The way back, 100 years and four generations later

(English – and delayed – version of this post, originally written in Portuguese)

On May 2014 I traveled to Japan, a country that has always been part of my life: As a pure blooded Japanese-Brazilian, the Japanese heritage is part of my identity. However, due to my very distant roots (I am a “yonsei“, great-grandson of Japanese immigrants), the cultural gap would be huge (no, I don’t speak Japanese, I never met my relatives in Japan and I never been there).

I’ve heard stories about Japan my entire life and I have always been interested about the culture and history of the “nikkei” – the Japanese descendants in Brazil (I strongly recommend the work of the admirable Dr. Ruth Cardoso, “Family structure and social mobility – Study of Japanese in the state of São Paulo“).

Japanese propaganda in the early 20th century, encouraging people to go to Brazil

Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan (1.5 million) and despite it represents only 0.75% of the overall Brazilian population, it is possible to live in community and keep culture alive. I myself have lots of Japanese-Brazilians friends, I have studied in schools where most of the students were descendants and I have even frequented some Japanese clubs during my youth (weird, I know, but pretty usual in the city of São Paulo). My family arrived in Brazil in the beginning of the 1900s and they settled in the west region of the state of São Paulo, an area with a strong presence of the Japanese-Brazilian community. Visiting my grandparents during holidays in this area meant attend ‘undokais’ (Japanese competitions), ‘kaikans’ (Japanese clubs), and celebrate a culture brought from Japan in the early 20th century. However, after becoming an adult, I began to question rituals and reject stereotypes. I felt that we were stuck in time, isolated from modern post-war Japan and I couldn’t identify myself with the labels people insisted to tag me in. The Asian culture conflicts with the Western and Brazilian ones and it is difficult to deal with, for example, ritual and hierarchical behavior in an informal country like Brazil. In fact, I didn’t know how much *Japaneseness* I actually had and I felt I should embrace a more Brazilian identity.

Given some experience in traveling and endowed with some adventurous spirit, I considered myself finally ready to go to Japan. A 17 day trip through big and small prefectures would help to provide some answers to my existential reflections. I’m not a travel guide editor (unfortunately!!), so I will not describe the places I visited, nor am I an anthropologist, so I will not do any sophisticated cultural analysis here. But I want to share what I felt on that trip.

The travel itinerary

Japan is amazing. My conclusion is that I am much more Japanese than I thought. And I’m also very Brazilian to be able to adapt, as contradictory they may seem, my Japanese roots with the my Brazilian culture. After all, miscegenation and adaptation make brazil, Brazil.

I’ve already had the opportunity to experience poorer and wealthier countries, in the old and the new world, and yet Japan surprised me by its civility. The Japanese are so civilized that everything is amazingly clean, quiet, respectful and perfect. You can be in the famous intersection in the Shibuya neighborhood in Tokyo, the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, and yet it is silent, nobody speaks up, people don’t collide into each other, everyone do their part to keep life collectively organized. My theory (actually Ruth Benedict’s) is that the Japanese highly values ​​respect for its space (“proper station”) and, for this to be possible, nobody invades other people’s space. For me, that’s why written and moral rules are absolutely obeyed.

Shibuya crossing - Tokyo

Shibuya crossing in Tokyo

I identified myself with it and I could see examples where I also behaved like that. Shyness, respect for hierarchy and to other people, formality, following the rules, are they Japanese values in me? To what extent? How have I learned to deal with them in a Brazilian style?

Looking Japanese but not being one was crazy. I was amused by not having to spell my surname (I incidentally discovered its meaning thanks to the amazing friend Mari Hattogai).



Curious questions (‘but where are you from?’), that always happens when I’m abroad, were especially funny in Japan. I have constantly broken protocols in the rituals (not having idea of what to do in religious temples, wearing shoes in places with tatame, thanking eldest people in Japanese with expressions that are only used with the younger – arigatou vs. arigatou gozaimasu – , loud talking and laughing in public places…) forgivable for foreigners, were unacceptable for a ‘Japanese’ like me.

Anyway, I am really pleased to have had the opportunity to ‘return’ to Japan, a dream that almost none of the 200,000 Japanese immigrants accomplished, including my great-grandparents. The Japanese have settled in São Paulo, Paraná and other Brazilian states to work on rural areas. They eventually were very important to the Brazilian economy by then, facing extremely difficult conditions to live in this country during the Second World War period (Brazil fought alongside the Allied forces), and still, they’ve integrated with the Brazilian culture and influenced the recent history of this country. Traveling to Japan was a powerful and inspiring experience that made me prouder of my roots. Emigrating to Brazil was the best decision my great grandparents could have ever made =)

Note: Thanks Camis for sharing the adventure with me!