Nagoya – In Nagoya’s central shopping district of Osu Kannon, trendy vintage clothes, off-beat bargain shopping and eclectic international wares abound. And wafting from its heart, there’s the warm smell of Brazilian roast chicken from the humble Osso Brasil.
Serving up juicy, flavorful chicken, and lunch and dinner sets overflowing with Brazilian pastel (fried dumplings), cheese bread, rice, burgers, fries and salsa, Osso Brasil is an important representative of one of Nagoya’s emergent culinary scenes: Brazilian food.
A majority of the approximately 270,000 Brazilians in Japan live in Aichi Prefecture and its neighboris, Shizuoka and Mie — largely in Nagoya and the industrial cities of Toyota, Toyohashi and Hamamatsu.
“A lot of Japanese Brazilians came to Japan 25 years ago, and there was a huge demand for Brazilian ingredients,” says Osso Brasil’s manager Noriko Imamura. “So we first opened up as a Brazilian food market, but found that our customers wanted a place to eat next door, so we opened a restaurant.”
Between 1908 and 1941, 189,000 Japanese migrated to Brazil, when the country was in need of coffee plantation laborers and many rural Japanese were in poverty. The situation reversed in the late 1980s, when Japan had a serious unskilled labor shortage amid its booming economy and Brazil was in recession. It was these Nikkei Japanese Brazilians that Japan permitted to migrate into the country.
“Policymakers needed unskilled immigrant workers and felt the Japanese Brazilians would be ethnically similar to Japanese and culturally assimilate faster than racially and culturally different immigrants,” says Takeyuki Tsuda, a professor at Arizona State University who has studied the history, sociology and economics of Brazilians in Japan and vice versa.
According to Tsuda, although Japanese Brazilians are well-educated and middle class in Brazil, they could earn five to 10 times their Brazilian incomes as unskilled foreign workers in Japan. By 2000, Brazilians became the largest group of immigrants in Japan after Chinese and Korean.
“But the Japanese Brazilians ended up being much more culturally Brazilian, and were treated as foreigners who are socially alienated in Japan,” says Tsuda. These differences frequently cause friction with Japanese neighbors, leading to complaints that they can’t speak Japanese, are too loud in apartments and in public, and don’t follow community rules.
The Japanese government was quick to change its stance toward the Brazilian immigrants, going so far as to financially incentivize them to leave Japan when the 2009 financial crisis struck.
“We made a life in this country, we worked hard, we paid our taxes, and now, the government instead of offering a hand to help us is kicking us out of the country,” one worker told the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center at the time.
“The government generally seems to have regretted letting so many of them in. But this led to a sustained migration that has continued to this day,” says Tsuda.
One positive result of sustained Brazilian immigration over the past 20 years has been the development of a Brazilian food scene in Japan, most notably in Nagoya.
“In a big city like Nagoya, we’ve seen more and more Brazilian restaurants start to open over the years. And with more food, we’ve also seen more customers,” says Tiago Hane, owner of Churrascaria Ipanema, a Brazilian barbecue in Nagoya’s nightlife district of Sakae.
Hane opened Churrascaria Ipanema in 2019, after working in other Brazilian restaurants for over 10 years. He first moved to Japan aged 8, and cites his deep connection to both cultures as his motivation for opening a restaurant. Together with Sapucai and Planeta Grill in Nagoya, Esquina’s Restaurant and GrinGourmet Restaurant in Toyohashi, and Vila Brasil and Churrascaria Choupana in Hamamatsu, Hane’s barbecue is one of about a dozen highly rated Brazilian restaurants.
“I want to introduce people to Brazilian flavors and atmospheres and help Brazilians in Japan feel nostalgic and connected to Brazil,” Hane says.
Nagoya’s Brazilian restaurants tend to highlight authenticity, creating colorful Brazilian atmospheres and sourcing from local specialty Brazilian stores. Mainstays like Sapucai and newcomers like Churrascaria Ipanema center around the traditional Brazilian barbecue: a set course that includes unlimited refills of colorful salads, cheese bread, seasonal fruits, rice and beans — and, of course, meat.
Sizzling, fatty cuts of beef from every corner of the cow — picanha (top sirloin cap), fraudinha (flank), filet and cupim (top of the spine) — are the main draw. Spicy sausage, chicken and pineapple complement the never-ending parade of cuts.
“Brazilian food has a very unique flavor, whether the meal is simple or elaborate,” Hane says. “But people from all over the world can appreciate it.” Traditional Brazilian flavors tend to be salty and spice-packed, made with dende (red palm) oil, chili peppers, garlic, cumin and cinnamon.
“I want everyone in Japan to be able to experience a Brazilian mood, music and flavors” he continues.
Osso Brasil, while sticking to Brazilian recipes for its chicken dishes, has partially localized with versions of popular items like hamburgers and beef stir-fries. “We’ve found that authentic Brazilian flavors can be too salty for Japanese people,” says Imamura. “Since our staff are Japanese Brazilians, I think they find the perfect balance between Japanese and Brazilian culture.”
Osso Brasil and Churrascaria Ipanema share the same mission: offering Brazilian culture and flavors for the Nikkei Brazilian community, and becoming an enticing cuisine option that shares the delights of Brazil with Japanese.
“We hope that Japanese people appreciate our restaurant as having an ethnic, Brazilian atmosphere and Brazilian flavors,” says Imamura.
Marginalization in Japan leads many Brazilians to feel a renewed appreciation for Brazil. “They strengthen their nationalist sentiments as Brazilian foreigners in Japan,” Tsuda says.
This longing manifests as wonderful food, and the growing appetite for it locally suggests that while inclusivity can be elusive, acceptance — and recognition of Japan as a multiethnic country — may be on the horizon. Osso Brasil’s always-bustling corner in Osu Kannon, flanked by Vietnamese, Turkish and Indian restaurants, feels like a vision of that future.