More Power to Nikkei Communities in Brazil

Japanese emigrants and their descendants (Nikkei) have played an important role in the development of Brazil for more than a century. In this article, we look back on that contribution and introduce some of the efforts of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to support Nikkei communities in Brazil today.

Japanese emigrants disembark the Africa Maru at the Port of Santos in Brazil, 1960.

In the Edo period (1603–1867) under the feudal system, the Tokugawa shogun ate forbade Japanese people from going abroad and also placed restrictions on foreign trade, except with some countries such as the Netherlands and China. After the Tokugawa government was overthrown in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, however, a new Meiji government introduced progressive Western technologies and promoted foreign trade and human exchanges to modernize Japan. Because the new government also lifted the ban on going abroad, some Japanese people left their country where they couldn’t make a living in search of prosperous lives in foreign countries. The first wave of such people consisted of Japanese emigrants who went to the Kingdom of Hawaii (the current State of Hawaii, the United States) as sugar cane field workers in 1868. Following this, another wave of Japanese began to immigrate to North America, including California and Canada, and to Latin America and the Caribbean, including Mexico in 1897, Peru in 1899 and Brazil in 1908.

Because the Meiji government promoted emigration to Latin America and the Caribbean and those region’s governments needed workers, many Japanese immigrated to those countries. Of those Latin American and Caribbean countries, the largest number of Japanese immigrated to Brazil. Around 240,000 Japanese immigrated to Latin America and the Caribbean before World War II, and there were around 190,000 emigrants to Brazil. In the beginning, many Japanese emigrants who worked in the coffee and sugar cane plantations were forced to undertake difficult low-wage jobs in tough conditions and climates, and were affected by tropical diseases, including malaria. Despite these difficulties, more and more Japanese emigrants purchased land to engage in agriculture on their own, sold vegetables in cities and ran restaurants and inns. In this way, the Japanese emigrants integrated themselves into Brazilian society. Japanese emigrants and their descendants (Nikkei) came to be highly evaluated for their integrity and hard work in many respects, such as their high-quality agricultural products and good service in the retail industry, and the expression “japonês garantido” (trusted Japanese) became common.

In addition, the Japanese emigrants were education-oriented. It is said that Japanese emigrants established schools immediately after settling in Latin America and the Caribbean, whereas immigrants from Western countries established churches. Many highly educated Japanese descendants emerged, who worked hard as lawyers, doctors and politicians. Currently, there are estimated to be 2.13 million Japanese emigrants called issei and their descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean. Among them, about 1.9 million people live in Brazil.

“Japanese emigrants gave Brazilians the opportunity to get to know Asia,” says Yoshida Satoshi, Deputy Director General of the Latin America and the Caribbean Department of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). “On the other hand, to Japanese people, they symbolized Japan’s participation in the international community after an extended closed-door policy during the Edo period.”

Contribution to Agriculture

Formerly barren Cerrado land in Brazil was developed for agriculture with the cooperation of Japan.

Japanese emigrants and their descendants played an important role in developing Brazil, and they made particularly significant contributions to the agricultural domain.

“Japanese emigrants and their descendants have made significant contributions to the Brazilian diet,” says Yoshida. “In the past, Brazilians ate a lot of meat. But as Japanese emigrants and their descendants expanded the production and distribution of vegetables, they circulated cooking methods of vegetables, which led to significant growth in the vegetable consumption of Brazilians. Increased vegetable consumption has contributed to extending healthy life expectancy by improvement in nutrition.”

As for development of agricultural land, Japanese emigrants and their descendants were involved with development in tropical savanna areas called the “Cerrado” that stretch throughout mid-western Brazil. Cerrado areas were considered to be barren areas that were unsuitable for agriculture.

In 1973, the United States declared an embargo on exports of soybeans because of their bad harvest. Japan needed to find a new agricultural frontier because Japan heavily depended on soybeans from the United States at that time. Under this situation, Japan shared a mutual interest with Brazil which wanted to develop the Cerrado as agricultural land.

In 1974, then-Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei visited Brazil and announced his intention to cooperate through Official Development Assistance (ODA) programs, which triggered the development of the Cerrado areas. JICA launched its technical cooperation in 1977 and provided support for improving the soil, crop varieties and cultivation technologies. In addition, Japan also established a financing company jointly with Brazil and embarked on agricultural land development projects in 1979. This cooperative project continued until 2001, and the Cerrado areas were transformed into the world’s leading producers of agricultural products such as soybeans, corn and coffee. In this development project, many Japanese emigrants and their descendants settled in the Cerrado areas, cultivated agricultural land and expanded the production of numerous agricultural products.

Orchard workers tend to Fuji apple trees in São Joaquim, southern Brazil.

There are also many agricultural products whose cultivation was popularized by Japanese emigrants and their descendants in Brazil. The apple called the Fuji is one of these. Up until the 1960s, Brazil depended on imports for most of its domestic apple consumption. Apples were so expensive that people could only eat them when they were sick. In the early 1970s, however, the Brazilian government asked Japan to provide technical cooperation in cultivating apples with the aim of producing high-quality apples domestically. In response to this request from the Brazilian government, the Overseas Technical Cooperation Agency (a predecessor of JICA) sent Dr. Ushirozawa Kenji of the Aomori Fruit Tree Experiment Station, to Brazil as an expert. Dr. Ushirozawa collaborated with Cooperative Agricola de Cotia, an agricultural cooperative society organized mainly by Japanese emigrants and their descendants, traveling around the country and looking for land that would be suitable for apple cultivation. About three years later, Dr. Ushirozawa decided to adopt São Joaquim, a highland area in Santa Catarina State in southern Brazil, as an apple cultivation site, and selected the Fuji as the variety to be cultivated. In São Joaquim, Japanese emigrants and their descendants who settled there began to cultivate apples in 1974, and Dr. Ushirozawa offered them technical guidance. Even after Dr. Ushirozawa had served out his term, JICA continued to send experts to Brazil for about twenty-five years to provide support to the farmers. As a result of this cooperation, São Joaquim developed into a leading Brazilian apple producer and the Fuji apple has become very familiar to Brazilians, who can easily buy the fruit at any supermarket.

Support for Nikkei Communities

Before World War II, Japanese overseas migration projects were conducted by the central government, prefectural governments and private companies. After World War II, with the number of people who migrated to foreign countries decreasing, the Japan Emigration Service (JEMIS) was established in 1963 and started to facilitate centralized overseas migration projects in 1964. In 1974, JEMIS and the Overseas Technical Cooperation Agency, which implemented technical cooperation for developing countries, were integrated into the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and JICA took over overseas migration projects. Subsequently, JICA began to provide assistance with stabilizing and establishing emigrants’ lives and circulating surveys and knowledge about overseas migration as part of its operations.

At Kyushu University Hospital, a nurse from Brazil learns about a medicine sorting machine as part of the Nikkei Training Program in 5S and Kaizen.

Currently, JICA conducts a range of support projects for Japanese emigrants and their descendants living abroad. For example, the Education Program for Nikkei Next-Generation, which is a training program in Japan, is intended to help Nikkei junior high school students, high school students and university students to deepen their understanding of Japan and strengthen their identities as Japanese descendants by inviting them to Japan and providing them with the opportunity to study the Japanese language, stay in Japanese homes, have exchanges with Japanese students and study the history of overseas migration for around one month. In addition, the Program for Developing Leaders in Nikkei Communities is a project for supporting Japanese descendants who study at Japanese graduate schools with the expenses for their stays in Japan and school expenses.

The Nikkei Training Program is a project in which JICA outsources the implementation of training programs for Japanese descendants to Japanese local governments, universities and NGOs on the basis of their proposals. This training program covers a wide range of areas, including medicine, welfare, agriculture and IT. For example, the Improvement of Nurses’ Management Skills by 5S-Kaizen, which was conducted in Japan in 2016 for around one month, was a training program in which six Nikkei nurses from two Brazilian hospitals participated. This training program was intended to improve the quality of hospital services, patients’ satisfaction and medical security by introducing 5S [seiri (sort), seiton (set in order), seiso (shine), seiketsu (standardize), shitsuke (sustain)] and kaizen (improvement). In Japan, the participants acquired knowledge of 5S-Kaizen and studied specific cases through lectures and inspection visits to hospitals. After returning to Brazil, the participants strived to improve their working environment by practicing the principles of 5S-Kaizen, including keeping the files on hospital shelves in order and placing portable examination instruments in the corridors in particular positions, as well as conveying the knowledge they had acquired in Japan to their coworkers.

In addition, since 2013, JICA has sent survey missions in which Japanese companies participate for the purpose of solving developing issues through the collaboration between Japanese descendants living in Latin America and the Caribbean and Japanese companies, and facilitating Japanese companies’ business development in Latin America and the Caribbean. C-Eng Sales, an Aichi-based company that participated in the Survey Mission in Coordination with Brazilian Nikkei Hospitals, which was conducted in 2017, visited hospitals managed by Japanese descendants and introduced its own medical mattress that has superior high resilience and enables the patient to move easily, meaning that it is considered to be effective for preventing bedsores. The company, which decided to make inroads into the Brazilian market through this experience, plans to commence the sale of medical mattresses to medical institutions with the support of JICA’s Small and Medium-sized Enterprise Partnership Promotion Survey.

Kuroki Go (right) coached a baseball team of Nikkei children at São Paulo, Brazil as a youth volunteer for Nikkei communities.

“Most of the patients in hospitals run by Japanese descendants are non-Nikkei people,” says Yoshida. “We believe that we will be able to contribute to developing Brazilian society as a whole by providing support for Nikkei communities.”
Japanese volunteers also work together with Japanese emigrants and their descendants. JICA’s Youth and Senior Volunteers for Nikkei Communities is a system of sending young and senior Japanese volunteers to Nikkei communities in various areas such as Japanese language, health, welfare and sports. Some of these volunteers perform well beyond the borders of Nikkei communities. For example, Kuroki Go, who had worked as a health and physical education teacher at a Japanese public junior high school, was dispatched to São Paulo, Brazil, as a youth volunteer for Nikkei communities and coached the baseball team of Nikkei children for two years starting from 2009. Kuroki conducted Japanese-style coaching with an emphasis on politeness, discipline and manners, and steered the team to third place nationwide. In addition, Kuroki was selected as the coach of the Brazilian national team for the World Baseball Classic (WBC), which was held in the United States in 2013, and made a significant contribution to improving the level of Brazilian baseball.

JICA also provides support for cooperative activities conducted by Japanese local governments, universities and NGOs for Nikkei communities through the JICA Partnership Program. For example, JICA supported the Project for Development of Psychological Support for Returnee Dekasegi and Their Children in the State of San Paulo, which was conducted from 2012 to 2015. Dekasegi is a Japanese word that means “work away from one’s hometown.” Japan revised the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act in 1989 as part of its measures for addressing the shortage of workers, and enabled Japanese descendants living abroad to work in Japan. This policy shift sparked a sharp increase in the number of Japanese descendants who come to Japan to work away from their hometowns, and Japanese descendants (mainly Japanese-Brazilians) became an important workforce for supporting Japanese industry, especially the manufacturing sector. After the number of Japanese-Brazilian residents in Japan peaked at about 310,000 in 2007, however, it decreased due to the economic slowdown in Japan, reaching about 180,000 in 2016. Some Brazilian children who returned to their home country with their parents were unable to adjust to life in Brazil and suffered from mental stress. In response to this situation, the project supported the establishment of local support systems and the development of counselors’ skills through the cooperation between Japanese local governments and NGOs.

In addition to these support programs for Nikkei communities, JICA also works to circulate surveys and knowledge about overseas migration and Japanese emigrants and their descendants. In 2002, JICA opened the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama, Kanagawa as part of these efforts. The permanent exhibition of the museum introduces the backgrounds of Japanese overseas migration and the work and lives of the emigrants in the countries they immigrated to using photos, movies and models.

“We hope that we will be able to establish a network among overseas migration museums in each country and construct an online virtual museum about Japanese emigrants. By these efforts, we hope more people will come to know about another side of Japanese history, and the hardship and happiness that Japanese experienced in the beginning of globalization,” says Yoshida. “Japanese people do not have sufficient knowledge of the history of Japanese emigrants. Today, people from many different countries visit and live in Japan. We believe that in order for Japan to create an open-minded culture that welcomes diversity in the future, it is important to share the experience of the Japanese emigrants who participated in the nation-building in Brazil as one of multiple nationalities to do so.”

SAWAJI Osamu, The Japan Journal

ED. Find out more about Japanese migration at the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama.

The permanent exhibition at the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama

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