Kenichi Konno, 96, flew 26 hours to Japan every year for 15 years until he turned 94, all for concern about the fate of Japanese-Brazilian emigrants.
“Away from Brazil, I would like to find out what Brazilians of Japanese ancestry should become and what future awaits the Japanese-Brazilian ‘dekasegi’ (migrant) workers,” Konno says in the documentary “The Grandpa from Brazil.”
The film featuring his annual trips to Japan is being screened Wednesday at the 21st Tokyo International Women’s Film Festival, which is running alongside the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Konno, who has led a stormy life as an immigrant in Brazil, would fly alone from Sao Paulo to Japan once or sometimes twice a year and spend a month visiting the homes of friends and relatives who moved to Japan following the 1990 legal amendment allowing them to work here.
“I couldn’t help wondering exactly what he is doing in Japan, enduring that long flight every year, which I don’t think even people at my age would enjoy,” the flim’s director, Nanako Kurihara, 51, said. “I decided to come along with him on his next trip.”
Most of the footage was taken in 2004, when Konno, then 92, visited a family in Kosai, Shizuoka Prefecture, and another in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture.
The families are among roughly 320,000 Brazilians of Japanese descent and relatives living in Japan, now constituting the largest ethnic group after Chinese and Koreans, both of which have been in Japan since before World War II.
Konno is not related to either of the families, but he has looked after them as if they were his own.
Konno, who has had his ups and downs during his 77 years in Brazil, is keen to offer them advice, hoping they will avoid the same failures he experienced — and the families are keen to listen.
He even visits schools attended by Japanese-Brazilians and fires barrages of questions at the teachers.
“Is there any bullying targeting Brazilian kids because they can’t speak Japanese? Do they advance to high school? People in Brazil are concerned that kids here don’t go to school, depriving themselves of opportunities to acquire either Japanese or Portuguese skills,” he says in the film.
He learns that few kids can go to high school and many are struggling to find a job due to a lack of academic capabilities chiefly stemming from insufficient Japanese-language skills.
It worries but doesn’t upset Konno, because these are the sorts of issues he and many other Japanese emigrants to Brazil had to experience.
“Many of our first- and second-generation Japanese immigrants to Brazil had to work hard to gain a solid footing in the country, and the third and higher generations earned access to higher education, and many of them are now successful in various arenas,” he said.
“In light of their children’s futures, Brazilians in Japan must quickly decide whether to stay or not — before the children grow too old to adapt to different cultural surroundings,” he said. “They should stay if they are ready to stay permanently, but they shouldn’t if they aren’t.”
Konno, the son of a rice dealer in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, emigrated alone to Brazil in 1931 at age 19 in a quest to find a decent job amid an unprecedented economic slump.
“I moved to Brazil, believing in the government’s pitch ‘You can make a fortune in three years.’ But it was a lie,” he said. “But I had no intention of going back to Japan until I had achieved success.”
He changed jobs more than 10 times — baker, farmer, Japanese teacher — and ended up going bankrupt as a result of heavy debts in farming. He was subsequently stripped of all his properties.
“I worked very hard for the following 30 years and managed to recover,” Konno said. “I will be happy if this documentary helps people in a predicament get the message: ‘If we don’t give up, there is nothing we cannot achieve.’ “
Kurihara first met Konno when she was 19 while accompanying her father on a business trip to Brazil. “I was impressed with his intellectual, charismatic appeal and insatiable curiosity for everything that’s happening around the world,” she said.
Kurihara initially thought the film would be a documentary about his personal history, she said, but Konno’s concerns about Brazilians in Japan and insights into their problems helped the film shed light on their true situation and what they really need in Japanese society.
“By looking into the living room of an ordinary Brazilian family, I also want the audience to see that they are no different from any of us,” said Kurihara, whose 1993 documentary “Looking for Fumiko” earned awards in U.S. film festivals.
Angelo Ishi, a Japanese-Brazilian associate professor at Musashi University in Tokyo, said, “This movie portrays Brazilians’ lives from the perspective of one ordinary old immigrant, not from the media’s perspective, which only highlights their ‘problems.’ “
Konno still walks with his back straight, speaks vigorously and doesn’t look or sound like a man of 96, but his waning stamina no longer allows him to make the long flights.
He now lives a cheerful life with the family of his third daughter, Lucia, in Sao Paulo. He raised six children with his late wife, Teruko, and has 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
“The Grandpa from Brazil” will be shown at theaters in Tokyo, Osaka and several other cities starting next month.