“Despite our big, multilayered, newcomer community in Japan, the truth is that not much is known here about the variety and richness of Brazilian culture and society. It is really rewarding for me to show aspects of my home country, beyond carnival, soccer and the Amazon, that people have never imagined.”
An only child, Lilian Mendes Kano was born to a Japanese mother and a Brazilian father in Rio de Janeiro. “One-and-a-half years later, I lost my mother,” she said. “I went to live with my Japanese grandparents and aunts in the countryside. When I was 7 my father died. I am very grateful for the solid family I was blessed with, who took care of me. Each one of them is a very important part of the person I am now.”
She now teaches Portuguese language and Brazilian culture at Kanda University in Makuhari and Sophia University in Tokyo. She also works at Radio Japan.
She said, “A creative, stimulating education, fostering motivation and critical thinking, is a priority in my work. At the Department of Languages and Culture in Kanda University, innovative ideas are more than welcome. I am happily busy implementing extracurricular activities, such as teaching Brazilian music and folk dancing, coordinating a student band, producing plays, organizing the Portuguese speech contest. Our students are eager to learn.”
When she was a small child, Kano did not realize how inauspicious her parentless life might have been. Instead, she remembers her childhood as a time of freedom, “playing in guava plantations, climbing trees, running up and down with my cousins, and listening to my grandfather’s stories about Japan.”
“I used to dream of crossing the ocean to know the land of my ancestors, and of my biggest hero, my grandfather. When my father died, my family was concerned about my education and future. So they sent me to live with other relatives in the city. A wild little country girl like me moving to the city with a new family was a big change.”
A bookworm, Kano settled to her schoolwork and enrolled in the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro where she majored in Portuguese-Japanese studies.
After graduation, she received a Japan Foundation scholarship which brought her to Japan to take a teacher training course. She said, “I went back to Brazil to teach. At a young age, I was promoted to be director of one of my professor’s language schools. I also specialized in teaching Portuguese to Japanese executives and their families living in Rio.”
Three years later, Kano won a scholarship to study education at Mie University. “After I returned to Brazil, I wanted to use Japanese more, lecturing at university and also translating. I did not think those two years in Japan were enough for me to work as a language specialist. I decided to come by myself to Japan. With no scholarship or financial support, I would have to find a job. My family thought I was crazy to leave a comfortable life and come here with no work or place to live.”
Her first employment was teaching English at a Buddhist kindergarten. Gradually, as she moved around, she found a niche waiting for her to fill.
As a counselor for foreign children in Mie Prefecture, she visited schools attended by Brazilian children. “I taught, gave psychological support, and helped smooth communication between students, parents, and the schools,” she said.
Kano learned that while foreign children had to adjust to schools and Japanese society, it was important also that they maintained their first language and culture. “They needed language to communicate with their parents, and to continue their studies once they were back in Brazil.
“Nowadays, the ethnic minority of Brazilians makes up the third biggest community in Japan. For children with language barriers, the adaptation process has sometimes led to cultural frictions in Japanese schools. It pains my heart to say that major areas of concern for the Brazilian expatriate community here are education, and the fact that many people are not covered by Japanese social welfare programs.”
Kano values the growth she sees in her students. “At graduation, always an emotional day, they come to me one by one to hug their teary-eyed teacher,” she said.
Next year, the centenary of Japanese immigration to Brazil will be celebrated. “Brazil has the biggest Japanese expatriate community in the world,” Kano said. “I want to go on introducing Brazil and Brazilians here, seeding ideas, and raising awareness of diversity.”
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