Diasporic-Daughters-Book-Cover-frontThank you, Ingrid, for drawing my attention to this interesting online forum, Language on the Move,  and videos, Japanese on the Move. Based on empirical research on transnational Asian women in London, I have recently produced a book, Transnational Migration, Media and Identity of Asian Women: Diasporic Daughters (2011, Routledge). Interestingly, as some of the participants featured on Japanese on the Move talked about the notions of “cosmopolitan”, “transnational”, “identity” and “home”, I would like to share some of the data from young Japanese women in my research and question: Are they becoming cosmopolitan subjects? Can they afford a cosmopolitan identity?

(British) people ask, “Are you from Japan?,” so I say, “Yes, I am from Tokyo.” Then they really like it! They ask lots of questions… They want to know about the Japanese hair style and kimono, temples, how to use traditional wrapping cloth that we don’t even use now… They worship us. In their fantasy, they want to believe we wear kimono usually and serve tea nicely.

They seem to know Japanese culture through the media… geisha in kimono, Pokémon, advanced technologies… I came here (London) to become modern and independent, not a traditional Japanese woman. But Western men like traditional images of Japanese women, and they expect traditional Japanese women when meeting us.

The overall interest in, or fascination with, the appeal of uniquely Japanese culture in touch with tradition signifies the modern West’s desire to be cosmopolitan by intermixing with Japanese otherness in their capacity and willingness to take pleasure from the transnational cultural exchange. The representation of Japan in the Western popular imagination is paradoxical and complex; the Western fear of Japanese corporations, economic power and powerful masculine nationalism by which Japan is seen as a site of potential threat, but on the other hand, the Western attraction to an orientalist fantasy and subservient object of desire which is constructed through the West’s sexualization and feminization of Japanese culture.

If multicultural diversity is celebrated in a cosmopolitan vision of the world, Japan could stand for a distinctive, albeit ambiguous, positioning within reciprocal recognition. Cosmopolitanism, as a relational and dialogic term, operates within the contexts of encounters, favorable or unfavorable, inclusive or exclusive, thereby a cosmopolitan possibility may emerge or not. Such interplay may generate a situated, but characteristically thin cosmopolitanism; even while women denounced and repudiated Japan’s traditional masculine culture, they become more attached to the place called home with its cultural particularities yet simultaneously embracing pleasure from the interactions with the modern West, however in contradictory and implicitly forced ways with struggles in the language of paradox.

They are interested in traditional Japanese culture I don’t even know about. This is a surprising discovery. I have to learn to explain to them.

In Japan, I was not Japanese. I was liberal, against old traditions. I preferred the Western world and imagined changing my self through the media… I just imagine through the media but cannot act. I am becoming more Japanese while living abroad… There is no reason to change or become like them. Being distinctively Japanese is an advantage.

The Western worship of traditional Japanese otherness, often seen as accidental knowledge to many women on the move, can impact upon and interplay with how women come to redefine a new subject position. The fluidity of conceptions of identity and change were once powerfully imagined through the Western media and occidental longings in their homeland, while mobilizing the scope to act beyond localized contexts. However, the actual interactions, discursive and communicative encounters with the West re-contextualize such imagined cosmopolitan identification and precariously expose, or impose to some extent, a fixed categorical distinction of Japaneseness.

Why be a woman of the world? The motivational reasons, which would allow for the possibility of cosmopolitan subjectivity and the determination to act on it, depend on what distinction and what gain is to be made, to what end. Far from a robust cosmopolitan projection, a self-determined reaction to how best to act from the learning of cosmopolitan knowledge rather foregrounds a national self in the distinctiveness of cultural difference, representing Japaneseness even more strongly than before (“becoming more Japanese”) in the relational experience of the transnational field.

Author Youna Kim

Youna Kim, PhD, is Associate Professor of Global Communications at The American University of Paris, France. She was formerly at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she taught after completing her PhD at the University of London, Goldsmiths College. Her books are Women, Television and Everyday Life in Korea: Journeys of Hope (2005, Routledge); Media Consumption and Everyday Life in Asia (2008, Routledge); Transnational Migration, Media and Identity of Asian Women: Diasporic Daughters (2011, Routledge); Women and the Media in Asia: The Precarious Self (2012, Palgrave Macmillan).

More posts by Youna Kim
  • Khan

    Kawaa chala hans ki chaal
    Apni chaaal bhi bhool giya
    (Anonymous proverb in Hindi/Urdu, no date, probably centuries old)
    My translation: ‘The crow tried to fly like swan
    In this act of imitation, he forgot his own way of flying’

    Fantastic, a very thought provoking post indeed. Thanks very much Professor Youna for sharing your study and many congratulations for your latest publication. By quoting the above anonymous proverb, I want to contextualize my comment/ reflection on ‘thin cosmopolitan’ spaces available to Japanese female Diaspora identity in western context as clearly visible in their ‘language of paradox’. I think interactional spaces and popular perceptions have strong link with the media as well as the socio-economic positions actors occupy in their new context.
    Being an Asian studying in west, I came across the media constructed stereotype about Muslims and in particular Pakistani Muslim. Often I and my interlocutors negotiate new positions for us. And in the process of negotiation, I find the spaces for new subjectivities are interlaced with many reified presumptions, notion and ideas on both the sides. I agree with you that the categories are considerably fixed and they do create dilemmas but I take as challenge to create new possibilities by challenging these assumptions unlike the crow!

  • Thanks, Youna, for your post and congratulations on your book! It would be interesting to hear what your participants have to say about cosmpolitanism a few years down the track. I think your findings not only speak to identity dilemmas of Japanese women in the UK but also to what it means to be a contemporary young adult. One thing that struck me about the participants on Japanese on the Move was the fact that there were quite clear generational differences: for our older participants and those with families of their own, identity wasn’t much of an issue. I wonder whether that has to do with life stage or the length of stay abroad or the prevailing zeitgeist when they left their home country or arrived in their new one? I suppose we need more longitudinal and cross-sectional research to find out. Have you considered going back to your interviewees and see what has become of them? Whether they feel more ‘settled’ or less shallow-cosmpolitan now?

  • Some of your questions/comments are addressed in my book (2011), Chapter 5 and Chapter 7.
    Often, existing studies have noted a general phenomenon that many migrants of older generations tend to look back with nostalgia to their national homes and live with little social interaction with the broader communities of their host society and with less developed skills in the language of their host culture; therefore, as both a cause and a consequence, their long-distance diasporic nationalism is more likely to be encouraged, promoted and sustained via the transnational ethnic media, various genres and narratives in everyday life. However, relatively less is known and visible about younger generations; the ways in which today’s digital migrants, much more educated and skilled knowledge diasporas or hyper-mobile transnationals, may also create and sustain regular and purposeful networks that can possibly generate, and be intimately linked to, forms of self-narration for the formation of daily national identity and diasporic nationalism in both physical and virtual modalities.
    Paradoxically, as bodies are dis-embedded from one nation and move to another, physically confronting cultural difference and struggling for representational space, ideas of distinctiveness of a particular culture and ethnically distinct places become even more salient and important, or even strategic, with no less a powerful tendency towards cultural differentiation. What might unexpectedly be happening in such transnational encounters is a reactionary assertion of national identity via the development of ethnic particularism, or mythical essentialism underpinned by historically embodied difference and uniqueness with some degree of power to determine that difference to distinguish themselves from dominant ethnic groups and defend their own fragile boundaries.