When Japan arrived in Itu on Sunday, they may have been over 18,000km from Tokyo but would’ve felt right at home.
An old township of just over 150,000, Itu, located 100km west of Sao Paulo, will be the team’s base during Brazil 2014. It boasts a sizeable Japanese community. Hardly a surprise when you consider that Sao Paulo state is home to the largest Japanese community anywhere in the world outside Japan, estimated to be around 1.5 million.
Japanese first headed to Brazil in large numbers in the early 20th century after the Brazilian and Japanese governments signed a treaty allowing migration. Most of them did so in the search for better working and living conditions, often heading to Brazil to work at one of the many coffee plantations dotted around the country.
While the plan was to spend a few years in Brazil, earn some money and return home, the reality was very different. All too often they were poorly paid and treated by their Brazilian employers, eventually having no option but to settle into a new life in Brazil. During the 1920s and 30s, over 160,000 people migrated from Japan, most choosing to set up their new life in Sao Paulo.
There will be typical dances, food and other attractions to celebrate the Japanese origins. Japan is going to have a lot of cheering in Itu
As a result, Itu now has a sizeable Japanese population. In fact, in what may be pure coincidence, or not, the major sponsor of the Japanese national team, beverage company Kirin, who took over Brazilian company Schincariol in 2011, has their Brazilian headquarters in Itu.
It isn’t just a one-way street, however. A number of people born in Brazil to Japanese parents have returned to Japan and had a significant impact on the local football scene. Two of the most recognisable names being Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Sergio Echigo.
Tulio, as he is most commonly known, was born in Palmeira d'Oeste and didn’t move to Japan until he was 15, going on to be one of the leading players in the J-League, and with the national team, over the last decade. Echigo, born in Sao Paulo in 1945, went through the youth system at Brazilian giants Corinthians before returning to Japan to end his career with Towa Estate Development (now Shonan Bellmare).
Twice named in the Japan Soccer League Best XI, he is perhaps best known in Japan for his post-football career, where he is now regarded as one of the leading journalists and football pundits in the country.
To celebrate the fact Japan will be based in their city, the local government of Itu, led by Mayor Antonio Tuíze, will turn the town into a mini-Tokyo during Japan’s stay to make the team, and traveling fans, feel right at home.
“The Japanese have a very significant community in Itu,” Mayor Tuíze told Al Jazeera. “Organised by Acendi (Nikkei Cultural and Sport Association), [they] will also carry out, together with the city hall, a magnificent party in homage to the Land of the Rising Sun on June 14 and 15, at Praça da Matriz.
“There will be typical dances, food and other attractions to celebrate the Japanese origins. Japan is going to have a lot of cheering in Itu.”
Even the facility where Japan will be based, the Spa Sport Resort, has Japanese connections, belonging to a family of Japanese descendants, and has been fitted with traditional Japanese décor.
In the words of Mayor Tuíze, “the place was prepared in order for the Japanese national team delegation to feel at home”.
|Mayor Antonio Tuíze plans to turn the town into a mini-Tokyo during the team's stay there [Getty Images]
The sprawling facility, with a total area of 140,000m² set in a calming rural setting 15 minutes from the main city centre, has two full-sized football pitches, along with swimming pool, gym facilities and all the modern comforts the players could wish for.
“The Japanese-Brazilian community is extremely happy with a city from Sao Paulo state bring chosen as base for the Japanese National Team,” the Consul General for Japan in São Paulo, Noriteru Fukushima, said.
As luck would have it, Japan’s three group games are drawn outside of São Paulo, meaning the local community will have to travel if they wish to watch the Samurai Blue take on Ivory Coast, Greece or Colombia.
What they can bank on, however, is strong support from not only the local Japanese community, but also the local Brazilian community.
Having achieved their best ever World Cup performance, a round-of-16 appearance, on home soil in 2002, a feat matched in 2010, perhaps being in their little home away from home will give them the comfort, and support, they need to go one better in Brazil.