SAO PAULO - When 8-year-old Eiki Shimabukuro left Japan in 1959 with his parents and five siblings for the two-month sea voyage to Brazil, passengers were given ribbons linking them to those who stayed behind.
As the ship pulled away, the ribbons unraveled, stretched, and finally broke.
“It was the last link, a very moving vision,” says Shimabukuro, now 67 years old.
The family followed tens of thousands of Japanese people who had migrated to Brazil since the beginning of the 20th century.
And this week Princess Mako, granddaughter of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, set off for Brazil to visit more than a dozen cities bearing symbols of Japanese heritage and celebrate the 110th anniversary of the first pioneers’ journey.
That first big group of 781 Japanese, mostly farmers, arrived at the port of Santos in Sao Paulo state in June 1908, aboard the cargo and passenger ship Kasato Maru.
Plagued by debt in the wake of Japan’s industrialization, the migrants hoped for a new life working on South American coffee plantations that were facing a labor shortage.
Today, Brazil hosts the largest community of Nikkei — as Japanese immigrants and their descendants are known — in the world, with 1.9 million people.
Fleeing postwar misery
The next wave of migrants fleeing misery at home was triggered by the devastation and penury wrought by World War II.
“After the war, Japan was in a difficult situation. I came to Brazil at age 19, alone and full of hope,” says Yoshiharu Kikuchi, 78.
Originally from the north of Japan, he spent his first years in Brazil working the land before moving to Sao Paulo in 1965.
“Everything we got was hard won,” he says. “I learned a lot here.”
Today Nikkei are mostly well integrated into Brazilian society. But the first generations endured significant prejudice, especially in the early 20th-century tide of Western xenophobia aimed at the so-called “yellow peril.”
Kikuchi, who has two children and five grandchildren born in Brazil, says he has no intention of returning to Japan.
In his retirement he volunteers for several organizations, one of which uses a Japanese method to help children with autism.
“Life opens to us when we help others,” he says.
Deep sense of saudade
Rumi Kusumoto’s mother arrived in Brazil with her family in the 1910s. After completing her studies, she went back for a visit — only to get stuck in Japan during the war.
She married and had four children in Fukuoka, all the time feeling a deep sense of saudade — a Portuguese term that evokes a blend of nostalgia and melancholy.
The younger Kusumoto remembers how her mother would cook dishes influenced by Brazil, where she ultimately returned in 1962 with her new family.
“I was born to live outside of Japan,” says Kusumoto. “I quickly got used to change and I did not think I would go back.”
But destiny decided otherwise.
In the 1970s, she was hired as a translator for a Japanese man on a business trip.
“On the last day, he invited me to dinner and asked me to marry him,” she says.
The pair exchanged letters until Kusumoto journeyed to Tokyo for their wedding.
But returning to her native country came with intense culture shock.
“As soon as a letter arrived from Brazil, my husband went to get a handkerchief,” she says. “He knew I was going to cry.”
Today, she splits her life between Japan, Brazil and the United States, where her two children live. But she knows where her roots lie.
“I identify more with Brazil,” she says. “It’s the country that opened all doors for me.”
Diversity and difference
As a child arriving in Brazil, a wide-eyed Shimabukuro found himself captivated.
“I had never seen so many foreigners,” he remembers with a smile.
He went on to work for several years as a farmer before studying engineering and securing a post at state-controlled oil company Petrobras.
In 1984 he won a scholarship to study for three months back in Japan.
“Even though I was born there, it was a shock,” he says. “Everything is organized and planned — it’s very different from Brazil.”
Today, back in Brazil, he doesn’t plan on returning to Japan.
But the stay in his home country instilled in him certain values, he says.
“In Brazil, we have a lot to learn from Japan, in terms of honesty, ethics and morale,” he says.
“There are very positive values we could incorporate here.”