This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of a Japanese migration to Brazil. In 1908, hundreds of farmers moved to the South American country, dreaming of making their fortunes there before returning to their hometowns.
Although hundreds of thousands of Japanese ended up settling there over the century, many of their descendants have come to Japan since the 1990s in search of work.
To celebrate the strong ties between their nations, the Japanese and Brazilian governments plan to hold a series of commemorative events throughout the year.
Here are some questions and answers about the Japanese resettlers in Brazil.
When did Japanese start moving to Brazil and who were they?
On June 18, 1908, the first group of Japanese aboard the Kasato Maru, which had left Kobe port in April, arrived at the port of Santos, 60 km south of Sao Paulo.
Most were farmers from 14 prefectures, including Okinawa, Kagoshima and Kumamoto. The vast majority — 781 — had contracts through an agency to work at coffee plantations in the state of Sao Paulo, while about 10 others were travelers without contracts.
Were they the first group of Japanese to move abroad?
No. Japanese began moving abroad in the 1860s after Japan abolished the closed-door policy that lasted from 1616 to 1858. Japan opened up under pressure from the United States and other nations.
In 1868, recruited by an American trader, 153 Japanese went to Hawaii to work on sugar cane plantations, and another 42 went to farms in Guam, which was then a Spanish colony.
However, those Japanese left Japan without permission from the Meiji government and were treated like slaves in the foreign lands. So the Japanese government banned the general population from going abroad for 17 years.
Then, in 1885, Japan and the Kingdom of Hawaii reached an agreement on Japanese migration, after which 945 Japanese moved there that year with labor contracts negotiated between the two governments.
A total of some 29,000 Japanese went to Hawaii on the government-sponsored migration program that ended in 1894, around the time the kingdom was toppled. Hawaii was annexed by the U.S. in 1897.
After the end of the migration program to Hawaii, Japanese moved to various countries based on contracts with emigration companies.
How many Japanese moved to Brazil?
About 190,000 Japanese moved to Brazil between 1908 and 1941, when emigration stopped with the suspension of diplomatic ties between Japan and Brazil during World War II. About 7 percent are estimated to have returned to Japan.
Brazil was the destination of 25 percent of some 750,000 Japanese who moved abroad during the prewar period, excluding those who migrated to China, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula.
After the war, about 55,000 migrated to Brazil between 1953 and 1973, when the last emigration ship left Yokohama.
Why did so many people emigrate to Brazil?
The government had promoted emigration as a national policy until the late 1960s.
As Japan went through industrialization in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, emigration was believed to solve such problems as overpopulation and poverty in rural areas. The emigrants were expected to return home with cash for their families.
Initially, the main destinations were Hawaii, the U.S., Canada and Australia. But anti-Japanese sentiments arose among Americans and Australians because of racism and fear that jobs would be lost. Consequently, those countries put limits on the number of Japanese immigrants.
So, Japan turned to South America. At the time, Brazil needed cheap labor for coffee plantations after Italy stopped sending farmers to the nation in 1902 due to poor working conditions.
Some Japanese farmers who had been fooled by brokers’ advertisements into believing that, for instance, Brazil had coffee trees made of money, dreamed of making their fortunes within a few years.
In the postwar period, Japan promoted emigration to South American countries as a means to solving problems of food shortages and overpopulation after millions of Japanese returned from overseas following the war.
Under what conditions did the Japanese in Brazil live?
Many Japanese contract-based immigrants in the early 20th century working at coffee plantations were provided housing, clothing and food by the owners. However, disputes between the workers and the owners often emerged over poor living and working conditions.
Low pay was often at the center of the disputes. Wages were based on the quantity of the coffee beans they picked. But the volume was much lower than what they were told to expect by the brokers, which resulted in lower wages.
Consequently, many fled the plantations they were assigned to work at and took different jobs. Others started their own coffee plantations, which became bases for Japanese to build communities in the country.
During the war, some Japanese immigrants were forced to move from where they lived, and Japanese schools were shut down. But they were not sent to concentration camps.
After the war, with the strong support of Japanese-Brazilians, many new Japanese immigrants engaged in agriculture, such as growing flowers, cultivating silk or raising chickens.
How many Japanese and their descendents live in Brazil now?
As of 2004, there were some 1.6 million people of Japanese descent estimated to live in Brazil, accounting for 62 percent of the 2.6 million Japanese and their descendents in total living abroad, according to the Association of Nikkei and Japanese Abroad.
Many Japanese-Brazilians live in Japan now. Why is that?
Some 313,000 Brazilian nationals, most of whom are descendants of Japanese and their families, were registered as residents of Japan as of Dec. 31, 2006.
In 1990, the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law was revised to allow foreigners of Japanese descent to work in Japan to help resolve the labor shortage, especially in the construction and manufacturing industries during the bubble economy years of the late 1980s and early 1990s.