São Paulo's Rising Sun

(Actual immigration ad from Japan, Wikipedia)

While anyone can theoretically travel or live anywhere else, there are types of people I wouldn’t expect to see in certain countries. For instance, a Somali in Ecuador or a Nepalese in Estonia. In Brazil, one might be slightly confused to learn of the great-great grandchildren of Confederate soldiers in the city of Americana (São Paulo), to hear Hunsrückisch (a Western German dialect) in Rio Grande do Sul, or to see Japanese people speaking fluent Portuguese. While all three examples are worthy of further study, I’m going to take a look at the last on the list.

The glaring fact that pops out when it comes to the Nipo-brasileiros (Japanese-Brazilians) is that they make up the largest grouping of Japanese people outside of Japan. There are an estimated 1.5 million Japanese-Brazilians here, with over 80% of them residing in the state of São Paulo. Other states they were attracted to upon arrival were Paraná, Rio de Janeiro and Pará (as an aside, I lived near the Japanese community there).

The city of São Paulo itself has it’s own traditional neighborhood called Liberdade where one can find Japanese influences at every glance. These days, the neighborhood is mostly about Asian-oriented commerce but back before the turn of the 20th century, Liberdade was called the Sul da Sé District and it held a working-class population of Portuguese and Italian immigrants. As the Europeans began to move to other areas of the city, the Japanese immigrants started to move in.

And move in, they did. Due to the quantity of houses that held basements there, living “underground” meant lower rent. The living quarters were sufficient enough to house groups, thereby bringing the rent per person down even further. It was from there that the Japanese population got their foothold in a foreign land and culture.

Without their influence, Brazilians might not have been introduced to a variety of things so soon. Things like jiu-jitsu, better fishing and planting techniques, strawberries and caquis, and the sakerinha (caipirinha, but with sake…which I now want to try!). 

Here’s a few other interesting tid-bits.

  • According to linguists, the word “Japan” is a corruption of “Cipan” and most likely comes from the pronunciation given by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century.
  • For Japanese-Brazilian offspring, each generation (up to 4) has it’s own denomination. Issei is 1st generation, nissei is 2nd, sansei is 3rd and yonsei is 4th. The inside joke is that nemsei (nem sei = I don’t even know) pertains to any generation thereafter.

A few years ago, 100 years of official Japanese immigration was celebrated. Here’s a report on the festivities.


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