The conversation veers around Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s re-election, but most of them have never set foot in Japan and they speak in Portuguese.

 

This is Sao Paulo, Brazil, home to the biggest Japanese immigrant community in the world. Known as “nikkeis” and numbering one-and-a-half-million, they make up what must be one of the oddest cross-cultural mixes in the world.

 

“We say it is for a long life,” says Kiyobo Kawaguchi of the Federacao de Radio Taisso do Brasil, as she limbers up. Most of the younger generations, including her daughters, do not speak any Japanese.

 

Coffee boom

 

Until now, it has always been thought their ancestors set foot on South American shores, lured by the coffee boom, on the ship Kasato Maru on 18 June 1908.

 

The Japanese in Brazil are a class
apart

However, a new book launched in November traces their roots and claims that they first arrived the same month in 1803 - exactly 200 years ago.

 

It is an extraordinary tale and turns on its head the respected 18 June tradition that has been celebrated as Japanese Immigration Day every year since. Now, that history is being revised.

 

“It’s amazing that this is practically unknown to historians,” says Paulo Warth Gick, a retired teacher, who co-authored “The Japanese in Brazil: Their First Impressions."

 

The book is actually a translation of an 1807 text, discovered last year and brought to Brazil by a visiting dignitary. It describes an improbable story of how a group of Japanese fishermen were rescued by Russians after a violent storm left them shipwrecked in 1793.

 

After living in Siberia for eight years, four wanted to go back to their home country, but having set sail the Russians headed instead for the tropics via Denmark and the Canary Islands.

 

“It is a fantastic text. Not only is it interesting in its description of Brazil by Japanese, it gives a unique view of the beginning of the 19th century, how they perceived the animals and the people and compared them with Russia and Japan,” says Paulo Warth Gick.

 

New fruit

 

Arriving in Santa Catarina, Brazil, two of them, Tajurou and Tsudayu ventured on to the land and stayed for 71 days, where they discovered a strange new fruit: (coconut) and a dragon (crocodile).

 

The Liberdade metro station area
is a Japanese haunt in Sao Paulo

“They have very big fruits, the outer shell is coarse and the inner shell like the face of a person. Inside it is full of sweet oily meat like nuts. We feel the coolness in the mouth and forget the intense heat,” goes their description of the coconut.

 

Their view of the crocodile: “They brought an animal with four paws whose skin was coarse and dark. It had scales on its feet and spines on its tail.

 

“They said that the calluses on top of the eyes transformed into horns when they grow. They live in the sea, and hunt, and devour men. Seeing a drawing of a dragon, we thought it was similar. We arrived at the conclusion that this really was the cub of a dragon.”

 

The adventurers observed the indigenous people and recorded their suffering from the extreme change in climate:

 

“We hear that this place is very hot all year long and doesn’t know winter. We took to bathing two or three times a day. The Russians never showed their skin even under intense heat. Even after a bath, they tried to put on some clothes.

 

“The natives had dark skins and men and women walked barefoot and without clothes. Their eyes were black. The teeth were black and they were always chewing something similar to the resin of a pine tree.”

 

Lawyer Tomoko Kimura Gaudioso, who was born in Japan but is a naturalised Brazilian, translated the original text, called “Kankai Ibun”.

 

Forbidden

 

“I had thought Japan was completely isolated at this point in history. Until 1878, nobody left, nobody came in. It was forbidden. So, it was a very surprising discovery,” she said.

 

"It’s amazing that this is practically unknown to historians"

Paulo Warth Gick,
retired teacher

However, when the men returned to Japan they were interrogated. “It was thought subversive and dangerous to bring new ideas into Japan. We don’t know exactly what happened to them but they died in obscurity,” said Paulo.

 

More than a century later, the huge rush of Japanese immigrants into Brazil began as part of a large-scale migration that was formally arranged between the Japanese Imperial Government and individual Brazilian states.

 

Outside the Liberdade (Freedom) metro station, Myriam Myamoto is fiddling with a cassette tape and portable stereo. Unlike in Japan, they do not have any radio transmissions to exercise to their tune.

 

“This area used to be just Japanese but now there are many Chinese and Koreans here,” she explains. I ask if there are people without Japanese roots who attend the morning routine. “No, Brazilians don’t like getting up so early,” she laughs.