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Apr 25, 2009 | Goodbye, You Were Never Welcome Anyways

Japanese coffee plantation workers 1930
Japanese coffee plantation workers in Brazil, 1930. Photo courtesy of the Museu Histórico da Imigração Japonesa

I thought, wow, look at these weirdos! What in the world are they anyway? They looked Japanese, but they weren’t real Japanese. They acted completely differently, spoke a foreign tongue, and dressed in strange ways. They were like fake Japanese, like a fake superhero you see on TV.

I came across an article in the New York Times describing how the Japanese government is paying Brazilian and Latin-American immigrants to fly home and never return (“Japan Pays Foreign Workers to Go Home“, April 22, 2009). As a foreign-born Japanese citizen having lived for two years in Brazil, I saw it fitting to share.

Many of these immigrants mentioned in the article include Brazilian-born second/third generation-Japanese individuals whose entry into Japan was made easier by the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act of 1990. The Act was itself a pseudo-apology from the government for having deceptively encouraged Japanese emmigration to Brazil between World War I and World War II (1908-1933), as a solution to a general condition of poverty and overcrowding on the homeland. Hence the descendants of those Japanese men and women who went in search for riches and found only hard, unrewarding work, would be able to return to Japan and earn a decent living.

As is the case with many immigrant populations around the world, these ‘repatriated’ Brazilians are often given work in what is known as the “Three-K (san-K)” sectors: kiken, kitanai, kitsui (dangerous, dirty and tough). Examples of these include electronics parts/auto parts factories, agriculture and general manual labor. Despite outward resemblances to the Japanese, without knowing the language they are treated as foreigners and ostracized. Frustratingly, many of these Brazilians worked in middle-class or white collar sectors back home, but were forced to move down the social ladder because of their lack of command of the Japanese language. Despite it all, the allure of earning three to five times as much as in Brazil is certainly a deciding factor for many.

Japan is known for being racially homogeneous: the OECD estimates just 1% of the population is a foreign-born non-citizen (migrant). This is compared to a 12.3 percent foreign-born and 6.6 percent non-native population in the United States. When soliciting immigrant labor, it comes to no surprise that the top three nationalities represented are those whose outward resemblances to the Japanese are uncanny: the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Brazilians. Statistics shown that there are nearly 320,000 Brazilian immigrants in Japan.

The sad part (and the one part I feel I can truly relate to) is that the Japanese-Brazilian immigrants, who may not have particularly felt at home in Brazil, end up reinforcing their Brazilian culture and nationality in Japan. Besides the benefit of finding refuge in a community of people who share the same language in a world far away, I would assume that this reclamation is because it is much more comforting to know that you are treated as a foreigner because you look and act like one than to know you are treated as one because of how obvious it is that you don’t quite ‘fit in’. In Japan, at least, fitting in is far more than just speaking the language: one needs to be attuned to the particular cultural nuances associated with everyday acts, which can be almost impossible to acquire without growing up with it.

The policy provides a temporary solution to the recent job cuts as a result of the recession, but does not solve the larger, more permanent problem of historically ingrained attitudes towards foreigners in Japan. It has committed a double crime of doing an unforgivable injustice to a large community of people whose ancestors were also unfairly misguided. If paying immigrants to leave is going to be considered a success in any sense of the word, I hope its serious and undeniable consequences will force Japan to reconsider its stance on foreigners and immigration in general.


“Japanese Brazilian Return Migration and the Making of Japan’s Newest Immigrant Minority”. (link)
“No place to call home: Japanese Brazilians discover they are foreigners in the country of their ancestors” (link)
“Multicultural Japan? Discourse and the ‘Myth’ of Homogeneity” (link)
“Japanese in Brazil or Brazilians in Japan? The Identity Issue Inside of a Migratory Context” (link)
“Brazilian Migration to Japan: Trends, Modalities and Impact” link

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 25th, 2009 at 12:54 am, EST under the category of Articles, Life, Oh Life. Both comments and pings are currently closed.