For Indiana University Media School professor of practice Joseph Coleman, the opportunity to return to Japan as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar held a special significance, marking a long-awaited reunion with the country and its culture. It had been about 15 years since his last extended stay, but the memories of his decade abroad remained a part of his core and influenced his approach to teaching.
Joseph Coleman. Photo courtesy of The Media School
A colleague’s own Fulbright experience in 2019 sparked Coleman’s curiosity and directed him toward the Fulbright award for journalists. He had spent 20 years as an Associated Press bureau chief before joining IU’s faculty, so the Department of State’s Fulbright program was a seamless fit, affording him a unique chance to explore the growth of immigrant communities in Tokyo.
Japan has historically had fewer immigrant populations than countries like the United States. Coleman sought to shed light on a narrative that mirrored contemporary global issues, expanding his focus beyond the typical subjects of international news. Japan’s own demographic challenges, including an aging population and a declining birthrate, bore a striking resemblance to problems faced in more immigration-driven nations.
“This is a country with a not-so-prominent history of immigration, which now turns to immigration to keep their economy running,” Coleman said. “I wanted to take a closer look — a personal, human look — at the challenges and mechanisms of that.”
This insight led him to delve into various immigrant communities scattered throughout the Tokyo metropolitan area. His subjects were diverse, including Brazilian immigrants who returned to Japan after their forebears had immigrated to Brazil, and a Peruvian couple operating a dance studio. Coleman also studied Nepalese restaurant workers, Indian IT professionals (a topic he had previously covered for The New York Times) and the refugee community in Tokyo.
Coleman’s methodology involved immersing himself in the lives of his subjects. He undertook intensive language lessons, conducted in-depth interviews with locals and established a comprehensive information network. These efforts provided the groundwork for forthcoming publications, revealing the real-world implications of Japan’s strict refugee policies and the challenges encountered by immigrant populations in a traditionally homogeneous nation.
In essence, Coleman’s work unmasked the immigrant experience in Japan, forging connections between the country’s unique situation and the global discourse on immigration’s societal impact. His research was an honest and insightful exploration, illuminating a story often overlooked.
Activists outside of Japan's parliament demonstrate against legislation to speed deportations of asylum-seekers. Photo courtesy of Joseph Coleman
After receiving positive feedback from his New York Times article, Coleman began to see his research as essential.
“These stories aren’t just ink on paper; they’re a spotlight for groups that might otherwise not be heard,” he said. “As a journalist and researcher, your ultimate goal is to be just one of many voices bringing an issue to light.”
His focus on immigration reporting, which previously centered on the much more widely discussed migrations in the Middle East and Latin America, now extends to an East Asian perspective, providing a more comprehensive perspective on the global narrative — one that he brings into his daily work in Bloomington.
“I was on a double mission with my research,” he said. “I want to share what I learn through my written work, while also integrating these experiences and perspectives into classes for my students to broaden their own horizons.”
Coleman said he counts himself lucky to be at an institution that is supportive of his dual life as both a journalist and an educator. For those contemplating a Fulbright journey, Coleman has a piece of advice: Early preparation and the collection of recommendations are key. He also emphasized the robust support that IU offers.
“IU was so helpful and accommodating throughout the entire process, from my application to my return,” Coleman said. “It has been very supportive as an institution. A lot of my experience was made possible by the university’s support and guidance, and this journey has been an incredibly fulfilling one.”