In the Liberdade district, at the center of São Paulo’s bustling metropolis, there exists a portal straight to the Land of the Rising Sun. It isn’t a time machine, nor is it a wormhole to another dimension: it is the largest Japanese settlement outside of Japan, and it’s been around since the early 1900s.
In the Liberdade district, at the center of São Paulo’s bustling metropolis, there exists a portal straight to the Land of the Rising Sun.
From coffee culture to cinema craze
When the Japanese coffee farmers first migrated to Japan, a good number of them eventually chose to leave farm work and settle in the city. They set up residence in the Liberdade district, initially along Conde de Sarzedas Street, later on expanding their territory uphill, towards Rua Galvão Bueno, as they continued to find success in the area of business and retail. This movement was also largely precipitated by the establishment of Brazil’s first Japanese movie theater, Cine Niterói, by Tanaka Yoshikazu — a first-generation Japanese grain dealer — in the early 1950s. The five-story complex along Galvão Bueno Street became a lifestyle hub for the Nikkei neighborhood; and Japantown, as it was called, sprung up around this vicinity.
What began in 1910 as a row of modest residences has, over the course of a century, transformed into the most populous, most vibrant Japanese community beyond Japan’s borders. The locale is now known as São Paulo’s “Barrio Oriental” or Asiatown, owing to the steady stream of Chinese and Korean immigrants settling in the area, over the years. By and large, however, the Nikkei population still accounts for the majority of Asiatown’s thriving community, with numbers of Japanese and Japanese-Brazilians living in Brazil now registering in the millions.
A lasting, living legacy
To date, Asiatown is abuzz with the legacy of the first Japanese migrants to Brazil, just as it brims with the hallmarks of Nikkei culture. And, while the generations of Japanese-Brazilians, descended from the first settlers have since adopted many aspects of the Brazilian way of life, including education and religion, they have also remained true to keeping their Japanese heritage alive.
On the surface, the vestiges of Nikkei customs are evident: from a traditional Japanese gate or Torii to paper-lantern-inspired lampposts, Zen gardens, and even an Osaka Bridge, the community pays tribute to its Japanese roots. Shops and restaurants dot the sidewalks, offering a taste and a touch of home, with everything from Japanese food and delicacies to houseware items, decorations, and other such sundries. Moreover, in this part of the vibrant Latin American nation, the heart of Okinawa beats loudly and proudly: about half of the original 781 migrants on the Kasato-Maru were from Okinawa, and the customary ways of the Ryūkyūan — such as their language and music — live on, in their children’s children.
For its energetic and spirited atmosphere, delicious culinary offerings, Japanese folk culture, charming scenery and way of life, Asiatown has become one of São Paulo’s largest tourist attractions. Measuring approximately 500 meters east-west and 1,500 meters north-south, the venue draws scores upon scores of visitors, comprising locals and tourists, alike. Asiatown is, indeed, a showcase of the Japanese core cultural trait of collectivism, as well as the innate desire for achieving harmony with one’s surroundings and society — wherever one’s fortune may lead.