Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

The epic tale of the 300,000 cousins the Japanese welcomed home from Brazil and insisted they needed - until they suddenly didn't. Pictured: The Asakusa Samba Carnival, one of the ways Brazilian-Japanese seek to recognize and preserve their Brazilian heritage in Japan. (Picture: のびー / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Conflicted Homecoming: How the Japanese-Brazilians Returned to Japan

Essay   Posted on December 03, 2018 in immigration, brazil, economic miracle, 1980s, 1990s, nikkei, dekasegi, economy • By Noah Oskow • Read Related Articles

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

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

In Brazil, over 17,000 kilometers away from the Japanese archipelago, the Japanese-Brazilian community was by now the largest community of ethnic Japanese outside of the homeland, and had seen its population stretching 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, Pernambuco, and Minas Gerais, the Japanese community was an established and major part of local society. As more and more ethnic Japanese intermarried into other local populations and their children interacted with and grew up in the wider Brazilian world exclusively in Portuguese, distant memories of a homeland in Japan became less sharp, more blurred at the edges - just as Japan itself was making itself known more forcefully than any time in the past 35 years.

And it was just at this time that Japan - which less than a century earlier had urged the poorer segments of its over swollen rural population to leave their homes for the foreign shores of labor-starved Brazil - suddenly cast its eyes on South America for the first time in decades, and remembered its millions of prodigal sons and daughters living there.

The Need for Labor

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))

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 was greatly diminished, its economy and infrastructure destroyed. 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, often struggling 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 often sprung up around major train stations. While some enterprising entrepreneurs (like Akio Morita and Minoru Iwasaki of a then-nascent company called Sony) where already hard at work trying to find new ways to succeed in a shattered economy, the world now viewed Japan as a subdued manufacturer of cheap wooden knick-knacks.

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 was trending towards a completely different direction, as what has come to be known as 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. The Japanese people, who only recently had to struggle to simply find rice to feed their families or to put a roof over their heads, had almost overnight become middle class. Large corporations offered guaranteed lifetime employment with enviable benefits, and 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 (something reflected 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 lifted into the middle class, fewer and fewer people wanted to engage in the necessary blue-collar work of manufacturing or construction, or indeed take on any job featuring the so-called “Three Ks,” - jobs that were considered kitanai (汚い - dirty), kiken (危険, dangerous), or kitsui (きつい, demanding).

These jobs still needed to be filled – the economy couldn’t be sustained 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, leading Japanese authorities to see these foreign nationals as "too different" - too disruptive of the national wa (和, harmony).

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

Why not bring back the Japanese-Brazilians?

A Cunnning Plan

The Japanese government looked towards the Japanese-Brazilians as an acceptable source of labor because they were ostensibly “Japanese.” This was something the Japanese-Brazilians themselves may well have agreed with - yet, by the 1980s their community was truly entrenched in Brazilian culture, with a growing majority of the population having been born in Brazil, or having Brazil-born parents, or even a local Brazilian parent. Still, their grandparents and parents had maintained a strong connection to Japan by participating in overseas Japanese organizations and teaching 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,” be it as nikkei-jin (日系人, a Japanese word meaning any person of Japanese descent who lives abroad), nisei (二世, technically meaning ‘second-generation Japanese immigrant’ in Japanese but used by Brazilians to refer to their entire community), or simply by 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. While the Brazil of the 1960s had seen its own “economic miracle,” unlike Japan, it had not been able to weather the global oil crises of the mid-70s, and additional local political and economic instability had lead 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.

But Japan’s own immigration laws stood in the way of the mass return migration it needed. While isseii (一世, first-generation) Japanese immigrants to Brazil were of course still Japanese citizens who could return and work as they liked, 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 managed to get the visas they needed to work in the homeland.

Japanese officials knew action needed to be taken, and with surprising swiftness taken it was. 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

Boat near Osaka
Economic conditions led Japanese authorities to re-invite the descendants of the citizems 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 - each 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, filling 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 - for whom hearing snatches of Kansai of Mikawa dialect from their fellow riders of the Meitetsu Line might have at one time seemed excotic - were suddenly exposed to a completly foreign language flowing from otherwise Japanese-appearing commuters sitting next to them.

Major growing pains commenced as plant workers saw foreigners, who spoke in a strange tongue - which they soon came to know as Portuguese - and whose attitude towards work and propriety differed from them, suddenly entering their workforce en masse. Entire neighborhoods near plants or construction sites became decidedly diverse, where once they had been almost completely homogeneous. For some Japanese, this sudden change was simply too shocking - 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 because of perceived cultural similarities and shared “Japanese-ness”. But although Japanese-Brazilians identified as Japanese themselves while in Brazil, 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. After all, most dekasegi are nisei or sansei, and 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.

Many interviews with Japanese-Brazilian dekasegi reveal an interesting inverse crisis of identity. In Brazil they feel Japanese, but in Japan they feel Brazilian. 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 lead 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), Brazilian flags hang from shop windows and apartment balconies, major chains market to dekasegi with signs in Portuguese, and Brazilian Portuguese language schools offer education to the immigrant children (whom the Japanese school system often fails to properly account for, and who fall through the cracks of public education in startling numbers - something made worse because education is not compulsory for non-citizen children in Japan).

The Japanese government’s desire for a brotherly connection with like-minded Japanese of the diaspora has been seen by some Japanese-Brazilians 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 has been one aimed at ijusha (移住者, a term that brings to mind first-generation immigrants) and their 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, are ignored.

Finding a Way of Life

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; an interesting point being their religion. Brazilian-Japanese are majority catholic, and 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. And although Brazilian-Japanese may make up about half of all Catholics in Japan, their religious customs are distinctly Brazilian and take place in Portuguese, which has limited 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, Brazilian-Japanese immigrants have been seen as a potentially fertile source of new converts to so-called “New Religions” (新宗教), a catch-all phrase used for the numerous and sometimes controversial religious and spiritual movements that have popped up 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, picking up so many non-Japanese converts in that country that they had switched their main language of observance to Portuguese rather than their original Japanese - and 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? It could perhaps be considered amusing that 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, and with more and more manufacturing plants relying on Brazilian labor, and the economic situation back in Brazil still uncertain, an increasing amount of dekasegi began to choose to remain in Japan rather than return home as originally planned - ironically mirroring the lives of their ancestors, who had moved to Brazil with an eye of getting rich quick and going home, only to become 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, eclipsing the combined populations of Macao, East Timor, and the Indian state of Goa - all of which were under Portuguese control for hundreds of years.

Abandoned by the Homeland?

Above: descendants of Japanese immigrants in Brazil talk with a TV news program about how they preserve their connection with Japanese culture.

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 were told to leave Japan when the economy was bad, only to be courted 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, leading 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 - whose tale, one of leaving for distant shores and returning as something new, will continue to inspire - 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, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/brazil/overview.htm. Accessed November 27th 2018.

Tabuchi, Hiroko. Japan Pays Foreign Workers to Go Home. New York Times, April 22, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/23/business/global/23immigrant.html. Accessed Nov. 11th 2018.

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

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 lead to appearances at speaking events and popular podcasts. Noah is currently working on his Masters Degree in Global Studies at Leipzig University in Germany.


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