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Japanese Brazilians celebrate mixed heritage

Nearly 1.5 million Japanese descendants live in Brazil, and two-thirds of those live in Sao Paulo state.

Last updated: 17 Jun 2014 12:13
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Japanese Brazilians say they plan on rooting for both Brazil and Japan during this year's World Cup [AP]

Sao Paulo, Brazil - The room was a mixture of Brazilian green and yellow and Japanese red and white, as more than 200 members of the city's large Japanese community turned out to watch the country of their ancestors take on Cote d'Ivoire in both teams' World Cup opening match.

Chants of Japao! (Japan in Portuguese) rang out through the crowd, which was dominated by navy jerseys with the names Honda, Toshio, Takaya, Shiota, and Kagawa affixed to the back. The room erupted when Japanese star Keisuke Honda put the Samurai Blue ahead in the first half, but fans were ultimately stunned when Cote d'Ivoire scored twice in two minutes to win, 2-1.

"I feel very proud that Japan is in the World Cup and that we can host them here in Brazil," said Analia Kita, before the game began. Wife of Kihatino Kita, the director of the Japanese-Brazilian Association that hosted the screening, Analia said she has tickets to cheer on Japan when the team takes on Switzerland next week in Natal.

"Between Japan and Brazil, it's going to be very hard to choose [my favourite]," she said laughing. "But it's going to have to be Brazil. I'm Brazilian."

106 years of immigration

The first wave of Japanese migrants came to Brazil in 1908 aboard the Kasato Maru. Bound for the Brazilian city of Santos, 60km south of Sao Paulo, the migrants - who worked primarily as farmers in Japan - set out to work in Brazil's coffee plantations.

The interest in Japanese culture is independent from the Japanese community here.

- Celia Abe Oi, Brazilian Society of Japanese Culture and Social Assistance

An estimated 190,000 Japanese moved to Brazil between then and 1941, the year the two countries severed diplomatic ties as a result of World War II. According to the Japan Times, 55,000 Japanese moved to Brazil from 1953-1973, constituting the last major wave of immigration.

The Association of Nikkei and Japanese Abroad estimates about 2.6 million Japanese currently live outside of Japan. Of that number, nearly 1.5 million live in Brazil - or more than 60 percent of all Japanese descendants - and two-thirds of those live in Sao Paulo state.

Celia Abe Oi, the communications coordinator at the Brazilian Society of Japanese Culture and Social Assistance, estimates about 300,000 Japanese-Brazilians currently live and work in Japan, down from about 400,000 before the economic crisis of 2008.

"The interest in Japanese culture is independent from the Japanese community here," said Abe Oi, explaining that preserving tradition is largely on an individual, or family-by-family, basis.

"People are re-inventing these traditions in Brazil and adapting the traditions to a Brazilian context."

Dual identities

"We can characterise it as a mixture. We have 106 years of immigration and in this time, we have seen the mixture and integration of the Japanese culture in Brazil," explained Celia Sakurai, a researcher on Japanese-Brazilian community and culture.

Born in Sao Paulo where she lives today, Sakurai told Al Jazeera that Japanese influence on Brazil's culture can be viewed through the popularity of anime, Manga comics, and haikai (the Portuguese-language version of a haiku), the practise of judo and taeko (traditional Japanese drumming), and other arts.

Appreciation of these traditions extends to all Brazilians, she stressed, adding descendants of Japanese immigrants living in Brazil completely inserted themselves into Brazilian society. Inter-marriage rates hover at about 50 percent and show signs of increasing, Sakurai said.

"We have people of all kinds, doing all [kinds of] work, and spread across all of Brazil. It's very hard to think of the future of this community, especially because young people are not so concerned with Japanese problems or questions or traditions," she said.

"The parents of these young people are the third or fourth generation of descendants, so we don't speak Japanese any more, [and] we have very, very thin connections to these Japanese issues."

Preserving culture

Working in a Japanese restaurant in the heart of Liberdade, Sao Paulo's historic Japanese district, 17-year-old Luciana Mayumi exemplifies a new generation of Japanese-Brazilians.

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Born in Sao Paulo to Japanese parents - her mother was born in Japan but came to Brazil as a baby, while her father is a native Brazilian - Mayumi doesn't speak Japanese. "My parents speak Japanese together," she said, explaining she has taken one course in Japanese and plans to do another.

Her interest in Japanese culture, she added, comes from working in Liberdade and from her friends. "When I started working in this area, I met a lot of Japanese people my age that had more contact [with the culture] than I did. It would be fun to visit Japan, but I wouldn't want to live there."

Just around the corner, Claudio Wauke runs an Oriental therapy centre specialising in shiatsu massage. "I always wanted to open a store in Liberdade," the 47-year-old, who has other branches of his practise elsewhere in the city, told Al Jazeera. "It's part of Asian culture in Sao Paulo. I started everything elsewhere, but my dream was always to be here."

Today, Liberdade is home to many Chinese and Korean businesses, in addition to the original Japanese-run establishments. Looking ahead, Wauke predicted that Chinese immigrants would soon run most of Liberdade.

"A lot of Japanese people that live here and own things here are getting very old," he said. "My generation was the last to preserve that contact [to Japanese culture]. It's been 100 years [of immigration], so things are being lost."

Follow Jillian Kestler-D'Amours on Twitter: @jkdamours

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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