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The controversy surrounding Ayako Sono’s Feb. 11 column in the Sankei Shimbun has been impossible to ignore, especially for those of us involved in the day-to-day work of supporting foreign communities in Japan.

South African Ambassador Mohau Pheko’s letter to that same newspaper was a reminder that, in the past, the deceptively simple word “separation” has been used to justify and describe human rights violations on a massive scale — a practice that has no place in the 21st century.

On Feb. 21, The Japan Times reported Sono’s attempts to clarify her original statement, in which she referred to “dedicated colonies for Japanese ‘nikkei’ immigrants” in South America. She also stated that in Japan, “there are communities for Brazilian immigrants,” where they live “separately by choice.” This is a distortion of the experiences both of Japanese in Brazil and of Brazilians in Japan.

When Japanese immigrants began arriving in Brazil, over 100 years ago, they gravitated toward certain cities and neighborhoods where there were greater opportunities.

The Japanese in Brazil gradually spread across the country, absorbed Brazilian culture, and married and had children with other Brazilians. In short, they were integrated into Brazilian society, without giving up their ancestral culture. The Japanese and other immigrants helped make Brazil a genuinely multicultural society, where foreigners could become fully Brazilian, while at the same time preserving the heritage of their homelands.

Today, the over 1.5 million Japanese descendents in Brazil are successful members of society — both fully Brazilian and proud of their Japanese heritage. The Japanese who originally came to Brazil worked mostly as farm laborers; hard work and integration into Brazilian society allowed their children to become engineers, artists, doctors, civil servants and businessmen.

Japanese descendents account for 12 percent of the students at the University of São Paulo, the highest-ranking university in Brazil. As a society, we have always sought to better integrate all those who live in our country — and these efforts continue to influence government policy, for instance, through the important work of our Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality.

For their part, the over 175,000 Brazilians living in Japan today — themselves largely of Japanese descent — do not live “separately by choice.” They came to these shores expecting the same openness and opportunity that Japanese immigrants found in Brazil.

Although most of them came on work permits, hoping to stay a few years and then return home, over time many developed profound links with Japan, starting families and businesses here.

In spite of a number of obstacles, these Brazilians seek full integration into a society they have come to admire. They wish to join and contribute to Japanese society — not to live separately from it.

Many are working to help integrate these Brazilians — not just our consulates in Tokyo, Nagoya and Hamamatsu, but also our Japanese partners in national and local governments, civil society and the business community.

For all involved in these efforts, one thing is clear: Japan has a unique opportunity to benefit from the talents, culture and hard work of the Brazilians living here. We hope and believe that Japan will seize this opportunity to strengthen its future by integrating foreigners and rejecting voices that call for separation.

Andre Correa do Lago is ambassador of Brazil to Japan

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