Page last updated at 07:01 GMT, Friday, 1 May 2009 08:01 UK

From Brazil to Japan and back again

By Roland Buerk
BBC correspondent, Tokyo, Japan


The Box arrives in the Japanese port of Yokohama

The NYK Clara, escorted by a tug, slipped into Yokohama port, Tokyo bay carrying the BBC Box.

For our container, which we have been following around the world since last September, it is the end of a long journey from Brazil - across the Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope and then on across the Indian Ocean.

Inside is a cargo of foodstuffs, ingredients that had been ordered by one of Japan's biggest food manufacturing companies.

Not enough food is grown in mountainous Japan to supply its large population's needs, so imports like this are vital.

Returning migrants

It is not just goods that have made the journey from Brazil to Japan.

Carlos Zaha, radio broadcaster
They called us to come back to Japan and put us in factory lines the day after
Carlos Zaha, radio broadcaster

In the last 20 years, migrant workers have been coming here too, to fill vacancies in factories.

But they are not faring well in the global downturn.

So many Brazilians live in Hamamatsu in central Japan that Carlos Zaha has set up a radio station broadcasting pop songs in Portuguese.

He looks Japanese because by blood he is.

Like many others, his ancestors left Japan a century ago, escaping rural poverty for a better life in Brazil.

Exports halved

Mr Zaha's family history is of being blown around the world by the winds of economic change.

"In the 1990s they called us because they needed people to work in factories," he says. "They called us to come back to Japan and put us in factory lines the day after."

But visit the local advice centre in Hamamatsu, and there is evidence enough that times have changed.

Wellington Shibuya
Now they don't have a job for us, they're saying 'we'll give you a little money, but don't come back. Bye bye'
Wellington Shibuya

Japan's exports have nearly halved when compared with last year.

Companies making cars and electronic gadgets once needed Brazilian workers to fill vacancies.

In recent months they have instead been slashing production as fast as they can.

Sent home

The advice centre used to get 200 inquiries a month. Now they have 1,000, many from Brazilian workers who have been laid off.

Wellington Shibuya is one of them. He not only prays in a local church. After losing his home, this is also where he sleeps.

Now he is taking an offer from Japan's Government of 300,000 yen, around 3,000 dollars, to go back to Brazil.

But the Government help comes with a catch. He won't be allowed back into Japan on the same easy terms to seek work.

Effectively it is a one way ticket.

"They told us 'come, come, welcome to Japan'," he says in halting Japanese. "'We'll give you a job, a place to live. Welcome, welcome.' Now they don't have a job for us, they're saying 'we'll give you a little money, but don't come back. Bye bye'."

Supporters of the scheme say the Government had to do something to help people in need far from home.

There is also an offer of courses in Japanese to help Brazilians become more employable outside the factories.

Changing lives

Critics say Japan can scarcely afford to lose people. For a great industrialized nation it has remarkably few immigrants.

There are strict immigration laws because many people value a homogenous society.

But the low birth rate means the population is in long term decline.

"The work force is shrinking, the society is aging," says Taro Kono, a member of the House of Representatives for the governing Liberal Democratic Party.

"So the pension, our medical fees [mean] we have to do something about it. The best way is to have immigration in this country. A lot of people are reacting very emotionally, so the politicians are a bit afraid to do the straight talk."

Back in Yokohama port a giant crane lifted our BBC box off the ship before placing it on a truck to be driven away.

It is looking a little battered now and the scarlet paint is a bit faded after all that time at sea.

It is not just the flow of goods that is being affected by the global downturn.

People's lives are being changed too.

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