Beginning in the early twentieth century, Japanese nationals (Nikkei) arrived in Brazil as contract agricultural workers. Most were younger sons from rural areas of Japan facing the economic upheaval that accompanied Japan’s modernization efforts; few intended to emigrate permanently. In the 1920s, when the United States restricted further Asian immigration, the Japanese government assisted emigrants to Brazil under the auspices of the Kaigai Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisha (KKKK), the Overseas Development Corporation. Brazil’s landowners welcomed the new immigrants as replacements for freed slaves but did not treat them better than slaves. To improve their situation Japanese workers either took advantage of loans and land grants made available through the KKKK to purchase their own farms in Brazil or moved to urban areas where they established a variety of small businesses. Such investments in property transformed the guest workers into permanent immigrants.
Brazilians found it hard to accommodate a new immigrant group that did not fit the traditional triangular paradigm of white, black, and mixed race. By the 1930s, a public debate erupted over Japanese assimilation potential as ‘non-whites’ and whether to bar further immigration. While some restrictions resulted from these debates and the advent of World War II, they were eased in later decades. Today, there are over one million ethnic Japanese in Brazil, most who reside in Greater São Paolo.
The first Nikkei practiced a nominal Buddhism. Their transient intentions and the Japanese government’s refusal to allow monks to accompany them limited religious activities. However, a few monks flouted the government’s order. The first Buddhist Temple in Brazil opened in 1932. After World War II, Japanese religious institutions dispatched official missionaries to serve the immigrant communities. By then, a specific pattern had emerged amongst Japanese families in Brazil. The eldest son took over the father’s business, spoke Japanese, and remained immersed in Japanese cultural norms, including religion. The younger children went to university, spoke Portuguese, and were often baptized Roman Catholic by their parents. By the 1980s, only 25% of Japanese immigrants and their descendants practiced a traditional Japanese religion, such as Buddhism or Shintoism, while almost two-thirds identified as Roman Catholics.
In the 1980s Japan faced a shortage of unskilled factory workers and actively recruited the descendants of the Nikkei. Facilitated by the economic crisis in Brazil, this reverse migration resulted in downward social mobility and identity renegotiation for the young, middle-class Japanese Brazilians, the Nikkeijin, who accepted the offer. Disrespected by the native Japanese for their performance of manual labor, lack of cultural conformity, and non-existent language skills, many Nikkeijin returned to Brazil when the Japanese manufacturing sector stagnated.
Ushi Arakaki, “Japanese-Brazilians among Pretos-Velhos, Caboclos, Buddhist Monks, and Samurais: An Ethnographic Study of Umbandi in Japan,” The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions, ed. Christina Rocha and Manuel A. Vásquez, (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 249-70.
Cristina Moreira da Rocha, “Zen Buddhism in Brazil: Japanese or Brazilian?” Journal of Global Buddhism 1 (2000).
Manuel A. Vásquez and Christina Rocha, “Introduction: Brazil in the New Global Cartography of Religion,” The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions, ed. Christina Rocha and Manuel A. Vásquez, (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 1-42.
Keiko Yamanaka, “Return Migration of Japanese-Brazilians to Japan: The Nikkejin as Ethnic Minority and Political Construct,” Diaspora, A Journal of Transnational Studies 5 (1996), pp. 65-97.