An L.A. Sansei's Misadventures in South America

John Katagi is a former staff member of the Japanese American National Museum. He shares memories from almost two decades of travel to South America. His experiences result from study and observation as part of the directorial staff of JEMS, a cross-cultural agency based in Los Angeles.

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Coffee on the Amazon

I'm in the middle of Pará state, about three hours from the large city of Belém on a dirt road three hours from a small village called Tomé Açu.

Tomé Açu was one of several Japanese farming colonies in the state that started with the arrival of 43 Japanese families in 1929. This farming community would emerge successfully through the cultivation of pepper. The fortunes of the community would also decline as the pepper plant fell victim to a fungus that destroyed the crops.

This three-hour midway point between Belém and Tomé Açu is the break in an arduous overland …

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Say What?

My first meal during my first visit to Brazil was in a conference center just an hour from São Paulo’s international airport. This would be my first Nikkei leadership conference in Brazil, my first time for everything.

We arrived at the hour of almoço (lunch) and I was handed a plate. I soon found myself standing in line for lunch in the cafeteria. There were people behind tables serving us as we passed in front. The first person scooped what looked like rice onto my plate. It was fluffy and slightly yellowish. She said, "mize?"

Here's where the realization came …

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Beisebol or Besuboru?

Beisebol is big among the Japanese farming colonies of South America. I found myself at a weekend tournament in Pedro Juan Caballero, a small town in eastern Paraguay on the border of Brazil. As I wandered around, it occurred to me that it wasn't just about baseball. It was about community. It was certainly a chance to watch various games and rivalries played out, but it was also an opportunity to visit, to picnic, to laugh, to gossip.

Onigiri (rice balls), umeboshi (pickled plums) and chicken seemed to be the food of choice that day. There were kids walking around …

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Ahh. Piranha

I am sitting in a dugout canoe with three rather large Nikkei Brazilian guys. We're fishing in the Parana River just outside the town of Panorama on the borders of the states of São Paulo and Mato Grosso do Sul in central Brazil.

One hour earlier, the invitation to go fishing seemed like a good one. It meant skipping a three-hour lecture and discussion on Nikkei community issues and as this was my first trip to Brazil, I wouldn't have been able to understand the Portuguese language (or Japanese interpretation) anyway. Now as the edge of the dugout sits about …

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adventures baseball Brazil community fish fishing identity language Paraguay Parana River sansei sao paulo south america sports tomé açu travel traveling