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Helping Brazilian kids master local life

Japanese-Brazilian Tetsuyoshi Kodama proudly serves as a bridge between communities

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Tetsuyoshi Kodama, a second-generation Japanese-Brazilian, became the first foreign national to pass the taxi driver test in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1991.

After driving around the city of Hamamatsu for about four years, he took on other jobs, including at a temporary employment agency and as a part-time Portuguese-Japanese interpreter at a local police station.

Today, the 46-year-old Kodama owns two companies and teaches at a karate dojo he opened in 2005. He has nearly 80 students — over half of them Japanese — learning either karate or kick-boxing there.

Born in Sao Paulo, Kodama came to Japan 20 years ago with a recommendation from a Japanese karate teacher who was impressed by his skills in a competition held there in 1989.

“When asked whether I wanted to come to Japan, I immediately said ‘yes’ because I always had good impressions of Japan and wanted to come to Japan,” Kodama said.

Around the same time, he accidentally met a Japanese taxi company representative who offered him a job as a driver in Hamamatsu. With the prospect of work, he arrived in Japan together with his third-generation Japanese-Brazilian wife and two children — a then 5-year old son and a 6-month-old daughter.

Kodama’s first encounter with karate came when he was 14. He used to fight often as a child, mainly because he was bullied for having Japanese features. His mother, who was worried about his fighting habits, suggested he go to a karate dojo nearby.

After learning karate for a little while, he beat someone with a karate punch during one of his fights and realized how much strength he had.

“I found out that I can beat anyone with my skills. Since then, I quit fighting altogether,” he said with a smile.

“I want to teach kids to become strong through karate. My favorite phrase is ‘Be strong and gentle at heart.’ “

For the last few years, he has engaged in volunteer work to help Brazilian dropouts in Hamamatsu get back on the right track.

He went out to the city center regularly in the evenings with two professors from Hamamatsu Gakuin University, looking for Brazilian kids who had left school and were wasting their time strolling around town aimlessly in packs.

“Over 13,000 Brazilians reside in Hamamatsu, which is the largest number in all the cities throughout Japan. Many of the Brazilians are temporary workers at car manufacturing plants,” he said.

“Some years ago, many children of those workers were dropping out of local schools — especially when they reach junior high school age — because they found it difficult to learn the Japanese language and could not keep up with the studies,” Kodama said.

He talked to those kids on the streets and asked them why they were there, often advising them to go home.

He handed them his name card with the location of the karate dojo printed on it, and some came and knocked on his door later on, just to talk to him or to start lessons. Some of the kids he taught returned to school and went on to higher education, or got jobs.

Kodama stressed that it’s important for the community to support Brazilian kids from an early age — around elementary school — to help them adapt to the local school life.

“For the adults, it’s difficult to adapt to the community, because the community has an image of them being ‘foreigners’ and they themselves also feel that they are foreigners. But it’s different for the children, because they grow up here. If the nationality barrier is removed, it’s easier for them to cooperate and make a good community when they become adults,” Kodama said.

Kodama says that he feels special to be a Japanese-Brazilian. “It was obvious that I looked different from other Brazilians (growing up in Sao Paulo). The others told me that I’m Japanese. However, I’m neither Brazilian nor Japanese. I have pride as a Japanese-Brazilian. I can understand the mentality of both sides,” he said.

Kodama’s parents emigrated from Yamaguchi Prefecture to Sao Paulo in 1960, working as vegetable farmers and later as venders.

Kodama says his father always told him good things about Japan when he was a child. He says he was influenced by the Japanese sense of virtue, such as how to behave to your seniors and the notion of Bushido — the code of the samurai.

In Sao Paulo, he attended both Brazilian and Japanese elementary schools where he learned Portuguese — his mother tongue — and Japanese.

“My father was very strict to me (more than to my brothers and sisters), but later, he told me that he regretted how he behaved, and apologized to me. He said that he was so caught up in trying to make a living in Brazil that he had no room left for any patience,” Kodama said, adding he is grateful today to his father for making him mentally strong.

Kodama said that his father never told him that he wanted to come back to Japan, but that he always liked Japan and was proud of being Japanese.

When Kodama’s mother died nine years ago, Kodama asked his father to come to Hamamatsu to live with his family. His father came to Japan, but went back to Brazil soon after, saying he was disappointed and saddened by how Japan had changed since he left.

“My father said that when he said hello to children in the streets, none of them replied to him. This was due to the fact that around that time, adults started to tell the children that they shouldn’t talk to strangers in the streets. My father said it’s sad that the Japanese can’t trust each other,” Kodama said.

In 2009, Kodama was awarded one of Brazil’s highest honors — the Order of Rio Branco — by the Brazilian government for his activities to promote good relations between Brazil and Japan, including organizing an international karate competition in 2008 to mark the 100th year from the start of Japanese immigration in Brazil. He also advises the Shizuoka Prefectural Police on matters concerning foreign residents and regularly works with Hamamatsu municipal education board.

As a Japanese-Brazilian, Kodama hopes to continue to act as a bridge between the two countries.

As one of his activities, Kodama serves as vice president of the Japan-Brazil Alliance, a group that organizes events for cultural and sports exchanges between Japanese and Japanese-Brazilians. The group will organize a joint sports day event for Japanese and Brazilian children on Oct. 9 at Motoshiro Elementary School in Hamamatsu.

“It’s for the children’s future. If the kids engage in cultural or sports exchanges at an early age, it makes it easier for them to mix naturally when they’re adults,” he said.