Koreans and Chinese seem to be the only people interested in
emigrating to Brazil nowadays, but
they haven’t yet
won the affection of the local population. The Japanese, however,
have adapted totally
to Brazil and Brazilians one of
these days might elect a Japanese president.
A reader contacted me recently about a piece I had written on the position of black people in Brazil. This reader said
that, although he himself was a black African, originally from Uganda, he felt that the low social position of blacks in most
countries was due to their easy-going nature. He pointed to the success which other immigrants, such as Germans and Japanese,
had enjoyed in Brazil and compared them with the failure of blacks and mixed race people to make progress. He singled out
the Japanese, claiming that their cultural inheritance had made them one of the most successful immigrant groups in Brazil.
It was obvious from the correspondence which ensued between us that the writer had never set foot in Brazil or he
would not have jumped to such a clichéd conclusion. In fact, while the Japanese have done well, their record is nothing special
and a Brazilian of Japanese descent is as likely to be a peasant farmer or hairdresser as a brain surgeon or bank president.
Since many people do not even know that Brazil has one of the biggest Japanese communities in the world this could be a
good opportunity to take a brief look at Brazil’s main Asian communities.
If you visit São Paulo’s main fruit and vegetable market, known locally as CEAGESP, some morning you will notice
that many, if not most, of the names on the loading bays and stalls are Japanese. The same applies to the people working
there. While some are of pure Japanese stock others show that the great mixing of races, which marks Brazil, has included the
Japanese. Go to one of the city’s outdoor street markets and you will almost certainly find Japanese bent over giant pans brimming
with boiling oil frying pastéis, a kind of savoury pastry which is extremely popular here. I am not disparaging these trades
but, perhaps, they would make our African correspondent rethink his views.
Liberdade Means Freedom
Visit the Liberdade district, only a five-minute stroll from the Pátio do Colégio where São Paulo was founded almost
450 years ago, and you will find yourself surrounded by Japanese shops, restaurants, travel agencies, martial arts schools,
hotels and karaoke bars. The signs are in Japanese and Portuguese, the street lighting is in the form of magic lanterns and there
is a Japanese garden, Buddhist temples and a museum on the immigrants who made Brazil their home.
However, Liberdade is not some kind of Japanese ghetto and, in fact, most of the Japanese you see are Brazilians of
Japanese descent. There are many white, black and brown Brazilians among the people you see. A Japanese is as likely to have a
wife or husband from another ethnic group as from the Japanese community.
I once saw a group of about 20 people having lunch. The mixture consisted of mixed white-Japanese couples and
their children, and another family consisting of a white father, black mother and their daughter who, in turn, had a Japanese
boyfriend. Generally speaking, the older people will speak Japanese as well as Portuguese but the younger generation will speak
only Portuguese. Expatriate Japanese, working for multinationals are also found in Liberdade since if they are suffering
from homesickness, they can find all they want there.
Liberdade is one of the few districts in São Paulo which is worth a visit. It is compact, reasonably clean and safe and
refreshingly human in scale without the monstrous skyscrapers found in so many other areas. At the weekend, there is a pleasant
little market selling all kinds of handicrafts. Just outside the metro station, a religious group usually holds meetings in
Japanese and Portuguese.
Recently I was taken aback to hear them singing the traditional Scottish hymn "Amazing Grace" in Japanese. In a
scene which was reminiscent of James Clavell’s novel
Shogun I saw a couple of blind masseurs treating patients outdoors.
However, instead of being Samurai veterans blinded in combat, these masseurs were young.
Foodstalls sell all kinds of Japanese foods and snacks, which most
Paulistanos generally like, regardless of their
own ethnic background. Every year a Japanese version of the carnival is held complete with a parade and samba school.
A Royal Visit
In 1996 I was present during a visit to Liberdade by Princess Sayako to celebrate the centenary of the establishment
of diplomatic relations between Japan and Brazil. The streets were bedecked by Japanese and Brazilian flags and I am sure
she was amazed to find herself amongst this multitude, at once so familiar yet also so strange. There were lots of elderly
people there who were born in Japan before the Second World War when the Emperor was still regarded as a god-like figure.
One can only wonder what they thought.
The Japanese are also found in the countryside, which is where the bulk of them went when the first group of 165
families (totaling 781 people) arrived in Santos on the ship Kasato Maru, on June 18, 1908. They were mainly poor peasants and
most began working on the coffee plantations in São Paulo state.
At first, most immigrants aimed to spend only a few years in Brazil and then return home, but they found life in Brazil
tough and few enjoyed that option. However, as the years passed they became more entrenched and founded business and
cultural organizations. They bought pieces of land and proved to be good farmers. At one time, 94 percent of all Japanese were
engaged in farming and even today 40 percent of Japanese still work in farming.
The second and third generations became Brazilian and some young men even ended up in the Brazilian army, which
fought in Italy after Brazil declared war against Japan and Germany in the Second World War. During the war all Japanese,
German and Italian schools in Brazil were forced to abandon classes in their national languages and teach only in Portuguese.
Some Japanese were imprisoned, as were Germans and Italians, but overall the war left little bitterness.
There were four waves of mass immigration, which ended in 1960, and there are now around 1.3 million people of
Japanese descent in Brazil (around 0.7 percent of the total population). They are concentrated mainly in São Paulo and Paraná and
have a high profile in these areas.
A Japanese President?
They are prominent in medicine, finance and politics e.g. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s communications
minister, Luiz Gushiken, is the son of a Japanese immigrant. Maybe one day Brazil will follow Peru’s example and elect a Japanese president.
One can safely say that the Japanese have adapted totally to Brazil and my reader’s idea that they are the kinds of
"ants", to use an unforgettable if undiplomatic comment by the former French Prime Minister, Edith Cresson, is completely
wrong. In fact the difference between Brazilian Japanese and the real Japanese culture is seen everyday in Japan itself where
there are an estimated quarter of a million Brazilian immigrant workers and their families.
Nearly all of them are of Japanese descent since, unlike Brazil or the US, Japan does not welcome non-Japanese and
its strict immigration laws favour those of Japanese ancestry. The Brazilians tend to do the manual jobs the locals do not
want and are often found in car plants and factories. About 30 percent of these
dekasegis (someone who earns money abroad) are graduates. Often they complain that the work they do is
kitanai (dirty), kitsui (hard) and
Although they can make good money, incidentally helping Brazil’s balance of payments account, most return to
Brazil. Some claim they are looked down on by the Japanese while others are frustrated by what they see as the lack of
individualism in a group-oriented society. Japan may be the land of their ancestors but Brazil is their homeland. They have set up
Brazilian clubs and restaurants.
Most top Brazilian singers have visited Japan where they are assured a warm welcome by the
nisseis, as Brazilians of Japanese descent are called. When Brazil won the World Cup final in Japan last year most of those cheering Japanese bedecked in
green and yellow were not locals who had adopted Brazil but expatriates who were as Brazilian as Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos.
This integration which the Japanese have accomplished has not yet been achieved to the same extent by the two
other large Asian groupsthe Chinese and the Koreansbut this is probably a matter of time. Both these groups have been
in Brazil en masse for a far shorter time and ongoing immigration means they still have strong roots in their home countries.
Brazil’s Newest Immigrants
In fact, Koreans and Chinese seem to be the only people interested in emigrating to Brazil nowadays. They have not
yet won the affection of the local population since they are still apart in terms of language and attitude. Having said that,
many Koreans have intermarried. The first Koreans arrived in the early 60s and there are an estimated 50,000 in São Paulo.
They have cornered a large part of the textile trade in São Paulo, which has led to some ill will from those who lost out.
The Koreans have been accused of using sweatshop labour, relying on illegal immigrants from Bolivia. There is also
concern about the activities of the Unification Church founded by the controversial religious leader Sun Myung Moon, which
owns large tracts of land in the Brazilian Midwest. It is worth recalling that last year a newspaper called the
Washington Times, which is owned by Moon’s group, published a preposterous article claiming that the then presidential candidate, Luiz Inácio
Lula da Silva, was a communist who was planning to form a terrorist axis involving Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba.
The Worst Chinese Food
There are an estimated 120,000 Chinese in São Paulo. Although there have been Chinese in Brazil for about a
century, the first main wave of immigration came in the years after the Communist take over of China. Many arrived here via
Taiwan. They have set ups scores of restaurants, which incidentally are generally lousy. São Paulo is the greatest place in the
world for eating out, but my advice, based on experience, is to avoid its Chinese restaurants. The Chinese also run little shops
selling cheap trinkets and gifts. They are scattered throughout the city although many live in Liberdade.
We are currently seeing a new wave of arrivals from mainland China. Many speak no Portuguese and are illegal
immigrants, usually entering through Paraguay. They tend to stick to their own community although it is becoming increasingly
common to see young men and women hawking sports shoes in the streets. Unfortunately, there is a criminal element which
feeds on the community and forces shopkeepers and restaurant owners to pay protection money. Those who refuse to pay are
attacked or even killed. There is also a small Indonesian community which is generally of Chinese descent. These Indonesians
came here after the anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia in the mid-60s when thousands of ethnic Chinese were massacred
following an alleged Communist coup attempt.
No British Raj in Brazil
One final point. It is interesting to note the lack of an Indian population in Brazil. There are only about 300 Indians in
São Paulo. There are a couple of restaurants which are overrated and overpriced. The shortage of Indians is probably related
to the fact that Brazil was not a British colony. The British shipped hundreds of thousands of Indians off to places like
South Africa, Kenya, Malaya, the Caribbean, Guyana etc to work as labourers. Their descendants have often thrived,
particularly in Africa. My African correspondent who is familiar with the Indians who ran the economy in Uganda said that if a
group of Indians were to establish themselves in the Northeast of Brazil, within 10 years they would have developed it. I
certainly could not accept that. All these Indians would do, I said, would be what they have done in Africa. They would open a
little shop where they would sit on their
bundas all day long selling basic goods or lending money to the locals. They would
enrich themselves but not the local economy.
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He
writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações
www.celt.com.br , which specializes in
editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at
© John Fitzpatrick 2003
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