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Japanese New York

Japanese New York: Migrant Artists and Self-reinvention on the World Stage

Olga Kanzaki Sooudi
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 289
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  • Book Info
    Japanese New York
    Book Description:

    Spend time in New York City and, soon enough, you will encounter some of the Japanese nationals who live and work there—young English students, office workers, painters, and hairstylists. New York City, one of the world’s most vibrant and creative cities, is also home to one of the largest overseas Japanese populations in the world. Among them are artists and designers who produce cutting-edge work in fields such as design, fashion, music, and art. Part of the so-called “creative class” and a growing segment of the neoliberal economy, they are usually middle-class and college-educated. They move to New York for anywhere from a few years to several decades in the hope of realizing dreams and aspirations unavailable to them in Japan. Yet the creative careers they desire are competitive, and many end up working illegally in precarious, low paying jobs. Though they often migrate without fixed plans for return, nearly all eventually do, and their migrant trajectories are punctuated by visits home. Japanese New York offers an intimate, ethnographic portrait of these Japanese creative migrants living and working in NYC. At its heart is a universal question—how do adults reinvent their lives? In the absence of any material or social need, what makes it worthwhile for people to abandon middle-class comfort and home for an unfamiliar and insecure life? Author Olga Sooudi explores these questions in four different venues patronized by New York’s Japanese: a grocery store and restaurant, where hopeful migrants work part-time as they pursue their ambitions; a fashion designer’s atelier and an art gallery, both sites of migrant aspirations. As Sooudi’s migrant artists toil and network, biding time until they “make it” in their chosen industries, their optimism is complicated by the material and social limitations of their lives. The story of Japanese migrants in NYC is both a story about Japan and a way of examining Japan from beyond its borders. The Japanese presence abroad, a dynamic process involving the moving, settling, and return to Japan of people and their cultural products, is still underexplored. Sooudi’s work will help fill this lacuna and will contribute to international migration studies, to the study of contemporary Japanese culture and society, and to the study of Japanese youth, while shedding light on what it means to be a creative migrant worker in the global city today.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-4781-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-25)

    Naoko came to work at Minami’s restaurant in the summer of 2006, shortly after I began working there. A small Japanese restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Minami’s was owned by a Japanese woman and specialized inkaisekicuisine, a type of high-end Japanese cuisine based on seasonal ingredients. Minami preferred to hire Japanese wait staff because a large proportion of the restaurant’s clientele was Japanese tourists or expatriates living in New York City (NYC). Every night around one or two o’clock a.m., the staff and Minami closed shop, pulling down the heavy metal grating on the storefront....

  5. 1 CITY OF STORIES: Finding Japanese New York
    (pp. 26-53)

    Asahi is thirty-four and a painter, originally from Tokyo. He has lived in NYC for nine years, six of them with his American wife, a jewelry designer. In Japan, he failed art school entrance exams twice, which eventually pushed him to try his luck in NYC instead. During his first few years in NYC, he frequently changed residence, sometimes every three or four months, because of roommates who left or because his sublets ended. Now he lives with his wife in Williamsburg, a hip neighborhood in Brooklyn dense with artists, in a tiny railroad style apartment—two rooms connected by...

  6. 2 PUSHING THE RESET BUTTON: Self-Reinvention and the Triumphalist Japanese Migrant Narrative
    (pp. 54-79)

    Satomi remembers listening to her mother speak English when she was a little girl. Her mother worked at the library on the American military base in Yokosuka. In the early 1960s in Japan, it was still hard to get nice things. Satomi went with her mother sometimes to the Ameyoko markets in the Ueno neighborhood of Tokyo, where she could buy coveted goods like imported stockings and quality red lipstick. Her mother loved American movies: Clark Gable and Lauren Bacall. Sometimes her mother brought back stylish outfits from Yokosuka as well. Satomi still remembers the beautiful pictures of her mother,...

  7. 3 MAKING ART, BEING AN ARTIST: The Seductions of Creative Expression in Migrant Life
    (pp. 80-107)

    I did not immediately realize that Matsumura Keita was a painter when I first met him in early 2006. His matted black hair, plastered to his scalp from wearing a motorcycle helmet, and dark, suntanned complexion, suggested an altogether more mundane occupation than painting. This impression was compounded by the windbreaker with matching pants he always seemed to wear, which rustled noisily when he entered the room. Indeed, like most painters, he found it impossible to survive on his paintings alone, even at the age of forty after living in NYC for nine years. He thus spent three days a...

  8. 4 CRAFTING A POSITION: Becoming Japanese through the Transnational Encounter
    (pp. 108-136)

    I sat next to Tomiko in her atelier, awkwardly perched on a small stool with a notebook on my lap. Still in my winter coat and breathless from the daily coffee run for the staff to a nearby bistro, I focused quickly on her dictation: “Say: I use traditional kimono colors in my designs. These kimono colors reflect nature and the different seasons of the year. I’m from Kyoto, which is the heart of traditional Japanese culture, and I’m from a family of Shinto priests. Write about how I combine my traditional Japanese background with the latest styles.” We were...

  9. 5 HOW TO LIVE A TRANSNATIONAL LIFE: Between Heaviness and Lightness
    (pp. 137-171)

    The Japanese I met in NYC often told me that they did not consider themselves to be immigrants or migrants. This, they explained, was because they were not poor and were from Japan, a country whose wealth and development were on par with the United States and Western Europe.¹ Besides the common assumption that migrants are always from financially deprived backgrounds, there was another reason Japanese did not feel themselves to be (im)migrants: they claimed they did not constitute a community, using the word in English or the same term as a Japanese neologism,komyunitī.

    Whereas Chinese, Korean, and South...

  10. 6 THE PATHOLOGICAL MIGRANT: Failures, Escape, and Weakness of Character
    (pp. 172-201)

    The Ajisai Supermarket was nestled in the ground floor of a building off of Broadway in Lower Manhattan. Located in a busy shopping area, Ajisai was bustling for most of its opening hours, except at night. It sold a wide range of goods, appealing to both the Japanese expatriate or tourist and the non-Japanese customer unused to all things Japanese. While the first level carried cooking ingredients, frozen food items, and premade sushi andbentō(lunch boxes), on the upper level one could find a library of Japanese DVDs and videos of Japanese television programming from recent weeks. Toward the...

    (pp. 202-210)

    The road to New York City, for most migrants, eventually leads home. Sometimes the road is very long, four or five decades; for many, it is several years, perhaps a decade. For Naoko, with whom this book began, the end of her stay came rather abruptly and for reasons more material than what led her away from Japan.

    After several months of looking for a stable job in an industrial design—related field in NYC, Naoko gave up. An OPT visa had given her a year to work in Chicago after graduating from the Pratt Institute in NYC.¹ Though technically...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 211-222)
    (pp. 223-242)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 243-253)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 254-255)