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Japanese mark 100 years in Brazil

Immigrants first arrived as poor farmers in 1908, but are now well integrated into society. They pioneered techniques still in use.

June 15, 2008|Stan Lehman | Associated Press

MOGI DAS CRUZES, BRAZIL — "Inu ga wan wan."

Miyabi Endo, a gregarious 8-year-old, carefully sounds out "the dog barks" in Japanese in a modest concrete schoolhouse amid the small farms that skirt Sao Paulo.

"Neko ga nyan nyan." The cat meows.

"This is fun," Miyabi says, switching effortlessly back to Portuguese while her teacher writes more phrases on the blackboard. "One day I'll be able to understand my grandparents better. They don't speak Portuguese very well."

This school is one of several operated by the region's Japanese Brazilian families to continue Japanese culture and traditions a century after their ancestors first arrived.

Nearly 800 Japanese peasants landed in the port of Santos aboard the steamship Kasato Maru on June 18, 1908, spurring a wave of immigration that has grown to 1.5 million people -- the largest Japanese community outside Japan.

Japanese immigrants introduced foods that changed Brazilian cuisine and farming techniques that helped turn Latin America's biggest country into an agricultural superpower.

"The importance of the Japanese community is best reflected in the greenbelts that today exist throughout Brazil, and in the concept of agricultural cooperatives that they introduced," said University of Sao Paulo historian Mario Sergio de Moraes. "It is also reflected in the many other contributions its members have made to our society in the arts, sciences and politics."

Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito will arrive Tuesday to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the landing of the Kasato Maru and spend a week visiting Sao Paulo, Parana, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro states. Festivities culminate in a June 21 show of taiko drummers and traditional awa odori and bon odori dances in Sao Paulo's 25,000-seat "sambodromo" stadium, famous for its parades during Carnival.

Among the elite

Japanese Brazilians, now in their fourth generation, have integrated and prospered. They are among the country's top artists, doctors and business leaders -- including abstractionist painters Tomie Ohtake and Manabu Mabe; Dr. Milton Nakamura, responsible for Brazil's first test-tube baby, and Shigeaki Ueki, former president of Brazil's government-run oil company, Petrobras.

The immigrants first arrived because of negotiations between Japan and Sao Paulo state, where most Japanese Brazilians still live. Japan needed an escape valve for poor farmers, who were left out of the country's rapid modernization beginning in the late 1800s, said historian Marcos Persici of Sao Paulo's Japanese Immigration Museum.

"And Sao Paulo coffee growers needed more and more workers to tend to their coffee plantations," Persici said.

Like many immigrant groups, the early settlers planned to return home in two to five years and start new lives with their earnings. But they quickly realized they would never save enough for a return ticket. Many eventually migrated to urban centers or to other rural areas, where they started as sharecroppers, then purchased small farms.

"Recruiters told my mother and father that money grew on trees in Brazil. They had never even heard of Brazil, but the idea of picking money off trees persuaded them to board the ship," said 80-year-old Antonio Nisishima, whose parents arrived on the Kasato Maru. "Instead of money, they picked coffee beans. My parents saw very little of the money they helped the plantation owner earn."

One of the immigrants' most important contributions was the introduction of irrigation and crop-rotating techniques, Persici said.

"These techniques gradually spread to the rest of the country as the community grew and its members started establishing themselves in other regions," he added.

They also introduced foods never before seen in Brazil, such as persimmon, loquats, radishes, turnips and new rice and bean varieties.

Wartime woes

Nisishima said there wasn't much discrimination, except during World War II. Japanese Brazilians were not allowed to speak their language in public or hold any kind of public gathering. But while some Latin American countries, particularly Peru, deported citizens of Japanese heritage to internment camps in the United States, Brazil did not.

"Our schools were shut down, and Japanese newspapers stopped circulating," Nisishima said. "But all that disappeared soon after the war ended."

The Japanese community also loosened its taboo on intermarriage after the war. Today, about 40% of the community has some non-Japanese ancestry.

"As younger generations started moving into large urban centers, they came into close contact with Brazil's culture of miscegenation," Persici said. "In 50 years, it will be almost impossible to distinguish the community as an ethnically different group."

Miyabi's father, Horacio Massanori Endo, doesn't agree.

Endo, who grows persimmon, eggplant and peppers on his 12-acre farm, is the grandson of Japanese immigrants who arrived in 1910 and settled in Mogi das Cruzes.

"This may happen in terms of our physical traits because of the growing number of mixed marriages. But not in terms of language, culture and traditions," he said. "My daughter is just as much a Brazilian as anyone else, but she is also Japanese."

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