Japan, Brazil: A centenary of Japanese Immigration to Brazil.

In June 1908, the Japanese ship Kasato Maru (笠戸丸 ) [jp] docked in the Port of Santos (São Paulo) after a 52-day voyage, bringing the first Japanese families to Brazil. The journey had started on the 28th April of the same year, when 781 Japanese farmers left the port of Kobe after deciding to move to the other side of the world in search of better living conditions.

Kasato Maru at the Port of Santos, photo from Laire José Giraud's collection.

Since then, the Japanese community in Brazil has grown year by year, particularly during the war years. However, not only was the integration process of the Japanese immigrants into the native Brazilian community very long and difficult, the relations within the same Japanese community were also very complex, due to the different reactions that their distance from the homeland roused in the individuals as well as their willingness and ability to adapt to the new country.

id: Parupalo Oyaji (パルパロおやじ) at Paruparo Weblog analyzes some historical events that well describe the complexity of the situation within the Japanese community in Brazil during the war.


In 1941, when the Pacific War (Japanese-American War) had just broken out, a serious issue for Japanese immigrants in Brazil appeared. As Brazil joined the Allied side, the Japanese people living in Brazil began to be seen as enemies. Fortunate in their misfortune, they did not go to internment camps like their fellow imprisoned countrymen in the U.S. or Peru. Their language, however, was banned and the publishing and distribution of newspapers and magazines written in Japanese was prohibited. […]

In 1945, Japan surrendered to the United States and World War II was over. But for 80% of the Japanese community in Brazil, Japan had won the war. Parupalo Oyaji carries on explaining a dark piece of history:


As a result of the war, the Japanese community split into two groups [pdf file]. The kachigumi (victorists) [jp] faction who thought “how can you believe the news you get from the enemy? Japan cannot be defeated” and, on the other hand, the makegumi (defeatists) faction who accepted Japan's defeat and were able to see the situation had started with the Cold War (many of them did understand Portuguese and could also comprehend the process that had brought the war to that end).
Within the victorist group, there was a particularly nationalist and extremist faction called Shindô Renmei [jp] [lit. “The Federation of Loyal Subjects”] who considered the members of the defeatist group as traitors, and began to take military action to punish them. The following year, with the intensification of the strife within those factions, the Federation of Loyal Subjects was repressed by the intervention of the Brazilian military. Twenty three people died. Such a miserable thing: in a foreign land, where fellow-Japanese men were supposed to help each other, they were killing each other instead.


Because of those facts, obviously the admission of Japanese immigrants was interrupted; it was resumed in 1952 and continued up to the 70s.
In total, the number of Japanese people who immigrated to Brazil amounts to 250,000 and even now around 60,000 first generation Japanese people still live in Brazil.
But if you think about all the Japanese-Brazilians, from the second to the fifth generation, there are 1.5 million people who proudly constitute the largest ethnic Japanese community in the world.

Japan-Brazil Exchange Year

As agreed in 2004 by former Primer Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Brazilian President Lula da Silva, 2008 was elected as Japan-Brazil Exchange Year and during this period all sorts of cultural events have been promoted to celebrate the centenary of the Japanese immigration to Brazil.

Takanori Kurokawa, a Japanese blogger who lives and studies Portuguese in Recife (in the northwest of Brazil), describes a Japanese festival organized to celebrate Japan-Brazil Friendship Year.


On the last Sunday of November, as every year on this day, there was the Feira Japonesa in Recife (Japanese Market or “Nihon-shi” in Japanese) but this year it really was in grand style.
As this year we are celebrating the centenary of Japanese Immigration, many Japanese organizations, Japanese-Brazilian groups and companies gave their contribution.
The number of Japanese-Brazilians living in Recife compared to Sao Paulo or Parana is very small so I thought that also this festival wouldn't have been so special but I had to change my mind, it was pretty awesome!


In the part of the old city where the festival was held, booths were lined up one after the other and a torii [gateway at the entrance to a Shinto shrine] was placed at the main entrance…then three corners: the Japanese culture corner, the food corner and the arts and crafts corner. […] The anime corner was also very cool. Anime seem to be very popular as products of the Japanese subculture and that day there were stands selling manga or cosplay [lit. “costume-play”] goods or games and there were a lot of Brazilians dressed up in costumes inspired by manga that I know but also manga that I didn't know.

Brazilian Immigration to Japan

While in the first decades of the 20th century many Japanese emigrated to Brazil in search of work, the immigration tendency [en, pdf] changed in the 90s and many Japanese-Brazilians began to immigrate from Brazil to Japan, coming to represent the category of dekasegi (出稼ぎ, lit. “the one who leaves his house in search of an income”). In the late 80s, in fact, when Japan had already become one of the world's wealthiest countries, the Japanese Ministry of Labor began to facilitate the entry of ethnic Japanese workers, granting them labor visas in order to supply the shortage of workers in the so called “dirty, dangerous & demeaning professions”.

Nowadays, there are 300,000 Japanese-Brazilians (日系人, Nikkei-jin) living in Japan and most of them work in car factories [en] often as temporary employees under precarious working conditions.

Trailer of the documentary film Brazil Kara Kita Ojiichan (ブラジルから来たおじいちゃん, “Um Senhor do Brasil: visitando brasileiros no Japão”), about Ken’ichi Konno (紺野堅一), a 92 y.o. Japanese man who immigrated to Brazil 73 years ago.

At Raten Nikkei Ryugakusei (ラテン日系留学生), a blog that collects the voices of some Japanese-Latin Americans, Patricia Yano (矢野パトリシア) writes her reflections on her identity as a Japanese-Brazilian.


I am a Nisei [en] [2nd generation] and since I was a child I have been experiencing both the Japanese and the Brazilian cultures. I learnt a lot from my Japanese grandparents and I am proud to be Japanese-Brazilian.

[…]ブラジルでは日系人コミュニティは2%を超えませんが、日系人コミュニティをポジティブな少数派として認められている。しかし、日本にいるブラ ジル人は、ネガティブな少数派の特集を抱えている。この両面的な特徴を抱えている日系ブラジル人のアイデンティティはどうなるであろう。
自分自身は、日本とブラジルの文化を自分のアイデンティティに統合しました。しかし、両アイデンティティを統合するプロセスは簡単なものではありませ ん。ブラジルにいると「日本人」と呼ばれます。日本に来ると「ガイジン」と呼ばれます。つまり、ポジティブな少数派からネガティブな少数派に変わります。
留学生として来日する日系ブラジル人は、もしかしたら、このアイデンティティの変化を特に感じないかも知れません。しかし、デカセギとして来日する日系 ブラジル人はもっと感じる傾向があります。[…]

In Brazil, the Japanese-Brazilian community represents only 2% [of the entire population] but it is recognized as a minority in a positive way. On the other hand, this is not the same for the Brazilians living in Japan. I wonder why the Japanese-Brazilian’s identity must have these two faces…
Personally speaking, my identity consists of both the Japanese and the Brazilian cultures. However, the process that brought me to think in this way was not that easy. When I am in Brazil I am called “Japanese” and when I am in Japan I am called “gaijin” [foreigner]. In other words, the way they consider me as an individual belonging to a minority changes from positive to a negative.
The Japanese-Brazilian people who come to Japan to study may not feel this difference but the
dekasegi, people like me who come here in search of work, do. […]

ブラジルに移住した日本人は、ブラジルで努力をして、ブラジルの社会でポジティブなイメージを形成しました。それで、日本に住んでいる日系ブラジル人は、どのように日本でポジティブなイメージを形成できるであろう。それで私は感じました。日系人は様々なアイデンティティを持っており、多様性のあるグループだと思います。 […]

In Brazil, Japanese people through their efforts managed to create a positive image of themselves within  Brazilian society. How can Brazilians who live in Japan do the same here?
This is what I thought. Japanese-Brazilian people have several identities and represent a varied group. In this year, which is the centenary of Japanese immigration to Brazil, we should focus on education and take it as an occasion to learn. To start with, in my opinion it is really important for the children of those Japanese immigrants to know that history.

On the same blog, Neide Ayumi Kuzuo (葛尾 あゆみ ネイデ), presenting her last illustrated book titled “Me, EU” (ぼく・EU), whose protagonist is a sansei [3rd generation] boy who interrogates himself about his identity, writes about her memories as a child of Japanese immigrants.


I have been a Brazilian language counselor for 3 years in Aichi Prefecture and for my job I visited more than 40 elementary and secondary schools. I participated in entrance and graduation ceremonies.


外国籍の子どもたちの相談に接していると、私自身の、子どものころの出来事が思い出されます。父が、「ブラジル人はすぐ嘘をつく。理由なしに仕事を休んで は、次の日にわかりきった嘘をつく。借金が多くあっても平気だ。一年かけてためたお金をカーニバルの一週間で全部使ってしまう。借金までして遊びに行くな んて、信じられん。」とか、「手が早いのには参ったよ。置いてある物は全てもらっていいものだとおもっている。懸命に植えたものを平気で盗んでいく。文句 を言いに行ったら、『食べ物や果物は全て神の物であり、神の物は誰の物でもない、皆の物である』という。神だと、何を言っているのだ。俺が植えたんだ!」 とカッカして帰ってきたのを今でも忘れられません。

Talking with those foreign kids reminded me of when I was their age. My father used to complain and say: “Brazilian people lie very easily. They take a day off from work without any reason, and the day after they give excuses which are obviously lies. They don’t care if they run into debt and in carnival week they end up spending all the money earned in an entire year. Having fun to the point that you run into debt… I can’t believe it!”.
Even now I remember when he came back home one day, burning with anger, and he said: “I didn’t know they are so light-fingered. Just put something somewhere and they think they can have it. They steal without any problem what you planted with strenuous efforts and if you complain they say: “Food and fruits belong to God, God’s things do not belong to somebody but to everybody.” God?! What the hell are you saying? I planted those things!”


Then, each time my father said something bad about Brazil, inside me I just used to wonder, “So why are you in Brazil? Why did you come here?” and think, “I do look Japanese myself and I would have preferred to be born in Japan. I wanted to attend a Japanese school!”,or “[If we were living in Japan] I could take a walk in the street without being teased for the shape of my eyes by a complete stranger saying “Open those eyes, Japanese!”…. But I never expressed those feelings.

又、学校でも「アクセントがおかしいよ。こう言うのよ。直しましょうね。と先生にいつも注意されるのいやだよ」「音読が一番きらいだよ」「学校で、年に一 回の祭り、参加したいよ」とも一度も訴えたことはありませんでした。[…]

And when at school they [used to repeat to me] “Your accent is strange. This is the right way [to pronounce it]. Let’s correct it.” I have never complained to my parents saying “I hate to be scolded by the teacher every time”, “I really hate reading aloud”, “I want to participate in the annual school festival too!”.
[…] On the other hand, I had the opportunity to know Brazilian culture and customs. And what I enjoyed the most was the way they express their love, particularly for their family. Besides, the environment where I was brought up was cheerful, rich in emotions and it was considered normal to be spontaneous in every circumstance.

A family of Japanese Immigrants in Brazil, image from Wikipedia.

In collaboration with Paula Góes.


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