A Tokyo-based actors’ group working to spread Japanese folk culture abroad is now helping the Japanese-Brazilian community preserve the culture of their ancestors.

Last year, the group Mari Mari set up a “Japanese Theater Delivery” program mainly for Japanese-Brazilian audiences in both Brazil and Japan to hold performances based on Japanese folk tales.

Noting that more than 100 years have passed since the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil in 1908, Hotaka Hagiwara, the group’s leader, said efforts need to be made so that the Japanese culture of the local community of Japanese-Brazilians are not lost.

Supported by Shizuoka University of Art and Culture and the private Japan-Brazil Alliance in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, whose members include several Hamamatsu-based companies, Hagiwara traveled to Brazil last summer with another member of the group, Masakazu Teramoto, and performed Japanese folk tales at 15 Japanese-Brazilian institutions in Sao Paolo state. These included nursing homes, homes for disabled people, children’s homes, and several Japanese-language schools.

They were in Sao Paolo for a week and performed such tales as “Urashima Taro”, “Tsuru no Ongaeshi” (“Thankful Crane”) and “Kin no Okina Kabu” (“The Enormous Turnip”), clad in black costumes and not using any stage scenery or props.

“When we gave the performance in front of the Japanese-Brazilians, the elderly in their 70s or older were especially delighted to see it,” she said. “They told us that the tales reminded them of home.”

During her stay in Brazil, Hagiwara said she discovered that Japanese immigrants were very well-regarded in Brazil, especially for bringing new ideas to the field of agriculture. Hagiwara said this discovery made her proud to be Japanese for the first time in her life.

“We were very much welcomed by the Japanese-Brazilian community in Sao Paolo state,” Hagiwara said. “On the contrary, some elderly people told us that the Japanese-Brazilians in Hamamatsu are sometimes not so welcomed by the local Japanese, which is such a shame.”

About 13,000 Brazilians live in Hamamatsu, making up the largest Brazilian community in Japan.

“I felt a strong urge to let the people in Hamamatsu know that the Japanese-Brazilians have made such a big effort to take root in Brazilian society, and that they were appreciated in many ways,” she said. “Migrant workers coming to Japan should be welcomed much more.”

The group also collected messages from Sao Paolo residents — including encouragement for survivors of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

In March, Mari Mari will perform before Japanese-Brazilians in Hamamatsu. In addition, they also plan to hold a panel exhibition displaying the messages at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, as well as some workshops on performing Japanese folk tales.

“I want to hold a joint workshop for the Japanese and Japanese-Brazilians, so that they can communicate more with each other,” Hagiwara said.

Mari Mari was formed in 2005 by a group of actors, musicians and dancers, and has delivered performances to welfare facilities and schools in Japan and eight other countries including France, England, Germany, and Mexico. They perform in either Japanese or in the local language.

The group plans to collect messages from Brazilians in Hamamatsu, and take them to Brazil for their planned performance this summer.

Hagiwara said she owes a lot to Shigehiro Ikegami, professor of cultural policy and management at SUAC, who saw a Mari Mari performance in 2010, and persuaded the university to financially back the group’s shows in both Japan and Brazil. Ikegami accompanied Mari Mari to Brazil, and also invited members of the group to his class as part of studies in multicultural exchanges.

Hisahiro Watanabe, a Japanese teacher at a language school in the small town of Pilar do Sul in Sao Paolo state — one of the venues where Mari Mari performed — said he is looking forward to another show by the group at his school.

Watanabe, who recently visited Hamamatsu to give lectures on efforts by the Japanese community in Brazil to preserve the Japanese language, has lived in Brazil for 12 years and teaches Japanese to junior high school students — mainly Japanese-Brazilians — at the school.

“In Pilar do Sul, you can meet Japanese people from the good old days,” he said. “They do things for you without thinking about gains or losses for themselves,” he said.

“There are many good things about Japanese culture, such as Japanese folk tales and song that we should not forget about. We should preserve these things in the Japanese-Brazilian community. If we do that, I think it will make a much better community,” he added.

“I talked to some elderly folks in their 70s and 80s, and found out that they were thinking of preserving Japanese culture and language, and were trying to pass it on to their descendants.”

He noted that having a group of Japanese actors come and perform folk tales at their school is such a rare and stimulating experience for the students.

“This kind of experience remains in their hearts for a long time.” he said. “It gives them a chance to recognize anew that they have two cultures inside them — the Japanese and the Brazilian cultures.”

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