Many people aren’t aware that Brazil has had a robust Japanese and Japanese-Brazilian population. How did that happen? To find the answer, we need to go back to Meiji Japan.
A Bit of Brazil – in Japan
A few years back, I was around halfway done with my four-year stint as an elementary school English teacher in rural Fukushima. There, I had the occasion to visit the city of Toyohashi (豊橋市) on a semi-regular basis.
Toyohashi is a major site for the manufacture and import/export of automobiles. But otherwise, in many ways, it’s your average mid-sized Japanese city. Nightlife and restaurants cluster around a bullet-train station. A single concrete yagura donjon castle overlooks a park near the city hall. And a general sprawl of nondescript retail, commercial and residence buildings stretching out to the mountains, passing over the unmarked boundaries between neighboring municipalities.
I would take the bullet train down to Aichi Prefecture. Once at Toyohashi Station, I would head to the nearby covered streets to kill some time.
Yet walking these streets, anyone used to Japan would quickly pick up that something here was in fact different. It’s not quite like the ubiquitous atmosphere, sights, and sounds one can experience in any area of the country. Listen even a little closer and you’d notice that people around you were speaking a language that, often, wasn’t Japanese. It wasn’t even Chinese, Korean, or English. In the streets of Toyohashi, you can hear Portuguese.
Like many cities in the car-manufacturing belt that stretches through the Tokaido Corridor, Toyohashi has a major Brazilian population. (To be more specific, this population is made up in large part by Japanese-Brazilian returnees and their descendants). In Toyohashi, Brazilian flags hang from shop windows and apartment balconies. AU cell phone shops have signs written in Portuguese and advertising staff that speak that language. Brazilian-Japanese waiters staff the bars and restaurants around the station area. (I occasionally shared in interesting conversations with my bartender at local watering hole Atlantica. She would tell me about moving to Japan in her youth and her rapid acclimation to the country).
When I walked into a 7-11 during the day for some food, I didn’t feel out of place. In the konbini back in my small village in Fukushima Prefecture, I’d stick out like a sore thumb by dint of my gaijin-ness. But here in Toyohashi, I was, more often than not, simply one of many shoppers who did not appear traditionally Japanese.
The story of these Brazilian-Japanese, once called the dekasegi (出稼ぎ) and how they came to cities like Toyohashi is fascinating. It’s a narrative of migration, assimilation, cultural reclamation, and ongoing cultural clashes. But a story of the returnees would not be complete without first discovering how their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents came to be in Brazil in the first place.
In order to return, one must first leave.
Japan’s Need to Export Its Own Citizens
This story begins in the year 1908, with a trusty Japanese ship called the Kasato Maru (笠戸丸).
Originally built in England, Russian interests purchased the ship, renamed Kazan. It had served as a hospital ship during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. The victorious Japanese navy had sunk it. They then subsequently salvaged it and gave it its newly-christened name.
As it departed the Port of Kobe back in 1908, the ship was taking a historical new voyage. On it rode 781 Japanese passengers. The vast majority of them had never have left their country before. Many of them would never see it again.
They were bound for the Port of Santos in São Paulo, Brazil. There, business interests would put them to work in rural coffee plantations. Little did they know that their motley group would be just an initial wave of immigrants. One day soon, their numbers would constitute the greatest population of ethnic Japanese outside of the Japanese archipelago.
As for the Kasato Maru itself, it continued to ply the route between Japan and South America. Eventually, the Japanese Navy seconded it for World War II. In 1945, Russian bombing sent it to the freezing depths of the Bering Sea off Kamchatka. It still lays to this very day, 18 meters deep.
Why were these 165 Japanese families leaving their home for perhaps unimaginably foreign lands?
They were probably unaware that, in a sense, they were following the same linguistic trajectory of some of the first Japanese to ever live outside Japan in any large numbers. The first Japanese in Europe were slaves sold to merchants of the Portuguese Empire in the late 16th century. Among those enslaved Japanese had been captives of the various ongoing civil wars. But there had also been those who had sold themselves or their family into Portuguese slavery to escape crushing poverty.
In this latter reason, they had something in common with those first immigrants to Brazil in 1908. Since 1885, Japan had struggled with both overpopulation and extreme inflation. The dramatic changing of a taxation system based on rice to one where taxes were gathered by way of currency disrupted markets and lead to many farmers losing their land and homes.
Japan had only recently emerged from 300 years of self-imposed isolation. The newly-minted Meiji government had only just opened the country to foreign trade and immigration. At first, it resisted allowing its citizens to emigrate abroad. Soon, however, the extreme poverty that was becoming so widespread made them consider otherwise. A mass immigration followed, with half a million Japanese leaving for the promise of elsewhere between 1885 and 1923.
From the US to Brazil
Some immigrants moved to the Empire of Japan’s colonies and puppet states throughout Asia. However, many impoverished farmers began heading to the United States, where they dreamed of a better life. Companies who sought to replace the Chinese immigrant flows that had been halted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 snapped them up.
But soon, American anti-immigrant forces shifted their ire to these new waves of Japanese. The US government passed new laws limiting their numbers. Those Japanese wishing to find a new life abroad had to look elsewhere. Their gaze moved southward, to Latin America. They looked first to Mexico – and then, more permanently, to Brazil.
Japan needed to send hungry mouths elsewhere. Brazil, on the other hand, had a great need for a new source of cheap labor. During the Atlantic Slave Trade era, Brazil had imported more slaves than any other nation. They had set these millions of oppressed peoples to work in plantations and mines across the vast country.
But authorities dramatically slowed in the 1850s. They abolished it altogether in 1888. As a result, the rich owners of plantations for Brazil’s fairly new major export – coffee – realized they would need a huge new source of labor. The cheaper, the better.
Brazil’s Plantation Owners Welcome the Japanese
The plantation owners first sought to attract those considered the most “desirable” group of potential immigrants, Europeans. They proffered promises of state and company support that would help them finance the journey to Brazil. Huge waves came from Italy, Portugal, and Spain.
However, before long, reports of improper treatment and terrible working and housing conditions propagated in these immigrants’ home countries. Soon, European countries were banning immigration to Brazil.
The coffee plantation owners had to cast around for another group. Chinese would be easiest. But they were considered the least “desirable” option. The owners ruled them out of consideration.
Japan, however, had recently gained some clout by defeating Russia in all-out naval war. Between the Japanese government’s desire to lessen the burden of an overpopulated countryside and Brazil’s need for immigrant labor, the course was set, and soon the Kasato Maru was on its way.
Separate and Blended Cultures
Immigration continued and intensified as the Japanese government made more deals with its Brazilian counterpart. They formed immigration offices and secured seemingly advantageous privileges for the Japanese immigrants. Many of these immigrants were sold a bill of goods before leaving Japan. Authorities persuaded them that Brazil would be the perfect place to quickly grow wealthy from a few years of hard labor.
The realities that met them on the coffee plantations were quite different. These immigrant farmers, given the name colono in Portuguese, found their actual assigned wages were much less than advertised. In fact, they were as much as 1/5th of what immigrants to Hawaii or other areas of the US made. They worked in back-breaking conditions. They felled trees and planting crops (when not being felled by malaria and other diseases themselves). And they harvested coffee and worked side jobs to get by.
Some fled the harsh life on the plantations for the cities. But many endured. Before long, they were able to buy their own land and enter into other sorts of agriculture. Soon enough, they needed additional labor on their farms. As a result, they themselves hired local Brazilians or leased their land to a newly arrived Japanese family. By the 1940s, in the lead up to WWII, the Japanese in Brazil found had become a well-established economic force.
These immigrants’ communities were tightly-knit, basically functioning as Japanese villages abroad. Most first-generation immigrants (called 一世, issei in Japanese) could speak but little Portuguese, and essentially lived in a linguistic world that was completely Japanese – they read Japanese newspapers and listened to Japanese radio broadcasts, and called those in their communities “Children of the Emperor.” They prayed at newly-built local Shinto shrines and celebrated Japanese holidays, just as they would have in Japan. Their children, the second-generation (二世, nisei) were different – despite overwhelmingly speaking Japanese at home, they picked up the local language much faster.
Racism and Forced Assimilation
But both issei and nisei married within the Japanese community. And in those first generations intermarriage (雑婚, zakkon) was looked down upon. The communities maintained a strict sense of “us” versus “them”.
In some sense, this was not without good reason. The local population saw the Japanese as (or imagined them to be) untrustworthy, “unclean,” and – worst of all – not white.
The Brazilian government itself was a source of this last grievance. The government had led a program of “whitening”. It hoped to maintain and indeed increase in Brazil a sense of deep connection to Europe (and Portugal in particular). The increasing population of Japanese and their growing success put a spanner in these racial works. A contemporary Brazilian jurist and historian said this regarding the Japanese immigrants:
…(The Japanese) are like sulfur: insoluble.
The Brazilian Government began curtailing immigration from Japan. It also started a program of forced assimilation aimed at eliminating the “yellow” gene in Brazil by way of ethnic mixing.
Japanese Population Targeted
But the worst of these degradations came in the lead up to and during World War II. President Vargas came into power following a coup d’etat in 1930. He forthwith instigated a series of totalitarian reforms, including many targeting the Japanese population.
The Vargas government saw the Japanese as somehow the immigrant group least susceptible to assimilation attempts. Furthermore, they feared an imagined Japanese attempt to colonize South America.
As a result, the government began a widespread policy of Brazilianization. It banned foreign-language publications without side-by-side Portuguese translations. Furthermore, it prevented people of foreign ethnicities from congregating, the speaking of foreign languages in pubic or in private houses of worship, and placed Brazilian Portuguese teachers in all local schools. It even pressured the children of immigrants to enter the army. After entering, they were posted geographically far away from their native ethnic groups.
Issei and Nisei Radicalization
Brazil joined the side of the Allies after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in WWII. The repression of the Japanese became all the harsher. It even included forced relocations. Some government officials wanted to emulate the US and create extralegal internment camps for ethnic Japanese. Fortunately, this never bore fruit.
Some Issei and Nisei responded to these attacks on their identity by forming ultra-nationalistic, emperor worshiping underground movements. In their view, Brazil was becoming an enemy state of the homeland. Most interestingly, these groups did not dissipate after Japan’s surrender in 1945. In fact, they become more radical and belligerent. Many of them thought reports of the Japanese defeat were propaganda. (The dissipation of Japanese-language newspapers following government restrictions created a dirth of reliable news sources.)
Some 50,000 Japanese immigrants held membership in the terroristic Shindo Renmei (臣道連盟). The group aimed to spread the word of the Japanese victory in the war and to punish defeatists who argued otherwise.
It was the only Brazilian-Japanese political group to ever resort to violence. Between the years 1945 and 1947, they used firearms and katana to murder 23 and injure 147 Japanese-Brazilians. In their view, these people had shamed the emperor by believing Japan could possibly have suffered wartime defeat.
Eventually, the military had to get involved, arresting over 400 Shindo Renmei members in São Paulo. Violence subsided, even though holdouts of the nationalistic groups remained for many years, still firmly believing that Japan had won the war.
The Third Generation of Japanese-Brazilians
Things finally began to shift towards normalcy in the 1950s, as population trends and the arrival of new waves of Japanese immigrants in the 1950s made such bellicose nationalist groups as Shindo Renmei obsolete. A third generation, called the sansei (三世), was being born to the Japanese immigrant population. This new generation saw themselves more and more as Brazilian first, Japanese second.
Some Nisei had indeed married with local Brazilians, and their children began to speak less Japanese and more Portuguese, and the end of the war brought waves of new immigrants hoping to escape the deep economic depression war-ravaged Japan would suffer in subsequent years. The status of the Japanese within Brazilian society grew, and throughout the 1950s and 60s the most industrious began to enter Brazil’s middle and even upper classes. Their population surged in São Paulo, as well as the neighboring states of Paraná, and eventually people of Japanese descent came to live in all the states of Brazil. Intermarriage became more acceptable with each generation, and now 4% of the entire Brazilian population has some Japanese ancestry.
A Shift in Viewpoints
After many degradations over the decades of their first disembarkment, the local consensus shifted from a negative view of the Japanese to seeing them as a hard-working people who had contributed greatly to the cultivation of the land and flourishing of the Brazilian culture. This came as the nisei, the second generation Japanese and thus the first generation to be born outside of Japan, attained more wealth.
In the 1960s and 1970s Japan’s economy and technical fame were on a meteoric rise. Suddenly Japan was seen as an enviable economic and technological powerhouse, and the scions of such a country were to be respected. As of 2014, the population people of Japanese descent in Brazil has reached to 1.5 million – the largest population of ethnic Japanese outside of Japan in the entire world. They have contributed to Brazilian architecture, politics, sports, and more.
In 2008, exactly 100 years after the Kasato Maru had embarked on its voyage to Brazil, Crown Prince Naruhito, heir-apparent to the Chrysanthemum Throne, made his own journey to Brazil. He toured around the country from São Paulo to Brasilia. Nearly everywhere he went, huge crowds of thousands of Japanese Brazilians greeted him. They spoke to them about the important links between their communities.
In the harbor at Santos, three Japanese naval ships marked the centennial of Japanese immigration to Brazil. The ships entered the bay at just the time the Kasato Maru had all those years ago. A group of Issei and their children and grandchildren, whole generations raised on Brazilian soil, waited on the beach to greet its arrival.
The story of the Japanese in Brazil is far from over. A new and perhaps even more unexpected story had begun forty years ago on the other side of the world, back in the 1980s.
The tale of how the Brazilian-Japanese returned to Japan begins a new, separate chapter in this tale of immigration and national identity. The strange flow of economics, demographics, race, and culture began to draw the Brazilian-Japanese back to their cultural hearth.
Next in This Series
De Carvalho, Daiela. Migrants and Identity in Japan and Brazil: The Nikkeijin. Routledge, 27 Aug 2003. Print.
Lesser, Jeffrey. Searching for Home Abroad. Duke University Press, 15 Sep 2003. Print.
Grudgings, Stuart. Brazil’s Japanese mark 100 years of immigration. Reuters, June 18, 2008. Accessed November 10th, 2018.