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Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers

Exploring the identity of migrants
Crossing Asian and global borders

Gracia Liu-Farrer
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Making migration studies my life work

I have been interested in the movement of people from a young age. In China, there is a household registration system called the hukou system. People are bound to the area of land in their household registration record and, until recently, were unable to move freely. Many families were forced to live apart for political reasons. My own family was separated for a long time, with my father living in Shanghai and my mother and I living in a small town in Jiangsu Province. When I was ten, we were able to join my father in Shanghai. I felt like I had started a new life in a privileged urban environment. Meanwhile, I questioned the injustice of a system that condemned some to a life of poverty in rural areas.

After graduating from Fudan University in China, I went to the U.S. to study education at the University of Chicago. When I received my master’s degree, my husband got a job as a university faculty member here in Japan and I moved with him. Thinking that if I am going to Japan, I might as well study Chinese immigrants moving there, I drew up a research plan and entered the University of Chicago’s doctoral program in sociology. I needed a research theme that I had a deep emotional connection to and decided to make the movement of people, a subject that had interested me from a young age, my life work.

Notice boards for Chinese people found throughout Italy, with information on housing, people seeking and offering employment, etc. (Left: Notice board in Prato, Right: Notice board in Naples; 2012)

A popular matchmaking place in Shanghai, with posts for individuals living overseas (2014)

Studying Chinese immigrants in Japan

A sign saying “No one is illegal” put up in an area of Berlin settled by refugees/illegal residents (2013)

With the easing of restrictions on emigration for Chinese nationals and Japan’s plan to receive a hundred thousand international students in the mid-1980s, the contemporary wave of migration from China to Japan began. Many of them were language students and overstayed their student visa. There were still many undocumented immigrants at around the end of the 1990s when I moved to Japan. The University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology has built a tradition of “participant observation” fieldwork where researchers are immersed in a community and explore it through observation, first-hand experience, interviews, and other techniques. I utilized this approach for my fieldwork on Chinese communities in Japan.

At first when I didn’t have any connections with other Chinese immigrants, I would try to strike up conversations with strangers at Chinese grocery stores. My fieldwork began in earnest when I started participating in dance parties held by Chinese immigrant communities. The attendees ranged from their twenties to fifties, but most were immigrants in their thirties to forties who had experienced the social dance boom in China. The loneliness and stress experienced by immigrants were apparent in these communities. I learned how these communities provide various necessary, social resources for these immigrants. The dance parties were a place for undocumented migrants to find a marriage partner and gain residency and were sometimes used as a place for immigrants who had left their families in China to find “friends with benefits.”

I then conducted fieldwork on a Catholic congregation formed by a Chinese community in Tokyo. The congregation was created when a Chinese student requested a priest hold a mass in Chinese. The Chinese congregation gradually grew from there and developed into a community. The congregation served two functions: it provided religious services that deepened faith, and, secondly, it provided social resources such as information on jobs and housing. As much as ninety percent of members came from Fujian Province, most of who were undocumented migrants.

In order to conduct fieldwork on undocumented migrants and get them to tell their stories, I visited them frequently and established a relationship built on trust. Through nearly two years of fieldwork, I learned that these undocumented migrant workers had their own ethical codes. They worked hard at construction sites and wholesale markets, contributed to Japan’s economy and society, and built close relationships with the Japanese people around them. They argued, “We aren’t doing anything wrong. Why shouldn’t we live in Japan where our work is appreciated?” Their defiant sense of ethics is diametrically opposed to the legal system of the Japanese nation-state.

The author’s book published in 2011 summarizing the findings in her dissertation.
Labor Migration from China to Japan: International Students, Transnational Migrants (London: Routledge)

However, the situation has changed dramatically in the immigrant Catholic congregation. The number of unregistered residents has suddenly decreased as a result of the campaign against illegal residents carried out by the Ministry of Justice from 2003 onward, while the number of international students has increased.

I interviewed 120-130 people over the eight years leading up to my doctorate. In my dissertation, I focused on those who had come to Japan as students, summarized their work experience, life in Japan, experiences finding employment and starting businesses. I also examined their marriages, families, and movements, and attempted to analyze and theorize my observations by looking back at the history of Chinese students in Japan. Chinese students had very limited means during the eighties and nineties. They came to Japan with less than 10,000 yen and had to find work immediately to survive, with many students going into the sex industry. The careers of Chinese students in Japan have changed due to their ties to global and multinational economies. Furthermore, many Chinese immigrants choose to quit their company jobs and set up their own businesses.

I have published a book based on my dissertation (see photo). Many Chinese immigrants frequently travel between Japan and China or another country throughout their lives; in other words, they live a life of border-crossing. For example, when a child is old enough to go to school, the father often stays in Japan and sends the mother and child back to China. Others feel it is better to work abroad but dream of eventually returning to their homeland.

Cosmopolitan 1.5-generation Immigrants

In my dissertation, I studied first-generation international students, but I am now conducting research on identity and feelings of acceptance among 1.5 and second generation Chinese. The 1.5 generation are Chinese immigrants who were born in China and came to Japan at a young age. They are reluctant to identify themselves as either Japanese or Chinese, and tend to define themselves as cosmopolitan world citizens. In some cases, they do not like being perceived as Chinese out of fear of being bullied and other negative experiences through high school, but suddenly grow aware of their international identity once they enter college, leading to new understandings. This trend is also common among 1.5 generation Mongolian and Korean immigrants. The relationship between 1.5 generation immigrants and Japanese society is very important for Japan as it undergoes globalization. Raised in Japan, members of this generation can act as a bridge between Japan and Asia, and Japan and global society. What's more is that these immigrants are eager to fulfill this role.

In addition to this work, I am conducting comparative research among different immigrant groups in Japan and between Australia and Japan, collaborating with researchers domestic and abroad, in hopes of providing greater theoretical depth to migration studies. Japanese people tend to think of their country as an ethnically homogeneous nation as opposed to a country of immigrants. I hope to shed light on the impact of this national narrative through comparative international study on the identity and sense of acceptance among immigrants.

I have begun editing a handbook on international migration and movement in Asia. Today, movement within Asia is becoming increasingly popular, and the number of people immigrating from the West to Asia is increasing. Work needs to be done to theoretically organize the new phenomena unfolding in Asia. There are new trends like immigrants seeking medical services, immigrants wishing to spend their golden years in another country, and those looking for a second home or to study abroad.

Now that I am in my forties, I would like to contribute to activities that bring researchers together. Using Waseda University’s Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies as a base, I plan to build networks of migration researchers all over the world and promote research exchange. Inspired by my colleague Professor Brenda Yeoh and the efforts she has made in building the migration cluster at National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, my goal is to build a research organization that will connect Japan with the rest of the world.

Left, center: Prof. Liu-Farrer at an international symposium on migration studies (Hitotsubashi University, 2013); Right: Prof. Liu-Farrer’s seminars are particularly international (Photo of a party at her home)

Gracia Liu-Farrer
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Professor Liu-Farrer received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago in 2007. She served as a fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Stratification and Inequality, Tohoku University (2006-2007), an assistant professor at Ochanomizu University (2008-2009), a visiting professor at the Institute for the Study of Global Issues, Hitotsubashi University (2008-2009), and an associate professor at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University (2009-2013) before assuming her current position in 2014.
Her major publications include “Sexual and Status Practices in a Chinese Immigrant Leisure Subculture” [Chūgoku-kei Imin no Yoka Sabukaruchā ni okeru Sei oyobi Chii no Jissen] in The Horizon of Pioneering Urban Sociology [Sentan Toshi Shakaigaku no Chihei] edited by Yasuo Hirota, Takashi Machimura, Junko Tajima, and Ichiro Watado (Harvest-sha, 2006) and Labor Migration from China to Japan: International Students, Transnational Migrants (London: Routledge, 2011).
She received the Waseda Research Award (High-Impact Publication) in 2014.