Second in a series When Shoko Takano opened a Japanese-language school in Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture, in October 1991, Japanese-Brazilians working at local factories flocked in to seek her advice on living in Japan.
“They came for consultations over various problems,” ranging from unpaid wages and accidents at the workplace to their living environment, said Takano, 62, who runs the Oizumi Nippaku Center.
Five years later, as many Japanese-Brazilian workers settled in the area with their children, Takako launched a second project: a class to teach the kids Portuguese so someday they can also live in Brazil.
Her motivation to support Japanese-Brazilians sprang from her experience of living in Brazil for 30 years.
When she moved to Brazil 50 years ago, “I was in a similar situation. I wanted to do something for children of Japanese-Brazilian workers here.”
In March 1958, at age 13, Takano boarded an emigration ship and left Yokohama for Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in Brazil, with her parents, older brother and younger sister.
Japanese began moving to the South American country in 1908, as Brazil needed laborers for its coffee plantations.
Emigration to Brazil was a national policy before and after the war. Takano’s family was one of thousands that moved there in the postwar period.
“My father decided to move to Brazil,” she said, recalling how he wanted to do something in another country because he ran a mill in Tianjin, China, before the war.
Her parents worked in a fruit orchard run by a Brazilian family, and Takano began attending junior high school.
“Before moving to Brazil, we received a weeklong program at a Yokohama center to prepare for emigration, and there were Portuguese-language lessons,” she said. “But I didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t know how to say ‘good morning’ in Portuguese.”
Without understanding what her Brazilian classmates were saying, she came to realize they were poking fun at her because her name sounded like an “unhatched rotten egg” in Portuguese, she said.
“So I asked my brother to give me a Portuguese nickname.” Her Brazilian name became Margarita.
Getting along with Brazilians, however, wasn’t hard because they are generally easy-going, Takano said.
Her family gradually settled down. After working in the orchard, her father began a farming business — producing green peppers and selling them nationwide.
At age 19, Takano married Mitsuo, a Japanese emigrant who was introduced to her by her father, and the couple had four children.
Running a small supermarket in Porte Alegre, the capital of the state, with her husband, she was always busy raising her children, she said.
Takano made efforts to instill in her children a sense of Japanese identity.
“On Sundays, I would take them to gatherings of Japanese, like a karaoke club and a Japanese folk song preservation group,” she said. “I tried to have them communicate in Japanese.”
Her four children moved to Japan as workers in the late 1980s during the bubble economy, when there was a labor shortage. Takano later traveled to Japan with her husband in 1989, returning for the first time in 31 years.
“It was the 25th anniversary of our marriage. We planned to travel around Japan, work at a company in Japan (for a few months) and go back to Brazil,” she said.
Takano and her husband found jobs at a manufacturing company in Oizumi.
Back in her home country, she realized the image she carried in Brazil of Japanese people was based on what her father told her and from reading Japanese magazines, but the reality was different.
“I came to realize Japanese here are more calculating in their actions. I couldn’t see them taking someone’s problem to heart,” she said. “In a (Japanese-Brazilian) ‘colonia’ in Brazil, Japanese descendents still retain good points that Japanese used to have.”
After working for 22 months, the couple returned to Brazil. They came back to Japan in 1991 after their former employer asked her husband to help again.
At the time, Oizumi was among the communities taking in foreign workers, following the government’s decision in 1990 to allow Brazilians of Japanese descent to work as manual laborers at factories and construction sites.
Takano has since engaged in activities to support foreigners of Japanese descent, including their children, in Oizumi.
The Portuguese-language class she opened evolved into Nippaku Gakuen, a school with some 200 students in kindergarten through high school authorized by the Brazilian government. The school is now managed by her oldest daughter.
“The most sought-after school (for children of Japanese-Brazilian workers here) is the one that teaches children both Portuguese and Japanese” so they can live either in Japan or Brazil, she said. “It’s difficult to ask the Japanese government to do it. It’s up to Brazilians to create this situation.”