Japanese immigration to Brazil began at the onset of the 20th century, with the arrival of the first settlers on June 18, 1908, a date which is still commemorated as National Japanese Immigration Day. On that day, over a century ago, the Japanese ship Kasato-Maru landed at the port of Santos, south of Sao Paulo. The vessel bore the first wave of migrants; 781 individuals — mostly younger men and family units from the country’s rural areas — who were part of the bilateral migration pact between the two countries. A number of Japan’s nationals came to work in Brazil’s agricultural sector, to replace European immigrants working in the burgeoning coffee industry of the state of Sao Paulo. The workers emigrated in search of livelihood in the field of agriculture, in light of the upheaval in Japan’s pastoral economy, given the government’s thrust towards modernization.
As with almost any other resettling from one country to another, the influx of Japanese migrants to the Latin American nation was not without its challenges. These problems were largely founded on the initial misgivings of both sides to assimilate and appreciate cross-cultural differences, as well as on rigid nationalistic policies enacted during the time of Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s president in the late 1930s.
This presented an array of obstacles for the early immigrants, which prompted the Japanese government to create an assistance program under the administration of the Kaigai Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisha (KKKK), the Overseas Development Corporation. A good chunk of the settlers leveraged the advantages of the aid program, taking out loans to help them establish themselves in Brazil. With these investments, the once-migrant workers earned the status of investors and permanent immigrant residents of Brazil.
A number of Japan’s nationals came to work in Brazil’s agricultural sector, to replace European immigrants working in the burgeoning coffee industry of the state of Sao Paulo.
Japanese immigration to Brazil reached its peak in the 1920s-1930s, and ended in the early 1940s, with numbers at that time reaching almost 200,000 men, women, and children.
Making a mark, Nikkei-style
While many of the migrant workers came to Brazil in search of temporary employment, most ended up staying, putting down roots and birthing a thriving Nikkei culture, for generations, to come. As the Japanese community in Brazil grew in strength and size, the hallmarks of Nikkei culture became ever more apparent.
For instance, the first Buddhist Temple in Brazil was established in 1932; and, as a result of the KKKK aid project, Japanese-owned businesses began to boom in Brazil, as did Japanese-owned property and parcels of agrarian land. Over decades, as the early migrants intermarried with Brazilian nationals, younger Japanese adapted to a more Latin American way of life, studying in Brazilian schools and universities, speaking Portuguese, and even growing up in the Roman-Catholic faith.
Through time, “Japantown” expanded not only physically, but also figuratively, growing in popularity with locals and tourists, alike. To date, Brazil is home to one of the biggest Japanese settlements outside of Japan: Sao Paulo’s Liberdade district is a veritable showcase of the Nikkei way of life.
The Nikkei and their Japanese-Brazilian descendants now number in the millions, with figures at approximately 2.3 million as of 2022, making it among the largest Japanese populations outside of Japan.
What was once a rocky road in the early 1900s has become an admirable avenue of cultural exchange — and all paths lead to Brazil’s marvelous melting pot of people groups.