Japanese-Brazilians: The Story of Their Return to Japan

Japanese-Brazilians: The Story of Their Return to Japan

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The Japanese-Brazilians return to Japan
The epic tale of the 300,000 Japanese-Brazilians that Japan insisted it needed - until it suddenly didn't.

The 1980s. Japan, now firmly recovered from the all-encompassing disaster of WWII, was ascendant. Now a seemingly stable and true economic superpower, Japanese companies were buying up land and doing business across the world.

At the same time that Japan had so firmly cemented its place on the world stage, those ethnic Japanese communities of immigrants in far-flung areas of the globe who had left Japan during harder times now found their places in their adopted homes solidifying. Among them were the Japanese-Brazilians.

Cue to Brazil, over 17,000 kilometers away from the Japanese archipelago. The community of Japanese-Brazilians was by now the largest community of ethnic Japanese outside of the homeland. Its population now stretched past a million individuals.

The hardships and ethnic strife that had been hallmarks of the first decades of the Japanese-Brazilian community’s existence were fading into the background. In the southern Brazilian states of São Paulo, Paraná, Minas Gerais, and the northeastern state of Pernambuco, the Japanese community was an established and major part of local society.

More and more ethnic Japanese intermarried into other local populations. Their children interacted with and grew up in the wider Brazilian world exclusively in Portuguese. As this happened, distant memories of a homeland in Japan became less sharp, more blurred at the edges. This, just as Japan itself was asserting itself more forcefully than any time in the past 35 years.

Less than a century earlier, Japan had urged the poorer segments of its rural population to leave their homes for the foreign shores of labor-starved Brazil. Now Japan cast its eyes on South America. For the first time in decades, the country remembered its millions of prodigal sons and daughters living there.

For the story of how Japanese emigrated to Brazil, read our previous installment, The Japanese Who Came to Call Brazil Home.

The Need for Labor

Watch a video essay version of this article on our YouTube channel.

What made Japan suddenly reach out to its seemingly long-forgotten overseas descendants? The story begins with Japan’s calamitous fall and subsequent meteoric rise.

The twentieth century was a tumultuous one for the entire world, and Japan was no exception. The first five decades alone saw Japan’s continued rapid modernization and emergence as a world power after its defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (the first time an Asian power had defeated a major modern European empire). Japan expanded its hold over vast areas of the Asia and the Pacific in an often brutal colonization project. Its rise continued until its complete defeat at the end of World War II, which saw the destruction of 60% of its urban spaces and the loss of territorial sovereignty for seven years to an American occupation. At the end of these turbulent and violent 50 years, Japan’s economy and infrastructure lay in tatters. Its place on the world stage diminished from imperial world power to conquered non-entity.

For most of the occupation period (1945-1952), millions of Japanese lived in poverty. Many often struggled to find proper housing and work amid the rubble of burnt-out buildings. Their only source of food and household goods were the black markets that sprung up around major train stations. Some enterprising entrepreneurs (like Akio Morita and Minoru Iwasaki of a then-nascent company called Sony) triedto find new ways to succeed in a shattered economy. However, overall, the world viewed Japan as a subdued manufacturer of cheap wooden knick-knacks.

The Japanese Economic Miracle

Buildings in Osaka
Japan’s impressive achievement in rebuilding after World War II sparked an intense need for blue-collar labor. (Picture: たっきー / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

But the 20th century was not one of complacent lulls, especially not in Japan. And it wasn’t long before the intense poverty and social unrest of the 40s and 50s took a different turn.

The Japanese Economic Miracle stuttered to life. Buoyed by concerted government initiatives and American aid aimed at propping up a strong capitalist ally against communism in the Pacific, the Japanese economy began surging in the mid-1950s.

Only recently, the Japanese people had to struggle to find rice to feed their families or to put a roof over their heads. Overnight, they had become middle class. Large corporations offered guaranteed lifetime employment with enviable benefits. A sense of security and of expectations of a certain sort of lifestyle came into being.

The economy continued to rise at an almost unbelievable rate, sending Japan into the stratosphere of international GDP rankings. Suddenly, Japan had the second-largest economy in the world. The international reach of Japanese business began to create images of a world beholden to Japanese economic might. (This mythology surfaces in contemporary fiction like Blade Runner, Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, and later, even Die Hard).

But as early as the 1970s, all this prosperity was beginning to cause a bit of an ironic problem back in Japan. With so many Japanese middle class, fewer and fewer people wanted to engage in the necessary blue-collar work of manufacturing or construction. Indeed, few wanted to take on any job featuring the so-called “Three Ks,” – jobs that were kitanai (汚い – dirty), kiken (危険, dangerous), or kitsui (きつい, demanding).

These jobs were still necessary – Japan couldn’t sustain the economy without them. And as it became clear that many local Japanese were unwilling to perform this work, corporations began to realize that they needed to look elsewhere – they needed to bring in gaijin (外人, foreign) workers from overseas.

However, the initial wave of manual laborers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Malaysia brought significant illegal immigration with them. Thus, the Japanese authorities saw these foreign nationals as “too different” – too disruptive of the national wa (和, harmony).


But there was another option. They needed manual laborers who could fit into Japan’s legal and cultural framework. So why not recruit those wayward Japanese who had left Japan at the turn of the century?

Why not bring back the Japanese-Brazilians?

A Cunning Plan

The Japanese government valued the Japanese-Brazilians as an acceptable source of labor because they were ostensibly “Japanese.” And the Japanese-Brazilians may well have agreed.

Yet, by the 1980s their community was truly entrenched in Brazilian culture. A growing majority of the population had been born in Brazil, had Brazil-born parents, or had even a local Brazilian parent. Still, their grandparents and parents had maintained a strong connection to Japan. They participated in overseas Japanese organizations and taught their children about Japanese music, sports, and culture.

These obaa-sans and ojii-sans told them stories of the homeland filled with nostalgia and longing. Many Japanese-Brazilians, no matter how integrated into their native Brazilian culture, referred (and still refer) to themselves as some variant of “Japanese”. Some call themselves nikkei-jin (日系人, a Japanese word meaning any person of Japanese descent who lives abroad). Some use nisei (二世, technically meaning ‘second-generation Japanese immigrant’ in Japanese but used by Brazilians to refer to their entire community). And some simply use the Portuguese word for Japanese – japonês.

Japan, via recruitment companies, began to reach out to these nikkei-Brazilians. And by the 1980s, many of them had good reasons to want to accept the invitation back to their cultural hearth. The Brazil of the 1960s had seen its own “economic miracle”. However, unlike Japan, it couldn’t weather the global oil crises of the mid-70s. Additionally, local political and economic instability had led to runaway inflation. Despite the comfortable middle-class lifestyle, many nikkei had previously obtained in Brazil, with layoffs and the local economy crumbling, the stable wages in Japanese manufacturing plants suddenly looked like a suitable port to wait out the storm.

Lightning Immigration Reform

But Japan’s own immigration laws stood in the way of the mass return migration it needed. The isseii (一世, first-generation) Japanese immigrants to Brazil were of course still Japanese citizens who could return and work as they liked. But those born in Brazil – who were steadily becoming the marked majority of Japanese-Brazilians – were not so lucky. 

Nisei (second-generation) up to sansei (third-generation) born in Brazil could receive citizenship if registered at a Japanese consulate within 30 days of their birth. However, most of their parents had failed to take advantage of this, leading to their children’s Brazilian-by-birth nationality to become their sole citizenship. These nisei and sansei thus needed to overcome the hurdle of obtaining full-on visas to work, live, and travel within Japan, just like any non-Japanese person anywhere in the world. In the mid 80s, only a trickle of South Americans of Japanese descent obtained the visas required to work in the homeland.

Japanese officials knew they had to act. And they acted with surprising swiftness. 1990 saw the passing of major immigration law reform aimed at privileging migrants with a blood connection to Japan, paving the way for easily-obtained work visas for nisei and sansei to come and work in Japan in any job they could find (often three year-visas and one-year visas at a time for nisei and sansei respectively – seemingly showing a preference by Japanese officials for those with a more direct blood connection to Japan).

The Return of the Japanese-Brazilians

Boat near Osaka
Economic conditions led Japanese authorities to re-invite the descendants of the citizens it had originally encouraged to leave. However, the transition back to Japan was less than smooth for most. (Picture: オクケン / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

The floodgates had opened. Wach year from 1990 onwards, tens of thousands of Japanese-Brazilians began the long journey to Japan in search of work. By 1998 there were 222,217 Brazilians living in Japan – more than 1/6th of the entire Japanese-Brazilian population had migrated. This surged beyond 300,000 in the next decade, making Brazilians the third-largest population of non-nationals in Japan after Chinese and Koreans (communities with their own unique history and issues).

Initially, most Brazilians had envisioned their sojourn in Japan as something temporary. They’d work hard, send money home, and then return to more prestigious work in Brazil. This earned them the title of dekasegi (出稼ぎ, literally one who goes out to save money).

These dekasegi Japanese-Brazilians came in the hundreds of thousands. They filled roles in manufacturing plants throughout Japan’s long Taiheiyo Belt, from Fukuoka in the South to Ibaraki on the border with the Northern regions. Concentrating most strongly in the car manufacturing cities around Aichi Prefecture and neighboring Shizuoka and Gifu, these central Japanese cities saw their demographics changed almost overnight. Japanese commuters in the cities surrounding Nagoya suddenly heard a completely foreign language flowing from otherwise Japanese-appearing commuters sitting next to them.

Major growing pains commenced. Plant workers saw foreigners who spoke in a strange tongue (Portuguese), and whose attitude towards work and propriety differed from them, suddenly entering their workforce en masse. Entire neighborhoods near plants or construction sites that had once been ethnically homogenous suddenly diversified. For some Japanese, this sudden change was simply too much. They packed up and moved, leading these new Brazilian enclaves to become all the more isolated.

Conflicted Homecoming

The entire point of prioritizing the Japanese diaspora community’s return migration over other, more “foreign” groups had been a sense of shared “Japanese-ness”. And Japanese-Brazilians did identify as Japanese themselves while in Brazil. However, they felt their identity shift as they came to realize that the Japanese around them saw them as gaijin, the derogatory slang term for “foreigner”. They may have been gaijin that looked Japanese, but were gaijin nonetheless.

Most dekasegi are nisei or sansei. While the nisei may speak Japanese, they often do not speak it perfectly in a hyojungo (標準語, standardised Japanese) sense. Indeed, many of their parents and grandparents came from regions of Japan with strong dialects that they passed on to their children. And the sansei likely only spoke small amounts of Japanese at home. Some of them were unable to hold full conversations in Japanese.

Crisis of Identity

Many interviews with Japanese-Brazilian dekasegi reveal an interesting inverse crisis of identity. In Brazil they feel Japanese, but in Japan they feel Brazilian.

As a result, a new desire to participate in Brazilian culture in Japan and to preserve “Brazilian-ness” amongst themselves and with the rest of the country has led to a mass celebration of South American culture. The Asakusa Samba Festival in Tokyo, for example, is perhaps the largest Brazilian-style carnival outside of Rio de Janeiro.

In towns like Toyohashi or Toyota or Gamagori in Aichi Prefecture (all of which have major Brazilian minorities), Brazilians hang flags from shop windows and apartment balconies. Major chains market to dekasegi with signs in Portuguese. And Brazilian Portuguese language schools offer education to immigrant children. (The Japanese school system often fails to properly account for the immigrant Japanese-Brazilians. Many fall through the cracks of public education in startling numbers – something made worse because education is not compulsory for non-citizen children in Japan).

Many interviews with Japanese-Brazilian dekasegi reveal an interesting inverse crisis of identity. In Brazil they feel Japanese, but in Japan they feel Brazilian. Click To Tweet

Some Japanese-Brazilians see the Japanese government’s desire for a brotherly connection with like-minded diaspora Japanese as misguided. In his book Brokered Homeland: Japanese Brazilian Migrants in Japan, Joshua Hotaka Roth (himself a second-generation Brazil nisei) suggested that the Japanese government’s appeals towards the nikkei communities is aimed at ijusha (移住者, a term that brings to mind first-generation immigrants). It targets nostalgic and often patriotic feelings towards a Japan they themselves left. Meanwhile, the returnees who are nisei and beyond, and who struggle with the more pressing issues of poor wages, language difficulties, cultural integration, and huge rates of youth school absenteeism, receive little.

Finding a Way of Life

Struggles of Second Generation Brazilians in Japan

While Japan has welcomed hundreds of thousand of Brazilian workers into its labor force, the society has not been so welcoming to their children who only know Japan as home.

Above: Deana Mitchell interviews Brazilians and Brazilian-Japanese working in Japan. Many Brazilians with Japanese heritage come to Japan to improve their economic conditions, but often find themselves working long hours for low pay in their adopted home.

So Japanese-Brazilians continue to interact with Japanese society in both fruitful and perhaps counterintuitive ways. One interesting example is their religion.

Brazilian-Japanese are majority Catholic. In the early waves of their return to Japan, local churches logically served as important communal spaces. But as the Brazilian community has developed other cultural organizations, newspapers, community groups, etc., the role of churches as unifiers has diminished. Japanese-Brazilians may make up about half of all Catholics in Japan. However, their religious customs are distinctly Brazilian and take place in Portuguese. That limits their interaction with the broader Japanese Catholic community – which, of course, operates in Japanese. There are examples of Japanese and Brazilian catholic groups that share the same church, and yet never interact – their masses and events take place at different times.

Meanwhile, some treated Brazilian-Japanese immigrants as a potentially fertile source of new converts to so-called “New Religions” (新宗教). The movement is more of a catch-all phrase for the numerous and sometimes controversial religious and spiritual movements created in Japan over the past 150 years. Some of these New Religions, such as Honmon Butsuryū-shū and Seicho-no-Ie, had in fact made major inroads into Brazil itself. They picked up so many non-Japanese converts in that country that they switched their main language of observance to Portuguese rather than their original Japanese. Since so many Brazilian-Japanese dekasegi spoke Portuguese themselves, what better target could these organizations have than ethnically Japanese Lusophones (that is, Portuguese-speakers), many of which might have need of a stronger sense of community in this foreign land? According to some reports, these New Religions have found more success in attracting Brazilian-Japanese recruits than has the mainstream Japanese Catholic Church.

The years went by. More and more manufacturing plants relied on Brazilian labor, and the economic situation back in Brazil was still uncertain. As a result, an increasing amount of dekasegi chose to remain in Japan, rather than return home. Ironically, this emulated the lives of their ancestors, who had moved to Brazil with an eye to getting rich quick and going home. Their ancestors instead became the founders of a multigenerational community of over a million and a half people. After all, their jobs in Japan, no matter how demeaning for some, feature wages that are often five to ten times what they would earn doing similar work back in Brazil. The huge flows of money they had been remitting home began to sputter and slow to a trickle as more people began using those fund for their lives in Japan.

Now, in 2018, the hundreds of thousands of Brazilians in Japan account for the largest Lusophone population in Asia. They eclipse the combined populations of Macao, East Timor, and the Indian state of Goa – all of which were under Portuguese control for hundreds of years.

Japanese-Brazilians: Abandoned by the Homeland?

The stipulation for accepting this return aid is extremely high. Anyone wishing to accept must promise to never return to Japan again on such a work visa. Click To Tweet

But fate and history abound with yet more ironies.

Following the 2008-2009 economic crisis and the subsequent huge manufacturing crash (and with Japanese-Brazilians not fitting into the wa of society as previously envisioned), the Japanese government began looking for ways to incentivize the dekasegi to once again return to Brazil. For a group whose ancestors Japanese authorities ordered out of Japan when the economy was bad, only to court back when the economy was suddenly booming, this urged second diaspora must be a hard pill to swallow.

The Japanese government is offering ethnic Japanese South Americans free airfare and a gift of a few thousand dollars per dependent to return from whence they most recently came. This puts many cash-strapped and laid-off plant workers between a rock a hard place. And perhaps most shockingly of all, the stipulation for accepting this return aid is extremely high – anyone wishing to accept must promise to never return to Japan again on such a work visa.

The Brazilian-Japanese have become something akin to “immigrant celebrities,” and seem to endlessly fascinated their mainland cousins. Take a look at some “interesting” questions asked regarding Nikkei Burajiru-Jin on Yahoo!知恵袋 (Yahoo! Chiebukuro, the Japanese version of Yahoo! Answers).

「…日本語を勉強する気はないのでしょうか?」 “…Don’t they have any desire to study the Japanese language?”

(Responders logically explain that language or cultural acquisition is not the main reason most dekasegi come to Japan.)


“Is it just my imagination that Nikkei-Brazilians don’t seem to often mix races with black people?”

(Responders explain this is not necessarily racism on the nikkeis’part, but perhaps because of the demographics of southern Brazil.)


“When we speak of marriage, he says the process would be too hard…”

(In which a Japanese woman with a nikkei-Brazilian boyfriend of 8 years who she has a child with complains that her otherwise supportive partner refuses to marry, and responders imply he likely has a wife back in Brazil)

Facing attitudes like this, it’s no surprise that many Japanese Brazilians don’t want to stick around. Wellington Shibuya, a Japanese-Brazilian who had lived in Japan for six years as a dekasegi, had this to say to the New York times on the matter:

They put up with us as long as they needed the labor, but now that the economy is bad, they throw us a bit of cash and say goodbye. We worked hard; we tried to fit in. Yet they’re so quick to kick us out. I’m happy to leave a country like this.

But still, a majority of Japanese-Brazilians have managed to stay in Japan – even if dwindling numbers have seen arrivals from both the Philippines and Vietnam overtake them in Japanese demographics. The road has been a bumpy one, and current trends towards filling those “three-K” jobs by hiring Southeast Asian workers on often controversial and abused “trainee program” visas has shifted focus away from the reuniting of long-lost Japanese diaspora populations with Japan.

But Japanese-Brazilians will continue to make up a vibrant, vital part of Japanese society. Their tale, one of leaving for distant shores and returning as something new, will continue to inspire. And it will endure no matter how hard their homeland attempts to see them leave yet again.


Tsuda, Takeyuki. Strangers in the Ethnic Homeland: Japanese Brazilian Return Migration in Transnational Perspective. Columbia University Press, 2003. Print.

Dower, John W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. Norton & Company/New Press, 1999. Print.

Roth, Joshua Hotaka. Brokered Homeland: Japanese Brazilian Migrants in Japan. Cornell University Press, 2002. Print.

Ito, Tim. Overview: Brazil: A History of Political and Economic Turmoil. Washingtonpost.com, updated 1999. Accessed November 27th 2018.

Tabuchi, Hiroko. Japan Pays Foreign Workers to Go Home. New York Times, April 22, 2009, . Accessed Nov. 11th 2018.

Cordova Quero, Hugo. Faithing Japan: Japanese Brazilian Migrants and the Roman Catholic Church. Lexington Books, USA. 2010. Print.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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