Book review: Laurel Kamada, Hybrid Identities and Adolescent Girls: Being Half in Japan. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2010

Judith Baxter

Research output: Contribution to journalBook/Film/Article reviewpeer-review


Arguably, the catalyst for the best research studies using social analysis of discourse is personal ‘lived’ experience. This is certainly the case for Kamada, who, as a white American woman with a Japanese spouse, had to deal first hand with the racialization of her son. Like many other mixed-ethnic parents, she experienced the shock and disap-pointment of finding her child being racialized as ‘Chinese’ in America through peer group taunts, and constituted as gaijin (a foreigner) in his own homeland of Japan. As a member of an e-list of the (Japan) Bilingualism Special Interest Group (BSIG), Kamada learnt that other parents from the English-speaking foreign community in Japan had similar disturbing stories to tell of their mixed-ethnic children who, upon entering the Japanese school system, were mocked, bullied and marginalized by their peers. She men-tions a pervasive Japanese proverb which warns of diversity or difference getting squashed: ‘The nail that sticks up gets hammered down’. This imperative to conform to Japanese behavioural and discursive norms prompted Kamada’s quest to investigate the impact of ‘otherization’ on the identities of children of mixed parentage. In this fascinat-ing book, she shows that this pressure to conform is balanced by a corresponding cele-bration of ‘hybrid’ or mixed identities. The children in her study are also able to negotiate their identities positively as they come to terms with contradictory discursive notions of ‘Japaneseness’, ‘whiteness’ and ‘halfness/doubleness’.The discursive construction of identity has become a central concern amongst researchers across a wide range of academic disciplines within the humanities and the social sciences, and most existing work either concentrates on a specific identity cate-gory, such as gender, sexuality or national identity, or else offers a broader discussion of how identity is theorized. Kamada’s book is refreshing because it crosses the usual boundaries and offers divergent insights on identity in a number of ways. First, using the term ‘ethno-gendering’, she examines the ways in which six mixed-ethnic girls living in Japan accomplish and manage the relationship between their gender and ethnic ‘differ-ences’ from age 12 to 15. She analyses in close detail how their actions or displays within certain situated interactions might come into conflict with how they are seen or constituted by others. Second, Kamada’s study builds on contemporary writing on the benefits of hybridity where identities are fluid, flexible and indeterminate, and which contest the usual monolithic distinctions of gender, ethnicity, class, etc. Here, Kamada carves out an original space for her findings. While scholars have often investigated changing identities and language practices of young people who have been geographi-cally displaced and are newcomers to the local language, Kamada’s participants were all born and brought up in Japan, were fluent in Japanese and were relatively proficient in English. Third, the author refuses to conceptualize or theorize identity from a single given viewpoint in preference to others, but in postmodernist spirit draws upon multiple perspectives and frameworks of discourse analysis in order to create different forms of knowledge and understandings of her subject. Drawing on this ‘multi-perspectival’ approach, Kamada examines grammatical, lexical, rhetorical and interactional features from six extensive conversations, to show how her participants position their diverse identities in relation to their friends, to the researcher and to the outside world. Kamada’s study is driven by three clear aims. The first is to find out ‘whether there are any tensions and dilemmas in the ways adolescent girls of Japanese and “white” mixed parentage in Japan identify themselves in terms of ethnicity’. In Chapter 4, she shows how the girls indeed felt that they stood out as different and consequently experienced isolation, marginalization and bullying at school – although they were able to make better sense of this as they grew older, repositioning the bullies as pitiable. The second aim is to ask how, if at all, her participants celebrate their ethnicity, and furthermore, what kind of symbolic, linguistic and social capital they were able to claim for themselves on the basis of their hybrid identities. In Chapter 5, Kamada shows how the girls over time were able to constitute themselves as insiders while constituting ‘the Japanese’ as outsiders, and their network of mixed-ethnic friends was a key means to achieve this. In Chapter 6, the author develops this potential celebration of the girls’ mixed ethnicity by investigating the privileges they perceived it afforded them – for example, having the advantage of pos-sessing English proficiency and intercultural ‘savvy’ in a globalized world. Kamada’s third aim is to ask how her participants positioned themselves and performed their hybrid identities on the basis of their constituted appearance: that is, how the girls saw them-selves based on how they looked to others. In Chapter 7, the author shows that, while there are competing discourses at work, the girls are able to take up empowering positions within a discourse of ‘foreigner attractiveness’ or ‘a white-Western female beauty’ discourse, which provides them with a certain cachet among their Japanese peers. Throughout the book, Kamada adopts a highly self-reflexive perspective of her own position as author. For example, she interrogates the fact that she may have changed the lived reality of her six participants during the course of her research study. As the six girls, who were ‘best friends’, lived in different parts of the Morita region of Japan, she had to be proactive in organizing six separate ‘get-togethers’ through the course of her three-year study. She acknowledges that she did not collect ‘naturally occurring data’ but rather co-constructed opportunities for the girls to meet and talk on a regular basis. At these meetings, she encouraged the girls to discuss matters of identity, prompted by open-ended interview questions, by stimulus materials such as photos, articles and pic-tures, and by individual tasks such as drawing self-portraits. By giving her participants a platform in this way, Kamada not only elicited some very rich spoken data but also ‘helped in some way to shape the attitudes and self-images of the girls positively, in ways that might not have developed had these get-togethers not occurred’ (p. 221). While the data she gathers are indeed rich, it may well be asked whether there is a mismatch between the girls’ frank and engaging accounts of personal experience, and the social constructionist academic register in which these are later re-articulated. When Kamada writes, ‘Rina related how within the more narrow range of discourses that she had to draw on in her past, she was disempowered and marginalized’ (p. 118), we know that Rina’s actual words were very different. Would she really recognize, understand and agree with the reported speech of the researcher? This small omission of self-reflexivity apart – an omission which is true of most lin-guistic ethnography conducted today – Kamada has written a unique, engaging and thought-provoking book which offers a model to future discourse analysts investigating hybrid identities. The idea that speakers can draw upon competing discourses or reper-toires to constitute their identities in contrasting, creative and positive ways provides linguistic researchers with a clear orientation by which to analyse the contradictions of identity construction as they occur across time in different discursive contexts
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)497-499
Number of pages3
JournalDiscourse and Society
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2011


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