The Japanese Who Came to Call Brazil Home

Why are there so many Brazilian-Japanese in Japan? The answer goes back to the Meiji era, and the government's need to get rid of its own citizens.
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The Japanese who Came to Call Brazil Home

Why are there so many Brazilian-Japanese in Japan? The answer goes back to the Meiji era, and the government's need to get rid of its own citizens.Part 1 of …

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A Bit of Brazil – in Japan

A few years back, when I was around halfway done with my four-year stint as an elementary school English teacher in rural Fukushima, I had the occasion to visit the city of Toyohashi (豊橋市) on a semi-regular basis. Although a major site for the manufacture and import/export of automobiles, Toyohashi is otherwise in many ways your average mid-sized Japanese city, with nightlife and restaurants clustered around a bullet-train station, a single concrete yagura donjon castle overlooking 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, and arriving at Toyohashi Station, 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 from the ubiquitous atmosphere, sights and sounds one can experience in any area of the country. Listen even a little closely, and you’d notice that the language being spoken around you was quite regularly not Japanese, or even Chinese, Korean, or English. In the streets of Toyohashi, Portuguese is being spoken.

Toyohashi, like many cities in the car-manufacturing belt that stretches through the Tokaido Corridor, happens to have 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. Bars and restaurants around the station area are staffed by Brazilian-Japanese waiters (I occasionally shared in interesting conversations with my bartender at local watering hole Atlantica, who told me about moving to Japan in her youth and her rapid acclimation to the country).

When I would walk into a 7-11 during the day for some food, I would experience the strange sensation of somehow not feeling out of place – in the konbini back in my small village in Fukushima Prefecture, I would have stuck out like a sore thumb by dint of my physical 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 a fascinating one. A narrative of migration, assimilation, cultural reclamation, and ongoing cultural clashes, the 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 – for to return, one must first leave.

Japan's Need to Export Its Own Citizens

The Kasato-Maru
An artist's depiction of the Kasato Maru (笠戸丸), which took 782 Japanese citizens to São Paulo, Brazil.

This story begins in the year 1908, with a trusty Japanese ship called the Kasato Maru (笠戸丸). Originally built in England, the ship had been bought by Russian interests, renamed Kazan, and had served as a hospital ship during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. The ship had been sunk by the victorious Japanese navy, and was subsequently salvaged and put into use by the Japanese, who 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 whom would never have left their country before – and many of whom would never see it again. They were bound for the Port of Santos in São Paulo, Brazil, where they would be put to work in rural coffee plantations. Little did they know that their motley group would be the first wave of immigrants that would one day soon 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 until it was seconded to the Japanese Navy for World War II, during which in 1945 Russian bombing sent it to the freezing depths of the Bering Sea off Kamchatka, where it still lays to this very day, 18 meters deep.

Why were these 165 Japanese families onboard the Kasato Maru leaving their home for perhaps unimaginably foreign lands, where people looked so different and spoke in an unfamiliar tongue – Portuguese? 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 having been 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 members 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 been struck by overpopulation as well as extreme inflation, and 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. The newly-minted Meiji government, which had only recently opened the country to foreign trade and immigration after nearly 300 years of self-imposed isolation, was at first resistant to allowing Japanese 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.

A monument honoring the first Japanese citizens to arrive in Brazil.
A monument honoring the first Japanese citizens to arrive in Brazil.

Some immigrants moved to the Empire of Japan’s colonies and puppet states throughout Asia, but many impoverished farmers began heading to the United States, where they dreamed of a better life and were hired as laborers by companies wishing to replace the Chinese immigrant flows that had been halted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But soon American anti-immigrant forces shifted their ire to these new waves of Japanese and new laws were passed by the US government limiting their numbers, and those Japanese wishing to find a new life abroad had to look elsewhere. Their gaze moved southward, to Latin America – first to Mexico, and then, more permanently, to Brazil.

Japan needed to send hungry mouths elsewhere. Brazil, on the other hand, had great need of a new source of cheap labor. During the Atlantic Slave Trade era, Brazil had imported more slaves than any other nation, setting these millions of oppressed peoples to work in plantations and mines across the vast country. But as slavery was first dramatically slowed in the 1850s and then abolished altogether in 1888, the rich owners of plantations for Brazil’s fairly new major export – coffee – realized they would need a huge new source of labor, and the cheaper the better.

The plantation owners first sought to attract those considered the most “desirable” group of potential immigrants, Europeans, with promises of state and company support that would help them finance the journey to Brazil, and help them find work. Huge waves came from Italy, Portugal, and Spain, but 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, and the coffee plantation owners had to cast around for another group. Chinese would be easiest, but were considered the least “desirable” option, and were thus 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

Japanese family living in Brazil
An old picture of Japanese citizens living in Brazil.

Immigration continued and intensified as the Japanese government made more deals with its Brazilian counterpart, forming immigration offices and securing seemingly advantageous privileges for the Japanese immigrants. Many of these immigrants were sold a bill of goods before leaving Japan that made them think Brazil would be the perfect place to quickly grow wealthy from a few years hard labor.

The realities that met them on the coffee plantations were quite different. These immigrant farmers, given thee name colono in Portuguese, found their actual assigned wages were much less than advertised – as much as 1/5th of what immigrants to Hawaii or other areas of the US were making. They worked in back-breaking conditions, felling trees and planting crops (when not being felled by malaria and other diseases themselves), harvested coffee and worked side jobs to get by.

Some fled the harsh life on the plantations for the cities. But many endured, and before long were able to buy their own land and enter into other sorts of agriculture. Soon enough, when they needed additional labor on their farms they would themselves be hiring local Brazilians, or leasing 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 – a strict sense of us and them was still imposed. In some sense, this was not without good reason. Like so many other immigrant groups, and whether deserved or not, the Japanese in Brazil quickly earned the ire of the local population, being seen as or imagined to be untrustworthy, “unclean,” and worst of all – not white.

The Brazilian government itself was a source of this last grievance. The government had embarked on a program of “whitening,” hoping 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, and started a program of forced assimilation, hoping to phase out the “yellow” gene in Brazil by way of ethnic mixing. But the worst of these degradations came in the lead up to and during World War II. When President Vargas came into power following a coup d'etat in 1930, he instigated a series of totalitarian reforms, including many targeting the Japanese population.

Seeing the Japanese as somehow the immigrant group least susceptible to assimilation attempts, and fearing an imagined Japanese attempt to colonize South America, the new Vargas Government began a widespread policy of Brazilianization, banning foreign language publications without side-by-side Portuguese translations, the congregating for people of foreign ethnicities, the speaking of foreign languages in pubic or in private houses of worship, and placed Brazilian Portuguese teachers in all local schools. The children of immigrants where even pressured to enter the army, after which they would be posted geographically far away from their native ethnic groups.

Brazil joined the side of the Allies after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in WWII, and the repression of Japanese became all the harsher, including forced relocations. Some parts of the government even considered following the lead of the United States by implementing extralegal internment camps for ethnic Japanese, but this never came to fruition.

Some Issei and Nisei responded to these constant attacks on their identity by forming ultra-nationalistic, emperor worshiping underground movements that held Brazil in contempt for 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, believing reports of Japanese defeat to be mere propaganda (the dissipation of Japanese-language newspapers following government restrictions lead to a lack of reliable news sources).

Some 50,000 Japanese immigrants held membership in the terroristic Shindo Renmei (臣道連盟), a group whose stated goals were to spread word of 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, and between the years 1945 and 1947, they used firearms and katana to murder 23 and injure 147 Japanese-Brazilians who they believed were shaming the emperor by believing Japan could possibly have been defeated in war. 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.

Brazil newspaper calling for action against the Shindou Renmei
A Brazilian newspaper headline calling for action against the Shindou Renmei.

The Third Generation of Japanese-Brazilians

眞子さまブラジル訪問 日本人移民の歴史施設へ(18/07/23)

ブラジルを公式訪問中の秋篠宮ご夫妻の長女・眞子さまが、ブラジルに渡った日本人開拓移民の歴史が保存されている施設を訪問されました。 22日にサンパウロ市内の史料館を訪れた眞子さまは、日本人の移住先が記された地図の前で「本当に様々な地域に移住されたんですね」と感想を話されました。 ・・・記事の続き、その他のニュースは…

Above: Princess Mako, who holds a degree in Museum Science, visits Brazil's Museum of Japanese immigration.

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.

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 was 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, and nearly everywhere he went he was greeted by huge crowds of thousands of Japanese Brazilians, and spoke to them about the important links between their communities. And in the harbor at Santos, three Japanese naval ships marked the centennial of Japanese immigration to Brazil as it 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, but 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, as the strange flows of economics, demographics, race, and culture began to draw the Brazilian-Japanese back to their cultural hearth.

To be continued

Sources: 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.

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Noah Oskow

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 led to appearances at speaking events and popular podcasts. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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The Japanese Who Came to Call Brazil Home

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