Transnational Response to Catastrophe

Topic of the conference

The Triple Disaster of March 2011 which took place in Northern Japan not only brought despair to the region. Worldwide people mourned for the dead and donated for the survivors, which suddenly were left with nothing and had to face the ruins of their existence. While the media reported on the earthquake, the tsunami and the ensuing damage in the nuclear power plants of Fukushima, countless fund-raising activities were launched and citizens organized various events to show their solidarity for Northern Japan.

Japanese diasporic communities were pivotal in organizing and adding a sense of urgency. This is most true for the so-called transient diasporas (Cohen 1977: 19). These communities are made mostly by salary men and their families who will return to Japan after a few years of sojourn abroad (Befu 2001: 12). The ties of these transient diasporas to Japan are therefore relatively strong. Most Japanese communities in Europe are transient and because of that were very active in organizing help for the devastated region in North Japan. Members of the Japanese community in Düsseldorf, Germany, collected money at the main station and held a Buddhist service for the victims. The very positive status of the Japanese community in Düsseldorf (Tagsold 2011) and active networking of the community shortly after March 11th also incited the City of Dusseldorf to set up charity events of its own and also donate money directly. In Ghent, Belgium, – a semi-transient community – the Japanese community organized a sale on the weekly flee market and one member produced a YouTube clip encouraging Japanese in the disaster region. In these transient communities often members had relatives and friends in the disaster regions and thus were to a certain degree directly confronted with grieve and loss. At the same time they were able to circulate first hand information about what kind of help was needed most. They were thus able to channel donations of non-Japanese in their communities who wanted to help and assure them that their help would really make a difference in Northern Japan.

In cases such as the Japanese community in Hawai’i or the various Japanese communities in South America the relation to Japan is less close since most members are living outside Japan in the second, third or even fourth generation (Befu 2008). Nevertheless even with loose ties diasporic communities felt urged and sometimes obliged to react more determined to the catastrophe than other citizens in their respective countries. Japanese diasporic societies were nodal points for organizing charity events and help.

In both transient and permanent Japanese communities being active often became a means to overcome the global, local and personal shockwave of the catastrophe and overcome feelings of insecurity. The solidarity of their co-citizens was important in this respect too. On the other hand, Japanese living abroad also complained about cold reactions from other citizens. They felt stigmatized as members of a nation which had not been able to control nuclear power plants, as some Japanese reported on the community's internet forum in Dusseldorf.

Therefore reactions of Japanese communities worldwide will help to understand the communities' status constitution. Looking at various reactions a year after the actual catastrophe, we want to scrutinize on Japanese transnational connections and identities; the disaster helps to immediately open inroads to the communities. Japanese communities did not only react more immediately to the catastrophe but also their reactions indicated their feelings of belonging to Japan. In addition reactions often were based on very traditionalistic ideas of Japaneseness. Such stereotypical activities clearly indicate how communities see themselves within the global Japanese ethnoscape. However, not all members of the communities share such conservative images. Thus the disaster also showed internal frictions within communities and different interpretations of what Japan is. This is most clear in the assessment of the nuclear catastrophe. Official Japan abroad pointed out that all had been done for save nuclear plants and immediately after the catastrophe did not put nuclear energy into question. The more conservative strata of Japanese communities shared this evaluation. However, Japanese voices within the communities arguing differently were not to be overheard.

Bringing together findings from Ghent en Brussels, Dusseldorf, Sao Paulo and Hawaii we want to show similarities and differences in reactions: How do transient communities such as Dusseldorf, Brussels and London, react? Are they more likely to express hard feelings about reactions of their surroundings? Is there a difference to small, semi-transient and mainly female communities like in the city of Ghent, which are in general more integrated and connected on a personal level with their surroundings? Do long-standing permanent Japanese communities such as in Hawaii and South America use the disaster to express their Japanese identity or their obligations to the country of origin? How do transnational networks form under these circumstances? To which degree is dissent voiced within all of these communities regarding the government’s reaction or the future of nuclear energy?

Among the theoretical foundations of the symposium is Aihwa Ong’s (1999) idea of flexible citizenship which she forged using the Chinese diaspora worldwide. Organizing help through diaspora networks is not only a sign of solidarity with Japan. At the same time these activities further diasporic civil society. The activities help to integrate members of Japanese communities more into the surrounding society since they have to network to collect donations. Questions that emerge from this approach are: How does the disaster influence the ethnoscape? To what degree do notions of Japaneseness influence the reactions of Japanese communities? How do communities emerge into the surrounding society by organizing help?

The conference will be will be additionally prepared and supported by a BA and MA research course at Ghent University that focuses on the triple disaster in Japan applying a historical and cultural approach. This will lead to a number MA thesis on Fukushima. Also two BA courses in Düsseldorf which focus on German media reactions to the catastrophe and a case study of the catastrophes' impact in Iwate will help to prepare and support the conference. The findings of the students from Belgium and Germany will be presented in poster sessions during the conference.



Niko Besnier (keynote)

Diasporas: Communities of Practice, Communities of Affect

The term “diaspora” was originally borrowed from Old Testament Greek into English in the late-nineteenth century, and for a century referred exclusively to the successive dispersals of Jews in the ancient world.  It is only in the 1990s that the term entered social scientific language, where it was immediately associated with sociological and anthropological approaches to people’s mobility that defied a simplistic understanding of migrations as movement from point A to point B, followed by the relative integration of migrants into the social conditions of point B and their gradual disengagement from the social conditions of point A.  Diaspora, instead, involves dispersion to multiple destinations, an orientation to the homeland, the preservation of a distinct identity, as well as continued exchange between diasporic nodes.  Foregrounded are a continued sense of allegiance and the “bifocality” of social action, whereby agents operate with both a context of the here-and-now and a far-away yet relevant context.  If one understands “community” as “community of practice,” then diasporas do form communities, albeit of a different kind from the commonsensical understanding of community.  Finally, affect plays a strong role in the structuring of diasporas, as became amply evident in the aftermaths of the Triple Disaster, although this affect is modulated by all kinds of material and other conditions.

Peter Bernardi

The Response of the Japanese-Brazilian community of São Paulo

Immediately after the catastrophes on March 11th, influential members of the Japanese-Brazilian community in São Paulo met. How to aid the victims of the devastating events in the Tohoku region became a central topic that was also quite controversially discussed.

With an estimated population of 1.5 million Japanese and people of Japanese descent Brazil is home to the largest Japanese diasporic community worldwide. As a large majority of them live and work in São Paulo, the city has an active and visible public. Comparing the reactions of main actors to the catastrophes of March 2011, the presentation describes the response of the Japanese-Brazilian community in São Paulo. Drawing on fieldwork in Brazil and an analysis of the coverage of the catastrophe in Portuguese and Japanese language media, different public and private approaches will be discussed.

Besides demonstrating solidarity with the victims of the catastrophe in Japan on a formal basis, the community’s main focus was on the collection of financial donations to aid the victims. In this process campaigns even competed against each other and cracks inside the community became visible. The presentation sketches the meaning of the triple catastrophe for the Japanese-Brazilian community in São Paulo and draws possible implications for its future.


Fujita Yuiko

Cultural migrants in London and Paris

This ethnographic study explores the identity negotiation of young Japanese fashion designers, industrial designers, and contemporary artists working across national boundaries today. For this purpose, I conducted in-depth interviews and participant observation with professional designers and artists who have migrated from Japan to London, Paris and other cities in Europe and the United States. The results show that most designers and artists who were interviewed indeed aim to produce works with "universal" appeal, while only a few respondents attempt to express "Japaneseness" in their works strategically. However, regardless of whether they make use of "Japaneseness" or not, all respondents regard themselves as "Japanese" without developing new transnational identities. Even so, they do not hold onto Japaneseness and do not wish to acquire the nationality of the host country. Rather, they show a particular pattern of identity negotiation: they have come to have a relatively weak sense of national identity, believing that they are and will be Japanese as they are not likely to become something else. Since most respondents travel back and forth between Japan and their host country more than once every year, and contact their peers through the Internet and see information on Japan almost daily, their nostalgia for Japan does not grow; rather, transnational mobility provides them with opportunities to confirm that their "home" still exists.


Ruth Martin

The Japanse Diaspora in London

The United Kingdom is home to the largest population of Japanese in Europe. As of October 2011, 63.011* were registered with the Embassy of Japan in London, including students/researchers/teachers and transient professionals and their families and also permanent residents. Following the initial shock of the disaster, all of these groups felt an immediate need to DO something. This presentation will outline the fund raising activities and other initiatives that took place, focussing on London. It will emphasise the role played by Japanese artists and musicians, whose talents not only provided opportunities for Japanese residents to contribute financially, but a platform for expressing solidarity with Japan. The presentation will comment on what these reactions suggest about the identity of Japanese living in the UK as well as noting the sense of unity and collaboration that was demonstrated by all in what is usually a strictly structured community. It will comment on the role and image of young people; the question of whether the Japanese community in the UK has become more visible as a result, and finally, the role played by the Anglo-Japanese networks that have grown in the UK and the contribution that these have made to relief efforts in Tohoku as well as to further strengthening Anglo-Japanese relations.

*provisional latest figure, Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Shibata Yoshiko 

Diversity, Heterogeneity and Variability of Japanese Diasporas: Histories and Contemporary Characteristics 

Popular stories and images of Japanese migrants and overseas communities still tend to be characterized, whether in written or visual form, with unanimity and homogeneity. Such standardized portraits of course are far from complexities of historical reality and contemporary scenes. Learning varied differences both among various Japanese diaspora communities and individuals will require us to deepen understanding and alter perceptions more sensitively.

Recent changes, particularly since the 1990s (with the revision of immigration laws), are noteworthy. Many ‘newcomer’ Nikkei returnees have begun to settle, re-migrate, re-return, or even ‘shuttle.’ Such dynamic movements and settlements have posed both common and different questions and agenda with those of other global diasporas. In this presentation, after brief history of Japanese migration, I will introduce recent social and cultural ripples and enigmatic problems triggered by settling Nikkei Latin Americans (mostly Brazilians and Peruvians), many of whom may be ‘invisible’ (appearance-wise). Those ‘diasporas within’ demonstrate diversity, heterogeneity, variability and ambiguity of Japanese diasporas.

Incorporating multitude of Nikkei-jin with different nationalities and even plural ethnicities (some out of intermarriages), both national and local governments in Japan have invariably adopted and developed a still vaguely defined and controversial policy, ‘multicultural co-existence’(多文化共生), largely out of necessity. Various sites, NGOs and NPOs too have activated both face-to-face and virtual networks often transnationally to tackle pressing and latent problems, including education/schooling of Japanese-born non-Japanese youth. Their identity issues are also very complex and exhibit interesting dimensions.

Christian Tagsold

The Japanese Diaspora in Düsseldorf and the Triple Disaster of March 2011

Dusseldorf hosts the largest Japanese community in Germany. It is therefor no surprise that the triple catastrophy of March 2011 did deeply affect relations between the community and the city. Three public events show how the Japanese community, citizens, various institutions and local media reacted in the weeks after the catastrophy and tried to mitigate the instant trauma. The official state mourning of North Rhine-Westfalia, a mourning at the local Jôdô-shinshû-Buddhist temple and a candle-light comemoration in the center of the city drew different types of mourners. It is possible to scrutinize on notions of solidarity, ritual mourning and conceived Japanaseness of the community through these three events. In addition the coverage of local media adds another layer of meaning to these events. While most Japanese showed up at the state mourning, local media focussed most intensively on the other two events. Through analyzing the public events and the coverage of the media the deeper meaning of the triple catastrophy for the Japanese community in Dusseldorf thus can be clarified.

Jutta Teuwsen

The Japanese Americans of Hawaii: Local communities' reactions on March 2011

The Japanese Americans are an integral part of Hawaii's overall population, as almost one fourth is of Japanese ancestry. Immigration to Hawaii started in 1868 with struggling on the cane fields and went stronger persistently, as working conditions improved. During the 20th century, the Japanese Americans managed to occupy influential positions on all state and public levels and secured their high socio-economic status. From the 1970s on, the situation changed when other local groups resented them their success. In the result, the Japanese American communities no longer promoted or stressed their ethnic background.

After the triple disaster, these settled structures began to dissolve. Other local groups now perceived the Japanese Americans in the context of the devastated homeland of their ancestors, so that those of Japanese background started working with and talking about this background actively again.

Yet, it is not only the Japanese American communities who decidedly promote aiding Japan. In the shape of food, festivities and tourists from Japan, the Japanese is a central characteristic of life in Hawaii. Accordingly, the whole population participates in donations and benefits like it has never done before, not even regarding 9/11 or the Haitian earthquake.

Dimitri Vanoverbeke

Building a Different Image of March 11: perception and supportive actions in diasporic academic communities and international marriages 

Studies in public policy have demonstrated that the perception or image of politics and society amongst citizens is instrumental in defining the political agenda (Baumgartner and Jones 1993). This image is often induced by civil society which, if active and dynamic, can influence policy. Civil society in Japan has been said less dynamic than in many other nations but recently important developments have been observed (Pekkanen 2006).The unprecedented triple disaster of march 11, 2011 has triggered further development of political and social debate in Japan. Increasingly political consciousness at grassroots level can be observed.  

I will argue that an important diasporic community is developing a distinctive image of Japanese politics at periods of critical junctions and has the potential to influence civil society through the formation of image, debate in their community or with members of other communities. I will take a closer look at the actions by Japanese in the academic community and within international marriages. The diasporic community is generally neglected as a building block of civil society in Japan but should be taken into account as became clear after March 11, 2011.

Tine Walravens

Supporting home ‑ Japanese communities in Belgium and the 3/11 triple disaster

Belgium has a population of approximately 4500 (2010) Japanese nationals. Most of them belong to the transient community in Brussels, which as primary seat of the EU, houses a considerable number of Japanese governmental institutions, companies and lobby organizations. The triple disaster in 2011 came as a shock to the Japanese in Belgium and following the disaster the transient community as well as Japanese nationals living in Belgium permanently started immediately to organize support actions and charity events. However, while the transient diaspora in Brussels organized support actions within the community and within an institutionalized context, in the permanent community individuals functioned as hubs and used their broader social networks in the host country and their cultural knowledge as means of communication to reach out to the host community. The networking of these individuals actually seems to question the notion of a permanent diaspora. The disaster can in both communities be seen as a catalyst for enhanced interaction: in the case of the transient diaspora the interaction within the group was intensified, in the case of the permanent Japanese residents in Belgium however the interaction was especially intensified towards the host community. On the other hand it can be argued that the support activities as well as media coverage on the disaster not only strengthened the awareness of being Japanese and Japaneseness, but also added a new element to the notion of being Japanese: that of the ability to stand together and support each other in times of catastrophe.