Citizens of the United States, according to Jeffrey Lesser, cling to distinctions of race. Tiger Woods notwithstanding, people in this country tend to define themselves racially and hold tightly to those definitions.
But in other countries--Brazil, for example--ethnic identity is either (a) much less important, (b) much more complicated, or (c) some combination thereof. These are the questions Lesser explores in his work, most recently in Searching for Home Abroad: Japanese Brazilians and Transnationalism (Duke University Press, 2003), a collection of essays edited by Lesser that examine one of the South American country's more notable subethnicities.
"In Brazil, ethnic identity isn't essentialized," said Lesser, professor of history and director of the Program in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. "People feel more comfortable with multiple identities--multiple sexual identities, multiple racial identities, multiple ethnic identities. So the idea that a person 'is' only one 'thing' is somewhat less clear in Brazil."
For years, Lesser said, the country's racial zeitgeist held that there was no "race" in Brazil, that everyone was "one big, happy Brazilian family," as he put it. But upon closer inspection, he found that subethnicities within Brazil certainly do distinguish themselves from others, and the ways in which this is done--as well as the complex identity relationships between Brazilian ethnic groups and their countries of ethnic origin--is at the heart of Lesser's research.
In the early 20th century, the government of Japan sought to relieve a perceived overpopulation problem on the island nation by "exporting" Japanese citizens to the Americas. At the same time, Brazilian planters were becoming dissatisfied with the European laborers who worked their plantations; the Europeans, it seemed, were too concerned with labor and social reform, and in Japanese immigrants the planters thought they saw a workforce both more docile and more industrious.
Between 1908 and 1941, Lesser writes in book's first essay, "Japanese, Brazilians, Nikkei: A Short History of Identity Building and Homemaking," some 189,000 Japanese found their way to South America's largest nation. But rather than become the compliant working-class culture their employers had envisioned, the Japanese began to prosper and operate their own plantations.
"In 1907, when Japanese immigrants first came to Brazil, Brazil imported rice," Lesser said. "Within 10 years, Brazil was one of the major rice exporting countries of the world--all of it being produced on Japanese-owned farms."
As the decades progressed, Japanese Brazilians continued to secure their position at or near the top rungs of Brazil's socioeconomic ladder, so much so that the entire subethnicity began to view itself as more "efficient" than other Brazilian populations, even as they insisted to foreigners that racial identities in Brazil did not exist.
The other side of the coin is how Japanese Brazilians identify with Japan itself. Perhaps subconsciously, many Japanese Brazilians don't feel completely "Brazilian" at home, yet when they travel to Japan, they don't feel Japanese either.
"Often," Lesser said, "it's not until they actually go to Japan that these people feel like they're Brazilian."
And complicating the matter even further are additional distinctions among Japanese Brazilians themselves; a second wave of immigrants, mostly Okinawan, streamed into Brazil following World War II, creating another subpopulation that wasn't quite " Japanese ," wasn't quite " Brazilian " --and wasn't even quite "Japanese Brazilian," at least as the group had come to define itself.
In all, it makes for a fascinating ethnic soup rich with texture and prime for scholarly inquiry. Lesser also has studied Brazil's other subethnicites such as Jewish Brazilians, Arab Brazilians and Afro Brazilians. In a country that deals with racial issues so differently than does the United States, the research questions are boundless.
"I had a situtation where I was in Brazil, talking with the director of the Center for Japanese Brazilian Studies, and he sat there and said, 'There is no ethnic difference in Brazil,'" Lesser said. "And I said to him, 'But we are sitting in this Center for Japanese Brazilian Studies!'
"What does it mean to be a country where the official and popular discourse is that there is no 'race,'" he continued, "when at the same time there is clearly race, there's clearly identity, there's clearly racism. How do people talk about it, deal with it, move between asserting there is no racism and complaining about racism at the same time? My work is at that intersection."