Talk to anyone in Asia about what they think of Brazilian people, and the first person who typically comes to mind is supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Commercialised media has done little justice to represent the broad spectrum of Brazil’s multi-racial diversity, so it came as an eye-popping surprise to many Asians I talk to when they hear that there’s another group of Brazilians who are pretty significant to Brazil’s culture and development – the Japanese.

While it’s hard to ignore Chinese immigrants marking their presence in almost every part of the world these days, the Japanese remains the largest group of Asians in Brazil and outside Japan today – over 1.8 million of them.

The origins of the first Japanese immigrants can be traced back to 1908 when Brazil was facing labour shortage. This period coincide with the end of feudalism in Japan that fuelled widespread poverty in the nation. As a result, many Japanese left their native land to search for better opportunities in Brazil, which had signed a treaty with Japan to allow Japanese immigrants to Brazil.

The new foreign workers had no easy time though. Language barrier, poor working conditions, food, climate and distance from families back home was as huge a culture shock as the aggression and discrimination they faced at the hands of their exploitative employers. Most of the Japanese had plans to return to Japan after making enough money, but few had ever reached that goal due to low salaries they received.

The new Japanese community relied on each other heavily for support including setting up schools for their children, purchasing land and creating their own plantations and businesses, despite the negativity they garnered by the Brazilian society as undesirable, non-white immigrants.

However, the national perception of the Japanese took a positive U-turn in the 1970s when Japan progressed into one of the world’s most successfully innovative and richest economies. Japanese pop culture, music and movie entertainment penetrated the global platform which saw a rise in the interest in all things Japanese, especially among young Brazilians. All these gave the Japanese in Brazil a social prestige hardly enjoyed in their humble migrant beginnings.

Liberdade, São Paulo. Photos by LS Kim of

Today, an overwhelming estimate of 600,000 japanese live in Liberdade (means “freedom” in Portuguese) in ‪São Paulo‬, also dubbed as the Japan town of Brazil, amidst a growing number of Koreans and Chinese settling there too.

Stroll through the streets of Liberdade and you’ll be greeted by rows of tall red posts with hanging solid lanterns, not forgetting the infamous 9 metre red japanese gate called the torii at the entrance of the street market. Lines of stalls selling colourful Japanese ornaments and souvenir, the lingering smells of yakisoba, imagawayaki and cool ice bubble tea, vertical signage in Japanese characters jutting out of buildings and vibrant Asian festivities will momentarily make you forget that you are in Brazil. Among both locals and foreigners, Liberdade is considered the heartbeat of the best and widest variety of Asian groceries and snacks otherwise hard to find elsewhere in Brazil.

This colourful community reflects the handprints of three generations of assimilation which have shaped the identities of Japanese decendents into the Latin American mould, while still retaining their Japanese heritage and way of life at home. Just ask a Brazilian Japanese which identity they feel at ease with, and the natural response would be “Brazilian first, Japanese second”, a progressive sign of successful integration to a nation that once greeted hostility to their predecessors.

Brazilian Japanese

Clockwise from top left: Hugo Hoyama, Lisa Ono, Daniele Suzuki and Juniti Saito are some of Brazil’s accomplished Japanese

Brazil has many things to thank its Japanese for. Among them is its hottest sports export called Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which was started by veteran Judo fighter Mitsuyo Maeda who settled in the country. Other famous Brazilian Japanese who have made remarkable accomplishments include singer Lisa Ono, table tennis champion Hugo Hoyama, actress and TV host Daniele Suzuki and military commander of Brazilian Air Force, Juniti Saito.

Indeed, the far reaching legacy of the Japanese is no small red dot on Brazil’s cultural map but a proud and rising sun. So the next time you tour sunny Brazil, don’t forget to savour the oriental atmosphere in this side of the West.

This article was published on Vida De Latinos’ online magazine, 1 July 2013.

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