100 years on, Japanese a vibrant part of Brazil

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - When Shunji Nishimura decided to leave Japan in 1932 for a job in Brazil his mind was set on making money quickly and returning to Kyoto.

Japanese dancer Yuka Sugiura, who moved from Nagoya, Japan to Brazil, poses for a picture at the Unidos da Vila Maria samba school in Sao Paulo, Brazil, January 31, 2008. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Like thousands of Japanese immigrants that made the same trip before him, Brazil’s booming coffee plantations held the prospect of a better life for Nishimura, 22 at the time.

“One of the things they used to tell people to lure them here is that in Brazil you could find money hanging from the trees,” said Jorge Nishimura, the son of the 98-year-old Shunji. “The coffee beans represented that.”

The family, who live in a remote town in Sao Paulo state, now run a company with 3,500 employees created from Shunji Nishimura’s invention of a machine for spreading pesticide on crops -- one example of a strong Japanese influence on farming techniques here.

Nishimura was part of the first wave of Japanese immigration to Brazil that began in 1908, when 781 peasant farmers aboard the Kasato Maru steamship arrived in Santos port near Sao Paulo to work on six farms.

Brazil, which abolished slavery only 20 years earlier, needed workers for coffee plantations that drove its economy, while industrializing Japan had a surplus of peasant farmers.

One hundred years later -- an anniversary being celebrated this week with Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito’s visit to Brazil -- there are about 1.5 million Japanese descendents whose influence on society has spread from the vast farmlands to martial arts to architecture and the business arena.

From being viewed with suspicion by many Brazilians in the early years and through World War II, the Japanese have been absorbed into the South American country’s melting pot.

Third and fourth generation Japanese-Brazilians have intermarried with descendents of Africans, Italians and Portuguese. Those who go to work in Japan, as many have done in recent years in a wave of reverse immigration, often say they are treated by Japanese as “gaijin,” or foreigners.

After tough years of labor on the coffee farms, Japanese immigrants looked for work in big cities like Sao Paulo, where they flocked to the downtown area because rent was cheaper.


Sao Paulo’s downtown district of Liberdade, or freedom, is like a slice of Tokyo, its main street lined with red-colored torii gates of Shinto shrines. Soba noodle and sushi restaurants vie with karaoke bars and supermarkets selling sticky natto beans and myriad types of soy sauce.

“I feel Japanese but in my habits I’m Brazilian,” said Kaoru Ito, a 71-year-old survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb who came to Brazil at age 18 and who sings karaoke in Liberdade every week. “I like Brazilian food, feijoada, that kind of thing,” he said, referring to the Brazilian national dish of beans.

Food has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of the cultural blending.

The Japanese immigrants helped develop several varieties of fruits and vegetables that did not exist in Brazil including persimmon, fuji apples and ponkan oranges and improved local farming and fishing techniques, said Celia Abe Oi, communications director at the Japanese Culture Society.

“It changed Brazilian eating habits,” said Oi. “They brought many products that weren’t part of the local diet.”

Brazil has even allowed a Japanese influence on its most famous drink, the caipirinha. Mixed with Japan’s traditional rice wine instead of Brazilian cachaca, the sakerinhas have become a popular option at many bars.

Brazil’s Japanese diaspora has provided a gateway for Japanese cultural influence from manga comics to monster fighting hero “Ultraman” in the 1980s to architecture and design.

Architect Ruy Ohtake, whose curvy buildings are often compared to those of Brazil’s Oscar Niemeyer, said that while his Asian background was an influence, his designs were “distinctly Brazilian.” He recalled his design of Brazil’s embassy in Tokyo in the 1980s had surprised many who had expected a Japanese-style building.

“Some people thought I’d do something very Japanese but my education is all here so the design turned out Brazilian.”

With reporting by Stuart Grudgings; editing by Stuart Grudgings and Todd Eastham