Brazil is home to the world’s largest ethnic Japanese population outside of Japan. This surprised me, so I did some history research. Here’s what I found.
More than one and a half million Japanese live in Brazil. Three million more Japanese live elsewhere around the world. For comparison, 300,000 Japanese live in Hawaii.
How did Brazil attract so many Japanese? It’s an interesting story with a dark undercurrent.
In 1888, Brazil was the last Western country to abolish slavery. But even after abolition, slaves continued to arrive for several more years. By this time, more than four million slaves had been brought to Brazil. This is 40 percent more than all North America.
We’ve visited Tanzania and the island of Zanzibar. We learned much of the Western slave trade began in Tanzania and Zanzibar. Arabs were the main drivers of the slave trade. The first sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyid Majid, succeeded in slave trading. He had plenty of buyers.
British North America (minus North America)
While Brazil imported the most slaves, England, Spain and French America were significant traders as well. If you look at the map above, slaves were coming in significant numbers to what would become the USA, but the main importers were Spain, France and England.
Slavery ranks as the most abhorrent practice in any age or time period. The more we travel the world, the more we realize that slavery was not a problem only in the USA. Slavery spread its tentacles throughout the world, in many times, governments and cultures.
Brazilian slaves had worked coffee plantations. When Brazil abolished slavery, plantations still needed workers. Initially, Brazil turned to Italy and other European nations recruiting farmers who needed work. Why would Japanese come to Brazil? In the early 1900s when Japanese started to come to Brazil, did they even drink coffee?
Japanese and Coffee
Dutch trading ships introduced coffee to the Japanese in the 1800s. Kissatens (coffee lounges) sprang up and helped make coffee popular in Japan.
Before coffee became popular, tea was the popular beverage in Japan. During that time, chayas served tea. Chayas were most popular during the Meiji Period. The first kissaten opened in 1888 but went bankrupt five years later.
Coffee imports didn’t boom until the 1960s when 15,000 tons of coffee were imported. Today, Japan imports more than 440,000 tons of coffee annually. Japan ranks as the third largest importer of coffee, behind the United States and Germany.
Brazil Needed Coffee Plantation Workers
With Brazil needing workers, plantation owners promised great wages and freedom. But once immigrants arrived in Brazil, they received low salaries and worked in poor conditions. The hollow promises of pay and working conditions got back to Italy. The Italian government enacted a law prohibiting subsidized immigration to Brazil. That cut off the pipeline of workers to Brazil, which now needed to find other sources of labor.
The Japanese feudal system ended in 1871, beginning the Meiji Period in Japan. But the loss of the feudal system had negative effects on rural farmers. They no longer had a guaranteed source for their crops.
New regulations restricted Japanese farmers, who started to new land with less regulation. The enticement of more freedom and a better life working in Brazil was hard to resist. Japanese started immigrating to Brazil. In 1907, the Brazilian and Japanese governments signed a treaty permitting Japanese migration to Brazil. World War I had not yet begun.
The promises of higher wages and security enticed many Japanese. But life proved harsh on Brazilian coffee farms with brutal workloads, unfair labor conditions and inadequate living conditions. One condition required Japanese to purchase supplies at outrageous prices from plantation stores. Many Japanese fled the coffee farms and moved elsewhere. But many fulfilled their contracts, and then left to start their own farm and hire other Japanese immigrants. The Japanese formed their own agricultural settlements as independent farmers.
When World War I began, many more Japanese farmers migrated to Brazil. Between 1917 and 1940, more than 164,000 Japanese moved to Brazil. Most moved to Sao Paulo area where most of the coffee plantations were.
Japanese migrated to Brazil in mandatory family units. Brazil wanted a continuity of labor and realized if only a single laborer came over, that laborer might go back home to be with their family. By bringing a whole family, plantation owners hoped the children would grow to become laborers and their children would become laborers, too.
Under Brazil’s nationalistic policies, a 1934 immigration law severely limited the entry of new Japanese. In 1942, Brazil terminated Japanese immigration. World War II was underway.
After World War II
At the end of the war, the Japanese were sharply divided over the defeat of Japan. Emperor Hirohito was not the Sun King anymore. Many Japanese in Brazil gave up any hope of returning to their homeland. Numerous cities in Japan had been destroyed. Recovery would take many years. The Japanese in Brazil moved to Sao Paolo. They formed tightly integrated communities to maintain their culture while living in a country where most citizens spoke Portuguese and attended Catholic churches.
About a quarter million Japanese immigrated to Brazil between 1907 and 1993. This doesn’t count the multiple generations of Japanese children born in Brazil. Now the Japanese number one and a half million in Brazil accounting for more than six generations.
If you want to learn more about the Japanese in Brazil, visit the Liberdade in Sao Paolo. This neighborhood is a city within a city. You’ll see Japanese lanterns, torii, kanji and katakana writing and Japanese specialty shops.
In Liberdade, you’ll find the best Japanese food outside of Japan, including ramen houses, sushi bars, Japanese beer and many other items. Nearby the Japan House displays examples of Japanese culture. (Our featured image shows off the beautiful Japanese architecture of the Japan House.)
With reasonable airfare prices between Brazil and Japan, many Japanese travel to Brazil and back to visit family.
I’ve lived and worked in Tokyo on three separate occasions. For two of those, Madeline lived with me. We love Japan! And we’ll visit Brazil for the first time in 2020. We can’t wait to see how these two cultures meet! After all, that’s the joy of travel!