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Brazil’s Empire Windrush

The story of the Nikkei, the large Japanese community in Brazil



In the UK in mid-June the anniversary of the arrival of migrant ship The Empire Windrush will be marked. The importance of this event has been greatly magnified by the convergence of interest in the history of black people, the Black Lives Matter movement and the specific scandal of the British government’s disgraceful persecution of immigrants from the Caribbean, as part of its ‘hostile environment’ policy.

The Empire Windrush. Main image at the head of this article shows the Kasato Maru.

Few in the UK, however, will have heard of the arrival in Brazil of a similar migrant ship, the Kasato Maru, which docked in Santos, Brazil, on 18 June 1908, 40 years and four days earlier, and which launched Japanese migration to Brazil. The descendants of both migrations account for around one per cent of the population of their new home countries.

The largest number of Japanese living abroad are to be found in Brazil. They are concentrated in São Paulo, where the city centre Liberdade district looks like a miniature Japan – though today some of the ‘Japanese’ shops and restaurants are run by ethnic Chinese and Koreans.

Traffic lights in Liberdade, São Paulo

In recent years I have travelled around Brazil, from busy Liberdade to remote settlements in the north, and met some of the estimated 1.6 million nikkei (as Japanese who live abroad are known). Among the products of this unlikely migration that I encountered were statues of Japanese pioneers, several museums, a cooperative that exports to Japan, associations promoting Japanese culture, and a concert at São Paulo’s Japanese Pavillion. These encounters, and more, are included in the film I made with nikkei Marisa Morita.

Nikkei – Searching for Japan in Brazil. Video: Marisa Morita and Malcolm Boorer, 2019

An organised voyage

The voyage of the 781 passengers on the Kasato Maru was subsidised by São Paulo State and in return they were contracted to work for 2 years. The state expected to receive family groups, with several members able to work. The Windrush migrants to Britain came from a British colony, knew the language and culture of the colonial power and some had served in the British armed forces during the World War. The Japanese arrived in Brazil to find a way of life that could hardly be more different to the one they left, including language, diet, and religion. After travelling half way round the earth, many would retain the customs of their homeland and loyalty to their Emperor.

Tribute to the (2008) centenary of Japanese immigration to Brazil. Video: Wagner Tusita, April 2014

São Paulo State helped to pay for the journey from Kobe to Santos because it needed workers on coffee plantations, and wasn’t receiving enough of the (white) Europeans it preferred. At the same time a rapidly changing Japan had a surplus population, and other destinations like the USA were closing. When both countries ran out of other options this meeting of two quite different peoples began.

Recruitment poster displayed in Japan in the 1920s. ‘Go to South America with your whole family’.

The early Japanese migrants did not come to live and work in urban areas. Soon after arrival, the Kasato migrants were sent to coffee fazendas (large farms). Like the European migrants who came before them, they found conditions and attitudes little changed from those of slavery, abolished in Brazil just 30 years before. One nikkei I met who arrived as a child in the mid-1930s remembered a supervisor with a whip and gun. And like migrants everywhere, most soon realised that the dream of returning home richer in a few years would be far from reality. Not surprisingly some left the fazendas before their contracted time.

The nikkei community retains a memory of hardship and adversity, and I heard several stories about poor living conditions, but Brazil could also be a place of opportunity. The Japanese proved to be successful farmers, often more productive than others, bringing new products, techniques and organisation.

Small Nikkei farm in Cotia in the late 1930s

Many formed cooperatives, including in 1927 a group of vegetable farmers in Cotia, now a district of urban São Paulo. Later it employed over 3,000 people, including scientists and engineers, and had over 10,000 producer members with sales offices in 14 countries, before going bankrupt in 1994, a victim of the agricultural recession of the period and saddled with heavy debt.

Cotia Agricultural Cooperative vehicle 1930s. Used to take produce to market in city centre

Japanese communities in more remote areas often had limited contact with other Brazilians, retaining the customs and language of their homeland. They valued education, even if only to prepare children for what most expected would be their return to Japan. Two nikkei I met, a professor and a doctor, told me how they once walked many kilometres to school.  From 1916 a lively Japanese press was established in Brazil, bringing news from Japan and at times promoting the benefits of engaging with the wider community. Most of the nearly 200,000 Japanese who arrived at Santos before the war were literate, a much higher proportion than among other migrants, and the Brazilian population at that time.

A pro-active Japanese Government

Having moved surplus population abroad the Japanese Government wanted to make sure they settled, and took an increasingly pro-active role in migration. As well as taking over the funding of travel by the 1920s, it organised colonies, buying land and putting in infrastructure, allowing some nikkei to avoid the exploitation of the large fazendas.

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Japanese lettering above the sign for the Tomé Açu Association for Cultural and Agricultural Development

Partly to avoid discrimination, some migrants were directed to remote areas, including after 1929 the Amazon region. Many groups struggled to survive but one that succeeded was at Tomé Açu, a settlement in Pará State not linked by road until the 1970s. An agricultural co-op was established there in the  1930s and when I visited it I found an organisation with a modern factory, playing an important part in the local economy, using pioneering sustainable agricultural methods and exporting products to Japan.

Japanese consulates in Brazil would encourage and fund cooperatives and associations, and promote a positive image of Japan, while departing migrants were expected to preserve the good name of Japan.

A place in the racial hierarchy

After the abolition of slavery Brazilian policy makers wanted to ‘whiten’ its population. While the Federal Government opposed migration from Asia, São Paulo State negotiated with Japan to meet its labour shortage. These opposing views continued well after the Japanese arrived. Some saw them as a ‘yellow peril’, while others, like a Federal legislator in 1935, thought they ‘were more Brazilian than the Portuguese’.

In the 1930s Brazil started to put limits on how many migrants could arrive but in practice the quotas for Japan were exceeded until the second world war, which ended all movement.

With the Vargas government and its ‘Brazilianisation’ policy in the late 1930s, legal limits were introduced on the use of languages other than Portuguese. Eventually Japanese schools and newspapers were closed and Brazil’s entry into the war turned Japanese into potential enemies. There were no mass removals like those in war-time USA, but some were forced to move, and the father of one nikkei I met was imprisoned for 6 months. Japanese businesses were seized as enemy assets, though the Cotia Cooperative managed to operate with a non-Japanese as its nominal head.

Press cutting from Jornal de São Paulo, April 1946: the Swedish Embassy, in charge of Japanese interests in Brazil, makes clear to the Japanese community the true situation of the Emperor.

The second world war had a profound effect on Brazil’s still mostly rural Japanese population, leaving it abandoned when consulates were closed and all travel and communication with Japan was cut. With Japanese language publications banned, secret societies sprung up which believed that Japan had won the war. This created divisions among nikkei, including a campaign of violence that resulted several murders and many arrests. While Brazil was trying to deal with this, in 1946, a Constitutional Assembly narrowly defeated a total ban on all further Japanese migration by the casting vote of the chair. 

A second wave

By the 1950s a still over-populated Japan was able to persuade Brazil to resume migration, and nearly 60,000 more nikkei arrived by the 1970s. The Japanese State and the agencies it worked with continued to direct some migrants to remote areas, sometimes with poor planning. Nearly a hundred miles inland from Recife I met some nikkei who arrived in a town called Bonito in the late 1950s. After ignoring advice about what to produce, the community had clearly prospered economically but most of the second generation had moved away.

Although division among the nikkei about Japan’s victory or defeat continued for many years, this did not prevent many of the generation born in Brazil from taking advantage of new opportunities. They were able to assimilate into wider Brazilian society, though with different approaches, with some retaining Japanese customs and social networks, others avoiding them. 

The Japanese look in Brazil. Cultural event at the Japanese Pavillion in Sao Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park

Instead of becoming farmers, many second generation nikkei would join the middle class as lawyers, doctors or engineers. A survey carried out 50 years after the Kasato Maru arrival found nearly half of nikkei lived in urban areas with most employed in family businesses or middle class professions. Nikkei made good use of post war educational opportunities, and from the 1950s were over-represented among undergraduates. Later at least half of nikkei were estimated to have a University education, far higher than the Brazilian average. An indication of their acceptance into wider society is the appointment of the first Japanese origin cabinet minister Fabio Yassuda in 1969, though other nikkei joined the armed struggle against the dictatorship.

Identity in multi-racial Brazil

Race and ‘whiteness’ continue to be important issues in Brazil. Though nikkei may have a distinctive Japanese ‘face’, racial boundaries can be flexible. Early Japanese migrants usually tried to ensure marriage within the nikkei community, but with each generation inter-marriage has increased, with fourth generation nikkei more likely to marry other, usually whiter, Brazilians.

Cultural identity has been even more flexible, with considerable variation in the extent to which nikkei consider themselves Brazilian. Some have tried to retain a Japanese identity through networks and traditions while others deliberately avoided them. Identities could change over time, like those I met who pursued a Brazilian life but later sought to re-discover their Japanese heritage. And for one nikkei it also depended on context. He told me that to the Brazilians he was Japanese and to the Japanese he was Brazilian.

For those who wish to retain a Japanese heritage there are numerous organisations. The Nipo-Brazilian Pan-Amazon Association was founded in the 1959 to give practical assistance to isolated communities. Now it seeks to spread Japanese culture, with around 800 people, nikkei and other Brazilians, attending the various courses it ran at the time I visited.

The Kasato Maru migrants have been in Brazil for over a century. They have faced many difficulties but achieved a considerable degree of assimilation, something not yet found by those who arrived in Britain on the Empire Windrush 70 years ago. But the Nikkei still face new challenges, something that LAB will look at in future.