Jesus Loves Japan
Return Migration and Global Pentecostalism in a Brazilian Diaspora
Suma Ikeuchi




Opening: “Walk in Reverence During Your Pilgrimage”

“Brothers and sisters, this week I spent many days contemplating on the question of being a peregrino in this land.” Presbyter Bruno addressed the roughly two hundred congregants who gathered for a Sunday afternoon service at Missão Apoio Toyota Pentecostal Church.1 The majority of the attendants were Nikkei—or Japanese Brazilian—migrants who secured their “long-term resident” visas in Japan by proving that they were, at least partially, of Japanese descent. Having opened his sermon with a passage from 1 Peter 1:17, which advises to “walk in reverence during the time of your pilgrimage,” the presbyter was inviting the congregation to dwell on the meaning of being a peregrino, or sojourner in a strange land.2

The room—its ceiling too low to be called a hall but still the size of a spacious classroom—was quiet except for occasional babbles from a dozen toddlers fidgeting in the arms of their parents, who were seated in rows of white plastic chairs facing the pulpit. Dark red curtains, covering the front and sidewalls from ceiling to floor, enclosed the congregants and added a touch of solemnness to the place. But the attire of most attendants was casual—T-shirts, shorts, caps, and ragged jeans—save a handful in leadership roles who always dressed formally for service. Standing between an electric organ and a drum set on the slightly elevated front stage, Presbyter Bruno looked crisp in a navy blue suit with a light yellow tie.

“No one in this nation can understand this better than us foreign dekasseguis—Brazilians, Peruvians, and Bolivians,” he observed by listing the major migrant groups who have benefited from Japan’s ancestry-based visa. Dekasegi, which means seasonal labor migration in Japanese, has transformed into dekassegui in Portuguese to refer to Japanese descendants who move to Japan for work. The presbyter’s father was one of such dekasseguis, a second-generation Nikkei born and raised in Paraná, Brazil, who migrated with his family in 1996 to save money for a new house. He was seventeen years old when his father took him halfway around the globe to their supposed ancestral homeland.

“I, for one, principally because of my cara de japonês [Japanese face] like many of you here, I am Japanese in Brazil.” Presbyter Bruno continued to reminisce about his experiences as a Nikkei. “Wherever I’d go, [I’d hear people say] ‘Hey japa, can’t you open those tiny eyes, japa!’” Many congregants, who may have received similar treatments in Brazil, laughed out loud. Smiling and nodding, he added, “So when my father decided [to migrate], I thought, ‘Well good, now I’m going to Japan.’ I arrived, then the Japanese here told me, ‘Hey, gaijin [foreigner]!’” The crowd laughed and cheered again. His story of being betwixt and between, dramatized for preaching, was striking a chord with his audience who had also been living with multiple ethnic identities. He continued, “Where are we from, really? We are Japanese, we are Brazilian, and we become sort of lost, you see, in our identity.” Presbyter Bruno then returned to the theme of being a peregrino:

But when the Bible tells us to stay firm, to walk in reverence during our peregrinação [pilgrimage], this leads us, this afternoon, to examine certain things in our life. Because when we speak of a peregrino, . . . ​he can’t count on the things of the world [coisas do mundo]. He can’t accumulate too much baggage. . . .

I remember the day when my father left for Brazil. I had to go and help him with his move, but after two, three days, we still couldn’t finish it. There were so many things, brothers and sisters, too many things indeed, which he had accumulated in his fifteen years here in Japan. . . .

But a peregrino cannot be tied down by the things of this world. He cannot gather many things for himself, because the time will come when he realizes that he doesn’t belong in that land, and he has to move to another place.

In the sermon, he likens the life in flux of Nikkei Brazilians to the travels of early disciples in foreign lands in biblical times. By blurring the temporal and geographical lines between the two, he links the transiency of migrant life to the transiency of worldly life itself. Migrant converts’ transnational mobility thus turns into an ethical proclivity to inhabit the world as pilgrims.

Morality of Mobility

Movement does not merely entail a physical change of locations but also amounts to a temporal, affective, and moral act. Mobility is thus fraught with aspirations, anxieties, and ambiguities. “Going forward,” for example, invokes advance, progress, and modernity. The synonyms for “going back,” in contrast, include recede, revert, and regress, all of which connote decline and degeneration. But going back does not always equal becoming backward. “Return” can evoke a complex web of emotions with a claim for one’s roots, image of pure original state, and nostalgia for the primordial past. Without a sense of destination or place to return to, movement can turn into a “wander,” which can entail an uprooted state of aimless roaming or a liberated mobile subject unconfined by boundaries.

Presbyter Bruno’s narrative attests to the entanglement of mobility in moral implications. He acknowledges the difficulty many Nikkei Brazilians experienced in establishing a firm sense of national belonging in both Brazil and Japan. Notably, he does not characterize either his migration to Japan or his father’s move back to Brazil as a “return” in his sermon. Instead, he describes such movements as “going” (ir) and “leaving” (sair), effectively refraining from assigning a point of origin to either country. This issue of uncertain national origin translates into a question of ambiguous identity: “Where are we from, really?” Presbyter Bruno, however, does not end on a pessimistic note. Instead of framing the perceived loss of identity as a failure to become fully integrated national citizens, he renders it as an opportunity to cultivate new subjectivities as sojourners in pilgrimage. Just as a peregrino of God must not dwell in the world of material desire, a migrant convert must not cling to the material things accumulated in one place. Ultimately, he seems to suggest, a Christian migrant is a peregrino not just in foreign countries but also in worldly life itself. The sermon generatively interprets sojourn in a foreign land—or peregrinação—as a form of ethical mobility consisting in purposeful rootlessness.

Presbyter Bruno’s evocation of diaspora as pilgrimage blurs the line between migratory and religious movements, thereby defying the ontological separation between the two. To him and many of his audience, migration and religion do not necessarily constitute two separate phenomena but instead one unified process of subject formation as a sojourner en route. A pilgrim is therefore away from home in a dual sense—far from the ethnic homeland and the celestial home at once. This double diasporic consciousness amplifies the ethical reverberation between the longing for the lost homeland and the yearning for the presence of God. “The empowering paradox of diaspora is that dwelling here assumes a solidarity and connection there,” James Clifford wrote regarding “the axis of origin and return” that constitutes the backbone of homeward subjectivity.3 This elsewhere—an imagined locus of origin where the return to wholeness becomes possible—does not need be a single place; it can simultaneously encompass an ethnonational homeland and an eschatological destination.

Morality of mobility refers to the fundamental interworking of migrant mobility and religious sensibility in the reformation of subjectivity among itinerants in diaspora.4 In its Christian mode, the morality of mobility finds its roots in various moments of loss: the Fall as the loss of innocence, the Tower of Babel as the loss of unified humanity, and the Crucifixion as the loss of the savior in flesh. It is not surprising for a mythology so conspicuously defined by loss to fixate on origin, its restoration, and even its immanence. But origin lost and found is never pristine but ever a mediated one, no matter how potent the illusion of immediacy. Matthew Engelke described this necessity of mediation as the problem of presence, or “how a religious subject defines and claims to construct a relationship with the divine through the investment of authority and meaning in certain words, actions, and objects.”5 As it turns out, the problem of presence is equally pressing for a diasporic subject, as the memory of homeland is always mediated by an evolving set of narratives, rituals, and things. Possible mediums for the sustenance of home are endless, ranging from a quick online message to an annual ethnic festival. Also among them are religious rhetoric, practices, and networks, which can incite dynamic homeward orientation among migrants. The morality of mobility thus points to the dual mediation at work in the making of itinerant subjectivity, with the relationship with the divine on the one hand and the memory of homeland on the other. Peregrino is an apt name for this sojourning subject defined by loss, out of Eden and far from home, still en route toward imagined origins.

The morality of mobility is not an abstract idea but an ethnographic reality to Nikkei Brazilian Pentecostal migrants. They are descendants of Japanese immigrants in Brazil who have “returned” to Japan and converted to Pentecostal Christianity once there. As transnational migrants with a century-old history of diaspora, they craft their selves by weaving together multiple national belongings, ethnoracial identities, and potential homelands. The sources of their generative self-making, however, are not limited to ethnic and national rhetoric. As participants in the global Pentecostal movements, they also claim a belonging in “the Kingdom of God,” which supposedly transcends man-made ethnonational boundaries—the world where they have faced persistent racism due to their ambiguous hyphenated identity. As such, the lives of Nikkei Brazilian Pentecostals in Japan are shaped by multiple origin myths—national, cultural, and theological. Myth in this context does not signify a domain of archived imaginary tales but instead refers to a set of narratives that people live, so intensely and compellingly, to bring forth real-world consequences.

In 1990, the Japanese government introduced a new type of visa for “long-term residents.” Often dubbed the Nikkei-jin (Japanese descendant) visa, it is available to foreigners of Japanese descent up to the third generation. The same logic that governs Japan’s jus sanguinis citizenship law determines the boundary of Nikkei-jin visa beneficiaries. The right to settlement is conferred virtually as the right of blood. At the same time, the legal system also implies that the “Japanese blood” becomes diluted over time; this is why fourth-generation descendants do not qualify for the visa. Clearly, the national ideology that underpinned the implementation of the new visa recognizes only one point of origin, which is when Japanese nationals left the country. This preemigration original state, the source of any acknowledgeable Japaneseness in the subsequent generations born abroad, cannot be replicated—even when many offspring of third-generation Nikkei migrants are today raised in Japan from birth. Japan’s consanguineous myth thus locates the origin of national identity in the primordial unity of race, culture, and spirit, which arose within the geographical bounds of Japan. Although this origin story of “Japanese blood” places Nikkei foreigners on the perimeters of national kinship, their moral entitlement to belonging remains contested due to their ethnoracial ambiguity.

For Nikkei Brazilians who actually migrated to Japan by obtaining the visa, the emigration of their Japanese ancestors seldom constitutes the starting point of their life stories. Many say they do not know where their grandparents came from in Japan, and some openly admit that they do not care. Very few travel to the place of their ancestral roots, even when they could contact living relatives there. This is partly because they are so-called labor migrants who decided to come to Japan primarily to save money, send remittances, and then go home to Brazil. The majority are second-and third-generation Nikkeis who were born and raised in places like São Paulo, Paraná, and Pará. Predominantly, Nikkei migrants themselves do not view their movement to Japan as a return to the country of origin. Instead, many speak about their eventual return to Brazil, planned or fantasized: “Of course I want to go home. I was born there!” Brazil, which received waves of Japanese immigrants in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, confers citizenship on the basis of place of birth. It is terra natal or “land of birth” that is valorized in the rhetoric of national belonging. Furthermore, Brazil has long upheld mestiçagem, or “racial mixture,” as an important aspect of national identity.6 Despite the fact that they have often been perceived as the unassimilable Oriental Other, once in Japan many Nikkeis look back to their natal country as the irrefutable homeland. Thus, the primary locus of their authentic identity—and hence origin—now lies in Brazil, where the myth of mestiçagem constitutes the centerpiece of national identity. To many, the projected return to Brazil starts to gain moral significance, at once as the craved end to the discrimination they face as vulnerable foreign laborers and as a return to secure belonging in nationhood.

The relationship between “Japanese blood” and “Brazilian birth” is ambivalent to say the least, and negotiation of identities is a daily task for many Nikkei Brazilians in Japan. For those who converted to Pentecostalism that has flourished among migrant communities, however, yet another origin myth takes hold. Pentecostalism is a charismatic Christian movement that places particular emphasis on the direct and personal experience of God through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. On the individual scale, the most defining aspects of Pentecostal identity are attributed to the redemption story of conversion: “I was lost but now I am saved.” On the scriptural scale, the Pentecostal myth locates the origin of the current human state at various moments of loss, revival, and suspension: the crucifixion of Jesus, his resurrection, and the Second Coming. By fusing personal experiences with biblical themes, Nikkei converts learn a third way to narrate their origin stories, this time not as national subjects but as crentes (believers or born-again Christians). Set in the grand narrative landscape of loss and revival, the Pentecostal conception of time can also help converts defy the temporal scales of modern nation-states.7 Importantly, Pentecostals often evoke the rhetoric of moral universalism with their origin myth; it is ideally open to anyone regardless of citizenship, ethnicity, bloodline, or place of birth.

Living in Japan as Nikkei Brazilian Pentecostal migrants entails negotiating between the ethical ramifications of three origin myths sketched out above—of Japanese blood, Brazilian birth, and transnational God. I will explore how migrant converts comprehend, combine, and at times contest such myths that shape their ever-shifting boundaries of the self. Where do they think they are “from,” when national citizenship, ethnic identity, and religious subjectivity are predicated on diverging origin stories? What happens when the right to mobility rests on the ability to embody state-sanctioned origin? How do their projects of return in turn affect the moral contours of citizenship, belonging, and diaspora?

At the Crossroads of Global Currents

The lives of Nikkei Brazilian Pentecostals in Japan unfold at the intersection of two growing trends in contemporary globalization. The first is the state-sanctioned “return” of diasporic populations. Over the past several decades, nations such as Japan, China, India, and South Korea have implemented legal structures that facilitate the migration of foreign citizens deemed to possess enduring ties to national kinship.8 This Asian trend shows that nationalism today is more about selective reordering of mobile subjects into tiers of desirables and undesirables and less about a strict fixing of national citizenry—what Aihwa Ong called “flexible citizenship.”9 The regime of return has produced potential beneficiaries around the globe, attracting Chinese Canadians to Hong Kong, Indian Americans to Bangalore, and Japanese Brazilians to Toyota.10 It has had a particularly visible impact on the shape of Japanese diaspora in the Americas by prompting many descendants to “return.”11 Roughly thirty years after the introduction of the “long-term resident” visa, which enabled the mass migration of Nikkeis, there are roughly 196,800 Brazilian nationals living in Japan today. Although Nikkeis benefit from the visa policy that gives preferential treatment to foreigners of Japanese descent, they often experience subtle and not-so-subtle racism due to their ambiguous quasi-Japanese status. The Japanese majority often expects a special proclivity for smooth assimilation from Nikkei foreigners due to the supposed shared blood but, of course, Nikkei Brazilians are culturally and linguistically Brazilian. The stress they feel from this forced cultural conformity is further exacerbated by the fact that the majority work as unskilled dispatch laborers—the kind of workforce that Japanese mainstream society often regards as disposable. As there already exist two detailed ethnographic monographs by Takeyuki Tsuda and Joshua Roth on the work conditions of Nikkei Brazilians in Japan, this book does not focus on the topic of labor.12 My labor-related findings mostly repeat and confirm their observations about the discriminatory treatment that foreign migrants often receive as a result of their race, ethnicity, and part-time status. The emphasis will instead be on the intersection of return migration and religious revivalism, which brings me to the next point.

The second relevant global movement comprises the transnational Pentecostal networks. Pentecostalism has been the fastest-growing branch of global Christianity over the past several decades, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Brazil, for instance, has seen a fourfold increase in its Pentecostal population over the last forty years from 5 percent to 22 percent, becoming one of the epicenters of global Pentecostalism in the South.13 Although the Christian renewalist movements have been less pronounced in Asia, Pentecostalism has generated many points of contention precisely due to its embattled minority status.14 Japan has historically persecuted and suppressed Christianity as a foreign religion, and as a result, Christians make up only 1 percent of its population today. Yet this is the cultural context in which many Nikkei migrants have been converting to Pentecostalism since the early 1990s. The flourishing of Pentecostalism among the “return” migrants indicates that it exerts a particular appeal in their postmigration life in the strange ancestral homeland.

This book offers a rare window into the lives of the people who inhabit the crossroads of Asian return migration and Latin American Pentecostalism in transnational Japan. To date, the study of return migration says surprisingly little about the role of religion and scholars continue to explore the complexity of return primarily in ethnoracial terms.15 I counterbalance this conventional analytical primacy of the “ethnic lens” by drawing on the insights from the anthropology of Christianity.16 Return migration is an intensely political process that hinges on the intimate work of self-making on the part of its participants. An analysis of Pentecostal conversion among return migrants consequently needs to pay equal attention to the political and psychological dimensions of religious life—two dimensions that are in fact inseparable to start with. I take my framework of moral mobility to represent such a psychopolitical approach to religion on the move. This synthetic perspective can elucidate why Pentecostalism has flourished among people like Nikkei Brazilian migrants, who inhabit some of the most fluid and contested boundaries in this age of globalization.

An ethnography illustrates the particular to illuminate the universal; it recounts a specific cultural life as a lens to magnify something overarching and fundamental about the human condition. Although this one is based on my immersive fieldwork in a single region in Japan, the global currents that brought forth the people who fill the following pages extend far beyond the nation’s territorial borders and run through many other countries and continents of the world.


1. All the names of informants are pseudonyms except Pastor Cid Carneiro, the lead pastor of Missão Apoio Toyota. How I interacted with each person during fieldwork determines the way in which he or she is addressed in the book. As I was on a first-name basis with my Brazilian informants, they will appear under their first names. Since I addressed most of my Japanese subjects with -san following the linguistic convention, the book refers to them in such a way as well. I decided to use the actual name of the denomination—Missão Apoio—because I cite a number of existing publications that already made public its real name. See Shoji, “Making of ‘Brazilian Japanese’ Pentecostalism.” A note on foreign words is also in order. The fieldwork took place in multicultural and multilinguistic settings. I collected roughly 70 percent of my ethnographic data in Portuguese and 30 percent in Japanese. Some informants, especially the bilingual youth, freely switched back and forth between the two languages even within a single utterance. All non-English words—either Portuguese or Japanese—will be uniformly italicized in this book to follow the stylistic convention, but I would like to remind the reader of this porous quality of linguistic and cultural boundaries.

2. The Missão Apoio churches did not encourage the members to use one single version of the Bible. Although many owned paper copies of King James Atualizada or João F. Almeida, others simply used free Bible apps on their smartphones without much regard to which translated version they were reading. Presbyter Bruno happened to be using the João F. Almeida version of the Portuguese Bible in this scene: “andai em temor durante o tempo da vossa peregrinação.”

3. Clifford, “Diasporas,” 322, original italic. For a discussion of nostalgia and homeland in diaspora studies, see Quayson and Daswani, “Introduction.”

4. Although some anthropologists differentiate between morality and ethics, others do not necessarily find such a strict distinction analytically productive. Both sides offer some compelling arguments on the issue, but in this book I use morality and ethics interchangeably and focus on ethnographic illustrations. See Laidlaw, Subject of Virtue; Zigon, “Within a Range of Possibilities.”

5. Engelke, Problem of Presence, 9.

6. Andrews, Blacks and Whites; Warren and Sue, “Comparative Racisms.”

7. Harding, Book of Jerry Falwell, ch. 9.

8. My argument is not that return migration in Asia started in the past several decades but instead that it is a converging trend of an increasing number of nations in the region, gaining momentum since the 1990s.

9. Ong, Flexible Citizenship.

10. Xiang, Yeoh, and Toyota, Return; Freeman, Making and Faking Kinship; Jo, Homing.

11. Adachi, Japanese and Nikkei; Hirabayashi, Hirabayashi, and Kikumura, New Worlds; Lesser, Searching for Home Abroad.

12. Roth, Brokered Homeland; Tsuda, Strangers in the Ethnic Homeland.

13. Freston, “Transnationalisation of Brazilian Pentecostalism.”

14. For case studies from India, see Roberts, To Be Cared For; Viswanath, “Emergence of Authenticity Talk.”

15. The study of return migration has matured significantly compared with a decade ago, when a mere mention of the literature’s scarcity sufficed to justify the scholarly value of the topic. The growing body of work includes Christou, Narratives of Place; Conway and Potter, Return Migration; Markowitz and Stefansson, Homecomings; Olsson and King, “Introduction”; Potter, Conway, and Phillips, Experience of Return; Tsuda, Diasporic Homecomings. Few of them, however, focus on the religious dimension of return. For exceptions, see Capone, Searching for Africa; Seeman, One People, One Blood; Napolitano, Migrant Hearts.

16. For the discussion of the ethnic lens, see Glick-Schiller, Çaglar, and Gulbrandsen, “Beyond the Ethnic Lens.” For an overview of the anthropology of Christianity, see Cannell, Anthropology of Christianity; Jenkins, “Anthropology of Christianity”; Robbins, “Anthropology of Christianity.”