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Lasting legacy of Brazil's Japanese

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Sao Paulo

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Japanese culture is celebrated in Brazil

One hundred years after the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil, the country as a whole has been reflecting on an anniversary that has left a significant legacy.

Numbering an estimated 1.5 million, there are more people of Japanese descent in Brazil than anywhere in the world outside of Japan itself.

The celebrations are a chance to pay tribute to the pioneering immigrants that first arrived at the port of Santos near to Sao Paulo - and, the organisers say, to thank Brazilian society for making them welcome.

The 165 families who arrived here on 18 June 1908 came to escape poverty and lack of job opportunities in Japan, and to meet the demand for workers in Brazil's coffee plantations.

But there is plenty of evidence at the Museum of Japanese Immigration in Sao Paulo that this was not always a comfortable story.

Painful first steps

The newly-arrived Japanese faced a huge culture shock: a radically different language, food and climate.

Adelia Muramoto
It was when I was playing with other children and my sister wasn't there - then I realised she had disappeared
Adelia Muramoto
Japanese immigrant

The aim was to make their fortune quickly and return home - but, for many, it was not to turn out that way.

"When they arrived here planting coffee wasn't so productive," says Lidia Yamashita of the Museum of Japanese Immigration in Sao Paulo.

"Then, because of World War ll, they could not consider returning to Japan. The expectation changed. They had to stay here in Brazil and think of it as the land where they were going to live."

Many immigrants and their descendants later found success in Brazilian society, often by moving to the cities - but the first steps were painful.

Kokei Uehara, now a professor at the University of Sao Paulo and president of the Japanese Association, recalls the struggle of his first years in Brazil.

"I was a labourer, a boy of nine years old," he says.

"I used to work in the morning in the plantation, and afterwards I got changed and would go to the school. I used to walk 4km, very often in bare feet. The problem was because sometimes the sun was very strong and I used to burn my feet."

Luciana Sugino Luciana Sugino, 34, known as a "Sansei" in Brazil - a third generation Brazilian-Japanese
Luciana Sugino is third generation Brazliian-Japanese
This emigration sometimes divided families as well. At home in Sao Paulo, Adelia Muramoto recalls how she had to leave behind her older sister, then eight years old, diagnosed with an eye problem just before the ship left for Brazil.

An uncle assured the family he would bring her sister out the following year, but war and family bereavement meant the family would not be reunited again for another 36 years.

"I thought everything was normal, and I thought I would meet my sister very soon, I never thought it would be so many years without seeing her," Ms Muramoto said.

"After I arrived in Brazil, time passed. It was when I was playing with other children and she wasn't there - then I realised she had disappeared."

Visible impact

Few places better illustrate the impact of Brazilians of Japanese descent than in the Liberdade district of Sao Paulo. After years working in the countryside many Japanese immigrants moved to the city to seek a better future.

The shops, restaurants, markets and street festivals make Liberdade appear more like part of Tokyo than a Latin American city - and it is now one of Sao Paulo's main attractions.

Crown Prince Naruhito
Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito is attending the festivities

At the weekend this area is packed with people enjoying a wide range of foods, and it is in the eating habits of Brazilians that you can find the most visible evidence of the impact of Japanese immigrants and their descendants.

As well as helping to change what had been a very basic diet, they introduced new farming techniques that have helped to make Brazil the agricultural superpower that it is today.

And Japanese of Brazilian descent have made their mark elsewhere in Brazilian culture.

Ruy Ohtake is a leading architect and designer of landmark buildings in Sao Paulo. They include the exclusive Unique hotel, and the Tomie Ohtake institute - dedicated to his mother, a famous Japanese-born Brazilian artist.

He says it is important for Brazilians of Japanese descent to play their part within the wider society.

"Everyone is Brazilian and they have an influence which is positive," he explained.

"I don't think it is good to create segregation, or to live in an isolated way. Integration with the population of Brazil is very important."

Hard work

Community leaders say Brazilians of Japanese descent are completely integrated into society here, and that a century after the first immigrants arrived some 40% of their descendants are now mixed race.

Liberdade
Sao Paulo's Liberdade is known for its Tokyo-like feel
However, historian Arlinda Rocha Nogueira says this evolution is not complete.

"I would not say 100% integrated, no," she says.

"They are moving towards a state of integration in the third or fourth generations - but not in the first or second. There are many Japanese societies that are closed."

It does seem, however, that a tenacious spirit, hard work and dedication has propelled many Brazilians of Japanese descent into finding a success the first immigrants may never have imagined.

One hundred years on this achievement is itself part of the celebration.

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