion of Peruvians using false documents to claim Japanese ancestry is no longer true (p. 161), and in contrast to some scholars, he finds no evidence to support claims of employer preferences for Nikkeijin over other foreign workers (p. 162).  Unlike Peru, Moorehead claims that no Nikkeijin ethnic associations exist in Shiroyama, so there is “no institutional support to sustain a Nikkei identity” (p. 162). In Moorehead’s view, parents seek to instill a Peruvian rather than a Nikkeijin identity in children.  He identifies parents and participation in local organizations and annual local events that promote localized identities as possible avenues for integrating immigrants (p.163, 169).

Chapter 6 summarizes the challenges facing Peruvian immigrants in Shiroyama.  Referencing the global financial crisis in particular, the chapter also addresses how contract labor offers little protection against economic downturns. Moorehead recommends more effective remedial JSL programs and better language support, and he explores future prospects, such as the potential growth of a minority-identified population.

This dissertation contributes to scholarship on immigration in Japan with multiple insights on the understudied Peruvian minority case. In particular, it shows the duality of school and local communities as institutions and sites with the capacity to both reproduce exclusion and help incorporate immigrants.

Michael Orlando Sharpe
Assistant Professor of Political Science
Department of Behavioral Sciences
York College / City University of New York
School of Health and Behavioral Sciences
E Mail:

Primary Sources

Ethnographic participant observation
Interviews with parents, teachers, and administrators from Shiroyama Elementary School and local community
Government policy documents and newspapers

Dissertation Information

University of California, Davis. 2010. 222 pp. Primary Advisors: Lyn Lofland, Bruce Haynes, John Lie, and Ayumi Takenaka.

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