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COPANI & KNT (2007)

Japanese-Brazilians: Past and Present

The history of Japanese immigration to Brazil begins in 1908, with the arrival of the first immigrants officially recognized as such by the Brazilian government. From then on, the road would be long and at times quite convoluted.

The first major obstacle was the immigrants’ total ignorance about Brazil. The Japanese knew nothing about the country to where they were moving, except that it was located far away and that there were stories claiming it was easy to get rich here. By the same token, the Brazilians knew precious little about the Japanese. This is one aspect of the issue.

Another aspect, one that delayed for years the entry of Japanese immigrants, was the debate over the necessity of bringing workers of the “yellow race” at a time in Brazilian history when racial discussions were quite heated.

In 1908, the first arrivals getting off the boat Kasato-Maru landed with the stigma of suspicion and ignorance attached to them. To erase those images, the 250,000 Japanese that arrived in Brazil in the last century had to follow a path marked by hard work and the investment in the education of their children.

Life in Brazil was far from that of easy riches, whether before or after World War II. In each step of the way, the immigrants’ well-being was the result of surpassing obstacles. Brazil was very different from Japan, be it in the social customs, language, religion, and even in terms of the weather and geographical landscape. The immigrants’ adaptation was slow as there were countless challenges; fears and problems plagued more than one generation.

The family was the nucleus of the immigration to Brazil; immigrants belonged to all age groups, with a preponderance of young adults of both sexes who came from every Japanese province, though mostly from Kumamoto, Hokkaido, Kagoshima, and Okinawa. The immigrants belonged to family groups united by blood or by extended family ties. The largest number of arrivals took place between 1925 and 1934 as a result of the ban on Japanese immigration to the United States beginning in 1924. In Brazil, a quota system became effective in 1934, which explains the reduction in the number of new arrivals since then.

During the war years, Brazil put a stop to Japanese immigration. The flow resumed in 1953. From then on, new agricultural settlements were created in undeveloped areas of the Brazilian midlands, in the hinterlands of the country’s southernmost states, and in the northeast. At the same time, the opening of Japanese manufacturing plants led to important opportunities in the country’s large industrial centers such as São Paulo.

Throughout their 100 years in Brazil, geographic mobility has been one of the most important aspects of the Japanese families’ paths. Initially, they arrived with contracts which granted them the way out of Japan. Later on, even though some of them had not fulfilled their contractual obligations, they constantly moved from one place to another in search of new and cheap land where they could grow crops. For that reason, Japanese families could invariably be found in the country’s “new frontiers,” opening up and developing new land, even after the war.

Despite the difficulties they had to face, the Japanese immigrants were able to create an image of excellent agricultural workers, which helped to eradicate the lack of trust of the early years. In the new settlements in the states of São Paulo and Paraná, and later throughout Brazil, the Japanese applied themselves to the growing of crops that would become staples of the country’s agricultural output, including cotton, tea, jute, in addition to legumes, vegetables, fruits, and poultry products, e.g., chicken meat and eggs. The supply of large urban markets began with the little Japanese farms, where they planted fruits and vegetables. Little by little, they started to place themselves around cities all over the country. For decades, the cooperative system facilitated the production and commercialization of agricultural products originated in those small properties. In order to effectuate those procedures, the grouping of families in those localities was essential. That is how the colonies began.

In the late 1930s, a time when the Brazilian government was busy promoting nationalism, a new form of discrimination befell the Japanese: they were accused of fighting against their assimilation to Brazilian culture, for they were gathered in colonies where they spoke mostly Japanese and where the nihonjinkai served as meeting places and as a reference for that colony in relation to the others. In fact, the identity of the issei and nisei was tied to where they lived, no matter how brief their stay.

That ill feeling intensified following the shutting down of foreign-language schools (including those that taught Japanese) prior to the war. Besides the schools, Japanese-language newspapers and magazines were banned, thus generating serious concerns about the future of the generation affected by these measures. The road eventually taken was the return toward a stronger integration with the society at large, softening the ties with Japan while reinforcing the Nipo-Brazilian identity. Work and education were seen as the most efficacious tools to forge ahead.

Nowadays, the big challenges facing the Japanese communities in Brazil fall into two categories: cultural and demographic. The demographic issue is the result of the high number of children – mestiços – of interethnic marriages, whose Nipo-Brazilian identity varies according to the context. Another aspect of the demographic issue is the high number of Brazilians who have emigrated to Japan. Those have tipped the social balance of their local communities, many of which have all but emptied out, as only a few adults and a large number of the elderly were left behind. In the big cities, that situation isn’t as noticeable, though it can already be felt within families with one or more members working abroad.

The cultural question encompasses numerous issues. After the war, the value given to education coupled with the abandonment of the dream of returning home impresses upon the generations of sansei and yonsei the language and customs of the land where they were born, thus relegating the culture of their parents and grandparents to a secondary plane. That means that the degree of integration into Brazilian society is now complete.

The descendants, with their fluency in Portuguese, become assimilated into all social spheres. Many of them respond to the incentive to study, resulting in a large number of graduates and postgraduates in all areas of knowledge, which opens paths to careers that match their schooling. In the professional realm, there are liberal workers, businesspeople, graduate employees in both public and private businesses. Those who work in agriculture, the activity formerly tied to their predecessors, have become agribusinesspeople.

A consequence of this integration has been the complaint of the older generations, the issei and nisei, that their descendants have little knowledge and give little value to their ethnic and cultural roots. The younger generation’s ignorance of the Japanese language has created a communication gap between the generations, which has damaged the preservation of the memory of family backgrounds, and the history of the Japanese in Brazil. The nihonjinkai , associations that for a long time were active in the creation of social and identity ties among the Japanese communities all over Brazil, have been suffering from a severe lack of younger participants. From the point of view of the older generations, the problems have worsened as a result of the large number of interethnic marriages. There’s the fear that the past and all the cultural heritage brought by the immigrants will eventually be lost.

However, in the last several years, there has been a movement in the opposite direction to this fear. The associations have given signs of rejuvenation through the increased participation of descendants in the leadership of those social entities, thus generating proposals whose goal consists of a more effective participation in the local communities through the presentation of different facets of Japanese culture. Thus, the residents of numerous Brazilian cities have already become acquainted with the bon odori, the taiko, with the competitions of karaoke and gateball , with dishes such as tempura, udon, yakissoba – all this organized and realized by the associates. The Japanese festivals that have spread all over Brazil are one of the more recent means by which the descendants present themselves to the society at large.

Another aspect of the current tendencies of the fourth and fifth generations is their learning of Japanese for professional reasons or, in the case of the younger ones, so as to follow the manga and anime fads. The Japanese language is no longer the means of communication among family members, but it is a useful tool within the realms of business and leisure. In Japanese-language schools, the descendants share classrooms with students of all backgrounds but with common interests. The same takes place in the world of Japanese sports, such as judo, and in Japanese restaurants: in these areas, the participation is similar to that found at language schools.

In sum, just as in every history, the face of the Japanese in Brazil has undergone modifications as a consequence of the passage of time, of the generations of descendants born in Brazil, and of the national and global contexts in which they have lived.

* The above article is the result of the debate that took place at that event at the round table “Current and historical questions in the Nikkei communities in the Americas,” in which Dr. Sakurai took part, along with Lili Kawamura and Akemi Kikumura Yano.

© 2008 Célia Sakurai

Brazil community COPANI copani 2007

About this series

This is a series of reports and presentations from the Joint Convention of COPANI & KNT held July 18 - 21, 2007 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.