The Chrysanthemum and the Song: Music, Memory, and Identity in the South American Japanese Diaspora

By Dale Olsen. 2004. University Press of Florida. 360 pages. ISBN: 0-8130-2764-0 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Linda Kinsey Spetter, Baiko Gakuin University, Shimonoseki.

[Review length: 695 words • Review posted on August 14, 2006]


This book, in the author’s own words, “is about how Nikkei South Americans perceive of themselves, remember or learn about their heritage, negotiate their identities, and in effect culturally survive through music.” Dale Olsen is the quintessential participant-observer who himself learned to play the melodies that are instantly recognizable as Japanese. His instrument is the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute, and he often performed in concert with the people featured in his book. The book has frequent audio examples which can be accessed through an accompanying website, adding an extra dimension to his descriptions. Along the way of his journeys through South America, he kept a journal of “personal bimusical participatory reflections,” which are interspersed like silver nuggets throughout the book.

His book is about Nikkei, people of Japanese descent who live outside of Japan. He focuses on the South American countries of Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia. For each country, he treats the following topics: the history of Japanese immigration, music clubs and associations, religious music, Naichi (Japanese mainland) involvement, Okinawan involvement, Nikkei activities, Nikkei westernized activities, host country music traditions, popular music, and Nikkei musical understanding. His overviews come from extensive research in newspaper archives and other historical resources, but he also zooms in to give musical ethnographies of individuals, whom we can see in many excellent photographs, and with whom he often had “musical encounters.”

Olsen’s book covers the whole realm of Nikkei musical experience in South America—from traditional folk dances to Japanese classical music to Enka ballads to karaoke singing. He follows “issei” (first-generation) cultural memories but also investigates the westernized performances of “No sé” generations. Because his chapters are organized in a parallel manner, it is easy to compare the various histories.

His theoretical objective is to show how “music among the Nikkei is one of their major vehicles for remembering their pasts and those of their ancestors… and how music functions to determine, manipulate, maintain and sometimes recreate those identities”; i.e., how music and memory work together to effect identity. He often uses Jan Assmann’s terms “cultural memory” and “communicative memory,” the former marking that which is taught from person to person, and the latter that which is disseminated by collective organizations. In fact, he uses those concepts as an organizational tool for his chapters. Although he does not present any startling new theory, his book is valuable for its rich presentation of what happens when a culture is uprooted and replanted somewhere else. The story of Japanese musical traditions maintained against the rugged South American landscape is truly precious and poignant.

The title of the book is borrowed from Ruth Benedict’s wartime study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Whereas Benedict’s chrysanthemum represented the imperial throne of Japan, Olsen uses the white flower as a metaphor for the rough work done by groups of Nikkei workers in the fields, such as cultivating chrysanthemums.

I have only a few minor quibbles, one with this definition: “Shintoism is a belief system and way of life based on remembrance of the ancestors” (98). Actually, it is Buddhism that is based on remembrance of the ancestors. Japanese people use Shinto shrines to pray for success in life, good health, and good luck, focusing on their current lives and the future; the same Japanese people use Buddhist temples to remember and pray for their dead ancestors. And, on page 139, in reference to a photograph of a Bon Odori festival, it is stated that “the dancing platform is in the center.” Usually, the platform holds the musicians and singers, while the dancing is performed by hundreds of people in the wide open space around the platform. These are minor points in a work so broad in scope, however, and are probably mere editorial misses.

Olsen’s book will provide plenty of fodder for discussions on memory, identity, diasporic studies, ethnomusicology, and Japanese music. It is a lovingly presented history, unique in this world, and entertaining to read as well as factual. It could also serve as a model for participant-observation fieldwork. In addition, surely Nikkei in South America will appreciate it as a history of their immigrant musical experience for generations to come.