Japanese-Brazilians so far, yet so close

After the earthquake and tsunami that recently rocked Japan, things have changed and life is now very distressing for Japanese living in Brazil.

A week ago Koichi Nakazawa, 66, lived a simple and quiet life in Sao Paulo.

But after the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan over 7 days ago, things have changed. Life is distressing now for Nakazawa, who is the president of the Miyagui Kenjinkai Association of Brazil, a community support group for people from the Miyagui region of Japan. That is the regional province where Sendai, Japan is located, one of the worst hit areas from the disaster.

 Koichi Nakazawa, above, now spends his days helping others locate missing loved ones in Miyagui region of Japan. (Maira Elena Romero/Al Jazeera)

Nakazawa, who left Miyagui when he was 19 and has been living in Brazil over 40 years, has spent the last week in his Sao Paulo office in the Japense neighbourhood of the city, known as Liberdade, compiling lists of missing people back in Japan with relatives in Brazil.

The list is long, and his phone keeps ringing.

“My organisation represents the Miyagui province, hardest hit, so there have been a lot of people that have come here this week, like Japanese migrants looking for their family of origin, relatives working in Japan or some people married to Japanese that they are very worried about and come here to look for info,” Nakazawa said.

As he runs his fingers down the list of names of people he is trying to help, he says: “This family here is looking for a relative that was working close to the airport of Sendai when the quake struck. There is not much information, but still I am preparing this list and I am going to send to Japan, to my government province, to try to get help.”

Nakazawa has not heard from dozens of his own friends and family back in the northeast of Japan, and still can’t believe what has come of the peaceful fishing region of Japan he remembers as a child. Nakazawa’s village he grew up in was one of those swept away by the tsunami.

“I remember where the homes are located, and now I know the magnitude of the tsunami in places where many of my friends live,” he said. “It’s sad. The main jobs in the area are with the seafood industry.  Fishing, cultivation of oysters and seaweed. They live off the ocean and everything is gone now – their jobs and their homes. I do not know how is going to be from now on but they have to move on. We are far away, but we have to do all we can to help.”

On Thursday, members of the Brazilian-Japanese community of Sao Paulo held spiritual services in memoriy of those killed. (Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera)

Brazil-Japan ties

There are about 1.5 million Japanese in Brazil, or Brazilians of direct Japanese ancestory, more than anywhere else in the world according to the Association of Nikkei and Japanese Abroad.

Of those, it is thought about 1 million live in the Sao Paulo area.

Japanese-Brazilians celebrated 100 years of immigration to Brazil in 2008 with city-wide celebrations. Brazilians of Japanese heritage have closely integrated themselves into society, rising to high ranks in government, finance, culture and business.

Below: Al Jazeera story from June, 22, 2008 about the 100 year anniversary of Japanese immigration to Brazil.


For many Brazilians, Japan represents their native culture, heritage and homeland which makes the catastrophe that much more difficult to witness from thousands of miles away.

“They are the relatives of many people who are here in Brazil,” Andre Korosue, of the Brazilian Society of Japanese Culture, told Al Jazeera. “And regardless of Japan being so far away, in terms of feelings for the Japanese people, we are very close to them. They are our brothers.”

There is sense from the Brazilian-Japanese community that their native homeland will pull through this struggle, but it won’t be easy.

“Japanese are the type of people who rise from ashes,” Korosue said. “They are very strong and can take a lot. But even with these qualities, the current situation is very difficult.”

“This tragedy really affected all of us,” Iuli Fujimora, a Brazilian whose parents immigrated from Japan, told Al Jazeera. “Not only my family but all of the community here in Brazil. I hope we can recover soon, and I am praying for their suffering to be reduced.”

On Thursday several hundred people turned out for two prayer services in the Japanese Liberdade neighbourhood of Sao Paulo.

On Thursday in Sao Paulo Brazilians of Japanese descent pray for those killed in Japan. (Maira Elena Romero/Al Jazeera)

There is also a sizeable Japanese immigrant population in Peru, roughly 800,000 people by most estimates. Alberto Fujimori, the former president, is famously of Japanese heritage and even fled to that country in 2000 to avoid corruption charges at the time. (He is now in jail). His daughter, Keiko Fujimori, is currently running in second place in the presidential election to be decided in April.

The Japanese community of Peru is expected to hold religious ceremonies on Friday to pray for victims of the earthquake and tsunami.

But unquestionably the most sizable population of Japanese outside Japan, in Brazil, is getting hit the hardest.

And they are finding small comforts in coming together as a community in these most trying of times. And they are praying together, at a time they say the people of their native homeland need it the most.

The video version of this story will air on Al Jazeera English on Friday, March 18.

Follow Gabriel Eilzondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel