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Media firm adapts to an ever-shifting Brazilian community in Japan

by Niccolas Farani

Contributing Writer

Today, from his 30th-floor office overlooking Tokyo Bay, Arthur Muranaga presides over a diverse business empire whose interests read like a one-stop shop for Japan’s Brazilian community.

Providing everything from Portuguese-language TV, radio and magazines to phone cards and broadband internet, International Press Corp. (IPC) World Inc. even owns the Brasilica Grill Churrascaria, a Brazilian restaurant in Tokyo. With over 15,000 online news subscribers and 20,000 signed up for its satellite TV channel, IPC is the main domestic media source for Japan’s 190,000-strong Brazilian minority.

Arthur speaks proudly of the hard work his Japanese father put into building up the corporation. In his freshman year of high school in 1957, Yoshio Muranaga left Japan and migrated to Brazil with his parents and siblings. More than 30 years later, in 1989, he decided to return to his country of origin, leaving his family — including young Arthur — behind in Brazil, but hoping they would be able to join him later. He brought with him two containers of heart of palm, and a plan to sell the vegetable in the Japanese market.

The beginning of the 1990s saw the beginning of the dekasegi movement, when many Brazilians of Japanese descent were welcomed back to their ancestral land to fill gaps in Japan’s labor force, lured by the promise of higher wages. In Japanese, the word “dekasegi” means “working away from home,” but in Portuguese it has come to refer to ethnic Japanese Brazilian migrants to Japan.

“While working in Atsugi (in Kanagawa Prefecture), a city known for having a large number of Brazilian residents, my father hung a Brazilian flag in his office window, promoting the provenance of the product he was selling,” Arthur explains. “When Brazilians started arriving in Japan, they would notice the flag on my father’s window and would knock on his door. As my father was often lonely, he would gladly receive them.”

Hungry for any possible connection with the country they had left behind, the first Brazilians to pop by Yoshio’s office were in for a pleasant surprise: Every month, Arthur had been sending his father copies of the main national magazines in Brazil. Brimming with excitement, Arthur says, his compatriots “would make copies of the entire magazines at the nearest convenience stores and bring them home.”

Yoshio saw a business opportunity when he realized Brazilians were deprived of things to read, craved information on their nation and, above all, were ready to pay. “At that time, a single photocopy cost ¥30, and magazines were usually roughly 100 pages,” Arthur says.

Yoshio’s light-bulb moment prompted him to call Arthur in Brazil. He asked his son to contact local newspapers and try to convince publishers there was a potential market for Brazilian news on the other side of the world. The first attempt was unsuccessful, but eventually Arthur met a man in the business whose sister-in-law was of Japanese descent and had taken part in the dekasegi wave. Aware of the situation, the businessman agreed to sell Arthur a small number of articles every month, which he would then send to his father via Telex machine.

Yoshio, who had already begun paying to place information in the Mainichi Shimbun about the Brazilian neighborhood in Atsugi, was introduced to Mainichi’s printing plant there and told that they also printed for other journals. He called his son again, this time asking him to come to Japan and help him open a Brazilian newspaper in the country, the International Press. After overcoming initial obstacles — such as formatting the unfamiliar Portuguese text for printing and scraping together the money for all the necessary equipment — the business began to grow. IPC started with six staff but today employs 10 times that number.

“When the first copies came out,” Arthur says, “Brazilians would get so emotional they would cry.”

In the 1990s, the internet was in its infancy, but the birth of IPC coincided with the emergence of satellite TV. Seeing the receptiveness and gratitude the company was gaining from the community, they decided to expand into Portuguese-language TV. With support from Japan’s communications ministry and a deal with the biggest TV company in Brazil, Globo, they were now equipped with a weekly newspaper and, with the advent of IPCTV, a subscription-based TV channel.

In the years since, Arthur says the company’s main challenge has been adapting to new technologies and the changing interests of the community. The firm, which started with the simple goal of providing news about Brazil to the homesick population, found itself under threat as residents gained access to free news services on the internet. This trend, along with the significant growth in the number of Brazilian residents in Japan, led the company to shift focus away from Brazil and onto the community living in Japan.

“With the arrival of the internet, IPC had to diversify its services,” Arthur says. The company decided to introduce its own television news service on IPCTV and an online digital TV portal, IPC Digital.

In 2007, the number of Brazilians in Japan reached its peak, topping 300,000. However, following the 2008 global financial crisis and the Fukushima disaster in 2011, many of them returned to Brazil, and today the community numbers approximately 190,000. This precipitous drop heavily affected IPC, which lost more TV and newspaper subscribers than it had with the encroachment of the internet. There was also a drop in the TV audience, so the company decided to abandon TV reporting and focus on digital media instead.

‘A chat between friends’ online

While IPCTV still provides a Brazilian channel to subscribers and its website publishes news about the latest Brazilian TV programs, IPC Digital has been busy establishing a presence on various social media platforms, with Facebook proving to be the most popular.

The most recent addition to the firm’s media mix is “IPC No Ar” (“IPC On Air”), an online radio station hosted by popular TV and online personality Jhony Sasaki, who has been with IPC for a number of years.

On a visit to the firm’s HQ, I was warmly welcomed by Jhony for what I thought would be a standard Q&A session about the radio service. As we sat down for coffee, Jhony drew my attention to the technical set-up in the studio. Switching on the equipment and logging into the company’s Facebook page, Jhony explained how easy it is to broadcast online.

Handing me a pair of headphones, he said, “You see, all you have to do is to put those on, log into your Facebook page and turn on the live streaming mode.” And with that, as comments began to pour into the page wishing us “Good evening,” I realized he’d tricked me into appearing live on the program, broadcasting to over 4,000 viewers (there’s a visual feed from the studio) and listeners.

Having been thrown in at the deep end, I was feeling understandably tense, but Jhony’s easygoing manner and rapport with his audience soon loosened me up. Introducing me as his friend from The Japan Times, he told the audience that the night’s broadcast would consist of me interviewing with him about the radio show.

“I see the radio as an opportunity to closely interact with the community,” he explained, “and to create a bridge between the residents of Japan and Brazilians who have an interest in the country.”

Asked if he prepares specific topics before going on air, Jhony said he doesn’t, as he wants to keep the atmosphere light and spontaneous, like “a chat between friends.”

The radio also serves as a platform to help the community in various ways. As well as promoting Brazilian-owned businesses during the commercial breaks, Jhony says the medium can also be used to address more serious issues and reach a wide, diverse audience in the process, as nowadays almost everyone uses social media of some form or other.

Take the example of children who run away from home. Their parents, Jhony says, will report the disappearance in a comment on the site, and Jhony will in turn inform his audience. Although the Brazilian community is large and dotted across the country, they tend to live in clusters in various cities, where word will quickly spread. With any luck, he says, someone will have seen the runaway and he or she will be persuaded to go home.

In short, Jhony says, the radio is a platform that helps bring the community closer by creating a friendly, dynamic setting where people can freely prattle about any given subject, from TV trivia to more important social issues. As Jhony puts it, “It’s a way to have fun in a serious manner.”

Though the media landscape may have changed and the number of Brazilians has seesawed in response to disasters, economic trends and Japanese immigration policy, one thing hasn’t changed since Yoshio Muranaga’s day: Brazilians still want to connect with other Portuguese-speakers and the South American culture their families left behind. As long as that community exists, Arthur Muranaga sees a place for IPC in that landscape.

Back in his office on the 30th floor of the Harumi Island Triton Square complex, Arthur still looks back and marvels at how far his family and his firm have come.

“There were no journalists in the house,” Arthur says of those early days nearly two decades ago. “I have a degree in management and my father came here to sell heart of palm.”

IPC World: www.ipcworld.co.jp. IPC No Ar: radio.ipc.digital. Send your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.