Why Are There So Many Japanese In Brazil?

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The story of Japanese migration to Brazil, why it occurred, and how the Japanese community adapted and flourished is a fascinating tale of perseverance, diligence, and grit. Today Brazil is home to more Japanese and those of Japanese descent than any other country. Why is that?

More than two million Japanese and their descendants live in Brazil today. The reasons are numerous, partly connected to the opportunities they enjoy in Brazil and also because a return to Japan was initially too costly for most, and ethnic ties have steadily weakened over the years.

Also read: The 12 Major International Airports in Brazil: A Traveler’s Guide

Why Are There So Many Japanese Brazilians?

June 18th, 2023, marked the 115th anniversary of the arrival of the Kasato Maru, carrying 781 Japanese, most of whom were farmers. The story behind this first migration is intriguing.

The Reasons For Japanese Migration To Brazil

The underlying reasons for Japanese migration to Brazil can be traced back to the late 19th century.

The Industrialization Of Japan

After centuries of isolation, Japan began to experience rapid industrialization, creating pockets of wealth but also unemployment in some areas, including the agricultural sector.

The Coffee Industry Boom In Brazil

Brazil, on the other hand, was experiencing a shortage of labor in its booming coffee industry, especially after slavery was officially abolished in 1888. These factors set the stage for the Japanese-Brazilian connection.

The Banning Of Japanese Immigrants To The USA

Another reason why Brazil became a popular destination was the “Gentleman’s Agreement” between Japan and the USA, limiting Japanese immigration to the US to businessmen and professionals in an effort to reduce tensions between the two nations and their people.

Seeking a better life and new horizons, many Japanese began to explore overseas options. In 1907, the Brazilian and Japanese governments signed a treaty permitting Japanese migration to Brazil, where there was a shortage of labor on the coffee plantations and many opportunities.

According to research, between 1917 and 1940, over 164,000 Japanese immigrated to Brazil, with three-quarters of that number going to the state of São Paulo, where many of the coffee plantations were located.

Although most immigrants from Japan intended to make enough money to return home, Brazilian landowners made this an impossibility for most. Only 10% of those Japanese who immigrated to Brazil before the Second World War managed to return to Japan.

Were The Japanese Accepted In Brazil?

Even though the first Japanese migrants arrived in Japan as a result of a political agreement, the acceptance by the Brazilians of foreigners was not particularly warm.   

How Were The First Immigrants Treated?

Initially, Japanese immigrants faced challenges in adapting to their new environment. Language barriers, cultural differences, and the demands of manual labor posed enormous difficulties. The landowners, although not slaveowners, paid very poorly and required long hours from their Japanese laborers.

However, through a system called “partnership farming,” many Japanese managed to save some money and buy their land, the first purchase taking place in São Paulo in 1911. Thereafter, many Japanese immigrants purchased land in rural Brazil so that one day they could make enough to return to Japan.

Did Brazil Law Discriminate Against Japanese?

In the years between the two world wars, the Japanese community was very much a separate ethnic group in Brazil, educating their children in Japanese, remaining socially isolated, and discriminated against in certain legislation which sought to limit their numbers.

During World War 2, after Brazil declared war against Japan, the Japanese became the target of much hostility, and Brazilians could be jailed for speaking Japanese in public. It was only after the war that this hostility cooled, and the Japanese could begin to assimilate into Brazilian society.

What Role Do Japanese Play In Brazil Today?

The position of Japanese Brazilians is very different in modern-day Brazil.

Their strong work ethic, discipline, and commitment to improving their living conditions enabled the Japanese community to establish itself firmly as a major force in Brazilian society. Over time, they have diversified their roles far beyond agriculture, becoming leaders in many vital fields.

As new generations grew up in the country, Japanese Brazilians integrated more and more into Brazilian society. This integration was reflected in factors such as intermarriage, education, and a shared sense of identity as both Japanese and Brazilian.

Is Japanese Culture Part Of Brazil?

Japanese culture, in its many forms, also found a place in Brazilian society. Martial arts like judo and karate have gained popularity, Japanese cuisine has become widespread, and cultural festivals are celebrated across the country. This gradual blending of cultures reflects the successful assimilation of Japanese immigrants into Brazilian society.

Two Examples Of Combined Japanese-Brazilian Culture

Bairro da Liberdade: In Sao Paulo, home to the largest Japanese Brazilian population in the country, the Bairro da Liberdade is a little piece of Japan, with craft markets, restaurants, traditional food stalls, shops specializing in Japanese ware, and a popular venue for all Brazilians.

Parque do Japão: In Maringá, a city in Paraná and a home to many Japanese, the Parque do Japão is a Japanese-style garden with bonsai, Japanese plants, and a lake with koi. It is the largest Japanese garden in Latin America, occupying an area of 25 acres, and was created to celebrate the centenary of the arrival of the first Japanese.

Are There Famous Japanese Brazilians?

There are many Brazilian Japanese who have made their mark in various fields. Here is a small selection:

  • Yudi Tamashiro: Yudi Tamashiro gained fame as a presenter and host of children’s TV shows in Brazil. He is of Japanese and Italian descent and became a beloved figure among Brazilian families.
  • Ken Kaneko: Ken Kaneko is a Brazilian musician and composer with Japanese roots. He is a talented cellist who has performed with renowned orchestras and collaborated with various artists, contributing to Brazil’s music scene.
  • Sabrina Sato: Sabrina Sato is a Brazilian television presenter, actress, and comedian known for her charismatic presence and humor. She has a Japanese-Brazilian heritage and has been a prominent figure in the entertainment industry.
  • Daniel Matsunaga: Daniel Kenji Silva Matsunaga is a Brazilian model, actor, professional footballer, host, and businessman of Japanese Brazilian descent
  • Miyuki Ishikawa: Miyuki Ishikawa is a Brazilian judoka of Japanese descent. She has represented Brazil in various international judo competitions and is known for her achievements in the sport.
  • Elisa Nakagawa: Elisa Nakagawa is a Brazilian journalist and presenter of Japanese descent. She has worked in various media outlets and has been recognized for her journalism and media communication contributions.

And now for someone I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have thought of:

  • Kimi Räikkönen: While not originally from Brazil, Kimi Räikkönen, the Finnish Formula One racing driver, is of Japanese-Brazilian descent through his maternal grandmother.

These are just a few examples of the many Japanese-Brazilians who have excelled in various fields and contributed to Brazilian society and culture. Their achievements showcase the diversity and richness of the Japanese-Brazilian community’s impact on Brazil’s social and cultural landscape.

Are Japanese Returning To Japan?

Since the end of the 1980s, Brazilians of Japanese descent have returned to Japan as unskilled foreign workers and are now the second largest group of” foreigners” in Japan. Although of Japanese descent, most are born and raised in Brazil and have adopted Brazilian culture. Strangers in Japan, they have become the country’s newest ethnic minority.

Coupled with this growth of the Japanese Brazilian community in Japan is the fact that, as of October 2022, only 47,500 Japanese with Japanese citizenship lived in Brazil, compared to a figure of 56,000 in 2013.

Part of the reason for this decline is simply age – the first-generation immigrant and the second-generation (nikkeijin) figures are falling through natural attrition. But the total number of Japanese Brazilians is also dropping.

The reason for this is more economic than political. Japan’s economy has grown since the 1980s, whereas Brazil has had periods of runaway inflation and economic turmoil. Japanese Brazilians have the distinction of being the highest-earning group in Brazil,  but there are enough reasons to attract many back “home.”