São Paolo is the third largest city in the world – after Mexico City and Bombay, according to some commentators. São Paolo is also the city with the largest population of Japanese outside Japan.
Immigrants usually come from poorer countries, in my experience. Urban metropolis from New York to London have neighbourhoods named Chinatown and little Italy and little India – countries where large number of residents faced poverty and fled to a better land. So it was a surprise to see a neighborhood of immigrants composed of people normally considered wealthy and privileged – in this case, the Japanese.
Liberdade, a neighborhood in central São Paolo, hums with the Sunday fair common to Brazilian cities – except these stalls are full of paper origami, t-shirts with kanji calligraphy, red banners with Katakana and Portuguese signs. The stalls are manned by elderly Japanese, who sell their wares in jerky Portuguese. Stalls sell a sizzling yakissoba.
The Japanese in Brazil are a reminder that Japan wasn’t always a wealthy country, and its citizens faced famine and poverty, like others. Brazil is a land of immigrants, like the United States. Many of its immigrants fled Europe, especially Germany and Italy, after World War II. But the Japanese of Brazil are older immigrants, with many of them making their way to South America as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Historic Museum of Japanese Immigration in Brazil estimates there are currently 260,000 Japanese in Brazil.
Between 1910-1914, there were 14,200 new Japanese immigrants in Brazil. Many of them came from Okinawa, a region in Japan that had its own indigenous population which was colonized by the Meiji dynasty. Famine forced Okinawan families to migrate outwards. Many made their way to South America, where they found work as contract laborers in the coffee plantations. After finishing their contracts, they escaped to liberty to the suburbs of São Paolo or to the interior of the country. A small minority of Japanese have drifted out of the urban metropolis to cities like Petropolis, where the majority of habitants have German ancestry. But most of them remain in São Paolo or other urban areas.
A strange turn of events took place in World War II. The United States, which was interning its own Japanese citizens as enemy aliens, also went to Brazil and took out about 1000 Brazilian Japanese it deemed engaged in subversive activities. The Brazilians ended up in the American camps, and were subsequently deported to Okinawa after the war. Okinawa, ironically, was undergoing another famine after World War II. After much hardship, many of them managed to find their way back home to Brazil. Okinawans, perhaps because of this history of persecution, retain a strong pride in their own cultural identity. A new television series idealizes the Okinawans in Japan, leading to a resurgence of Okinawan popularity in that homogeneous country.
The Japanese of Brazil may look like people from their country of origin, but their culture has been radically transformed after 85 years with the easy going Portuguese. Japanese companies hiring Brazilian Japanese to do blue collar work in their factories found out to their surprise that the new hires resisted authority, and were often unable to finish their terms. The strict work regimen did not suit the young men of São Paolo, who eventually returned home.
Yakissoba is being fried up in the street stalls. Brazilians of all shades - blacks, whites and Asians - all devour the noodles hungrily. In more upscale areas of town, sushi restaurants do a thriving business. Food has no barriers, and in Brazil, neither does music, dance or the relaxed dress code. Japanese Brazilian music mixtures are becoming global favorites, with musicians feeding on styles from both sides of the world. The aesthetics have also melded – the exquisite form and balance of Japanese ideas of beauty melding with the bright parrot greens and flamenco pinks of Brazil. The stereotypical Japanese efficiency is at abeyance as people laugh and chatter in Portuguese, taking a well-deserved Sunday break. Culture, it seems, can be changed with a slight shift of geography.
I think about the hundreds of thousands of Nepalis currently migrating outwards and settling in different countries of the world. They may return. Or they may, like the Japanese, decide to see their new continents as their new homes. From that will come new cultures, new body language, new music and dance. This is an unstoppable process. Without a doubt, new cultures will emerge, and revitalize what already exists in Nepal.