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Brazzil - People - September 2003

Japanese Brazilian, Stay Off Japan!

A Japanese Brazilian living in Japan must have a strong heart,
and stomach, and a strong sense of oneself, in order not to get
lost and crazy in the sea of Japanese coldness and rejection.
When the Japanese cannot avoid seeing that these Brazilian
Japanese do have a culture, their reaction is disgust.

Eva Paulino Bueno


When I arrived in Japan, in 1999, I brought in my luggage several films about Brazil, and the certainty that they would be a great hit. I came to Japan hired to teach Spanish in a women's university that has more than ten thousand students. I arrived planning to expand the Spanish courses and to include courses on Latin American Culture and Civilization. In these courses, I thought, I would use the Brazil material I had brought, as a kind of introduction. Afterwards, I imagined, I would design and teach a course on Brazilian culture and literature.

And why not? After all, Brazil is the country that has more Japanese and descendants of Japanese living outside Japan. So, I was positively sure that my students' interest in the Portuguese language and in Brazil was merely a matter of time, a bit of pedagogical ability. With the help of our music, and the lush images I had in my videos, who could resist?

I also brought in my luggage a few ideas about Japan. Who, among those growing up in the city of Maringá, Paraná, in the 70's, didn't accumulate such ideas? I was raised with "Japanese" friends, eating the sweat bean paste and other Japanese delicacies their mothers served when we got together to study after school, going to the Bon-o-dori parties at the Acema—Japanese Brazilian Club, writing my name in Japanese (a friend's grandfather taught me), and even learning quite a few curse words in Japanese.

Who among us didn't hear in the radio the theme of the Japanese program that started early in the morning, filling the soundwaves with the sweet and melancholy chords of "Sakura, Sakura…" Among the many ideas I brought with me to Japan, right on top of the emotional baggage about the country was the concept that, although my family doesn't have any exact connection with Japan, my going to live and work there had, in a certain way, the feeling of going back to one of my homes.

The highest the jump, the biggest the fall. After two years living here, I gave up teaching Spanish, and put away the plans to teach Latin American Culture and Civilization. Portuguese? This language I never had the opportunity to speak, much less to teach. But at the very least I could give two courses about Brazilian Carnaval when I was invited to a special occasion in a language school in Osaka; I could also show the seniors in the university the Brazilian film Gaijin (which they found very strange, and only found worthy of comment the fact that the name of the director of the film, Tizuka, is wrong, and should be Chizuka). These two occasions, I must emphasize, were forced, stolen moments, because there is no interest, in Japan, for countries which are not the United States (which the Japanese simply call "America"), or for any language which is not English.

Gaijin, Gaijin

Of course, this is a generalization. Here in Japan there are many people who speak, read, and listen to other languages and other cultures beyond English and the United States. But they are the minority. Absolute. For us who are not just already "gaijin"—foreigners—because we are not Japanese, but doubly `gaijin" because we don't come from the United States, several things can happen.

One of them is a terrible confusion, which can be funny, or sad. Or even tragic. When it is funny, it is because the Japanese assume that everyone who is not Japanese is a native speaker of English. From this little misunderstanding it is not uncommon in Japan for some English schools to hire people from, say, Greece, to teach English, and to announce that the person is a "native speaker." Obviously, all of us are "native speakers", but not necessarily of English.

The sad part concerns the Japanese Americans who come to work here, but cannot obtain work teaching English as native speakers because, to put it bluntly, their face doesn't help. In my brief time in this country, I have found several examples of this situation. In terms of these persons' identity, a stay in Japan can be a very trying time.

But these people who can teach are, one way or another, privileged. For other people, who are not in the teaching business, the situation is much more complicated. Especially complicated, I think, is the situation of thousands of Brazilians of the "dekasegi" generation," the "nisei" (second generation born in Brazil) or "sansei" (third generation). The highest degree these Japanese Brazilians obtained in Brazil doesn't matter to Japan: when they arrive here they suffer double discrimination. And here tragedy starts. And it affects all of us Brazilians.

Japan, we must not forget, is the country that isolated itself from the world, and didn't allow any foreigner to enter its territory (except for the little island of Dejima, near Nagasaki), from 1603 to 1867, during the Tokugawa period. Whoever tried to enter, was executed. The same way, if any Japanese dared to leave the country, he would be executed upon his return. Nobody left. Nobody came in. The word "gaijin" is a dirty word in Japan, and literally means "the one from the outside." Whoever is outside is impure, suspicious.

After the country was "opened" in 1868 (another story, for another occasion), Japan discovered that, as a matter of fact, it wasn't such a bad idea to have a place where to send the excess of population, or when there was the threat of difficulties or food shortages. The rest of the story we know quite well: thousands upon thousands of Japanese went to Brazil and to Peru from the end of the nineteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth century. These pioneers arrived in America in penury. They bravely struggled, raised their families, prospered, and are part of our history, our society, and our culture.

But Brazil, as we know, has a history of an unstable economy. In one of the latest lows in our economy in the eighties, there was an opportunity for the descendants of Japanese to return to Japan because Japan, now rich, wanted to hire a cheap work force. There is an interesting detail: the country, still shielded by its ideology of the "purity" of the Japanese "race," only accepted the descendants who could prove their Japanese ancestry.

From this point on, as we also know very well, these Brazilians came to Japan and discovered that, among other things, they didn't have a language, they didn't have a culture, and they were not Japanese. They were gaijins like all other foreigners. Worse still, they were doubly gaijin, because they have Japanese features, but are culturally Brazilian. The suspicion against them is doubled. Here in Japan, these Japanese Brazilians are, quite simply, "the other within."

Culture Rejection

From a situation in Brazil where they had respect, and in most cases a white collar job, in Japan the great majority was transformed into factory workers, and even in the factories they had to perform the lowest, most dangerous positions, and accept the most inconvenient work hours. And—what is the most painful—all that makes each one of us special, that which determines how we react to the world, our culture, this is completely ignored.

Or, when the Japanese cannot avoid seeing that these Brazilian Japanese do have a culture, their reaction is disgust, such as the one I witnessed one time in Kobe, where the resident Brazilian Japanese had a festa junina—June party. The Japanese stood by, looking as if transfixed, at those "Japanese" bodies moving and dancing in such way. The fact is, the body language of the Brazilian person, no matter his or her ethnic origin, is completely different from the body language of the Japanese. That explains the horror and the disgust so many could not conceal.

A Brazilian living in Japan must have a strong heart, and stomach, and a strong sense of oneself, in order not to get lost and crazy in the sea of Japanese coldness and incomprehension and rejection. Of course there are those who come from Brazil and manage to adapt—brave Brazilian people!—and some even prosper, forming small communities where they try to keep the sense of Brazil. Back home, specially in the beginning of the eighties, stories of Japanese Brazilians returning to Brazil with enough money to buy houses, stores, cars, fueled in others the desire to join in with the many who were accepting the invitation from the hiring companies. There were quite a few who made the trip to and from Japan two or three times, always using their Japanese jobs as a way to obtain the much-needed cash for special projects back in Brazil.

Among those who stayed definitely in Japan there are those who go madly in search of their Japaneseness, trying to be more Japanese-than-thou, imitating everything, rejecting Brazil and their culture. Somebody I know near Tokyo has said she will never go back to Brazil because she cannot stand the violence. Of course, in Brazil she lived in a small town where the violence one knows is mostly domestic violence and that which comes from the national news.

These Japanese Brazilians are simply following the very Japanese notion that the whole world outside its borders is one sea of violence. For the transplanted person, that kind of phobia of the foreign fixates in Brazil, which becomes, in their needy psychological state, the root of all evils, and that place which they must reject. No one has the right to criticize these people: they need to make do with what they have, and if what they have is the need to "belong" in Japan, and to belong they must turn their backs to everything positive they may have lived in Brazil, so be it.

But there are some who cannot make these complicated psychological translations, and succumb under the pressure of even trying. Such was the story of the Brazilian man Paulo Mitsuo Takahashi, who literally starved to death after several attempts to adapt in Japan.

But those who suffer the most are the very young, who arrive in Japan and cannot attend the public school, because their colleagues (and the teachers, in some cases) get together to beat them up because they are different. Here in Japan, as I wrote in another article, the nail that sticks up is hammered down. What chances does a Brazilian Japanese who cannot even speak the language stand?

The parents of these young Brazilians, sometimes working up to 14 hours a day in unhealthy factory conditions, being called down at every moment—and nobody has ever seen what it is to be called down if he/she has never seen a Japanese calling down a foreigner—sometimes returning home to apartments which are real matchboxes with closets, not always have patience to deal with their children's problems. The result is not surprising: the number of Brazilian juvenile delinquents is increasing in Japan.

Who to Blame?

And who is to be blamed for this situation? Not just one person, or not just one institution, of course. But we can say that, above everything, the responsibility for the alienation and the suffering inflicted on so many Brazilians who returned to Japan has to be shouldered mostly by the Japanese ideology, which still continues being isolationist, and suspicious of everything which is not exactly like everything else.

Next, the situation is the direct result of the attitude of the companies that hire from Peru and from Brazil these people who enter Japan almost like cattle, without knowing where they are going to live, or what they are going to do, much less how much they will have to work.

The trick these hiring companies play starts at the point of advertising in Brazil, where they make a big deal of how many dollars or yens each worker is going to make in Japan. Many people in Brazil calculate their potential earnings and believe that to earn the equivalent to $10 or $15 an hour is a good deal. An interesting detail: for women, no matter if they are doing the same work a man does, in the same conditions, the pay is usually $8 an hour.

When these people arrive in Japan, they discover that they owe thousands of dollars to the company that brought them (some of which overcharge up to 100% of the ticket price), that the living conditions are worse than those of a Brazilian slum, that there is no school much less daycare for the children. And, very quickly, they discover that the salary that in Brazil seemed to be a fortune, in Japan is close to nothing: the prices of EVERYTHING—food, clothes, rent, transportation—is unbelievably high in Japan.

At the present time, it is impossible for a Brazilian factory worker in Japan to save money. This is quite different for the Japanese worker in the same factory, because he/she is paid at least twice as much per hour, and has benefits the Brazilian will never be able to obtain.

When large numbers of Brazilians and Peruvians began to return to Japan, there was no infrastructure for their families. The children had to stay home, alone, without school, without care. The increase in criminality among the children of Dekasegi Brazilians in Japan is the return of the repressed. The Japanese society is paying—and will have to pay even more—for the insensitive and cruel way in which it has received these returning immigrants.

I truly believe that the Japanese government looked the other way while the hiring companies exploited not only the workers, but also their children, who still suffer a level of discrimination (even racism) that their ancestors, when they arrived in Brazil, never could have imagined. Now, everyone has to pay, even though some first steps are beginning to be made to address the needs of families.

However, the suffering continues. These last days, while going through the subway station in Umeda, Osaka, I have noticed that the number of homeless men who sleep on the cement floor of the station has increased. Many times, walking near these sleeping men, I cannot help wondering if they are Brazilians, living off the public charity, afraid of returning to Brazil, where they would be seen as utter failures. They stay here, bumming from place to place, hoping for a break, or for a stroke of luck, of for a haven where they can regroup and rebuild their lives.

Unfortunately, I cannot finish this text in a positive note. The news of how the body of Paulo Mitsuo Takahashi was found, in fetal position, in an abandoned apartment in Toyohashi, is too shocking. Before his death, he started writing a letter—it is not clear to whom—in which he says, in Portuguese, "Nada de bom aconteceu pra mim no Japão"—"Nothing good ever happened to me in Japan." He died of starvation in a country notorious for how much food it throws in the garbage.

Paulo's story, published in the Japanese newspapers in English, in four installments, is like a parable, and it can be useful to warn other Brazilians not to come to Japan. The past is still alive here. Foreigners should stay in Dejima, off-shore. Those of you who left Japan, stay out.


Eva Paulino Bueno taught in Japan for four years. She has published books on Brazilian literature and cinema, Latin American Popular Culture, fatherhood in world literature, and, most recently, she has co-edited with Terry Caesar I Wouldn't Want Anybody to Know: Native English Teaching in Japan. She now teaches at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas. This text appeared in an earlier version in Revista Espaço Acadêmico, in Portuguese, in 2002. You can get in touch with the author emailing her at evapbueno@yahoo.com




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