Studies of Brazilian Nikkeis (Japanese emigrants and their descendants) living in Japan tend to conceptualize ‘family’ and ‘nation’ as two distinct entities. Such distinctions are filtered through mutually exclusive discourses and understandings of national and ethnic identity. In this article, however, I view national attachments and migrant experiences in Japan through the lens of ideology, embodied experience and kinship relations. Treating national ideology as lived process sheds fresh light on the dynamics of state—society relations in transnational social spaces. I suggest that the ability of Brazilian state actors to impose social, moral and economic regulation on its citizens in Japan is compromised by the extent to which such discourses are ontologically grounded in the social relations of migrant family life. It is through these kin ties, I argue, that people set the tone and rules of play for state interests to encroach or otherwise on their everyday lives in these transnational social spaces.