One hundred years ago, a wave of poor Japanese migrants resettled in Brazil to work on coffee plantations.
Today, their descendants number around one million and are one of Brazil’s most successful minority groups.
In the 1990s Japan offered this Diaspora work visas and close to 300 thousand Japanese-Brazilians have since returned to their ancestral homeland.
But now, due to the global economic recession, many are heading back to Brazil.
From Nagoya, reporter Jason Strother has more.
Factories like this create car parts for Japan’s automotive giants, like Toyota and Honda.
At many of them, the people operating the machines are Brazilian laborers whose ancestors migrated from Japan decades ago. They are known as the Nikkei.
Entire families have come here to find work. Like that of 26-year old Alessandra Yamada. She shares an apartment with her brother and sister in Nagoya. Their mother works in a town a couple of hours away. Even though Yamada earned a university degree back in Brazil, she says a Japanese work visa gave her more opportunities.
“We can get a better salary here than in Brazil. The reality of the Brazilian economy is that even people with university degrees cannot earn as much as compared to in Japan. We can save money here too.”
Brazilians like Yamada have filled a void in the labor market.
Japan, with its shrinking population, does not have a large enough work force, nor one with the desire, to take these types of low-skilled and low paying jobs.
Very few Nikkei speak Japanese. They identify themselves as Brazilian first.
And like immigrant communities around the world, they’ve brought their culture with them to their new home.
Brazilian bars like this one in Nagoya are a place for then to reminisce and a window into a foreign culture for locals.
The bar’s owner, who goes by the name DiDi, says when he opened here in 1992, Japanese people knew nothing about Brazil.
He says the Japanese have since embraced Brazilian culture. 80 percent of his customers are Japanese. DiDi says they want to learn how to dance Samba and listen to Brazilian music.
But even though aspects of Brazilian culture have been popularized here and Japan offers the Nikkei visas specifically because of their ethnic ancestry, many say they are not treated as equals.
Angelo Ishi is an associate professor of sociology at Musashi University in Tokyo and third generation Nikkei.
He says back in Brazil, the Japanese live within the middle class and are regarded as a model minority. But that all changes once they accept jobs here in Japan.
“And then In Japan, they face a very different situation because they are in the lowest part of the Japanese society pyramid. They are doing the worst job. They are treated like a good work force, nothing more than that.”
Ishi says Japan takes pride in its alleged ethnic homogeneity and is very good at welcoming foreigners as short-term guests, but it’s a different story for the Nikkei.
“Japanese society is still not prepared for receiving foreigners as migrants, as people who maybe will stay here forever.”
Ishi adds that, despite these obstacles, many Brazilians choose to stay in Japan, not just for the money, but because of the comfort and safety that life here offers.
But now, as Japan faces its worst economic downturn in decades, many Nikkei migrant workers are being forced to return to Brazil.
Since the recession began in November, companies have laid off hundreds of thousands of workers. And analysts agree that Brazilians migrants have been the first to lose their jobs.
Jeff Kingston lectures at Temple University in Tokyo and is the author of Japan’s Quiet Transformation.
“Most of the Brazilians are contract workers and many of them have lost or are at a high risk of losing their job and so what began as a dream for many of them seems to have ended in a nightmare.”
Twenty-eight year old Karina Tsoumada has worked in Japan for almost eight years. She says she was sacked without warning from her job at a car parts factory.
“And my Japanese boss just told me, from Monday you are on vacation, but on Tuesday, he told my manager, my Brazilian boss, that he had to dismiss me, so that’s it, the next day he told me I was fired.”
Tsunoda says for now she can collect unemployment benefits, but they will run out in a few months.
There are predictions that half of the 300 thousand Nikkei could be laid off this year. Already the recession’s impact is visible in the businesses and schools that serve the Brazilian community.
The children of factory workers play in the gymnasium of their Portuguese-language elementary school.
Thirteen-year old Bruno Yoshiro says his classes are getting smaller.
“A lot of my friends have left and more are going to leave. Their families don’t have enough work now to live in Japan anymore.”
The school’s director, Aureo Magno Watanabe, says before the crisis, there were around 150 tuition-paying students here. Now there are 35.
Watanabe says in order to keep his school open he is combining classes with another school in Nagoya. He says he’s very worried about losing more students as families leave for Brazil.
But things might not be any easier for the Nikkei once they get back home.
Unemployment in Brazil hovers around eight percent. And the type of low-skilled labor they’ve done in Japan won’t help them get jobs there.
Musashi University’s Angelo Ishi again.
“He or she cannot search for some skilled job in the same conditions of people who have studied there and people who are looking for the same job there.”
Recently laid off, Karina Tsunoda says she’s been thinking a lot about what she’ll do if and when she leaves Japan for good.
“I really feel scared, and it’s strange, because I will restart my life. I will try to go to college and try to find a job there.
Q. Do you think it will be easy to find a job when you go back to Brazil?
“The situation there hasn’t changed. It’s a little better now, but, I am sure it’s not going to be easy. But I will try.”
And to avoid what it calls a growing social problem, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is offering money to unemployed Nikkei so they can buy tickets for flights home to Brazil.