Co-authored chapter in new Akashi Shoten book on “American Diaspora”


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Hi Blog.  I just got a copy yesterday of a book in which I’ve co-authored a chapter with Jens Wilkinson.  Entitled “Yo-roppa, Roshia, Amerika no Diasupora” (The European, Russian, and American Diaspora), published by Akashi Shoten Inc. (which published all my other books, thanks), the book is in Japanese.  Scanned cover front and back and Table of Contents follow as images (so you can see contents and ISBN; click to enlarge in browser).  And then the English translation of the chapter follows in full afterwards for your reference.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo





People of an Empire: The “American Diaspora”

By Jens Wilkinson and Arudou Debito

ジェンズ・ウィルキンソン/有道出人(あるどう でびと)

Three Japanese scientists have won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for their pioneering theory on elementary particles (ノーベル物理学賞:益川教授ら日本人3氏に授与)

Mainichi Shimbun (Japan), October 7, 2008

Japanese win Nobel Prize: 2 particle scientists share 2008 prize with Japan-born American

Corrected headline for English-language readers, Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan), October 8, 2008

Most of the chapters in this book look at the movements of an interconnected minority people in response to some crisis. This chapter is fundamentally different in tone. Here, we discuss the movements of people from the United States of America, a country unusual in both current circumstances (the sole superpower in the world today, projecting power across what we will argue is an “empire”), and history (one of a minority of the world’s countries which were founded upon immigration, meaning that America itself has been the beneficiary of migrating Diasporas).

This is why, when discussing the situation of Americans living abroad, we will argue that may need a new paradigm to describe an “American Diaspora”– if there actually is one.

To begin, there are four inherent difficulties with the idea of a Diaspora itself. The first is the matter of defining “Diaspora”, the second is whether Americans constitute a “people” under any “Diaspora”, the third is whether the United States is a “homeland”, and the fourth is whether Americans actually emigrate while retaining an identity as “Americans”.

First, a matter of definition.  A “Diaspora” is normally understood as a large movement of “people” out of their “homeland,” due to some force that pushes them abroad. This is certainly true of the “original” Diaspora, the Jews, who were scattered because their homeland of Palestine was conquered by the Babylonians and later the Romans. They had no desire to leave, but were forced to do so by current circumstances. However, applying this to Americans, Americans abroad are not being pushed abroad by some force, such as war, famine, political unrest, etc., making it difficult to conceive of an American Diaspora in that sense.

So for the purposes of this paper, let us create two definitions of Diaspora: one the traditional Diaspora (元ダアスポラ) using a stricter definition involving emigration by economic or political refugees, and a second, new form of Diaspora (新ダアスポラ), which simply involves a large movement of immigrants abroad, due to less dramatic reasons such as international labor migration, but who remain linked by ethnicity.

Even adopting the looser definition (新ダアスポラ), three issues arise when discussing an American Diaspora, and we will devote this paper to developing this idea. To repeat: Do citizens of the United States constitute a “people” in the sense used in the definitions above? Second, does the United States constitute a “homeland” for these people? And finally, do the people of the United States emigrate while retaining an identity as Americans?

1. Are the People of the United States a People?

To answer this question, it is worth looking at the headlines quoted in the introduction above from two Japanese newspapers. These headlines demonstrate that the Japanese media is willing to claim a “Japanese” as part of its Diaspora, even when a Japan-born “Japanese” (in this case, Yoichiro Nambu) has lived outside of Japan since 1952, worked in an American university for 40 years, and taken American citizenship in 1970 and, we assume, has given up his Japanese (it is not permitted, under Japanese law, to keep Japanese citizenship after naturalization). By most measures, such a person would no longer be “Japanese” except by dint of birth; even in terms of “ethnicity”, people with Japanese roots overseas are generally classified as Nikkei (of Japanese descent) not Nihonjin (Japanese). Yet, like the hometown boy who is celebrated when he does good (or disowned when he does bad), Japan will still claim him as a Japanese, especially when there is a Nobel Prize involved.

However, would the opposite be true? What if an American were to move to Japan, take Japanese citizenship, and give up his American citizenship for a life in Japan? It has happened. Both authors of this paper have lived in Japan for about half their lives, and one (Arudou Debito) has given up his American for Japanese citizenship. In the unlikely event that Arudou ever won a Nobel Prize, would the United States (or the author himself) similarly claim to still be an “American”? In the case of the Japanese Nobel laureate, this could be possible, since “Japanese” is seen as an ethnicity as well as a nationality. But is “American” an ethnicity, or just a nationality?

To illustrate this further, we might consider the issue of “hyphenated Americans.” Americans often call themselves Asian-American, African-American, German-American or English-American, though in most cases there is of course a mixture. This acknowledgment of “roots,” or ethnic extraction, is common in American culture. What this implies is that even when they live in the United States, Americans seem to retain an identity to some other “people.”

And then, what happens when the descendant of an immigrant to America emigrates again? Would an Italian-American immigrating to Japan consider herself part of an Italian Diaspora in the United States, or part of an American Diaspora in Japan?

This is the fundamental problem when asking whether Americans are a “people”. Any definition of a Diaspora requires a “people” to be part of it, and this sense “people” (as in Jews, Armenians, Chinese etc.) typically translates as “ethnicity”. However, with the exception of Native Americans, there is really no American “ethnicity” in itself. Americans are for the most part identified by a combination of other outside “ethnicities”.

However, Americans don’t determine “Americanness” by ethnicity. “American” is a legal status, meaning that anyone can become an American. Therefore, the borders of this “people” are unusually porous. Like many other formerly colonial countries, the United States adopts jus soli rather than jus sanguinis as a determinant of citizenship. So if anyone can become American, the historical need for ethnic ties become irrelevant.

This clearly signifies that being a full member of the American people is not something that is gained by heredity, as ethnicity would be, but rather something earned by being born in that place. So logically, a person would have to be born in the United States to be considered a full member of an American Diaspora. Thus, a person born abroad of American parents might no longer be considered a part of that Diaspora. But putting priority on birthplace instead of blood or ethnicity is clearly a contradiction of what the term Diaspora is normally understood to mean, meaning that the historical concept must be further modified if we are somehow to include Americans and other international migrants.

2. Is the United States a Homeland?

The second problem is that a Diaspora is supposed, according to the definition above, to entail a movement out of one’s “homeland.” For example, for the Jews, the Diaspora was without any doubt out of Palestine, their “homeland.” Similarly, during the “African Diaspora” caused by slavery, African peoples were forcibly taken from their “homeland” of Africa. Moreover, the Armenian Diaspora can be defined simply as the movement of Armenians out of Armenia. In addition, this historically has associated Diasporas (in the traditional sense) with refugee movements, as in migration due to economic or political compulsion.

Of course, in the American case it is hard to argue for the existence of many, if any, “refugees from America”. In an ever-shrinking world and a fluid international labor market, modern migration has not always meant immigration, because people often are neither compelled to leave home or to stay away permanently. Therefore, there is no 元ダアスポラ, since there is no real issue of “tragic history”.  How about Americans as a 新ダアスポラ, with a diaspora that has now become an issue of “one’s roots?

Even under this new definition, the United States presents conceptual difficulties. This may be an issue that plagues all former colonial countries, but America’s concept of “roots”, of a “homeland”, is somewhat ambiguous.

For example, and this relates to the question of whether Americans constitute a “people”, both the authors of this paper are of American birth, but of European extraction (Wilkinson is of mostly English and Swedish extraction, while Arudou’s ancestors came from Poland in the 1910s), and living in Asia. Hence, we are not certain if we should be considered members of a European Diaspora in the United States, or an American Diaspora in Asia! In a society such as Japan with relatively little historical immigration (particularly from developed countries), which is “home” for them, Japan or America? Is it a matter or “roots”, or a matter of “residence”? It brings us back to the original question posed earlier: How many steps from an “original” place “where you came from” over the generations can you be removed before membership in a Diaspora, or a “homeland”, is lost?

To complicate matters further, Americans tend to migrate abroad without immigrating, meaning that many eventually “go back home”. They are not the classic “Wandering Jews” destined to live and die outside the Holy Lands, and are more like people on a temporary leave from their society.

The Katrina “Diaspora”

Interestingly, there is a case where the word “Diaspora” has been used in the American media, even if Americans themselves tend not to see the movement abroad of other Americans as a Diaspora. It has been used to describe migration within America. Recently, the BBC reported thusly (“Katrina scatters a grim Diaspora”, By Will Walden, BBC News, in Baton Rouge, LA & Memphis, TN, 1 Sept. 2005) in reference to denizens of the city of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, moving out to escape the disaster’s devastation. In this case, the implication behind “diaspora” is that the people who escaped from the city of New Orleans were in fact “natives” of a city who were forced to live elsewhere, but who would eventually return to their “homeland.” Although our evidence is basically anecdotal, it could be partly that like many American cities, New Orleans is seen as a community with a special character of its own, as if New-Orleanians are a kind of “people” in themselves This is definitely stretching the term, but this indicates how the concept of “Diaspora” is mutating in English.

3. Do Americans Immigrate Abroad While Retaining an Identity as Americans?

So we come to the fourth issue, which involves looking at some statistics. Do Americans retain an identity as they emigrate abroad? Even if they do not constitute a traditional Diaspora, the United States is clearly a country with a huge number of citizens living  overseas. It is estimated that between 3.5 and 7 million American civilians, excluding military personnel and government employees, live abroad at any time. This figure, however, is surprisingly unverifiable. The American government does not assiduously track the movements of its citizens across borders (one only needs a valid US driver license to drive to and from Canada or Mexico), and the most accurate way seems to be the number of passport applications and renewals filed at embassies abroad. Thus, these figures are probably an underestimation.

In any case, the estimate of between 4 and 7.5 million souls is not a small number. If we assume 7.5 million, then there are only 12 states in the United States with higher populations. Even the lower figure of 4 million would make the American population abroad equivalent to Kentucky, a fairly average state. Thus, even if some people are only abroad for a few years before returning to the “homeland” or moving elsewhere, the sheer numbers of Americans abroad necessitate some word to describe their force as a “people” overseas, even if “Diaspora” may be hard to apply.

US military don’t count as a Diaspora

In addition to these civilians, there are approximately 400,000 military personnel stationed abroad at any time, as well as a smaller number of State Department personnel. What this means, therefore, is that an estimated 5% to 10% of Americans living abroad are doing so as members of US military, serving the American “Empire”. Defining “empire” for the purposes of this paper in the strictest sense (under the Latin imperium) we see the United States as “a state that extends dominion over populations distinct culturally and ethnically from the culture/ethnicity at the center of power.” Few countries nowadays project this much power, in terms of dispatched military might, overseas; so under this rubric, are the American military also to be considered “Diaspora”? Many of the soldiers themselves, and especially the people hosting American military bases, would no doubt disavow that label.

Of course, the US military is a major means for Americans to go abroad. The US is the dominant military power of the world today, with a budget and technological prowess to project power that dwarfs all the world’s militaries, coming far ahead of its nearest competitors, the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. In contrast, however, the US military is generally used on a geopolitical (not domestic) basis. Soldiers domestically deployed are the National Guard (better known as “weekend warriors”), dispatched only in emergencies to keep order, not specifically invade or defend against outside attack. So the US military does not foster a “Diaspora”; in fact, there is no real US policy to encourage Americans to emigrate.

This is why one must make a distinction between military and non-military Americans overseas. While the US can be rightly called an empire, it would be better to use a term like “neo-empire.” The US is not on par with the Roman or British Empires. With some exceptions made for war zones and interim governments supported by the US military (such as Iraq and Afghanistan), there are no American governors abroad. And there are no, or very few, Americans outside of the military who receive any compensation from the “empire.” For the most part, non-military Americans abroad are on their own overseas (the US embassies and consulates only assist when formally asked), and they make up from 80% to 90% of the total number of Americans abroad.
Thus members of the military are only living abroad in a technical sense. They live and work outside of the US on bases, gated communities that are economically and politically self-sufficient, who are subject to U.S. laws under a Status of Forces Agreement with many countries. They still use US dollars as currency and avail themselves of the US Postal Service on base. In essence, these people are still living within the United States, and generally return to the US after their tour of duty is finished. American soldiers are, therefore, are not even a modern Diaspora. They are not “immigrants”.

Why do Americans emigrate?

So let us confine our analysis to the remaining 80 or 90 percent, who may in fact constitute a Diaspora.

Let’s begin by considering the reasons why Americans live abroad. Some are still “serving the Empire”, even if unconnected to the military. For example, the Peace Corps, an agency established in 1961 under President Kennedy as part of his vision for raising the image of the U.S. in the third world, is one organization where Americans go abroad to serve the interests of the US Government. There are other organizations as well, but this totals to approximately 8,000 volunteers working overseas, making up just a small percentage of the US government workers abroad, and just a quarter of one percent of the conservative figure of 4 million Americans outside America.

Essentially, then, most live outside the US for personal reasons. Students travel abroad to raise their own potential and gain experience of the outside world. After graduation, there are Americans (Mormons on a mission are the most famous example, but there are others) abroad for cultural exchange, most commonly to teach English language to people in different countries. There are academics whose field of work makes it easier to find a position abroad. Many businesspeople are sent abroad by companies to promote sales in overseas branches, serving business empires. Clearly, these are émigrés by choice, not part of a 元ダアスポラ as in refugees. Do they then count as 新ダアスポラ?

American communities abroad

So let us return to the definition of Diaspora in another respect: affiliation and connectivity. One attribute of a Diaspora would seem to be that members are “sticky”, in that they congregate together in foreign lands to preserve their nationality and culture. This can be seen to some extent when Diasporas live together in connected communities like “Chinatowns” or “Little Italies” or “Little Tokyos”. Do Americans abroad similarly congregate?

In general, they do not. There are in fact some American communities abroad but they are almost always closed communities, i.e. the abovementioned military bases, corporate, and diplomatic missions, and people living in such enclaves go home as soon as their tour of duty concludes. Few settle abroad and raise their children in a new environment.

Those outside of these communities, again, are on their own, and we have yet to come across a “Little New York” -style transplant community specifically geared to contain Americans (as opposed to enforced “foreign enclaves” for all non-nationals, in places such as Saudi Arabia) anywhere in the world. It is therefore difficult to see Americans as the culturally “sticky” people that might qualify even as a 新ダアスポラ.

Linking people by tax homes: “Taxed like an American”

One other interesting way to look at the phenomenon of Americans living abroad is the issue of taxation. What we have seen is that in many cases, Americans live abroad not as part of an organized movement but merely as a means to fulfill their own goals. This is odd from a nationalistic standpoint, because one would assume the United States would encourage its citizens to live abroad to serve the aims of the empire. One would also assume that in addition to the military, there would be programs in place to encourage Americans to move internationally and set up companies to benefit American interests. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Oddly enough, despite America’s international image, American citizens have a major disincentive to living overseas. Alone among the developed countries of the world, the U.S. imposes income taxes on its citizens living abroad.

The U.S. income tax was first established in 1913, and until the 1920s there was no taxation of Americans overseas. After that, however, Americans living abroad were subjected to taxation. To this day, Americans living abroad must pay taxes both to their country of current residence and to their country of passport. It is true that there is a “foreign income earned exemption”, but anyone earning more than $82,400 US dollars annually must pay both local and American taxes.

This discourages American companies from dispatching American employees to head local branches. One irony of this is that around the world, American Chambers of Commerce (not-for-profit commercial promotion organizations set up to promote American interests abroad) are getting rid of American directors and hiring local people to represent the interests of U.S. companies.

Americans abroad are naturally aware of these problems. Over the years, they have organized to change the government’s policy on this, as well as to push for voting rights (“U.S. expats fight their soaring tax burden”, By Brian Knowlton, International Herald Tribune, April 1, 2008). One example is the Alliance for a Competitive Tax Policy, which opposes double taxation. There have also been reports of Americans renouncing their citizenship because of the double taxation (“Tax Leads Americans Abroad to Renounce U.S.”, By Doreen Carjajal, New York Times, December 18, 2006).

This may be cited as evidence of how “sticky” Americans are in the sense of government ties, but again, just being taxed because you are American does not add up to being a Diaspora. Paying your dues to a government does not necessarily foster or even qualify as a “transplant community overseas”.

“Acting American”: Political activism abroad

Then there are the links to America fostered by voting rights. American citizens living abroad are unusual in the sense that many are politically engaged –in that they maintain a concern in American domestic politics. It is hard to deny that in contrast to most developed countries, politics in the US do constitute a rather large spectacle: the unprecedented worldwide attention given the 2008 presidential election is proof enough. American election campaigns are extremely long, stretching over years, and ordinary American citizens even abroad get involved (by donating money, establishing groups such as Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad, getting out the vote through overseas registration, even sporting lapel buttons and bumper stickers) in a way that is uncommonly overt compared to citizens abroad from other countries.

That said, these can certainly be seen as activities of a transplant community, but they are not indicative that Americans are actually transplanting themselves overseas for good. This brings us to the last requirement of our definition of a Diaspora: Do Americans actually emigrate?


What we see with regard to Americans living abroad is a paradox. On one hand, it is clear that the United States is the most powerful actor in the world today, and one would assume that one would find American citizens working around the world to support this. In reality, however, the majority of American citizens abroad are there to pursue individual interests. In terms of numbers, they are rarely in the service of “fellow Americans” unless they are members of the small minority being sponsored by a United States Government agency. While it is true that many continue to see themselves as Americans, maintaining links to the “homeland” through passports, absentee voting, and taxation, the incentive to “be American” is not generally one of a concern of “race” or “ethnicity”. But do they immigrate abroad and retain an identity as Americans, even over generations?

Going on to the last question, many, if not most, Americans are not “immigrants”, in the sense of being outside of America permanently, as a large number intend to return “home”. As such, it is difficult, even under a looser definition of Diaspora as a movement of people abroad forming “sticky” transplant communities in cities organized by ethnicity, and permanent residency abroad, to talk about an “American Diaspora.”

However, this may be changing. There are some Americans who are, given trends and tendencies (and the relative ease at which Americans embrace international marriage) of international migration, demonstrating how “migration” may change into “immigration” in the future. The standard of living in other developed countries is now on par (or in some ways even superior) to life in the United States. Many Americans are making lifetime investments (such as homes and property), taking foreign citizenships, even running for political office.

Moreover, “Americanness”, generally seen as an issue of nationality and legal status, may ultimately change into a concept of ethnicity, as the authors of this chapter and their children begin adopting and popularizing the label of “American-Japanese” (as in Japanese with American roots) for international consumption. However, for this to happen definitively, we need more people to become “a people.” The Americans themselves, originating from a nation of immigrants, must embrace the concept of being immigrants themselves, accepting the fact that they making a life outside of America for good, while retaining an identity as Americans. Although numbers are not significant enough to indicate a social movement at this writing, the authors foresee this as a distinct probability for Americans in future. Only then we will see the foundations of an “American Diaspora”.


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