Azuma’s Between Two Empires

Azuma, Eiichiro. Between Two Empires: Race, History, and Transnationalism in Japanese America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Japanese immigrants (issei) were able to spin the meanings of their own racial “otherness” in order to place themselves in an “inter-National” sphere, wavering between allegiances with Japan and America and rarely becoming too invested in either to become true-believers in either ideology.

At first the issei were “sent” by the Japanese as “emigrants/colonizers”, as representative of the Japanese interests overseas and therefore rarely thought of America as home. Yet their movement over time became more heterogeneous and individualist, considering Japan as a moral paradigm.

Then came their status as “minority”, and though they were at the top of the racial hierachy in America (after everything white, of course), they sought extreme means to distinct themselves from Chinese and Filipinos, publishing textbooks on how to act “100 percent American.”

This period didn’t last long until “scientists” placed Japanese in the same racial group as all Asians, casting them as “mongrels”. The “Japanese” side of the issei kicked in as a response to such prejudice, and they began to see themselves as racial pioneers, as a type of chosen people who were meant to suffer in America for the good of the empire. With exclusion acts and the racial violence of the great depression, this perspective only grew among the issei, a narrative with its own myths (Miss Okei) and telos.

The unwelcome in America grew worse first with the violence of the Nisei (2nd generation). It was feared that Nesei females would be married off to Filipino men, and race wars began between Japs and Filipinos, creating an even further need for Japanese essentialism to contrast themselves with the Fillipinos.

Azuma presents the issei as a migrant peoples that occupy the “interstices” between two identity types, and in trickster fashion, they were always prepared to guise themselves as something else in order to get the things they needed, and by this firm obsession with appearance, were able to appear as model minorities though they were really imperial (or vice versa). Until WWII the issei maintained their status at the top of the Asian hierarchy in America due to such adroit thinking (plus they were all middle-class).

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