Jesus Loves Japan

Return Migration and Global Pentecostalism in a Brazilian Diaspora

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Suma Ikeuchi
  • Redwood City, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , June
     2019.
     256 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781503609341.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

What do missionaries and migrants have in common? For many, the trope of the impoverished migrant-laborer trying to eke out a living abroad, juxtaposed against the caricatured Western missionary as cultural imperialist, can be a jarring contrast. Yet, conversations about migration that highlight the political or economic impetus to mobility, obscures the shared experience with pilgrims or proselytizers, whereby mobility is not simply a change of locations, but an enchanted experience of spiritual discovery. The vitality of places of worship and generative new expressions of piety among migrant communities, suggests that both religious and transnational subjectivities must be understood within the same framework.

Suma Ikeuchi’s Jesus Loves Japan is an exemplary work of new scholarship that gestures in this direction. Standing at the crossroads of two contemporary trends in globalization— return migration in Asia, and the globalization of religion, the protagonists in this story are the ethnic-Japanese (Nikkei-Jin), Brazilian, Pentecostal Christians, who have since the 1990s lived and worked in the austere industrial town of Toyota-shi, Japan, home to the titular motorcar company. Nikkei-Jin Pentecostals are simultaneously migrants and pilgrims; in the words of Presbyter Bruno which frame the book’s introduction, living as (Christian) sojourners in a strange land, poetically connecting the “transiency of migrant life to the transiency of worldly life itself” (5).

Three co-existing origin myths are central this story: Japanese blood, Brazilian birth, and transnational God (9). Nikkei-Jin Brazilians trace their family histories to out-migration from Japan to Brazil in the early 20th-century, but recent “returns” to Japan have not been connected to familial networks but rather recent economic opportunities granted by the Japanese government’s visa for “long-term residents” of foreign citizens of Japanese descent. If these nation-bound identities (Japanese and Brazilian) seemingly exist in contest, conversion to Pentecostalism in Japan provides a third genealogy to transcend the first two—a radical Christian universalism which holds no barriers to bloodline, citizenship or place of birth (9). The book’s subsequent sections—titled Suspended, Renewed, Contested, Returns—reflect the trajectory of migrant-converts’ transitions from Brazil to Japan, and their parallel journeys of spiritual transformation, where the three identities intersect.

The section called “Suspended” foregrounds challenges that Nikkei-Jin migrants face in Japan, where punishing working conditions compel migrants to “put-aside-living,” and await better futures back in Brazil. This temporal limbo is punctuated with experiences of racism, mental health challenges, and a heightened consciousness of Otherness; ironically, the “truly Brazilian” identity that eluded them in Brazil is finally achieved in Japan. This social marginality and temporal suffocation is seemingly reconciled in the section “Renewed”—which highlights how conversion to Pentecostal Christianity brings migrants “back to the present” (chapter 5).

As Ikeuchi argues, conversion represents the desire for renewal in the present that migrants crave after years of “suspended life” in Japan, whereby charismatic Christian rhetoric flattens geographical, temporal, and cultural differences in deference to a worldwide Christian imaginary. Thus, the totalizing temporalities of work-time are overlaid by the “charismatic temporality of absorption in the present,” to experience immediate spiritual rejuvenation regardless of place (88). Chapter 6, “The Culture of Love” foregrounds how identities are negotiated on an intimate scale. The clear-cut trifurcations between Japanese-Brazilian-Pentecostal in this chapter seem rhetorical rather than real, especially since the following section, “Contested,” highlights the limits to the transcendence of Christian fellowship from ethnonational boundaries. Lines between Japanese, Brazilian, and Christian remain troubled by families, ancestors and spirits. Finally, the section entitled “Returns” briefly examines glossolalia—the Pentecostal Christian practice of speaking in humanly unintelligible tongues—practiced by transnational subjects as an “ephemeral return to the embodied present” where they can transcend linguistically reified identities through intimate experience of the divine (185).

A key contribution in Jesus Loves Japan is certainly re-centering religion as a category of analysis, in understanding migrant experiences of displacement and contested belonging. Ikeuchi writes, “migratory and religious movements do not constitute separate phenomena” for the Nikkei-Jin Pentecostals, but are a unified process where diasporic mobility and religious sensibility are equal constituents in an ethical self (185). Thus, the overarching point that “far from being solely spatial, diasporic mobility is at once temporal, affective, and ethical” is definitely a provocative claim that students of religion and transnational mobilities should take heed in future research (185). Japan is not simply the stage where migrants encounter faith, nor is the church merely a vehicle for assimilation; rather, conversion and migration shape and are shaped by each other.

Yet, I wonder whether the title Jesus Loves Japan, with the propensity to be misconstrued as an ethno-religious formulation, might be a misnomer. Certainly, a key question for both Ikuechi and the Nikkei-Jin migrants is: what does it mean to be Japanese? Granted, Nikkei-Jin migrants claim Japanese descent, and access privileged mobility precisely because of this heritage. However, the object of their conversion does not necessarily reinforce Japanese-ness but rather transcends Japan by elevating them into a trans-local community of faith. The cry of “Jesus Loves Japan” is thus resistance against claims to nation-bounded belonging, espoused by Japanese right-wing nativists who occupy an uneasy presence in the background of this story. Ikeuchi acknowledges that the Nikkei-Jin’s calls to reclaim their citizenship with Christian origins interacts with both Brazilian and Japanese identities in generative ways. Might a different title which alludes more explicitly to the futility of nationalism even as migrants seek to wrest control of what it means to be Japanese have had greater effect?  

Nevertheless, Ikeuchi is an excellent guide who brings readers along a journey across multiple contexts, and her overall thesis is convincing. She is constantly reflexive about the tension of her position at two crossroads: between the “born-again” (converted) and un-born-again, between Brazilian and Japanese, where she is affectionately labelled japonesa japonesa (really Japanese, Japanese) among a community which has only known labels of difference. This is an eminently readable book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and it should be welcome by readers interested in the productive intersections between religion and migration in a globalized world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Tan is a doctoral student in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Date of Review: 
July 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Suma Ikeuchi is Assistant Professor in the Department of Liberal Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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