01/24/2008, 00.00
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The saga of the Japanese immigrants in Brazil marks one hundred years

by Pino Cazzaniga
The two governments are organising events to celebrate a migratory phenomenon that now involves 1.6 million Japanese-Brazilians, 62% of all of the Japanese naturalised abroad. But there are also some who are returning.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) - One hundred years ago, on June 18, 1908, the Japanese ship Kasato Maru, which had left from Kobe three months earlier, reached the wharf of the port of Santos (Brazil, 60 kilometres south of Sao Paolo). 791 Japanese farmers got off the boat: they were the first group of immigrants who had come to Brazil following an agreement between the governments. That little group put down solid roots. According to statistics compiled by the Nikkei Association (Japanese naturalised in foreign countries), today there are 1.6 million Japanese-Brazilians in Brazil, 62% of all the Japanese naturalised abroad.

The events that the two governments are organising for the centenary of the Japanese emigration to Brazil will be significant in proportion to their historic weight.

The statistics that delineate better than others the saga of Japanese emigration to Brazil concern a phenomenon that began in the 1990's: the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the first emigrants are now returning to Japan for the same reason that had driven their grandparents to leave, to look for work and money. Before 1941, only 7% of Japanese emigrants had succeeded in realising the dream they all shared: to return with a tidy sum.

In 1990, there was a review of the law governing immigration, to allow foreigners of Japanese origin to obtain residency and work permits. At the beginning of 2007, there were about 320,000 Japanese-Brazilian residents in Japan.

The chapters of this story reflect the unique face of the Japan that had opened itself to the world in 1868, with the government of Emperor Meiji. But even then, for another 17 years the Japanese in general were still forbidden to leave the country.

Toward the end of the century, the government sponsored an emigration of about 29,000 farmers to Hawaii. From that time on, emigration became a policy for the country to resolve its problem of overpopulation and of poverty in rural areas.

The victory of the Japanese navy over the Russian fleet (1905) increased Japan's bargaining power among other governments. Initially, the preferred countries for emigration were those of the Pacific region: the United States, Canada, and Australia, in addition to the Hawaiian islands, which were annexed by the United States in 1894. No preference was shown to Brazil. But the anti-Japanese sentiment that arose among the Americans and Australians, and the fear of job losses, generated a racist policy that closed the doors against Japanese immigrants.

But Brazil flung its own doors wide open, having an extreme need for manual labourers on the cafe plantations. So Japanese farmers arrived in large numbers, replacing the Italians who had opted for North America.

The Tokyo government intervened to guarantee the workers' contracts, although it then permitted matters to take their own course. And they did not go well. The effort exacted by the managers approached the level of forced labour. Pay was based on the quantity of coffee harvested, which was often calculated haphazardly. Many fled from their employers.

The situation improved greatly when some Japanese were able to establish their own coffee plantations, which became the basis for flourishing "Japanese" communities. After the war, the new immigrants from the archipelago, with strong support from the Japanese-Brazilians, created model farming businesses, especially in the cultivation of flowers and grapes, and in poultry farming. The DNA of the age-old Japanese culture was once again producing impressive results, both in Brazil and in Japan itself.

But businesses are not a unified nation. There were pockets of persistent poverty among the Japanese-Brazilians as well. The return from Brazil to Japan that began in the 1990's can be considered the forerunner of a third phase: that of dialogue between the two peoples. The celebrations of the centenary of Japanese emigration to Brazil are an opportunity that must not be allowed to escape: the two nations have complementary gifts to exchange, to the benefit of authentic globalization.

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