In a classroom in the modern five-story Toyota Technical campus in the picturesque town of Haruhi, Aichi Prefecture, about 10 students hunch over car engines, while others animatedly speak with a teacher.
The students appear to be eager Japanese youths in one of Japan’s best training schools for auto mechanics. But first impressions are deceptive.
They are actually the Brazilian descendants of Japanese emigrants, and they speak Portuguese. At the end of a yearlong training course, they will return to Brazil as certified Toyota mechanics.
In fact, they are the beneficiaries of a delicate act of business diplomacy that will help Toyota Motor Corp. expand in Brazil. About 250,000 Brazilians now live in Japan, the third-largest foreign group behind ethnic Chinese and Koreans.
Although some low-skill factory jobs are open to them here, the better jobs are typically out of reach due to training requirements. Many cannot get additional schooling in Japan because they do not speak Japanese well enough. Meanwhile, they are losing their Portuguese fluency.
Their plight is compounded as they are caught between two dramatically different cultures.
How did all of this come about? It began with a wave of emigration of Japanese to Brazil in the early 1900s. Brazilians of Japanese descent now total 1.2 million.
When the Brazilian economy began to falter in the late 1980s, many Brazilians of Japanese ancestry sought work in Japan. They brought their families, including teenagers who did not speak Japanese, and had to leave friends, relatives and schools.
Enter Toyota. The automaker offers a unique training program that affords young Brazilians a chance to return to Brazil after having developed valuable career skills in Japan.
The students have little chance of getting jobs in Japan as auto mechanics. Apart from the cultural and language barriers, Japan does not even recognize the certificates the students receive at the end of the program.
Toyota Brazil “has expressed a willingness to hire them” to work in its 66 Brazilian dealerships and 83 service shops, said Shigenobu Uchikawa, Toyota’s deputy general manager of international public affairs.
“Toyota plans to make Brazil its headquarters in South America in the future and double the size of the factory (there) in the next century,” he said. “This will require the help of the Brazilian government.”
Uchikawa was referring to an assembly plant that began producing the Corolla model in September. This year, Toyota expects to sell 16,000 vehicles in Brazil. A decade from now, however, Toyota wants to capture 10 percent of the Brazilian market, where some 1.25 million cars were sold in 1999.
As Uchikawa makes clear, Toyota has much to gain from good relations with the Brazilian government.
In fact, it was Guimaraes Reis, the Brazilian ambassador, who asked Toshi Taguchi, a senior managing director of Toyota, to contribute something to the Brazilian community in Japan. He told Takaguchi the story of a Brazilian friend whose son was having a difficult time finding work in Japan, Uchikawa said.
In response, Toyota President Fujio Cho created the automobile service-training course. Toyota provides classrooms, housing, 300 test vehicles and state-of-the-art testing equipment. The course costs 90 million yen for the initial three years. Toyota contributes 60 million yen, while the students pay 40,000 yen per month.
Toyota will wait and see how the program unfolds before committing to it any further. But Genesio Da Costa, a counselor with the Brazilian Embassy, says the directors of the program are satisfied with its current success.
More than 50 students applied for the program, which is taught in Portuguese. Tests and interviews were given and the most qualified ones were chosen.
“The students are highly motivated,” says Akio Inokawa, the director of the education division at the college. “In a way, they are more motivated than Japanese students. They’re hungry and want to make their lives better.”
Instructor Antonio Bruschi, 27, says the career training has given the students hope for a better life.
“Most of them didn’t want to come to Japan, but had to because their families came here to work. Once they came, their schooling stopped and they worked 12 hours a day in factories.”
He says besides teaching them auto maintenance, he teaches them how to cope with life in a different culture. Five of the students have recently received school diplomas from Brazil. “This is a model for other companies to do the same,” Bruschi said.