Japanese Brazilians seek new identity

For a century and more, Japanese and their descendants have migrated back and forth across the Pacific to and from South America in search of better lives for themselves and their children. Brazil’s economy, the growth of which in recent years has contrasted starkly with Japan – has driven the latest wave of such journeys, with a third of Japan’s Brazilian community leaving since the 2008 global economic crisis hit. For those left behind the change brings very particular challenges.

In April 2008 some 13,000 Brazilian workers and their families lived in Toyohashi, an industrial city in central Japan, 250 kilometres (155 miles) southwest of Tokyo. Only around 8,000 remain.

Many of the migrants look Japanese despite their Portuguese names and Brazilian passports, which should be a key help for integration, but at the same time many still know little of Japanese language and culture.

With their numbers now in rapid decline, the community has lost its self-sustaining critical mass, and those who choose to stay on are having to make extra efforts to bridge language and cultural divides. Andrea Pereira moved to Japan with her husband more than 10 years ago, and their six-year-old daughter Ellen was born into a family that spoke Portuguese at home, meaning she has never had the chance to properly learn Japanese.

The Pereiras’ solution was to send her to a pre-school run by a local Brazilian association in Toyohashi, where she can learn about her host culture, and how to talk to those around her. ‘We hope that we can take away as much anxiety as possible,’ said pre-school teacher Tsuyuko Yokota, adding that the school would help the children make a ‘smooth and fun start’ at elementary school. ‘Although there are Brazilian schools here that teach in our mother tongue of Portuguese, I’d prefer a Japanese school,’ said Pereira, 30, a mother of three. ‘We prefer them to be learning what it’s like to be Japanese,’ she said. The families’ divided identities are a legacy of a complicated history. Thousands of Japanese went to South America at the start of the 20th century, accepting low wages and poor working conditions on coffee plantations after the abolition of slavery. In the past 100 years, the number of Brazilians of Japanese descent had grown to around 1.4 million, according to official statistics.

Another example of such populations lies in Peru, where the ethnic Japanese politician Alberto Fujimori was president for 10 years from 1990 until he fled – to Japan – during a corruption scandal. Unlike many rich nations, ethnically homogenous Japan does not have a large immigrant population, and has shown itself to be unusually allergic to the idea of large influxes of foreigners. But when its economy boomed in the 1970s and 1980s, policy-makers in Tokyo found the country was short of labour and turned to the emigrants’ descendants.

When Tokyo moved to allow people with Japanese heritage to come to work in Japan on renewable three-year visas, tens of thousands crossed the Pacific to return to their ancestral homeland and seek their fortunes. But setting up home in Japan left some Brazilians struggling, with seemingly unbridgeable language and culture gaps meaning many simply retreated into their immigrant communities, creating pockets of Portuguese-speakers who had good jobs but little common ground with their wider surroundings. Since the global economic crisis hit four years ago, many short-term worker contracts have ended and the movement has been the other way, despite Brazil’s red hot economy slowing recently.

By Toshi Maeda, courtesy AFP
Next Story
Share it