Rethinking Japanese American "Heritage" in the Homeland

Author: Ayako Takamori


In the United States, where language is an important arena of struggle for cultural and political activists, heritage language education is seen as vital for empowering students with a sense of cultural identity as they face pressures to assimilate. This article attempts to rethink reclamations of "heritage" through language and, more generally, the relationship between heritage language and identity. Japanese American ethnic identity is developed outside the context of the imagined "ethnic homeland." Return-migration, however, reconstructs the relationship between language, place, and identity. For Japanese Americans residing in Japan, then, Japanese as a heritage language becomes a newly fraught site of cultural negotiation. Drawing on ethnographic case studies, this article makes three arguments about how expectations of communicative competence shape experiences of being Japanese American in Japan. First, the significance of speaking a heritage language is contextually specific, differing according to the historical experiences of particular ethnic communities and the national (or transnational) location where a heritage language is spoken. Second, while activists have made great strides in reforming U.S. curricula to be more inclusive, in the case of Japanese Americans, the multiculturalist assumption that ethnic minorities should learn heritage languages to maintain their ethnic affiliation unintentionally plays into Japanese nationalist language ideologies. That is, it reinforces the cultural distance and non-belonging of Japanese American heritage language speakers in Japanese society. Finally, this article suggests that Japanese Americans residing in Japan are construed as uncanny contradictions of "Japanese-ness," destabilizing assumptions about the inalienability of language and identity through everyday speech acts and practices. 

Regions: East Asia
Countries: Japan

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