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Japanese in Brazil: Asian-zing Brazil

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Published: Wed, 20 Sep 2017

Wendy Do 

As a country of a very diverse population, Brazil has experienced the influx of a variety of races and ethnicities throughout the course of history. As a result, Brazil continues to experience extreme cultural syncretism and assimilation. Nearing the end of the nineteenth century, the world saw Brazil as a country with a high degree of miscegenation (Schwarcz 3); immigration is one of the major cause for this. From the discovery of Brazil in the 16th century to its colonization by Pedro Alvares Cabral and onward, Brazil has been a country of immigrants. One country in particular, Japan, started emigration to Brazil in the early 20th century. Most people would not expect Brazil to contain the largest Japanese immigration population. My thesis is that: Japanese immigrations initially sought relief from the Meiji Restoration and chose Brazil due to their increasing demand for laborers, but over time established a huge community which to their settlement. In this essay, I will discuss the initial reason for the Japanese’s immigration to Brazil, the impacts of these migrants, and the reaction of the Brazilians and Japanese to the migrants. This will demonstrate the impact of an Asian immigration society in Brazil and how it contributed to the diverse population due to racial formation.

Before the Portuguese settled in Brazil, the majority of the population was of indigenous groups. As described in detail in Schwartz’s work, when the Portuguese first arrived, they encountered various Indian groups and made an agreement where they decided that they needed to “civilize” the indigenous (Graham, W1D2). While the two groups of the Jesuits and the Portuguese settlers disagreed in ways to civilize the indigenous, they both believed in slavery. As indigenous groups were forced into slavery, they faced many risks including, overcrowding in their communities called “aldeais” and diseases that killed them at alarming rates (Graham, W1D2). Before the Portuguese arrived, the population of Indians capped around five million but by the 1950’s, the population decreased to one hundred twenty thousand (Graham, W1D2). This not only led the devastation of the ingenious population, but increased the demand for labor. This trend would later contribute to the Japanese immigration to Brazil. However, before the Japanese, the substitution of indigenous slavery with African slave labor made its way.

Brazil had a slave economy where one product dominated Brazil’s export for most of the slave period from 1550-1888 (Graham, W2D2). This began with the Donatorio Captaincies which were awarded by the crown in Portugal in order to protect interests in Brazil. The awards gave the Portuguese courtiers and soldiers, who bore the title of captain, to have the “right of taxation, justice, administration, and the privileges to promote settlement and economic development” (Schwartz 13) in Brazil. This marked the beginning of the Portuguese settlement which would evolve into plantations. The Coffee Cycle, is the period we will be focusing on, which took place from the 1830’s to the 20th century. Coffee was expanding and slavery was abolished in the 1880’s (Graham, W2D2) which led to a need for laborers. According to Schwarcz, from the beginning of the coffee plantations, the owners have contracted with workers in their home countries and engaging in acts such as loaning them money for travel costs, housing, or other expenses (8). With this being said, it can be noted that the Japanese were viewed more as an indentured servant, but eventually grew in status and recognition.

The previous events mentioned have contributed to the diverse population in Brazil through: the indigenous already living there, the settlement of the Portuguese, the African slavery, and immigration from other countries. “Many intellectuals, politicians, and cultural and economic leaders saw […] immigration as improving an imperfect nation that has been tainted by the history of Portuguese colonialism and African slavery” (Lesser, 2013, 2). With the end of slavery, planters have encouraged their state and federal government to seek Europeans in order to replace their slaves in the massive coffee economy. By 1888, thousands of immigrants poured into Sao Paul (the largest group being the Italians); however, these “white” immigrants believed the elites of Brazil had created a system that gave them an inability to move out of low status. This created immigrant-led protests against labor and social conditions and the deportation of Italian for “anarchism” (Lesser, 1999, 82), so Brazil sought for a more submissive group. Japanese diplomat, Sho Nemoto mentioned in a later signed treaty that Brazil would be a country where “Japanese ‘immigrants could be perfectly settled’ and ‘we could improve our standard of living, buy property, educate our children, and live happily'” (Lesser, 1999, 82). Correlating with the Meiji government’s interest in emigration of Japan, this seemed like the perfect option for the Japanese to immigrate to Brazil. The reasons for Japanese’s immigration are laid out as: Brazilian’s needed more labor due to the abolishment of slavery, Japan’s Meiji government created a period of modernization where peasants become hungry and restless; the encouraged emigration in Japan, and the establishment of colonies by previous Japanese.

The first reason why the Japanese migrated to Brazil was because Brazil was seeking a new labor group to fill in as laborers. They saw Japanese immigrants as a ready solution from their previous disappointment with the European replacements; in addition, this could also help foster a relationship between Japan and Brazil in relation to trading. The first Brazil-Japanese treaty was then signed in 1895, where Brazil would see a rapid increase in Japanese labor (Lesser 84). In addition between 1908 and 1941, about one-hundred ninety thousand Japanese immigrants would settle in Brazil (Lesser, 1999, 83). A ship containing the first 781 members of the newly founded Japanese community called the Kasato-Maru arrived after its fifty-one day journey from Japan in June 1908 (Lesser, 2012, 153). The results of the Japanese led the Brazilian government to later promote immigration to other Asian countries, such as China. The Japanese were described as an “intelligent and energetic force” and “this people is amazing us with their power to assimilate everything from European civilization in letters, in science, in art, in industry and even in political institutions (Lesser, 1999, 83)”. The expectations of the Japanese to the Brazilians were very low, but what the Japanese contributed to this society made them realize that they were definitely not inferior.

The second reason for Japanese migration was due to their expectations of Brazil. The Japanese workers felt tricked due to the belief that they would become rich. In turned, similar to previous immigrants, the Japanese revolted against the Brazilian elites. Some of them fled to Argentina, where the salary was higher; or other urban areas such as Minas-Gerais, Parana, and Sao Paulo (Lesser, 2012, 155). One Japanese boy, Riukiti Yamashiro summarized his experience in Brazil as the following: “It was a lie when they said Brazil was good the emigration company lied” (Lesser, 2012, 156). Japanese propaganda had led the Japanese to believe that Brazil would rich in five years and that they would be able to return home wealthy. However, this was just a proportion of the feelings that Japanese had of Brazil.

The Japanese also faced a problem from their home country due to the modernization and industrialization of the Meiji period from 1868 to 1912 (Carvalho 3). Japanese sought escape from poverty, overpopulation, heavy taxes and numerous socioeconomic problems. While some Japanese immigrated to Manchuria or Korea, other fled to Australia or Hawaii. Emigration that was prohibited during the Tokugawa period (1603 – 1867) was solved when Japan faced these economic problems. The Japanese government gave permission to emigration companies to recruit emigrants, Brazil being the primary destination as immigrants faced strong resistance from other countries (Carvalho 4). The first group of immigrants was a failure because the Japanese rebelled against the emigration companies and deserted the population due to poor treatment and no form of payment. In addition, most had no experience in farming. However, all hope was not lost for the Japanese in Brazilians, because the Japanese would continue to enter the country for the next fifty years (Carvalho 7).

The third reason was that Japanese were able to create a community within Brazil. In order to create solutions to the land and labor problems, law were established which “required immigrants to come as family units” (Carvalho 7) and Japanese-run colonies were allowed to be established. In addition, the Japanese did hold a more powerful protector regime than other immigrants since they were able to establish regular school schedules for children and allow adults to participate in various every day activities such as gymnastics and moral boosting (Lesser 2012 156). Schooling allowed children of the immigrants to move up into more dominant positions in Brazilian societies. In addition, foreign government-sponsored colonies allowed Japanese to be relived from the worry of landowners which allowed them to focus on settlement. This discouraged them from returning to Japan and encouraging more emigration as the success in Brazil news spread back to their home country (Lesser, 2012, 157).

There were many opportunities for the Japanese to assimilate into Brazilian culture. Most Japanese arrived at a time where the acquisition of land was easy, allowing them to produce new crops such as cotton, rice and potatoes (Carvalho 8). The social structure of Japanese communities mirrored those of traditional Japanese communities where the social order also followed traditional Japanese patterns. If a Japanese were to “disturb the social order, they would be [ostracized]” (Carvalho 10). The Japanese’s primary goal was to accumulate as much capital as possible in order to return to their country of origin, so they worked hard and saved; however, the years they spend on Brazilian soil allowed them to bring their traditions and customs. This included their practices of incense money, gosembetsu (farewell gifts), and emphasis on social relationships between children and parent and society in addition to holidays as well (Carvalho 11). Their economic and cultural success allowed them to negotiate a position in the Brazilian society to the extent where “Brazilian Indians and Japanese immigrants were of the same biological stock” (Lesser, 2012, 160).

Japanese immigration has contributed a great deal to Brazil’s national identity. The Meiji era created changes in the economic structure of Japan which led to relief through emigration. At the same time, Brazilians believed that Japanese immigrations would solve the problem of rural work, yet the same result due to poor treatment led to the revolt. However, the difference of the Japanese lied in the fact that they were able to form their own communities. This led to the population being able to culturally sustain themselves in Brazil. Currently, about 1.5 million Brazilians claim Japanese descent (Lesser, 1999, 174). The Japanese migration highlights the differences in immigration to Brazil. The Japanese and their descendants are among some of the “best” Brazilians and the cultural attitude they developed has allowed them to move into the upper-class of society. Today, Japanese-Brazilians can be found amongst every area of Brazilian society, from politics to economy to arts and industry (Lesser, 1999, 174). Even so, the pattern of emigration and immigration differ according to the economy of Brazil.

“For most of the last two hundred years, Brazil has been a destination for immigration” (Lesser, 1999, 190). However, even with an improved economy, Brazil has been faced with the problem of emigration rather than immigration. A statistic from 2010 shows that about four million Brazilians live abroad which means the population is slowly decreasing. Many Japanese are involved in a phenomenon called dekasegui which means “working away from home” which is used to those who are descendants of Japanese who migrated to Japan (Lesser,2012, 191). With the amendment to Japan’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law in 1990, the Japanese were allows to have work visas up to the generation (Lesser, 2012, 191). This trend fluctuated for various years, for example, when Brazil’s economy grew strong in the 2000’s and the Japanese’ economy weakened, the migratory trends reversed. As opposed to in the 19th century, Brazilian-Japanese immigrants believed they were temporarily migrating to Brazil to become wealthy (Lesser, 1999, 192).

In conclusion, Brazil has and still is a country of immigration. Despite traditional views of Brazil as a country of mestizo and African slavery, the Japanese population outside of Japan is highest in Brazil. I chose to write this essay on the reason for Japanese immigration to Brazil because Asian immigration is typically viewed as the Chinese immigration to America in the 1800’s. However, the Japanese is not a country that is really talked about. This relates to the course theme of the Racial Formation of Brazil because it discusses the reasons for the Japanese immigration and how it contributed to Brazil’s diverse population. Initially, the Japanese immigrations initially sought relief from the Meiji Restoration which paralleled the Brazilian need for laborers. However, the Japanese were allowed to create a settlement and community which in turned allowed for the mass emigration from Japan to Brazil. This contributed to the existing community today and despite reverse changes, Brazil is able to add onto its extremely diverse and vast culture.

Works Cited

Carvalho, Daniela De. Migrants and Identity in Japan and Brazil: The Nikkeijin. 1st ed. Place of Publication Not Identified: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Graham, Jessica. “Arrival of Enslaved Africans.” HILA 121A W1D2. Warren Lecture Hall, Rm. 2115, La Jolla. 19 Jan. 2017. Lecture.

Graham, Jessica. “History of Brazilian Indios.” HILA 121A W2D2. Warren Lecture Hall, Rm. 2115, La Jolla. 12 Jan. 2017. Lecture.

Lesser, Jeffrey. Immigration, Ethnicity, and National Identity in Brazil, 1808 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.

Lesser, Jeffrey. “Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil.” (1999): Pp. 13-39 (Chapter Two); Pp. 81-94 (part of Chapter Four); Pp. 147-57 (Chapter Six).+. Duke University Press. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.

Schwarcz, Lilia Moritz. “Introduction.” The Spectacle of the Races: Scientists, Institutions and the Race Question in Brazil, 1870-1930. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999. 3-20. Print.

Schwartz, Stuart. “Early Brazil: A Documentary Collection to 1700.” (2010): 117-40. TED. Cambridge University Press. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.


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