Japanese-Brazilians : The Nikkei Score Big in New Land

Times Staff Writer

At baseball games here, fans do not ask for hot dogs or peanuts. They are more likely to order sushi or Japanese noodle soup.

Many Brazilians, in fact, assume that baseball originated in Japan, and it’s easy to understand why.

After all, the thousands who play baseball here are overwhelmingly nikkei , Brazilians of Japanese origin. Game announcers at Sao Paulo’s baseball stadium call out the plays in Japanese as well as Portuguese, Brazil’s official language. And, even in Portuguese, the play-by-play is salted with such seemingly Japanese terms as fasto (first base), shoto (shortstop), hombes (home base) and auto (out).

Baseball is just one of many areas in which the nikkei have made their mark on Brazil; their influence is all out of proportion to their tiny percentage of the population.


Classic Immigrant Saga

An estimated 800,000 to 1 million people of Japanese origin live in Brazil--slightly more than in the United States--and they account for only three-fifths of one percent of Brazil’s 147 million people. Their collective history here is a classic immigrant saga of lowly origin, hard struggle and remarkable success.

In the nearly 80 years since the first Japanese immigrants came here as unskilled plantation workers, Japanese-Brazilians have risen from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to take an increasingly solid grip on the upper rungs.

Two nikkei-- in Japanese, the name means “of Japanese lineage"--have been ministers in Brazil’s federal government, and one is currently a key adviser to the minister of finance. Three are members of the national Congress, including Antonio Ueno, now in his sixth four-year term.

Many nikkei have achieved remarkable economic success, too, especially in agriculture. The Cotia agricultural cooperative was founded by Japanese immigrant farmers in 1927, and today it is Brazil’s largest agricultural enterprise. About 70% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in metropolitan Sao Paulo are produced by nikkei farmers, according to Cotia executive Minoru Takano.

Business and Finance

Other Japanese-Brazilians, like Fujio Tachibana, have excelled in business and finance. Tachibana, 76, started as a laborer on a coffee plantation in 1932, then became an office assistant in a Japanese company that helped recruit and settle new immigrants. Later he was transferred to the company’s bank in Brazil.

“I didn’t know anything about banking,” Tachibana recalled in an interview. “They taught me, and I learned.”

Today he is chairman of a banking and investment conglomerate with more than 8,000 employees and 18,000 shareholders. About 60% of the employees and 85% of the shareholders are Japanese-Brazilian.

With each generation, the Brazilian nikkei have become better educated and more prosperous in a country where ignorance and poverty are the fate of the vast majority. According to one survey of Japanese-Brazilians, more than 80% consider themselves middle class or above.

More College Students

Until 1945, fewer than 50 persons of Japanese descent had graduated from the University of Sao Paulo. Currently, 13% of the university’s 30,000 students are nikkei. Japanese-Brazilian students account for about 20% of the enrollment at the Polytechnic Institute, Sao Paulo’s best engineering school.

At the Bandeirantes Institute, one of Sao Paulo’s most prestigious college preparatory schools, an estimated 25% to 30% of the students are descendants of Japanese.

“We find that they are more hard-working, more diligent students,” said Jorge Barifalde, the school principal.

The hard study of nikkei students is often supported by the hard work of their parents. For years, Sadanori Koreeda has driven his taxi from dawn to dusk in Liberdade so that his five sons could go to school. All five now have university degrees, in medicine, engineering, accounting, industrial design and physics. The youngest is studying for a doctorate in physics.

No Time For Study

Koreeda, 65, has no degree. He said, with fatherly pride, that he “didn’t have time to study, only to work.”

Most Brazilian nikkei are concentrated in Sao Paulo state, and it is here that their impact has been the greatest. Sao Paulo is the Brazilian base for several Japanese religious sects that have taken root and spread through this country. The largest of these sects is Seicho-no-Ie, a blend of Buddhism, Shintoism and Christianity.

“Brazil is mainly a Catholic country, so we are pushing the Christian side” of the faith, said Okito Fugiwara, vice president of the Seicho-no-Ie church in Brazil. He said the church has 500 temples and 2.5 million members in this country.

Only about 30% of the members are nikkei, he said. Brought here in 1935 by Japanese immigrants, the church experienced its largest growth in the 1970s after it began using Portuguese in its meetings.

Liberdade, a prosperous nikkei commercial district near the heart of urban Sao Paulo, is festooned with red and white street lamps that look like Japanese lanterns. The signs over most of the district’s shops are in Japanese characters, and Japanese is spoken inside.

Japanese-Language Newspapers

Sao Paulo has three daily newspapers in Japanese, with a total circulation estimated at 60,000. Japanese restaurants and Japanese-style karaoke bars are sprinkled throughout the metropolitan area of 14 million people.

Karaoke, Japanese for “without orchestra,” is the latest entertainment fad in Sao Paulo and other Brazilian cities. At karaoke bars, the patrons provide their own entertainment, taking turns at the microphone and singing popular songs with taped musical accompaniment.

Karaoke competitions draw hundreds of contestants. Nikkei teen-ager Karen Ito, the winner of a recent one, will travel to Japan in December to compete for the karaoke world championship.

Dozens of Sao Paulo karaoke bars offer music for songs in both Portuguese and Japanese, but in Liberdade, most customers prefer Japanese.

Claudio Akatsuka left his date at a table in the Karaoke Yamato bar the other night and went to the stage to croon a melancholy Japanese song that was well received by other patrons. Akatsuka, 27, is a dentist, the grandson of Japanese immigrants. He told a reporter that he uses Japanese only to sing.

“I can understand it, but I can’t speak it,” he said.

Mixed Marriages

As the third and fourth generations of nikkei have grown up in Brazil, fewer of the children have learned the Japanese language at home. At least half of all nikkei marriages in recent years have been with non- nikkei Brazilians, according to the Center for Nippo-Brazilian Studies in Sao paulo.

But also in recent years, many nikkei have begun taking Japanese classes.

Luis Hanada, executive secretary of the Brazil-Japan Cultural Alliance, said an estimated 17,000 people in Sao Paulo state are studying Japanese, including 2,300 at the alliance’s three locations. He said enrollment in alliance classes has more than doubled in the past five years, and 90% of the students are Japanese-Brazilian.

Many want the language for graduate studies in Japan or for jobs involving Japanese trade, Hanada said, adding, “And we also have third-generation Japanese who come to study in search of their roots.”

The emigration of Japanese to Brazil began with the arrival of 781 people on board the Kasato Maru, the Japanese Mayflower, at the port of Santos on June 18, 1908.

The date is commemorated each year by Brazil’s nikkei. Next year, for the 80th anniversary, dignitaries invited to a special celebration include a representative of Japan’s royal family.

Encouraged to Emigrate

The first immigrant families were encouraged by the Japanese government to leave their crowded homeland, but most hoped to save their earnings and eventually return.

The Kasato Maru was followed by other ships. The pace of arrivals in Brazil increased after 1924, when the U.S. Congress established quotas for immigration to the United States.

Japanese immigrants in Brazil helped open up new lands in the interior under work contracts that provided meager pay and few benefits. Many died of malaria.

“They worked in a regime of semi-slavery,” said William Kimura, an editor of the nikkei newspaper Jornal Nippak.

In their struggling early years, Brazil’s Japanese immigrants grouped together in rustic rural settlements. Typically, the first community project was to build a school, then clear the land beside it for a baseball field.

In the late 1930s, the nationalistic and authoritarian government of President Getulio Vargas prohibited teaching in foreign languages, so the Japanese schools went underground.

Wartime Hardships

During World War II, Japanese descendants were not subject to mass confinement, as in the United States, but there were hardships, especially after Brazil entered the war on the side of the Allies.

After the war, some Japanese immigrants in Brazil refused to believe that their fatherland had lost. They formed a faction, called Kachigumi , that feuded bitterly with the Makegumi , who accepted Japan’s defeat. Before the feud faded away in the early 1950s, dozens of Makegumi leaders were assassinated.

The stigma of Japan’s defeat in World War II accelerated the assimilation of the nikkei into Brazilian society. New efforts were made to speak Portuguese, children were given Christian names, and ethnic differences were de-emphasized.

Felicia Ogawa, a second-generation nikkei and a sociologist, said that interest in Japanese roots has grown among Japanese-Brazilians as Japan has emerged as a major trading power.

“The new generation between 20 and 30 years old is perhaps able to renew contact with Japan without so much emotional baggage,” Ogawa said in an interview. “For the previous generation, it was more difficult.”

Blend of Values

She said the renewed interest may produce a lasting hybrid culture among Brazil’s nikkei, with a blend of Japanese and Brazilian values.

“I think that is the tendency,” she said. “That would be good.”

But she cautioned that the rediscovery by nikkei of Japanese cultural values presents a danger of diminished commitment to Brazil.

“It could lead to a loss of identity,” she said. “There has to be a consciousness that we are Brazilians, that we have to battle to be better Brazilians.”