100 years of Japanese immigration to Brazil

by Masayuki Fukazawa, Editor-in-Chief of the Nikkey Shimbun

Few Japanese are aware of the fact that the people of Brazil are very familiar with the city of Hiroshima. One reason is the well-known song “A Rosa de Hiroshima.”

The lyrics of the song depict the aftermath of the atomic bombing and urge listeners to remember the victims. The simple melody contributes to the power of the song, which sounds like a cry of the soul. “A Rosa de Hiroshima” is often sung at schools in Brazil.

The lyrics to the song were written by Vinicius de Moraes, a celebrated poet and musician. He also wrote the lyrics for the famous bossa nova song “The Girl from Ipanema” as well as the screenplay for the movie “Black Orpheus.”

At the time “A Rosa de Hiroshima” was released, in 1973, Brazil’s military regime was harsh in its treatment of musicians who wrote songs that could be interpreted as opposing their rule, even deporting them from the country. In this climate, “A Rosa de Hiroshima” found strong support among young people as an anti-war song.

In Sao Paulo, there is a public school named after Hiroshima. This is because the school was founded on August 6. When Crown Prince Naruhito visited Brazil to attend a ceremony commemorating the centennial anniversary of immigrants from Japan to Brazil, he went to see this “Hiroshima” school. The students there, most of whom have no Japanese roots, performed an original musical on the tragedy of Hiroshima for the Crown Prince and offered him origami cranes.

Schools in Sao Paulo are also actively pursuing an educational project called “Viva Japao,” which aims to teach students the history of Japanese immigration to the country as well as Japanese culture. This project is promoted by the board of education in the state of Sao Paulo.

One hundred years of the Japanese-Brazilian community’s presence have made the people of Brazil familiar with Japan in such ways. The first group of 781 Japanese immigrants, including those from Hiroshima, arrived at Santos Port in June 1908 aboard the Kasado Maru steamship.

Today, the number of Japanese-Brazilians stands at roughly 1.5 million. The area with the greatest concentration is Sao Paulo. The area with the next highest population of Japanese-Brazilians is not located in Brazil, however. About 200,000 Japanese-Brazilians now live in Aichi, Shizuoka, and Mie prefectures in Japan. In all, nearly 320,000 Japanese-Brazilians have resettled in Japan.

The number of Japanese immigrants to Brazil reached 250,000 in the period before and after World War II. These first-generation Japanese-Brazilians have now declined to roughly 60,000. This means the original group of aging immigrants is decreasing rapidly while the Japanese-Brazilian community, as a whole, is growing. And as this community grows, its presence in Brazil continues to expand.

Commemorative events for the centennial anniversary of Japanese immigration to Brazil, organized mainly by second-generation Japanese-Brazilians, were held at various locations in Brazil. The Japanese and Brazilian communities came together to stage large events on an impressive scale.

In North America, it is believed that immigrants become assimilated completely in their third generation. In Brazil, however, even after 100 years of Japanese immigration to Brazil, there are nearly 100,000 bilingual second-generation Japanese-Brazilians who use Japanese and continue Japanese cultural traditions in their daily lives. Because of this continuity, Hiroshima will not be forgotten.

“A clock I brought with me recalls the day I left Japan. The color has faded to dark gray but it still keeps the proper time.”

These lines are from a poem entered in the 60th Japanese short poem contest held across Brazil. The contest was organized by the oldest Japanese poetry magazine in Brazil, called “Palm Tree,” which observed its 70th anniversary in 2008. The author of the poem links the clock he brought from Japan long ago when he emigrated, which has kept time continuously since then, with his family history. I hope the Japanese community in Brazil endures like this hardy clock.

Masayuki Fukasawa was born in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan in 1965. He relocated to Brazil in 1992 as a correspondent for “Paulista Newspaper,” the forerunner of Nikkey Shimbun. He has served as the editor-in-chief at Nikkey Shimbun since 2004. He has also written several books, including “Parallel World,” about the employment of Japanese-Brazilians in Japan. Mr. Fukasawa now lives in Sao Paulo.

(Originally published on December 26, 2008)