The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

A Comparative Ethnographic Study of the Life-World of Returned Migrants: Focusing on the Concepts of 'Return' and 'Home'

Joint Research Coordinator NAGURA Kyoko

Reserch Theme List


return migrants, home, life-world


As international emigration has become commonplace, the study of migrants who return to their home countries has flourished. Since, however, previous research focused on individuals who emigrated and then returned home themselves, the study of descendants of migrants who return "home" after two or more generations have passed has been neglected. Whether or not this situation reflects a lack of dialogue with other disciplines, there is no denying that anthropology has given insufficient attention to the multiplicity of meanings conveyed by the terms "return" and "home"-in cases where the individuals in question frequently travel back and forth, re-emigrate to a third country, or regard both their birthplace and country of residence as home.

This project addresses this situation through comparative ethnographic research on the life-worlds of returned immigrants. It focuses first on reconsideration of the concepts "return" and "home" themselves. It then attempts to integrate anthropological theories and construct a comprehensive model for discussion with experts from other fields who also study migration. While bearing in mind the 20th century history of (de)colonization and imperialism often overlooked by anthropologists, it aims to develop a methodology consisting of a critical set of questions about how imagination and strategy enter into the construction the life-worlds of returned migrants. tice and yield constructive results.

Research Results

In fiscal year 2011, the position of studies on return migrants within the realm of anthropology was affirmed. The course of the study, information exchange, and the research framework used by each participant were confirmed also. Similarly, participants re-examined the definitions of “return” and “return migrants”, which serve as the analytic concepts for this collaborative study. From that it was decided to adopt a broader view of the “assumption that return migrants settle down at their destination.” It was decided to promote a shared focus of research that revealed the true face of “return migrants”, by organizing the concept of “return” based on case studies undertaken by participants, while noting the elements immigrants consider important for conceptualizing the ideas of “return” and “home”.
In fiscal year 2012, the concept of “return”, one of the key words of this joint study, was shaped through repeated discussions to compare the ideas of “who names” and “who takes on a name”. In these discussions the ways in which return immigrants are designated and positioned within both the administrative and legal language of target nations were organized. Also, the idea of self-awareness as expressed within the accounts of return migrants was examined, as was the way in which they are understood by researchers and other third parties. During these discussions, it was questioned whether the term “repatriation”, which is used often to refer to the movement of people from a colony, can be used to express the same meaning as “return.” In addition, reports that covered the experiences of “return migrants from occupied/colonized lands” were examined. These reports served as the basis for discussions about various issues, such as how the experiences of return migrants are remembered as a form of public memory within the “host society,” how return migrants (often called “invisible migrants”) are visualized, and how collective identity is formed. In relation to these discussions, the inherent double meaning of the terms “nation-state” and “national” was examined also.
In the final year of this study, five study members and guest speakers presented a report that focused on the “life-world” of return migrants. The project also collaborated with the Center for Global Studies in the Graduate School of International Relations at the University of Shizuoka to hold a comprehensive symposium.
In the first research meeting, a report was given on the results of the analysis conducted on the life-world of Brazilians living in Japan and those living in other foreign countries. This analysis examined the life-world of Brazilians at the individual, local community, and collective/transnational levels, with special attention to the term “self-realization.” The participants debated how return migrants identify their new abode, or “home”, to create their own life-world through the use of the certain tools of self-expression or self-realization that they obtain. In the second meeting, Yamada explored the idea of a “home” for people who have lost their connection and sense of belonging with a certain land, or those unable to find any sense of belonging. Yamada introduced case studies about Germans from Eastern Europe forced into exile immediately following WWII (the expatriated/Heimatvertriebene), “Germans” who migrated from East Europe to Germany in the years that followed (Aussiedler, Spätaussiedler), Vietnamese refugees living in Japan, and the Chinese who “returned” to China from Myanmar in 1969.