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June 2002 · Historically Speaking Mieko Nishida The Japanese in Brazil: From Immigration to Dekassegui In 1980 the first Japanese-Brazilian woman film director, Tizuka Yamasaki, made her international debut with Gaijin: os caminhos da liberdade. Gaijin, a Japanese word literally translated as "foreigner " that usually refers to white foreigners in Japan, is the term with which Japanese-Brazilians have always referred to non-Japanese-Brazilians. But as Yamasaki says, "It is indeed the Japanese who have been gaijin in Brazil. They had been abandoned by their native country, and have been alienated in a new land." Yamasaki, born in 1949 to an Issei father and a Nisei mother, based this movie on the life of her maternal grandmother. It captures various aspects ofJapanese immigration to Brazil, including the hardships of coffee plantation life. It is widely believed that JapaneseBrazilians have enjoyed success as a model minority group in urban Brazil. Dedicated to educating their children, highly motivated immigrant parents left the coffee plantations for the city. Brazilian-born children attended the University of Säo Paulo and became lawyers, medical doctors , and dentists. But is diis picture ofdie Japanese-Brazilian elite a social reality or a cultural myth? The state of Säo Paulo has the second largest concentration of persons of Japanese descent outside Japan (Hawaii is first). In Brazil as a whole, the total number of persons ofJapanese descent amounts to some 1.3 million, almost 1% of the entire Brazilian population of 155 million. Japanese immigration to Brazil was a response to the great demand for labor on the coffee plantations in the Southeast following the abolition of slavery in 1888. At first, European immigrants filled this demand. But the flow of workers from Europe came to a halt by the beginning of the 20th century. Japanese immigration to Brazil began in 1908 and, after the enactment ofanti-Asian immigration laws during the 1920s in the United States, the number of immigrants quickly rose to more than 100,000 by the 1930s. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Japanese-Brazilians were faced with two drastic changes. One was Brazilian nationalism ; the other,Japan's involvement in World War ?. Brazil's President Getulio Vargas stricdy enforced the country's immigration laws and its assimilation policy. Schools taught by aliens and in foreign languages were suppressed in 1938; almost allJapanese schools, numbering about 600 at the time, shut down. Beginning in 1940, foreign language newspapers were subjected to censorship . After Pearl Harbor, Japanese immigrants were no longer permitted to publish newspapers, even in Portuguese. Furthermore, Brazil severed diplomatic relations with Japan in January 1942, and Japanese-Brazilians lost all freedom to travel inside the country. The Brazilian government prohibited Japanese immigration in 1943, although immigration was allowed to resume a decade later. The urbanization of the JapaneseBrazilians did not take place until after Japan's defeat By then, most had given up hope ofreturning toJapan with a substantial fortune; instead they decided to settle in Brazil with their Brazilian-born children. During the 1950s, they began to move to major cities on a large scale. Rapid urbanization did not mean that Japanese-Brazilians moved up the social ladder. On the contrary , most abandoned positions as landowners and independent farmers to work in small family businesses—laundries , vegetable stands, grocery stores, beauty salons, and craft shops. Without sufficient capital to invest in these businesses , Japanese-Brazilian entrepreneurs relied heavily on the unpaid labor of family members, particularly Nisei children. Thus a typical Japanese-Brazilian family strategy was created: older children worked for the family business, while younger children, particularly sons, were sent to college. Two classes ofJapaneseBrazilians emerged: college-educated, assimilated, white-collar professionals; and members of the working-class who continued both to speakJapanese and preserve Japanese values and customs. In the mid-1980s many South Americans ofJapanese descent—not only from Brazil but also Peru, Argentina, and Paraguay—began emigrating to Japan. In the case ofJapanese-Brazilians there had always been a cultural factor motivating them to move "back" to Japan. Despite the image of Japanese-Brazilians as a successful urban middle class, they had been consistendy exposed to the larger society's pejorative racial and ethnic...


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