Non-native teachers of Japanese growing among Brazil’s immigrants

by Motonobu Endo

Kyodo

A growing number of people in Brazil’s large Japanese community are studying Japanese under non-native teachers.

“I would like to go out on a date with you this weekend,” one student practiced saying in Japanese during an entry-level class in Sao Paulo’s Liberdade district, which has the city’s largest Japanese community.

“No, no! Japanese people avoid direct expressions because they are shy,” Aline Wanderley, teacher of the 13-strong class, said in Portuguese, arousing laughter.

“What is your plan for this weekend? I would like to go out for dinner,” the student said.

“Good,” Wanderley, 27, told him.

Wanderley is descended from Dutch and Finnish grandparents who immigrated to Brazil and she does not have any family links to Japan. But she became interested in anime as a high school student and studied the language at university.

Although Wanderley has never been to Japan, she has deepened her understanding of the language through Japanese TV dramas, music and novels as well as comic books.

She wrote her master’s thesis on Japanese ghost stories, reading — in Japanese — “Nihon Ryoiki,” a collection of more than 100 Buddhist tales from the early Heian Period (794-1185), and “Konjaku Monogatarishu,” which gathers around 1,000 tales from around the end of that period.

The 13 beginners at the language school in Liberdade, ranging from teens to some in their 60s, include nine Japanese-Brazilians who have Japanese names but are not fluent in the language of their ancestors.

One of them, Fernando Katsuji Noda, 48, is a second-generation Japanese-Brazilian banker who was not taught Japanese by his parents.

Although it wasn’t an issue in Brazil, he said he regretted being unable to communicate with his relatives when he met them in Japan, and so began studying the language a few years ago.

“I initially felt reluctant to learn Japanese from a non-Japanese teacher,” Noda said, but added he now enjoys studying under Wanderley, who teaches in a fun manner.

Like Wanderley, an increasing number of Brazilians with no ancestral ties to Japan are studying Japanese because of their love of anime or other related interests. Some, even though they’ve never visited Japan, have become very fluent in the language and are even teaching it.

Groups of Japanese immigrants began arriving in Brazil in 1908. More than a century on, the country has a population of around 1.5 million Japanese-Brazilians — the largest Japanese community overseas.

While the first generation of immigrants is graying rapidly, the number of Japanese-Brazilians able to speak Japanese is declining equally fast.

“Only a few thousand Japanese-Brazilians possess the reading and writing skills required by Japanese companies for employment,” said Masayuki Fukasawa, editor-in-chief of the Japanese-language Jornal Nikkey Shimbun.

Since many immigrants from Japan who became Japanese-language teachers have retired, people of other descent began teaching the language around a decade ago. Their number has continued to swell.

In addition, non-Japanese have taken the helm of organizations in the local Japanese community, including an ikebana association and a Buddhist group. Some leaders of Japanese-Brazilian organizations are unable to speak Japanese.

The distance between Japan and Brazil’s Japanese community is undeniably widening.

  • Ron NJ

    Reminds me a lot of the English education system in Japan – public education in foreign languages is provided by Japanese teachers, many of whom have never visited any place where English is often used (Hawaii exempted for obvious reasons), to say nothing of their English ability. They may have a (sadly, often tenuous) academic grasp of the language, but in real world situations it is often found quite lacking.
    But going deeper, I can see parallels between Brazilian-Japanese and “halfu” children in Japan, who often are so shy when speaking non-Japanese languages that, while their comprehension is quite good, they lack the practice or facilities to really engage in two-way communication in anything but Japanese. I can only imagine that this will continue as more people of non-Japanese descent are born in Japan and lose touch with their roots as they go through the grinder of public education here. An interesting example of things coming full circle here will be that these people, since they look “less Japanese” will no doubt be in higher demand when it comes to positions involving teaching foreign languages than “full Japanese” teachers… and then we can come back and compare this article to the eventual one on, for example, Japanese people with English ancestry who have never left Japan teaching English to Japanese people in Japan as we lament the growing distance between England and Japan’s English community.