Circle K Cycles
Karen Tei Yamashita
published by Coffee House Press.
147 pp, paperback, $16.95
Do you like your rice with seaweed or beans?
Would you rather greet your mother-in-law naked in a hot bath or fully clothed with a double kiss-kiss on each cheek?
How do you feel about riotous, drunken midnight barbecues in your condominium's shared courtyard?
If you were a Japanese person in Japan, you'd prefer the seaweed and the hot bath scenario, and you'd pass a law prohibiting noise pollution in the courtyard after dark. Being a Brazilian Japanese emigrant to Japan, you'd have the opposite reactions: pass the frijoles and lean in for the kisses, and bring on the churrasco! But then again, being Brazilian in Japan is a lesson in opposites. Daily life for this community involves experiencing opposition at every turn. Despite their Japanese ancestry, the Brazilians are trapped on the outside, perpetually circling the fringes of society but never penetrating the margins.
Circle K Cycles is Karen Tei Yamashita's latest book exploring Japanese cultural identity in the context of multiple cultural identities. Through a collection of fictional short stories, personal essays, and fragments of pop culture memorabilia, Yamashita pieces together the shared experience of Brazilians of Japanese descent who have moved to Japan in the last decade as migrant laborers. Her other works include Through the Arc of the Rainforest, Tropic of Orange, and Brazil Maru. She is a winner of the American Book Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award. Yamashita currently lives in her native California, where she teaches Literature and Creative Writing at UC Santa Cruz.
As a third-generation Japanese American, Yamashita's work as a researcher brought her to Japan in the early 1970s to study her family's cultural heritage. In 1975, she traveled to Brazil to study Japanese immigrant communities there. She spent ten years living in Brazil until emigrating back to Los Angeles with her Brazilian husband and their two children. In 1997, Yamashita returned to Japan and wrote a set of articles for online magazine Caf Creole, which became the foundation of Circle K Cycles. Her perspective is unique because she can write from the three axes of American, Brazilian, and Japanese experience. She has been an emigrant in her home country as well as an outsider abroad. And her research skills add depth to her writing.
In 1990, in response to the need for unskilled labor, the Japanese government passed a law allowing citizens of other nations who were of Japanese ancestry to work in Japan. Brazilians of Japanese ancestry were enticed by the promise of better economic opportunities. These migrant laborers were called dekasegi. As second-class citizens, the dekasegi are forced to accept undesirable factory work, often under false pretenses. The work of the dekasegi is characterized by the san k, or three k's: kitanai (dirty), kitsui (difficult), and kigen (dangerous). Relegated to the bottom rung of the economic ladder, the dekasegi lack support of societal institutions such as the government, the police, the contract employment companies (empreiteiras), health care, and the banks. Social rejection is everywhere, as Brazilian customs and Japanese codes of decorum frequently clash. The dekasegi struggle constantly with saudades (powerful longings for home), and with the feeling of being left out, which is particularly sad for a Brazilian whose cultural identity rests upon the feeling of belonging.
Circle K Cycles is funny and tragic and thought-provoking. Yamashita's years of living in America, Brazil, and Japan allow her to observe dekasegi life with wry anthropological detachment - simultaneously, from several angles. Interwoven with her personal essays, Yamashita introduces us to a variety of characters who are each struggling in their own way to thrive in a sleek, structured, conformist society that has little tolerance for foreigners. The most memorable are Miss Hamamatsu, a half-Japanese, half-Brazilian beauty queen who hopes to become Miss Nikkei, Z Maria, who is trapped in a fraudulent labor scheme, and Marie Madalena, the phone sex madam and con artist. The stories are loosely knit into a satisfying conclusion.
You'll enjoy Yamashita's Circle K Cycles; you'll learn about Brazilians and Japanese cultures and how cultural identities are reinforced by defining themselves in contrast to other groups. You'll pick up savory recipes for gyoza and bif a milanesa, you'll wring your hands over the unfairness of labor laws, you'll giggle over the Japanese English bits of poetry and news headlines, and you'll sigh nostalgically for the warmth of the Brazilian sun that you've only heard about second-hand: Circle K Cycles is another successful cultural study by Yamashita.