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Inspire Forward: Nikkei Heroes Under 30

Vini Taguchi: A Civil Engineer for Social Justice—Part 1

Vinicius “Vini” Taguchi personifies the cross cultural, interconnected reach of today’s Nikkei community. His outlook is as broad as his background while his occupation and vocation focus on social justice. He’s both issei and gosei (a first generation immigrant more culturally aligned with 4th and 5th generation Japanese Americans), Brazilian and American, a civil engineer and a community activist. And, like the others in this series of Inspire Forward: Nikkei Heroes Under 30, he’s just getting started.

Family Background

Vini has assembled family stories, documents, and photos that trace his Japanese ancestry across four continents. His maternal grandfather, Isao Taguchi, was born in 1938 in Hakodate, Hokkaido, to parents Yoshio and Utako where they owned a store.

Emiya socks store at Jyujigai, Hakodate

Vini wrote, “When my grandpa was about a year old, he fell out of an upper story window of the shop and only survived because he landed on an awning over the front door. Apparently, a newspaper article was written about the incident, and I hope to one day retrieve a copy from the old microfiche records.”

But that was not the family’s only notable falling incident. Utako’s (née Watanabe) father with direct lineage to samurai had been a general during the Russo-Japanese war. He later died by falling off the roof while shoveling snow. “It was considered an embarrassing way for a war hero to die, so the family didn’t talk about it.”

“Yoshio had gone to Manchuria during World War II because of the business opportunities,” Vini continued.

“As I understand it, he had the only (or one of the only) cigarette factories in Manchuria. The plan was for the rest of the family to move there to be with him, but he was captured by the Soviets at the end of the war and imprisoned in Siberia despite being a civilian. He did not return home until well after the war ended, sometime after my mother was born in 1963. He died soon thereafter of either pneumonia or lung cancer.”

Vini’s grandfather, Isao, had childhood memories of wartime food shortages and dreams of eating white rice. With prospects after finishing his schooling in postwar Japan looking similarly bleak, he boarded the America-maru in 1956 and set sail for Argentina. Isao eventually made his way to Porto Alegre in southern Brazil where he married Lenôra da Costa Pinheiro, and Vini’s mother, Eliza Mizue Pinheiro Taguchi, was born. The family later moved to São Paulo where Elisa met Adalberto de Paula Ribeiro. So that’s two continents down for Vini’s family, with two to go.


Vini’s father was an electrical engineer for the Swedish-Swiss multinational company ABB.

“If you’ve ever seen a green power transformer box in front of a house, it probably has ABB written on it. Eventually, the opportunity arose to transfer to one of ABB’s transformer manufacturing facilities in Germany, so my parents got married and left Brazil. Five years later in 1994, I was born Vinicius de Paula Ribeiro.”

Vini continued, “Germany does not have birthright citizenship, so I was born a Brazilian citizen. Actually, I was almost born stateless because of temporary Brazilian laws that restricted citizenship to those born in the country, but those laws were changed just in time. When I was 2 years old, another opportunity arose for my father to transfer to ABB’s American headquarters in North Carolina. My brother, Arthur, was born shortly after the move—the only US citizen in the family.” That’s two more continents for a total of four (and counting!).

Choosing Taguchi, Choosing Nikkei Identity

Although Vini never lived in Brazil, he grew up surrounded by recent Brazilian immigrants. He spent many summer vacations with family in Brazil and felt closely connected to his Latin American heritage. “When I was in my sophomore year of high school in 2010, my parents and I were finally eligible to naturalize as US citizens. As part of the process, my parents had the opportunity to change their names.”

Vini wrote, “The surname ‘de Paula Ribeiro’ had been a burden in the US because it had three parts and was invariably misspelled. Add in the fact that my brother’s birth certificate registered his name incorrectly and you had the perfect recipe for endless bureaucratic headaches. And don’t get me started on the mispronunciations. ‘Ribeiro’ is pronounced ‘hee-bay-roo’ in Portuguese, just like how the ‘Rio’ in ‘Rio de Janeiro’ is actually pronounced ‘hee-oo.’”

When the family chose Vini’s mother’s surname, Taguchi, “no one was more excited than my grandfather who had always loved my father as a son and had not had sons of his own to carry on the Taguchi name.”

Family tree

New Opportunities

As Vinicius de Paula Ribeiro, Vini would most often be misidentified as Hispanic or Mexican. But with the Taguchi name, this would change to Italian (Taguchi, Gucci, get it?) and would eventually lead to unexpected opportunities.

“The most important change was that now, albeit very occasionally, someone recognized my surname as Japanese. I didn’t think that would wind up being important, but I definitely feel that it has opened doors to me in the Japanese American community that people would not have thought to welcome me into if not for my name,” Vini explained.

“One such example happened when I was in college. My family had planned to visit Japan so I could finally meet my relatives back during high school, but the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami put a stop to that.” Vini instead helped organize a benefit garage band concert to raise money for disaster relief in Japan. “As memory serves, we raised over $800 selling $7 tickets, so not bad!”

Vini got his chance to go to Japan while studying at NC State University. Instead of applying for a study abroad program, his father suggested three months of homestays in Japan while taking Japanese language classes there. Vini prepared for the trip by taking Japanese language classes through the North Carolina Japan Center at his university.

Vini stayed with families in Fukuoka, Osaka, Tokyo, and finally Sapporo where he met his relatives. The itinerary was planned so that Vini’s Japanese would be at its best for his non-English speaking family. “My great-aunt Chikako (my grandfather’s younger sister) only spoke a little Portuguese from when she had briefly lived in Brazil.”

Vini and Isao in Hakodate

After that rewarding experience, Vini continued taking Japanese language night school classes. “One day after class,” wrote Vini, “my teacher said that, since I was part Japanese, I should consider applying for this program called Kakehashi offered by a group called the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). I had never heard of any of this before, nor was I really familiar with the Japanese American identity aside from the single paragraph on wartime incarceration from my history book, but I decided to apply. What followed would turn out to be one of the single most life-changing experiences of my life.”

Part 2 >>


© 2022 Esther Newman

brazil family Germany identity Japan Manchuria name São Paulo vinicius taguchi

About this series

This monthly series features interviews with young Nikkei who are 30 years old and younger from around the world who are helping to shape and build the future of Nikkei communities or doing innovative and creative work sharing and exploring Nikkei history, culture, and identity.  

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