Why Are There So Many Japanese People Living In Brazil? A Historical Overview

Japanese mass immigration to Brazil began on June 18, 1908 when the steamship Kasato-maru brought the first group of Japanese immigrants to work in coffee plantations of the São Paulo state. This is the result of a treaty between Japan and Brazil meant to bolster Brazil’s agricultural industry. Here’s why…

Which country outside of Japan has the highest population of those with Japanese Ancestry?

The countries with the highest population of people with Japanese ancestry living outside of Japan is Brazil with a current population of roughly 1.8 million. Following are the United States (1.5 million), the Philippines (200,000), China (127,000) and Canada (109,000).

So…why Brazil?

It’s important to consider the background of the Brazilian economy at the time.

It’s complicated. Back in the early 20th century, coffee was Brazil’s primary export. A need for labor that vastly outnumbered the available population of the Brazilian population suddenly presented itself. In an effort to bolster economic production and increase coffee yield, the Brazilian government began encouraging immigration primarily from European countries. This was also seen as a means to solidify Brazil’s roots in European culture.

Italian immigrants arriving in São Paulo, Brazil (circa 1890)

The Brazilian government at this time really…really liked white people. Yeah…

While this was a decision rooted in a lot of historical racist elitism, Brazil didn’t compensate it’s newfound ultra-elite European workforce very well, or very kindly for that matter. Immigrants from all over Europe, especially Italy, Immigrated by the boatful to the lush and wonderful tropical paradise that awaited them!

Wow, Fun in the sun!…right?

Wrong! Whoops!!!

Actually these European immigrant workers were barely paid, and typically ended up in debt after being forced to sign unfair contracts that forced them into perpetual cycles of labor with virtually no work-standards or representation. Often they were even forced to spend their earnings at the owner’s store! The…company store, if you will. It really brings to mind a song…

You load 16 tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt…

St. Peter don’t you call me cause I don’t go. I owe my soul to the company store…

Why Japanese families decided to immigrate to Brazil

In 1902, Italy enacted Decree Prinetti, prohibiting subsidized emigration to Brazil. The lack of a European workforce had threatened to cripple Brazil’s thriving coffee industry. In regards to Japanese immigration, in the early 20th century many countries including the United States and Canada had put restrictions in place so Japanese immigrants would be limited in their numbers. At the same time the Japanese government was not quick to encourage citizens of Japan to immigrate to other countries. In 1907 the government of Japan and the government of Brazil signed a treaty that would encourage Japanese families to emigrate to Brazil to support the then struggling agricultural economy. This move would serve to aid in bolstering the workforce of Brazil’s agricultural industries throughout the mid 1900’s. From 1907 to 1914 , over 3,000 Japanese families would emigrate to Brazil and become a part of the agricultural economy.

So why did Japanese families want to emigrate to Brazil? Probably the most prominent reason is that the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800’s would serve to restructure the Japanese socio-economic system in a way that hadn’t been seen in the country since the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

For those unfamiliar, the Meiji restoration was a shift from the feudalist society of Japan to a more western style of government . It was a time where Japan would first discover the many cultures of the world. So what triggered the Meiji Restoration? In the late 1800’s European powers would push to open up Japan to international trade. Japan, who had previously been an isolated country for hundreds of years, was given an ultimatem; Open up the country, or be guinea pigs to test out some fancy new gunboats just outside of Tokyo harbor. This was known as the ‘arrival of the black ships.’

Japanese depiction of the ‘arrival of the black ships’

Knock Knock…It’s…The United States

They choose the former, but this humiliated the ruling class, and Japan as a nation. Afterwards, similar to China and the resulting Opium Wars, Japan was forced to sign a number of unfair treaties that would impose higher tariffs on Japan versus other nations, and much more. For better and ultimately worse this was the beginning of Japan’s obsession with imitating Western imperialism.

The effect this had imposed on economic balance of the country was to thrown out balance that had been established for over 250 years. Samurai, who were once the most revered social class in Japan had no place in the new Japanese society. Furthermore, farmers that were once second-in-line in the socio-economic order of power in Japan, became less valuable with the introduction of new technological advancements. Now the merchants held all of the power, and the country had a LOT more merchants.

Less honor…more money!

Historically speaking, the most lowly of classes had slowly risen to become one of the most prominent in a span of a few decades. By upsetting this balance, the shift away from feudalism would have both positive and negative impact on the Japanese socio-economic situation, and encouraged many Japanese families to look to life abroad.

How Japanese families adjusted to life in Brazil

Many Japanese families had intended to emigrate to Brazil for just a few years as a means to save money, but were quickly confronted with a number of economic and societal barriers of Brazil’s early 20th century society.

The Japanese immigrants would learn just as the European immigrants that came before them had, the person in Brazil that held all of the power was the land owner.  Landowners could limit where workers were allowed to spend their money and most of the time workers were forced to spend their money the cross that the landowner produced just as the European immigrants that came before them. This is technically known as the truck system as a system where wages are paid as a form of credit that can only be redeemed through the employer. Furthermore contractual stipulations often presented Japanese citizens from returning home to their home country.  even if someone was to  fulfill the needs of their contract their meager earnings often made it impossible for them to consider the option of returning home.  Put simply,  many Japanese families were indirectly forced into staying in Brazil far longer than they had originally intended. 

A Japanese immigrant family in Brazil working the fields, 1930’s

Being one of the few Asian immigrant groups in Brazil the  Japanese Community faced a lot of discrimination.  There was a hope by the Brazilian government at the time in an effort to maintain Portuguese Heritage in the country to continue to whitewash the Brazilian population.  This can be thought of as one of the main reasons why Brazil tried to incentivize European immigrants before Japan or other Asian countries.  as a result of this there was a lot of animosity between the Japanese Society in Brazil and the overall society of the country.  Japanese communities remain primarily Japanese speaking and it was difficult for Japanese people to penetrate the  strong social barriers and racism of the time. At the time because of the strong social tension,  it was rare for interracial marriage to occur in these communities.  On 22 October 1923, representative Fidélis Reis produced a bill regarding to the acceptance of Asian immigrants, whose fifth article was as follows: “The entry of settlers from the black race into Brazil is prohibited. For Asian immigrants there will be allowed each year a number equal to 5% of those residing in the country.” 

Wow…what a…great guy…

Imposing these kinds of limitations on immigration would result in a spinning wheel of prejudice and long-held grudges in the country, with isolationism particularly in the Japanese community becoming increasingly extreme over time, reaching a breaking point at the beginning of World War II, when Japanese communities would become virtually shunned nation-wide.

The 1980’s; Why Many families returned to Japan from Brazil

The booming Japanese economy in the 1980’s would draw many of those with Japanese-Brazilian descent back to Japan. This would continue until the economic peak and bursting of the housing market in Japan in 1991.

As the Brazilian economy continued to grow and Japanese families in Brazil were able to improve their economic position, many were affluent enough to take advantage of the surging Japanese economy in the late 70’s and 80’s. This newfound immigration highlighted, however, a number of issues that were becoming more and more apparent as Japan was grappling with one of the first issues regarding diversity in the country.

Japan famously lacks a dual-citizenship system, meaning that citizens are only allowed to have Japanese citizen. This means that any children of parents who hold citizenship from two different countries are forced to choose which citizenship they will hold on to, and which one they will relinquish by the time they are 22 years old.

Many people choose to not do this and are holding onto citizenship from both countries, which is a story for another day...

This became more complicated when many Japanese families choose to leave Brazil for Japan during this timeframe. Because of the unfair economic conditions imposed upon those with Japanese descent, many Japanese families in Brazil choose to relinquish their citizenship to achieve fairer treatment both socially and economically. Essentially, it would have been very difficult for most families of Japanese descent in Brazil to be able to afford to return to Japan in the first place, had they not renounced their citizenship. However, the government refused to acknowledge many of these cases and their circumstances with the rise of return-immigrants, and this became a big issue, and still remains an issue to this day.

Japan, Coffee, Brazil…Coffee?

If you enjoyed this and are looking to hear more of my perspective on how history, infrastructure, and culture has affected a large part of Japanese culture,

you can read my article here on how canned coffee became so big in Japan…

I think you will enjoy it! Hot boss coffee promoted by Hollywood actor Tommy Lee Jones is…truly to die for. “I don’t care!!!” he says, but YOU should! Its fun, trust me.

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