Negotiating bilingual and bicultural identities: Japanese returnees betwixt two worlds

March 2004 — Volume 7, Number 4

Negotiating bilingual and bicultural identities: Japanese returnees betwixt two worlds

Yasuko Kanno (2003)
New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers
Pp. xii + 188
ISBN 0-8058-4154-7 (paper)
$18.50 (Also available in cloth $45.00)

The purpose of this book is to investigate how bilingual and bicultural identities develop. Specifically, it concentrates “on how learners mature as bilingual and bicultural individuals and on where they decide to position themselves between two languages and cultures” (p. viii). In the introduction, Kanno claims that her book differs in three fundamental ways from other studies of bilingual and bicultural identities. First, because her study is longitudinal (she studied her subjects over a 10-year period) and most studies of bicultural/bilingual identities only examine a group of students at a specific point in time. Secondly, because her “study documents student perspectives. Lack of student voice is noticeable in educational research in general” (p. viii). The third reason why she considers her study to be different is because it examines bilingual individuals who eventually returned back to their country of origin while the majority of identity studies only analyze those who are immigrants.

The book consists of eight chapters. In chapter one, Kanno carefully defines her key terms. To her, the word identity denotes “our sense of who we are and our relationship to the world. Many aspects of our ‘selves’ contribute to our understanding of who we are: race, gender, class, occupation, sexual orientation, age, among others. Which part becomes a salient feature of our identity depends on the context” (p. 3). She also notes that she is only interested in those elements of our identity that are directly connected to culture and language. As a result, to her, bilingual and bicultural identity means “where bilingual individuals position themselves between two languages and two (or more) cultures, and how they incorporate these languages and cultures into their sense of who they are” (p. 3).

In this chapter, Kanno also interjects an autobiographical element, writing about her own experiences learning English and the reasons for her undertaking this study. In addition, she provides the two perspectives which form the theoretical framework of her project: narrative inquiry and communities of practices. The basic idea of narrative inquiry is that people “experience their lives and identities in narrative form. Separate events and actions become meaningful only in the context of a plot of which they are a part” (p. 9). Kanno holds that “tapping into issues of identity requires an inquiry into people’s experiences and meaning making, and an inquiry into those areas calls for the use of narrative” (p. 11). By the term communities of practice, she means the theory, developed by Leve and Wenger, which postulates “that what we usually call learning is part of learning to take part in shared practices of a community. We learn not for the abstract goal of attaining knowledge, but in order to participate in communities where we wish to become a member. . . learning is intertwined with community participation and belonging, it has direct implications for identity” (p. 12). [-1-]

The rest of the chapter presents methodological details on how data in her research was collected and analyzed. Kanno used four young Japanese returnees (kikokushijo) as her subjects. They (two boys, named Kenji and Rui, and two girls, Swako and Kikuko) had all spent their adolescent years in Canada and then returned to Japan in their late teens. All of them had been her students in a hoshuko (supplementary Saturday school) she had taught at in the early 1990’s. Kanno followed their development over a 10-year period, using upon interviews, letters, e-mails, journals and telephone conversations for data. She compiled files on each of the participants, and thematically plotted patterns and themes in their identity development. Employing narrative inquiry techniques, she “divided their narratives into three phrases Æ sojourn, reentry, and reconciliation Æ and analyzed changes from one phase to another. After I wrote a chapter on each participant, I sent a copy of the draft to them for verification and feedback” (p. 23). Except for e-mail, all of the communication took place in Japanese, with borrowings of English expressions sometimes occurring. (The book has an appendix, which gives examples of some of the things the subjects written about. The writings are in Japanese but an English translation is also provided).

The next four chapters present the four students’ stories. Their family backgrounds are discussed, academic performances, personality characteristics, feelings regarding living abroad and their home country, and their attitudes towards English.

Chapter six, ‘The Development of Bilingual and Bicultural Identities,’ is an analysis of the four narratives. Kanno looks at common themes among the subjects relating to identity and concludes that “as they grew older, they became better at striking a balance between two languages and cultures, and that this change was accompanied by their increasingly sophisticated skill at participating in multiple communities” (p. xi). While all of the subjects had difficult adjusting to living in Japan after their return from Canada, she observes that “Once they moved from the pressure to assimilate, they had the freedom to fit into their narrative those aspects of their identities (such as their individualistic streak) that were not compatible with the past story line” (p. 121).

The next chapter, ‘Theoretical Implications,’ examines the theoretical significance of her study. Her key conclusion is “that locating multiple identities that a learner may possess in different settings is only one half of the necessary investigation into the relationship between identity and language learning. The other half is to explore how the learner makes implicit and explicit connections among these identities and integrates them into his or her story of language learning. . . It is in the narrative weaving where lies the key to understanding the relationship between identity and language learning” (p. 133).

The final chapter, ‘Conclusions,’ gives a synopsis of her findings, looks at their educational implications, and updates us on what the four subjects are now doing. Kanno believes that the most significant finding of her study is that for bilingual individuals, identity is not simply a zero sum choice between one culture and language and another, rather that “it is possible for bilingual youths to reach a balance between two languages and cultures. The trajectories of their identity development show a gradual shift from a rigid and simplistic approach to bilingualism and biculturalism to a more sophisticated skill at negotiating belonging and controlƒ.One does not have to accept all of a culture — no one does — in order to belong to it” (pp. 135-6). [-2-]

In conclusion, Negotiating bilingual and bicultural identities is a clearly written and argued, well researched, and informative study. Kanno is quite justified in claiming that her study greatly differs from, and is an improvement on, most studies that have been conducted regarding identity and language learning. Her skillful use of the techniques of narrative inquiry is quite impressive. There is one area though I did find problematic and this relates to Japanese attitudes towards kikushijo who have in returned to Japan and have a good knowledge of English. Kanno argues that while in the past, “kikokushijo had been regarded as a ‘problem,’ a walking contradiction who looked Japanese but did not behave Japanese. . . the last 15 years or so, however, have seen a dramatic change in public opinion about kikushijoƒ[they] have come to be viewed less as a problem and more as a valuable societal resource. In particular, the English proficiency that many of them possess is highly valuable, in the light of the fact that the regular school system has consistently failed to produce proficient English speakers. As the social value attached to the kikushijo increased, so did the number of universities that wanted to accept them” (p. 18).

There is little doubt that the English skill many kikushijo bring with them is valuable, but the real question is whether it is VALUED by Japanese society in general. Based upon my prior experiences in Japan and the results of research conducted by several Western writers on the country, including Brian McVeigh in his recent, brilliant book, Japanese higher education as myth, there is enough evidence to conclude that there continues to exist in Japan, even today, a pervasive, strong, and general suspicion of Japanese who have lived abroad, particularly of those who can speak English well. McVeigh, who has lived and taught at universities in Japan since 1989, and has written five books on Japanese educational practices, politics, and social psychology, notes that “some students who have acquired authentic English are called gaijin (foreigner) in a derogatory manner, or are bullied, since possessing English ability marks the absence of a basic reality (Japanese identity) . . . Some refer to ability in English as a type of ‘deviancy’ that threatens one’s Japaneseness, and Japanese who have noticeable English ability may be ostracized or incite jealously (though some are admired as having great powers). Such sentiments are not limited to schools. . . Such attitudes are common vis-ö-vis kikushijo” (p. 155).

Another reason why kikushijo with a competent knowledge of English encounter these problems is that this knowledge runs counter to the salient role English plays in Japanese society, where the language is viewed, as McVeigh persuasively shows, as “a set of arbitrary rules, designed to measure the obedience and meritocratic achievement of students” (p. 154). (See also Law (1995) for an excellent article supporting this view). As McVeigh perceptively points out, English education in Japan, in the end, oddly serves as a way of nationalizing Japanese students. “The upshot of the [Japanese] education-examination system’s of English (‘Japan-appropriated English’) is the production of ‘fantasy English,’ a reaction to the rigid demands of ‘examination English,’ and a form of simulated studying invested with idealization, exoticization, and occidentalism. . . Ironic-ally, as students attempt to come to terms with the Other (both cultural and linguistic), they end up reinforcing their own national identity” (p. 41).

Consequently, the book would have been more comprehensive if Kanno would have touched upon these important socio/educational factors and explored their connections to, and impact upon, English learning and bicultural/bilingual identities.

References

Law, Graham. (1995). ‘Ideologies of English language education in Japan.’ JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching) Journal, 17 (2): 13-24.

McVeigh, Brian J. (2002). Japanese higher education as myth. London: M.E. Sharpe.

Ronald Gray
Beijing Language and Culture University, Beijing, China
<mnenomic2000@yahoo.com>

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