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Shedding "Nikkeijin": Nikkei as a New Identity - Part 1

1.The Image of Nikkei in Brazil

In 1997, for the first time in Brazil, a Japanese Brazilian, Cássio Taniguchi, was elected as the mayor of a state capital, in Curitiba, the state capital of Paraná. Taniguchi received the additional honor of being elected to a second term, becoming the first mayor to do so in the city’s history. Ironically, when running for office, Taniguchi was not only virtually unknown to the city’s Nikkei community, but also had no contact with the community’s leaders. During his campaign, however, Taniguchi’s Nikkei heritage was deliberately used as part of his campaign strategy.

Japonês Garantido (Trustworthy Japanese)” and “Olhos Puxados (Slanted Narrow Eyes)”

During Taniguchi’s election campaign, “Garantido ” and “Olhos Puxados ” were observed everywhere as his campaign catchphrases. “Japonês Garantido ” is a Portuguese phrase that is still commonly heard throughout Brazil, and can be literally translated as “guaranteed Japanese.” It implies that any Japanese person is trustworthy. This reflects the way that the Issei who emigrated from Japan have been recognized for their hard work despite many hardships in a foreign land, as well as for their diligence, particularly in their contributions to agriculture. This phrase symbolizes the good reputation Japanese immigrants were able to secure from Brazilians.

If “Japonês Garantido ” describes distinguishing internal characteristics of Japanese immigrants as well as their descendents, it can be said that “Olhos Puxados ” describes distinguishing external characteristics of Nikkei. Olhos Puxados when literally translated is “pulled eyes,” and refers to the fact that typically Japanese eyes are more slanted and narrow when compared to those of Europeans. In other words, when one pulls down one’s eyelids with both hands, they become “Japanese” eyes.

Garantido ”—with the “Japonês ” of “Japonês Garantido ” dropped—and “Olhos Puxados ” are synonymous with Nikkei in Brazil. During Taniguchi’s campaign, this “Garantido ” was frequently used to reinforce the idea of the “dependable Japanese” or “guaranteed,” and despite the fact that his heritage was apparent with one look at his face, in televised appearances during his campaign, he often pulled down his eyelids with his hands, and with this gesture emphasized that he was “Olhos Puxados ,” or Nikkei. In other words, he attempted to demonstrate that he was a trustworthy and capable government official, as well as sincere and hardworking because he was of Japanese descent.

Nissei and Nikkei

Taniguchi is a Nissei (Nisei). The Portuguese word “nissei ” is now commonly understood among many Brazilians as second-generation, and even appears in the Portuguese dictionary. However, earlier, many Brazilians were under the misunderstanding that nissei meant the same as Nikkei. This was particularly true in areas outside São Paulo and Paraná, where there are concentrated populations of Nikkei. At present, there is sufficient understanding of the terms that in addition to Nissei , the terms Issei and Sansei are also understood, and now these terms can be heard coming from other Brazilians’ mouths as well.

Issei, Nissei, Sansei, Nan-sei?

“The children of immigrants, or Issei , are Nissei , and their grandchildren are Sansei . Then what -sei are the next generation? ” “Nan-sei! ” This is a common joke in Brazil. In this instance, Nan-sei in Portuguese is pronounced “não sei ,” which can be translated to mean “I don’t know.” Such jokes have become quite common, and are often directed towards Japanese by non-Japanese Brazilians. This can be seen as evidence of that there is a growing awareness of Nikkei among Brazilians.

2. Changing Perceptions of Japonês

Now let us consider how Nikkei have been viewed in Brazil, as well as how Nikkei themselves have perceived their identity as Nikkei. At the beginning of the 1980s, in any state in Brazil besides the two states where Nikkei are concentrated—São Paulo and Paraná where eight-tenths of the Nikkei live—Japanese and Nikkei were occasionally harassed with catcalls of “Chinês! (Chinese) Chinês! ” Such incidents were mostly a result of curiosity for the unfamiliar or done in part to tease, but it is not entirely clear why Chinese was used. Also, this is not unique to Brazil, since it appears that in Europe, for quite some time, all Asians have been uniformly referred to as Chinese. This could simply be because China has an older history than Japan and is better known abroad, or may be the result of the influence of the “coolie trade.” Or it could be because by then, there were already Chinese immigrants in Brazil from the beginning of the nineteenth century who had already begun to make their life before the Japanese who immigrated a century later, and their existence and name were already known. Regardless, to Brazilians who made such catcalls, Chinese and Japanese were the same Asians, and either they were uninterested in making any distinction between them, or they were unaware of the need to make such a distinction.

Japonês, Japa , and Nihonjin

Now let us consider how racially Japanese people have been labeled in Brazil by those who did recognize that Japanese and Chinese were different people. In Portuguese, “Japonês ” means a person from Japan, but as mentioned earlier, in Brazil, Brazilians usually refer to Nikkei as “Japonês .” The term “Japa ,” which is derived from Japonês and has derogatory connotations, was also occasionally heard. This is a derogatory word similar to the term “Jap” that exists in North America. And while “Japonês ” was more common, among some Brazilians, and in certain instances, the term “Japa ,” with its derogatory connotations, was used. In particular, during the period when Nikkei withdrew into their communities known as colônia , and were viewed as an alien group that concealed itself from the host society, this term was occasionally used as a form of derision.

Also, in Brazil, Japanese and Nikkei were often perceived as homogenous and one-dimensional. In other words, they were seen as “faceless Japanese.” Some expressions that epitomize this point of view include “Japonês é tudo igual (Japanese is all the same)” and “Um caminhão de japonês é tudo igual (A truck full of Japanese all look the same).” Nikkei all have the same face. Nikkei all look the same and are difficult to tell apart. Such impressions were common among the average Brazilian.

During such a period, among young Nisei or Sansei, there were those who resented being called “Japonês, Japonês ,” and made great effort to avoid being identified as Nikkei or standing out in any way, and many lacked any interest in Japanese culture. Some Sansei explain that as Brazilians, they were embarrassed by activities such as taiko (Japanese drumming) or Bon odori (annual dance festival to honor the deceased) enjoyed by Issei, and distanced themselves from such activities. However, even Nikkei who shouldered such emotional burdens, used these as springs to steadily rise up in society, and in particular, were increasingly successful at gaining entrance into universities. In the beginning of the 1970s, Nikkei only accounted for 2.7 percent of the population of the state of São Paulo, but their acceptance rate to the University of São Paulo was 13 percent. As a result, a joke began to circulate in São Paulo: “If you kill one Nikkei, your chances of getting into university will increase that much.” This is around the time when Nikkei began to develop a reputation for being successful. Also, the 1970s was when Japanese companies increasingly began to enter the Brazilian market, and there was an increased awareness of Japan through Japanese products in Brazil. From around this time, the adjective “inteligente ”—that is intelligent—began to be attached to “Japonês .”

The positive and negative connotations associated with “Japonês ” might be considered two sides of the same coin, and were maintained in a delicate balance. During this time, being Japonês was not something that people deliberately declared to others to assert their identity.

This trend saw a change starting in the late 1980s. This was also the period when the so-called “dekasegi phenomenon” among South American Nikkei began. There was a rapid increase in immigration to Japan for work or education, and in turn, there was an increased influx of goods and information from Japan. And since this was during the bubble period, Japan was viewed as a global economic super power. It can be considered that as respect for Japan increased, the value of those who were the descendants of Japanese immigrants also increased. In this context, there appeared some young people who began to deliberately emphasize their Japanese heritage.

Also, among Nikkei who went to Japan, there were some who, upon being exposed to the culture of their ancestors for the first time, became aware of both differences and similarities between themselves and Japanese. This led to the emergence of Nikkei who re-affirmed their identity as Nikkei. While there were those who lost their Japanese identity upon discovering the gap between their perception of Japan while in Brazil and Japan in reality, there were others who developed a stronger sense of Japanese identity upon being exposed to the culture that they learned about from their grandparents. In an extreme case, there was a Sansei who declared that, “As soon as I landed at Narita Airport and walked through the airport lobby, in that moment I clearly realized that I was not Japanese.” There were those who came to the realization that even though they were called Japonês (Japanese) in Brazil, they were certainly not Japanese—that is, not Nihonjin (Japanese from Japan)—and came to clearly distinguish between Japonês and Nihonjin . In other words, for Nikkei, the Japanese in Japan were Nihonjin , and were different from the Japonês , Japanese in Brazil.

From “Peixe cru (raw fish)” to “Sashimi”

Now, from the different perspective of food culture, similar interesting changes can be observed. As many Nisei and Sansei give witness, in the past Nikkei were teased by Brazilians with such statements as “Japonês come peixe cru! (Japanese eat [stinky] raw fish!)” and were thought of as a people with disgusting customs such as eating uncooked fish. This is of course in reference not to smelly raw fish, but sashimi, which must have seemed quite strange indeed to Brazilians who did not have such a custom.

It is said that Japanese restaurants became acceptable and familiar to Brazilians as a result of the health food craze in Brazil that started between the late 1970s to the early 1980s. And it was during this time that Japanese cuisine came to be increasingly associated with elite cuisine, and eating sashimi or sushi became a kind of status symbol. The typical pattern of Japanese cuisine consumption among Brazilians started with teppanyaki, then progressed to tempura, sukiyaki, and then yakisoba . And while there were many who did not move on from there, there were also those who showed an interest in sushi and sashimi, since these are associated with health food, and were eventually able to eat raw food without any trouble. In recent years, it has even become common to see yakisoba sold at roadside stalls because of its convenience and low cost. Now non-Japanese Brazilians can be seen preparing and selling yakisoba to meet Brazilians’ tastes.

Japanese food has become accepted among Brazilians, and sashimi and sushi, which were once used to ridicule Nikkei, are now considered respectable high cuisine. Sashimi is no longer smelly raw fish, but has now become fully accepted as sashimi. This change in how Japanese food is valued reflects the shift in how Nikkei themselves are perceived. In other words, what was once considered a strange inscrutable custom is now seen as a respectable luxury item. And as the world-wide perception of Japan improved, and the way that Nikkei were perceived also improved, Nikkei themselves began to reconsider the value of Japanese culture. Japanese taiko and dance were no longer things to be embarrassed about, but were things that were related to their roots, and came to be seen as crucial aspects of their own self-discovery and the assertion of their identity. Now let us consider changes within the Nikkei community.

Part 2 >>

*The original article was published in Japanese in 『アジア遊学 76号-特集・アジア<日本・日系>ラテンアメリカ日系社会の経験から学ぶ』(勉誠出版, 2005).

© 2007 Kojima Shigeru