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Friday, June 20, 2008


Immigrants weave tale of triumph

Starting from zero, Japanese in Brazil have carved out a prominent role in society

Staff writer

When the Kasato Maru arrived in Brazil with the first Japanese immigrants at Santos port near Sao Paulo on June 18, 1908, a shipload of Okinawans and other Japanese disembarked and headed out to find work on the coffee plantations, seeking a better life.

News photo
Looking back: Hisatoshi Tajima, an associate professor of Latin American history at Josai International University, is interviewed in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, this month. TAKAHIRO FUKADA PHOTO

For the past 100 years, the lives of the Japanese immigrants and their descendants have been filled with high hopes, disappointments, perseverance, strife and prosperity, according to a prominent researcher.

"Starting from zero was unimaginably tough," said Hisatoshi Tajima, a 55-year-old associate professor at Josai International University in Chiba Prefecture and an expert on Japanese emigration to Brazil.

The language and culture were incomprehensible and the food was strange, he said. Tajima moved to Sao Paulo with his parents in 1958 as a young boy. When he was still in high school, he returned to Japan in 1972 to continue his studies here.

The Japanese emigration phenomenon began as a solution to pressing needs in both countries, Tajima explained.

As the modern Meiji government took over the samurai-era Tokugawa shogunate in the mid-19th century and embarked on industrialization, people left farming villages for the cities.

Samurai in the upper class could remain as officials in the new government, but those in the lower classes found themselves jobless and became the source of social unrest.

To cope with the excessive flow into the cities and to mitigate the unrest, the government established a system to send people abroad.

"Population flow was a major part of Japan's modernization," Tajima said.

Struggling to survive, many underprivileged people, including second or third sons of farming families, dreamed of striking it rich abroad and returning triumphantly to Japan.

Brazil was at first reluctant to accept Japanese. There was a prejudice against "Orientals," who were regarded as uncivilized and having a different sense of values, Tajima said.

The situation changed after Italy stopped sending workers to the South American nation on grounds that they were being mistreated on the coffee plantations.

Brazil, needing to fill the vacuum, began accepting Japanese.

In the early stages, Japanese worked long hours without pay or for wages lower than stated in their contracts. Some disappeared before their contracts ran out, but most remained, Tajima said.

The hardships continued even after contracts were completed.

Some purchased undeveloped forests from the local government and moved there to cultivate them. No machinery was available and they had to depend on themselves to fell huge trees.

As the years went by, the immigrants settled down and got on with their lives. But no matter where they lived, they still regarded themselves as Japanese and built their own communities, schools and shops, Tajima said.

Immigration halted during World War II, when Brazil sided with the Allies and severed relations with Japan.

The Japanese in Brazil, just like their countrymen back home, never believed Japan would lose. But when Emperor Hirohito (known posthumously as Showa) announced the surrender, it caused a deep split in the immigrant community.

Two camps formed: those who could not concede defeat and those who could, Tajima said.

Murders and harassment were among the offenses the two sides committed against each other. More than 30,000 Japanese were held by police and some were convicted of crimes, he said.

The strife ended around 1947, as reality gradually sank in and local authorities imposed heavy controls.

"They realized it was meaningless for members of the Japanese community in Brazil to continue to fight against each other," he said.

With their home country in ruins, the immigrants no longer wished to return to Japan, and the flow of immigrants resumed, adding 60,000 Japanese to the 190,000 already there, Tajima said.

From the 1950s on, children of the original immigrants began attending universities and taking their place in Brazil's intellectual strata. When he was growing up in Brazil, Tajima often heard jokes like, "To get into Sao Paulo University, I need to kill a Japanese."

Today, 100 years after immigration began, the descendants of those pioneering Japanese occupy high-profile positions in mass media, the Cabinet, congress and mayors' offices, their public image bolstered dramatically by Japan's flourishing economy, Tajima said.

"The Japanese descendants have established their images as diligent and intelligent," he said. "Japan has become a trustworthy nation."

Toyota Motor Corp.'s Brazilian unit even ran a magazine ad suggesting that Japanese descendants in Brazil are superior to Japanese back home, Tajima said.

With 1.5 million descendants, the Japanese in Brazil constitute the biggest Japanese community outside Japan, a force that likely influenced Brazil's decision to become the first foreign country to adopt Japan's digital television system, he said.

"There are yet more business chances for both nations," Tajima stressed. "The Japanese descendants have advantages" by being able to play a role in Brazil to become bridges between the two countries.

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