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More Power to Nikkei Communities in Brazil - Part 1

Japanese emigrants and their descendants have played an important role in the development of Brazil for more than a century. In this article, we look back on that contribution and introduce some of the efforts of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to support Nikkei communities in Brazil today.

Japanese emigrants disembark the Africa Maru at the Port of Santos in Brazil, 1960. (Courtesy of JICA yokohama Japanese Overseas Migration Museum)

In the Edo period (1603–1867) under the feudal system, the Tokugawa shogunate forbade Japanese people from going abroad and also placed restrictions on foreign trade, except with some countries such as the Netherlands and China.

After the Tokugawa government was overthrown in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, however, a new Meiji government introduced progressive Western technologies and promoted foreign trade and human exchanges to modernize Japan. Because the new government also lifted the ban on going abroad, some Japanese people left their country where they couldn’t make a living in search of prosperous lives in foreign countries.

The first wave of such people consisted of Japanese emigrants who went to the Kingdom of Hawaii (the current State of Hawaii, the United States) as sugar cane field workers in 1868. Following this, another wave of Japanese began to immigrate to North America, including California and Canada, and to Latin America and the Caribbean, including Mexico in 1897, Peru in 1899 and Brazil in 1908.

Because the Meiji government promoted emigration to Latin America and the Caribbean and those region’s governments needed workers, many Japanese immigrated to those countries. Of those Latin American and Caribbean countries, the largest number of Japanese immigrated to Brazil.

Around 240,000 Japanese immigrated to Latin America and the Caribbean before World War II, and there were around 190,000 emigrants to Brazil. In the beginning, many Japanese emigrants who worked in the coffee and sugar cane plantations were forced to undertake difficult low-wage jobs in tough conditions and climates, and were affected by tropical diseases, including malaria. Despite these difficulties, more and more Japanese emigrants purchased land to engage in agriculture on their own, sold vegetables in cities and ran restaurants and inns.

In this way, the Japanese emigrants integrated themselves into Brazilian society. Japanese emigrants and their descendants (Nikkei) came to be highly evaluated for their integrity and hard work in many respects, such as their high-quality agricultural products and good service in the retail industry, and the expression “ japonês garantido” (trusted Japanese) became common.

In addition, the Japanese emigrants were education-oriented. It is said that Japanese emigrants established schools immediately after settling in Latin America and the Caribbean, whereas immigrants from Western countries established churches. Many highly educated Japanese descendants emerged, who worked hard as lawyers, doctors and politicians. Currently, there are estimated to be 2.13 million Japanese emigrants called issei and their descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean. Among them, about 1.9 million people live in Brazil.

“Japanese emigrants gave Brazilians the opportunity to get to know Asia,” says Yoshida Satoshi, Deputy Director General of the Latin America and the Caribbean Department of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). “On the other hand, to Japanese people, they symbolized Japan’s participation in the international community after an extended closed-door policy during the Edo period.”

Contribution to Agriculture

Formerly barren Cerrado land in Brazil was developed for agriculture with the cooperation of Japan. (Courtesy of JICA)

Japanese emigrants and their descendants played an important role in developing Brazil, and they made particularly significant contributions to the agricultural domain. “Japanese emigrants and their descendants have made significant contributions to the Brazilian diet,” says Yoshida. “In the past, Brazilians ate a lot of meat. But as Japanese emigrants and their descendants expanded the production and distribution of vegetables, they circulated cooking methods of vegetables, which led to significant growth in the vegetable consumption of Brazilians. Increased vegetable consumption has contributed to extending healthy life expectancy by improvement in nutrition.”

As for development of agricultural land, Japanese emigrants and their descendants were involved with development in tropical savanna areas called the “Cerrado” that stretch throughout mid-western Brazil. Cerrado areas were considered to be barren areas that were unsuitable for agriculture.

In 1973, the United States declared an embargo on exports of soybeans because of their bad harvest. Japan needed to find a new agricultural frontier because Japan heavily depended on soybeans from the United States at that time. Under this situation, Japan shared a mutual interest with Brazil which wanted to develop the Cerrado as agricultural land.

In 1974, then-Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei visited Brazil and announced his intention to cooperate through Official Development Assistance (ODA) programs, which triggered the development of the Cerrado areas. JICA launched its technical cooperation in 1977 and provided support for improving the soil, crop varieties and cultivation technologies. In addition, Japan also established a financing company jointly with Brazil and embarked on agricultural land development projects in 1979. This cooperative project continued until 2001, and the Cerrado areas were transformed into the world’s leading producers of agricultural products such as soybeans, corn and coffee. In this development project, many Japanese emigrants and their descendants settled in the Cerrado areas, cultivated agricultural land and expanded the production of numerous agricultural products.

There are also many agricultural products whose cultivation was popularized by Japanese emigrants and their descendants in Brazil. The apple called the Fuji is one of these. Up until the 1960s, Brazil depended on imports for most of its domestic apple consumption. Apples were so expensive that people could only eat them when they were sick.

In the early 1970s, however, the Brazilian government asked Japan to provide technical cooperation in cultivating apples with the aim of producing high-quality apples domestically. In response to this request from the Brazilian government, the Overseas Technical Cooperation Agency (a predecessor of JICA) sent Dr. Ushirozawa Kenji of the Aomori Fruit Tree Experiment Station, to Brazil as an expert. Dr. Ushirozawa collaborated with Cooperative Agricola de Cotia, an agricultural cooperative society organized mainly by Japanese emigrants and their descendants, traveling around the country and looking for land that would be suitable for apple cultivation.

About three years later, Dr. Ushirozawa decided to adopt São Joaquim, a highland area in Santa Catarina State in southern Brazil, as an apple cultivation site, and selected the Fuji as the variety to be cultivated. In São Joaquim, Japanese emigrants and their descendants who settled there began to cultivate apples in 1974, and Dr. Ushirozawa offered them technical guidance.

Orchard workers tend to Fuji apple trees in São Joaquim, southern Brazil. (Courtesy of JICA)

Even after Dr. Ushirozawa had served out his term, JICA continued to send experts to Brazil for about twenty-five years to provide support to the farmers. As a result of this cooperation, São Joaquim developed into a leading Brazilian apple producer and the Fuji apple has become very familiar to Brazilians, who can easily buy the fruit at any supermarket.

Read Part 2 >>


*This article was originally published on TJJ OnLine on June 1, 2018.


© 2018 The Japan Journal

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