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Japan looks to blood ties to address labor shortage

Descendants of Japanese immigrants to Brazil are being lured to the ancestral homeland to work in factories

Japan looks to blood ties to address labor shortage

Japan's Princess Mako, the eldest granddaughter of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, visits the Japan House cultural promotion centre in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on July 22, 2018. Princess Mako arrived in the country for the ceremonies to mark the 110th anniversary of the first waves of Japanese immigration to Brazil. (Photo: Nelson Almeida/AFP)

Published: January 03, 2022 07:05 AM GMT

Updated: January 03, 2022 07:08 AM GMT

It was the early 20th century and thousands of Japanese, fleeing misery, set off for the Americas. The first 781 landed in southern Brazil's Santos in 1903. Their destination was the coffee plantations. At the time, shrewd private Japanese companies were devising commercial tricks to promote the plant as the "golden tree."

The dream of most was to raise a nest egg and return home consecrated by a leap in the social class hierarchy. Out of 200,000 immigrants, only 7% succeeded. The others had to stay.

Today the descendants of that diaspora are known as nikkeijin, and in Brazil they form a small group of 1.5 million people.

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Since the 1990s, the Land of the Rising Sun, short of labor in the various factories of the uninhabited suburbs, because its young people prefer a life of "smart jobs" in the metropolis, offers the heirs of these immigrants a privileged path to make a life in the homeland of their ancestors. The reason? In their DNA still lurks, albeit diluted, the spirit of Yamato (the ancient name of Japan).

If for a common foreigner the long process leading to a residence and work visa resembles certain riddles that can only be solved through the assistance of artificial intelligence, for a nikkeijin the longed-for indefinite stay in the Land of the Rising Sun is almost a formality.

"But you must prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that your ancestors were in fact real Japanese," says Arthur, 28.

Auther, born to a Japanese mother and Brazilian father,  had to tie all the threads — with documentary evidence — of his Japanese origins. In his case, they are his maternal great-grandparents who left a small village in Kumamoto prefecture.

“The thing is much more complicated than it seems. My great grandfather arrived in Sao Paulo in 1933 but I had to show the original documents. Finding the photos is the hardest thing." He managed to unearth a rare family snapshot from the early 1930s.

But why were they aiming specifically for Brazil? One of the many theories involves an ambitious eugenics project, Arthur tells me.

According to sociologist Florestan Fernandes, after the abolition of slavery in 1888, Brazil strived to have more German, Japanese and Italians with subsidies from both the government and the owners of the coffee plantations.

“Mission accomplished if you look at the current DNA of the Brazilian ethnic mosaic,” he deduces.

It is the nikkeijin up to the third generation who can have access to the shortcuts. But the government is already preparing to arrange the entry of the fourth generation that is the children of the great-grandchildren of the first wave.

Once inside, Japan offers them a job in blue overalls in one of the various factories around the country as in Shimane at a firm called Murata, which produces electronic components.

Arthur spent 12 months there enduring excruciating stomach pains and various other physical ailments.

"Not from eating, the cafeteria is great, for the stress."

Twelve hours a day, three of which is overtime that no one, by contract, can refuse. In Brazil it would be illegal" he says.

A typical working day is very rigid. One would get a 45-minute break after four hours of work, then three hours of work to get a 15-minute break, and then another four hours.

Arthur wanted to return to Brazil and become a professor but 15 days before returning he met his wife, also Brazilian, in a well-known bar in Izumo where Portuguese-Japanese language exchanges are organized.

Shio, the owner of the Ro bar, tells me that new faces appear every week. “Even in times of Covid, Murata is constantly expanding.”

Among nikkeijin and Brazilians, there are already 3,000 but there’s a huge contingent from Southeast Asia as well.

"In Manila, I contacted an agency of intermediaries who offered me a list of occupations with the various requirements," says Lulu, 29, a Filipina.

"If you want to work at Toyota you need at least to be able to speak basic Japanese but here in Izumo it was not necessary, the choice was obvious for me." After having dedicated a year to Murata, now she is taking advantage of her English skills to teach at a local school. She lost a great salary, she says, but the quality of life soared.

A mixed crowd of foreigners gathers every Sunday morning at the local Catholic church, not far from the central train station for the 9.30 AM Mass. As Brazilians are the majority, every fourth Sunday of the month at  6 PM the masses are held in Portuguese, but here the ethnic background is far wider. A small group comes from Vietnam too.

Arale, 22, left her family near Nha Trang in central Vietnam a few years ago to make a living in Japan. She now cuts meat for Good Day, a big supermarket chain store.

"When I arrived here, I felt a bit lost as I didn't know anyone. Then I immediately looked for a church and now I come here every Sunday to attend father Kim’s Mass,” she says. The priest is of Korean origin.

“As most of us, just like me, moved here to Japan alone. The common religious ethos of the community is what unites us and gives us strength. Here we can really count on each other," Arale said. 

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