Expatriate vs Immigrant


Researching the foreign graves at Aoyama Cemetery, I notice that I refer to the people buried there as "expatriates" but not as "Japan immigrants." Yet many of them lived here for decades before expiring; some had honors heaped upon them by the Japanese government; some married into Japanese families. They were settled permanently; they were iimmigrants.

The dictionary defines immigrant as "a person who leaves one country to settle permanently in another." It's too clinical a definition; I feel that there is something more to immigration.

Take me as a case in point. I'm an American expatriate and although I have no intention of returning to the US or of leaving Japan, I don't consider myself a Japanese immigrant. I don't know that I'll ever be a Japanese immigrant, no matter how long I'm here.

I have a friend in Pennsylvania who is British but has lived in the US for about 25 years. She is permanently settled, married to an American, owns property, has a green card but is not naturalised into US citizenship. I don't think of her as an American immigrant; she's a British expatriate.

What is it that turns an expatriate into an immigrant? Perhaps it is letting loose the final tie to your homeland. Making an irrevokable and official renunciation of the old stomping ground. Adopting the culture, language and lifestyle of your adopted nation. Or perhaps all it takes is an authorised acceptance or permanent recognition from the government.

Truly, I do not know. What do you think?


Very interesting topic. I'm not sure how I feel either.

My mother moved to Canada, raised two children who are staunchly Canadian, married a Canadian, but never became Canadian. She was always Scottish...

I've lived here for 8 years this month and I'm still Canadian, heart and soul. I don't think of myself as an immigrant, although I probably am. I don't speak much Japanese, which could be part of it. I still don't "get" many things about Japan, and that level of discomfort may be why I'm more of an expat than an immigrant.

Could it be that Japan is a hard country to be an immigrant in, or that it's easy for us to travel "home?" In past times, we would have left our home countries forever because of the dangers/time involved. Now it's easy...hop on a plane.

Sorry so long...but intriguing topic!

I was born in Poland. Left it when I was 12 and have lived in 4 different countries since then (Canada, Japan, Germany, UK). I no longer know what to call myself. I no longer know where my "home" is.

This is a topic that fascinates me: how do you definte yourself if you've had such a transient life?

To me, an expatriate is someone who stays overseas for shorter bursts. To me, immigration is for life. But it's a slippery definition. Will I still be Polish even when I gain yet another (third) passport?

It's a tricky thing to define. But a fantastic topic to ruminate (sp??).

hmm, this is a REALLY intersting topic.

I think those terms are limiting as I think times have certainly changed a lot over the last 50 years. The world is now a seriously global place. I am Australian, but my father is Malay Chinese (born in Malaysia) and my mother is English, but both of them are now Australian citizens. They both moved to Australia for better opportunities, for a better life. I guess they are both immigrants and have embraced Australia as their home.

Now in my case, I have lived in Japan for about 7 years altogether, but first came as an exchange student. I didn't come to Japan for a better life, I came to experience the culture, and learn the language, and to travel. I don't consider myself an expat (I think of an expat as someone whose company sent them to live in another country for a specific amount of time). I know that is a limited definition - it's just what the word conjures up in my mind. I also married an American and will go through the immigration process to move to the US at some point, but I am not moving to the US for a better life (although I will enjoy more space and a real garden). I would consider becoming a US citizen in the future because it makes travel easier to and from the US and because I do not have to give up my Australian citizenship. I will be a dual citizen and I guess an international roamer.....maybe it is time for the world to think up a new term??

Just my two cents worth...

Indeed, a very interesting topic.

One definition could be that an immigrant gives up the citizenship of the nation s/he left and takes the citizenship of the nation s/he has emigrated to.

Very very interesting. I am an expatriate but my brother is definitely an Immigrant to Japan.

I think it all boils down to the attitude of the individual. If moving and settling in the new country causes a paradym shift within that person then yes the person becomes an immmigrant.

Many "new" australians are fiercy patriotic and proud off their adopted country and are more Australian at times than me. Others seem to enjoy where they are living but never let their surroundings truly seep into their psyche.

Great Post Kristen!!

Those words have too much baggage. They make you think of home, abroad, allegiance, citizenship. I had really hoped that in my lifetime notions of citizenship and thinking in nationalities would if not disappear so at least weaken. For a while it looked really good. But during the last decade the pendulum started to swing back, it seems. I grew up in Germany and left after college. I lived in Tokyo for 17 years. I now have lived in the U.S. for 14 years. My wife is Australian and my daughter born in Japan. Am I an expatriate, somebody living in a foreign land? Certainly not. If the proof of immigration is permanence, I am here permanently, or at least until we decide to move on — should we ever decide such a move. We lived in Japan permanently — until we were offered an opportunity elsewhere which was too good to miss. Whether green card or naturalized is really only important to the authorities and does not change me from temporary to permanent. Whether I am living here on a German or an American passport, this here is home, as was Tokyo while we lived there. So perhaps we should let go of words like immigrant and expatriate as labels of last century's thinking. If really necessary, wouldn't resident be a all-encompassing description?

My 2 cents from the Mid-West.

It begs the question though - do other people get as bored/frustrated as I do when asked 50 times a day "Where are you from?" I always tell people I live in Toshima-ku. Then they think I have misunderstood them and ask what country I am from. I tell them where I was born but I live in Japan.

I know I am beating my head against a brick wall as Japan is such as a homogenous society but really if you live in Tokyo you must have gotten used to the sight of a non-asian face.........

I agree with T a bit. I think of immigrant and expatriate to do with intention of the person *before* their move. An ex-pat usually goes with a short term mindset due to a work assignment or teaching/training/university experience. The immigrant leaves (abandons?) the country they were raised in to find a new permanent life in a new country.

And simply many people just don't fall easily into categories. For those of us who have lived in several countries a few years at a time, the barriers start to break down for the definitions and so many other things (maybe that's one of the reasons we do live other places). It's human nature to categorize everything but some things and people don't fit neatly into origami boxes. ;)

Leave a comment

Recent Comments

  • Seth: I agree with T a bit. I think of immigrant read more
  • T: It begs the question though - do other people get read more
  • Michael: Those words have too much baggage. They make you think read more
  • T: Very very interesting. I am an expatriate but my brother read more
  • gen: Indeed, a very interesting topic. One definition could be that read more
  • kat: hmm, this is a REALLY intersting topic. I think those read more
  • Kinuk: I was born in Poland. Left it when I was read more
  • Helen: Very interesting topic. I'm not sure how I feel either. read more