About a hundred years ago, a wave of poor Japanese migrants settled in Brazil to work on coffee plantations. Today, their descendants number some one and a half million and are one of Brazil’s most successful minority groups. In the 1990s, Japan offered members of this diaspora work visas. Close to 300,000 Japanese-Brazilians returned to their ancestral homeland. Now, because of the global economic recession, many are heading back to Brazil.
Japanese-Brazilians were invited by leading car companies to fill a void in the labour force
A team of assembly line workers operate drill presses at a factory that makes car parts for Japan’s automotive giants, for example Toyota and Honda.
At many of these locations, the workforce is made up of Brazilian labourers whose ancestors migrated from Japan beginning in 1908. They are known as the Nikkei.
26-year-old Alessandra Yamada and almost her entire family came to Japan to find work in these factories.
Even though Yamada had earned a university degree back in Brazil, she says the Japanese work visa gave her more opportunities.
”We can get a better salary here than in Brazil,” she says. “The reality of the Brazilian economy is that even people with university degrees cannot earn as much as in Japan. We can save money here too.”
Brazilians filled a void in the labour market
Brazilians such as Yamada have filled a void in the labour market. Japan, with its shrinking population, does not have a large enough workforce, nor one with the desire to take these types of low-skilled and low paying jobs.
But very few Nikkei speak Japanese. They identify themselves as Brazilian first.
And like immigrant communities around the world, they’ve brought their culture with them to their new home.
Brazilian bars like this one in Nagoya are a place for them to reminisce and also a window into a foreign culture for the locals.
The bar’s owner, who goes by the name DiDi, says that when he opened here in 1992, Japanese people knew nothing about Brazil.
He says a lot has changed, the Japanese have since embraced Brazilian culture. 80 percent of his customers are Japanese. DiDi says they want to listen to Brazilian music and learn how to dance Samba.
Migrants are the first to lose jobs
But now, as Japan faces its worst economic downturn in decades, many Nikkei migrant workers are being forced to return to Brazil.
Since the recession began last autumn, Japanese companies have laid off hundreds of thousands of workers. Analysts say Brazilian migrants have been the first to lose their jobs.
Angelo Ishi is an associate professor of Sociology at Musashi University in Tokyo. He is himself a Nikkei immigrant: “It is like a big earthquake has affected the Brazilian community in Japan. People estimate that 50 percent of Brazilians that were working in Japanese factories have been fired.”
28-year-old Karina Tsunoda has worked in Japan for almost eight years. She says she was sacked without warning from her job at a car parts factory.
“My Japanese boss just told me: ‘From Monday, you are on vacation,’. But on Tuesday, he told my manager, my Brazilian boss, that he had to dismiss me, so that’s it, the next day he told me I was fired.”
To avoid too many unemployed Brazilians collecting unemployment, the Japanese government is now offering to buy them one-way tickets back to Brazil.