Masayuki Fukasawa, a veteran journalist at a Japanese-language newspaper in Sao Paulo, has taken inspiration from his own migrant story to compile a history of Japanese settlement in Brazil over the past century.
“I wanted to incorporate into modern history the story of how these immigrants lived strong despite being at the mercy of government policy,” the 49-year-old editor-in-chief for Jornal Nikkey Shimbun said during an interview in Tokyo.
His nonfiction work “Hitotsubu no Kome Moshi Shinazuba” (“If One Grain of Rice Survives”), released last November, is a compilation of 127 reports on groups of Japanese immigrants who settled in Registro, a city about 200 km southwest of Sao Paulo.
The title refers to the initial efforts of the settlers to grow rice for export to Japan, which had been part of the Japanese government’s strategy in encouraging them to emigrate.
He launched the series for Jornal Nikkey Shimbun in June 2013, which marked the 100th anniversary of the first Japanese arrivals in the city, and kept writing until February the following year.
“I was afraid that it would be the last chance for us to record the voices of the first-generation immigrants, who are growing old,” he said.
Since the early 20th century, about 260,000 Japanese have migrated to Brazil, mainly to work on coffee and other plantations as the Japanese government promoted emigration in the face of overpopulation and food shortages.
The South American country is now home to an estimated 1.5 million people of Japanese descent, the largest Japanese community outside Japan.
Fukasawa said it was a challenge to dig out the history as few Brazilian municipalities preserve historical records, requiring him to seek out first-generation immigrants for himself.
“It was exciting because I knew that I was going to do something no one had ever done,” he said.
In Registro, which was first settled by Japanese in 1913, settlers initially tried rice growing, but their efforts failed. Their ordeal continued when they were treated as enemies by Brazilians during World War II.
It was only after the end of the war that life picked up with the success of banana and tea plantations.
“Sushi festivals and lantern floating are now major local events and yakisoba fried noodles are a popular Japanese cuisine everyone knows,” Fukasawa said.
A native of Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Fukasawa went to Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, on the recommendation of his professor after finishing university.
In 1992 he became a reporter for Jornal Paulista, a Japanese-language newspaper that later became Jornal Nikkey Shimbun, where he would eventually become editor-in-chief.
Fukasawa is currently working on a Portuguese version of the book for Brazilian citizens and descendants of Japanese immigrants so they, too, can learn about the history between the two countries.