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When identities become modern:

Japanese emigration to Brazil and

the global contextualization of
Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda
Local immigrant histories cannot be truly understood unless they are contextualized within changing global conditions. The ethnic minority status
and identity of the Japanese in Brazil have been historically constrained by
Japans changing position in the global order. Immigrants from Japan were
ofcially accepted by the Brazilian government and treated with a certain
respect in the early 1900s because of Japans newly acquired global stature
as an emerging industrial power. However, as Japan continued to rise in
global status and eventually became an imperialist menace, the Japanese in
Brazil were subject to ethnic repression, causing most of them to react by
asserting an ultra-nationalist, Japanese identity in opposition to Brazilian
discrimination. After a long period of post-war assimilation, the JapaneseBrazilians are again asserting a Japanese ethnic identity because Japans
current position at the top of the global economic hierarchy has made their
ethnic heritage a source of prestige and respect in Brazil.
Keywords: Migration; identity; ethnicity; globalization; Japanese-Brazilians;

Of the various sources of identication that emerged under the conditions of modernity, the nation-state was undoubtedly one of the most
prominent. Self-consciousness became truly modern when individuals
were able to transcend familial, tribal, village, provincial, and subnational ethnic loyalties to imagine themselves as members of a larger
national political community with a distinct national identity. In
addition, the nation, as a source of identication and belonging, has
become personally meaningful because it is embedded and situated in
Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 24 No. 3 May 2001 pp. 412432
2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd ISSN 0141-9870 print/1466-4356 online

Japanese emigration to Brazil


broader global contexts in the modern world. With the advent of modern
communications technologies and electronic media, distant global events
and conditions have become locally relevant, forcing individuals to
respond to such pressures when constructing their national identities (cf.
Giddens 1991, pp. 4, 27, 32). In other words, modernity imposes new
structural constraints on the construction of national identities, which
must now be negotiated and conceptualized within constantly changing
global contexts.
Although migration itself is obviously not a distinctive feature of
modernity, it is one means through which self-consciousness has been
modernized because identities frequently become nationalized and
globally located through the migratory process. When migrants relocate
abroad, they often experience a certain amount of ethnic marginalization, cultural difference, and discrimination which causes them to react
against the host society by reafrming and renewing their national loyalties to their country of origin. This produces a type of deterritorialized
migrant nationalism in which national sentiments are solidied outside
the territorial boundaries of the nation-state.1 At the same time, the
national identities of migrants become interrelated to the global milieu
since the relative position of their home country within the international
world order inuences their ethnic status and identity in the majority
host society.
In this article, I argue that the history of Japanese emigration and
settlement in Brazil can be interpreted as an identity struggle which
occurred under the global constraints of modernity. The immigration,
minority status, and ethnonational identity of the Japanese in Brazil
were contested and negotiated under specic local circumstances which
were conditioned by Japans changing position in the global order.
Japanese emigration to Brazil in the early 1900s became possible
because of Japans newly acquired global stature as an emerging industrial power, which made Brazil willing to accept the Japanese, although
they were viewed as inferior substitutes for European workers. As a
result, the Japanese were initially treated with benign tolerance and
were not subject to overt discrimination in Brazil. Although their migration increased their national consciousness in Brazil, this nationalization of identity was simply a reaction to their encounter with ethnically
different populations in a foreign country. However, as a rapidly
modernizing Japan continued to rise in global status to become not only
Asias leading nation but eventually a threatening global power supposedly intent on world domination, Brazilian perceptions of the
Japanese immigrants signicantly worsened, leading to considerable
anti-Japanese sentiment and ethnic discrimination. The Japanese in
Brazil responded to such unfavourable ethnic conditions through a
virulent Japanese ultra-nationalism, which became an effective means
to counter Brazilian xenophobia. However, their ethnic reaction also


Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda

diverged along generational lines and differential levels of acculturation. A small group of assimilation-oriented nisei (the second generation born in Brazil) attempted to avoid majority discrimination by
increasing their sociocultural integration in Brazilian society and negotiating a more synthetic and inclusive ethnic identity that emphasized
their Brazilian national allegiance.
In this manner, when Japanese emigrants emerged from their rural
villages in Japan and became part of the global movement of populations, their ethnic identity became truly modern, that is, not only fully
nationalized, but globally contextualized. Although most of the Japanese
went to Brazil as temporary migrants with dreams of returning to Japan
in several years with considerable wealth, reality proved to be much
more difcult and a large majority of them settled permanently in Brazil
with their families. As expected, the ethnicity of their descendants in
Brazil continues to remain quite sensitive to shifts in Japans global
image. In recent decades, the ethnic identity of second and third generation Japanese-Brazilians has again been renegotiated in the context of
Japans dramatic rise to the top of the global hierarchy of nations as a
First World economic superpower. Partly because of Japans current
global prestige, the Japanese-Brazilians have again come to assert and
maintain a prominent Japanese ethnic identity, but for very different
reasons than their immigrant ancestors.
This type of analysis which globally contextualizes ethnicity contrasts
with traditional approaches in which ethnic minority status and identity
were analysed as products of purely local conditions such as persisting
cultural differences, ethno-racial perceptions and ideologies, ethnic
exclusion and discrimination, internally cohesive communities, intergroup conict, and historical consciousness of ethnic ancestry and legacy.
Of course, by emphasizing the importance of global conditions in constituting ethnic relations, I do not intend to promote a mono-casual
analysis by attributing the nature of Japanese ethnic experiences in
Brazil simply to Japans shifting geopolitical status. Instead, I simply wish
to highlight an aspect of modern ethno-national identities that has not
received sufcient attention in the literature by illustrating how local
forces which are usually understood to shape ethnicity are themselves
frequently conditioned by a larger global milieu.
The structural inferiority of Japan in the global order: Japanese
emigration and minority status in Brazil
Japan as a backward but modernizing Asian nation: the acceptance of
Japanese immigrants by Brazil
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Japanese government was
actively promoting emigration to the Americas as an effective means to

Japanese emigration to Brazil


alleviate its surplus rural population, which was suffering from declining
agricultural prices and increasing debt and unemployment. At the same
time, Brazil was in search of new sources of immigrant labour in order
to supply a rapidly expanding coffee plantation economy. However,
because of ideologies of racial superiority that equated European races
with human progress and advancement, the Brazilian political elite
wished to whiten a racially-mixed Brazilian populace through further
European immigration from Portugal, Spain, and Italy (see Pickel 1993,
pp. 1214, 18; Lesser 1999, p. 82) and was initially unwilling to admit
immigrants from Asia (Sasaki 1958, pp. 89; Nogueira 1983, p. 87).
However, as immigration from Europe continued to decline, Brazil was
forced to consider the eventual acceptance of less racially desirable, nonEuropean migrants to meet its increasing labour needs.
In this manner, because of a hegemonic Euro-American discourse
that deemed the yellow race inferior to the white race, Japanese emigration to Brazil was initially negotiated by Japan from a global
position of structural inferiority as a backward Asian nation.
However, within this perceived global hierarchy between the West
and the East, the Brazilian political elite eventually decided to accept
immigrants from Japan because of its emergence from the Asian backwaters as a country which was rapidly industrializing and becoming an
advanced, modernized nation (see Lesser 1999, ch. 4). By the beginning of the twentieth century, Japan had not only easily won the SinoJapanese War but had decisively defeated Russia in the
Russo-Japanese War, which seemingly indicated that in terms of
military power and technological advancement, Japan was not only
Asias pre-eminent leader, but was gradually encroaching on the privileged and secure position of Western superiority.
Some ofcials in the Brazilian government were impressed with
Japanese technological and economic development and came to favour
Japanese immigration (Lesser 1999, p. 83). Brazilian Ministers who
visited Japan at the time noted that although the Japanese used to be
seen as a despicable race, they showed an amazing ability to assimilate
European civilization and customs in contrast to other Asian peoples
such as the Chinese, who had previously been rejected as potential immigrants partly on grounds of their inferiority. In fact, some among the
Brazilian elite saw the Japanese as equals, or even superior to immigrants from backward European countries (for example, see Lesser 1999,
p. 87). The rst Japanese government immigration envoy to Brazil, Sho
Nemoto, even argued that the Japanese were the whites of Asia, a claim
that was emphasized by other Japanese diplomats as well (Lesser 1999,
p. 82). Although this increasingly favourable perception of the Japanese
continued to be actively contested by some Brazilian ofcials, who felt
that mixing inferior races with the Brazilian population would be dangerous and undermine Brazils national project of racial whitening (Lesser


Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda

1999, p. 84), the Brazilian government decided to promote Japanese

immigration. A contract between the Japanese government and the
state of So Paulo led to the arrival of the rst Japanese immigrants on
Brazilian shores in 1908 on the ship, Kasato Maru. In this manner,
Japans rising global status as an emerging world power and the
supposed ability of the Japanese race to absorb and assimilate
superior European civilization made the emigration of the Japanese to
Brazil possible.
Japanese immigrants and the development of a de-territorialized
Japanese national consciousness
After the Japanese began residing as immigrants in Brazil, their minority
status and migrant identity continued to be inuenced by Japans
emerging position in the global hierarchy of nations, which structured
local Brazilian ethnic reactions towards them. Sensitive to Japans obsession with attaining equality in the eyes of the West, the Brazilian government had assured Japanese ofcials that the Japanese immigrants would
be paid the same wages as European immigrants and that the country
would be treated as an equal in the international arena (Lesser 1999,
p. 85). Because the immigrants were backed by Japans new found global
status in this manner, they were not overtly denigrated as inferior and
were sometimes even regarded as equals to previous European immigrants. Initial impressions of the rst Japanese who arrived in Brazil were
positive: Brazilian ofcials appreciated how they wore Western clothes
and were clean, tidy, and well-kept, in contrast to prevailing images of
poor and lthy Asians (Nogueira 1973, pp. 6162). Plantation owners
were initially quite satised with the Japanese workers and reported that
they were diligent, intelligent, obedient, and orderly (Nogueira 1973,
pp. 6264). Although they were subject to some criticism by certain ofcials and by the Brazilian press for their supposed racial inferiority
(Nogueira 1983, pp. 110111), Brazilian authorities generally had
positive evaluations of them as plantation workers, and newspapers initially praised their discipline (Saito 1961, p. 126; Sakurai 1995, p. 141).
However, the Japanese immigrants were not as submissive and docile
as expected and were no more willing to tolerate low wages and difcult
working conditions on the plantations than their European predecessors.
Some eventually ed the plantations to urban areas, others participated
in strikes (Nogueira 1973, pp. 6465), and most attempted to leave the
plantations as soon as possible (Fukunaga 1983, p. 26). Wishing to
promote the long-term settlement of the Japanese in Brazil, Japanese
ofcials, with the assistance of Japanese emigration companies and the
So Paulo government, began to purchase large plots of land on which
the Japanese could settle and create their own colnias (agricultural
enclaves), which became highly productive communities. Although the

Japanese emigration to Brazil


Japanese immigrants were seen as an unassimilable race with strange

customs, language, and religion who preferred to live in segregated and
closed groups (Saito 1961, p. 128; Nogueira 1973, p. 56; Leo 1990,
pp. 347), their overall assessment in Brazil remained neutral if not
slightly positive. In 1923, an inquiry concluded that despite the different
culture and race of the Japanese, which initially impeded their adaptation and willingness to settle on the plantations, they should be
welcomed and accepted in Brazil (Saito 1961, p. 128), and a public
opinion survey in 1926 indicated that half of the Brazilian respondents
actually favoured Japanese immigration (Leo 1990, p. 37). In fact, until
the mid-1920s, there is little evidence that the Japanese in Brazil were
subject to overt or systematic discrimination or racism from Brazilian
society. Because the Japanese kept a low prole and avoided conicts
with Brazilian society, they were left in benign isolation by the Brazilian
government (Fukunaga 1983, p. 34).
In the absence of notable prejudice or discrimination from Brazilian
society, the Japanese immigrants encounter with majority Brazilians
during this early period did not have a strong impact on their migrant
identities. However, they did experience an intensication of their
Japanese national identity as they became more conscious of their
cultural distinctiveness in a foreign society (see Maeyama 1979, p. 607).
In other words, when the Japanese emigrated to Brazil, they came into
direct contact with culturally and racially different ethnic groups for the
rst time in their lives. The vivid and stark contrasts they experienced
with various Brazilians in terms of world view, lifestyle, language,
marriage customs, family roles and obligations, as well as racial phenotype (Maeyama 1982, pp. 345; Sakurai 1993, p. 69) increased their
awareness of the distinctive Japanese national characteristics that made
them an ethnically different immigrant minority in Brazil. This nationalization of ethnic identity was reinforced by the use of ethnic categories
in which they were constantly called japons by other Brazilians and
referred to mainstream Brazilians as gaijin (foreigners) (cf. Maeyama
1996, p. 11). At the same time, they also believed in their own racial and
cultural superiority (a product of ideological indoctrination in Japan),
which caused them to view Brazilians and their customs in a disparaging manner and increased their desire to ethnically differentiate themselves from Brazilian society by emphasizing their differences as
Japanese. As a result, the meaning of their distinctive Japanese cultural
qualities took on a new signicance in a foreign context, producing a
national consciousness that was different from the Japanese who
remained in Japan (Maeyama 1982, pp. 335).
Of course, this does not mean that the Japanese in Brazil had not
developed a modern national identication in rural Japan and suddenly
dis-covered their Japaneseness for the rst time after emigrating
abroad. In contrast to the earlier salience of pre-modern familial, clan,


Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda

village, and provincial identities, even the self-consciousness of rural

Japanese farmers had already been modernized by the turn of the
century through attendance at Japanese schools, where they had
received a nationalist education based on patriotic loyalty, national
pride, and Emperor worship. In this manner, migration abroad simply
renewed and strengthened their Japanese national identity in a manner
that was not possible in Japan itself, where they did not have direct
contact with ethnically different groups against whom they could bring
their national distinctiveness into sharp relief (cf. Maeyama 1982, p. 34).
In this manner, migration to a foreign country contributes to the further
modernization of identity by producing a deterritorialized migrant
nationalism abroad.
Of course, there were other factors involved in the deterritorialized
articulation of national sentiments among the Japanese in Brazil. The
Japanese immigrants created various ethnically exclusive organizations
in their communities, which again clearly delineated the cultural boundaries between the Japanese and non-Japanese (Maeyama 1979) and
enabled them to participate in various Japanese cultural activities and
rituals (including Emperor worship). The Japanese colnias in Brazil
also maintained strong connections to Japan through the Japanese consulate-general in So Paulo, the constant ow of books and other reading
materials from back home, and an active ethnic Japanese print media in
Brazil that featured news from Japan, all of which enabled the Japanese
immigrants to sustain their Japanese national identity abroad (Lesser
1999, pp. 9192) by imagining a transnational community of Japanese
nationals spread across two countries (cf. Handa 1987, p. 602). Since
most of the Japanese in Brazil still intended to return eventually to
Japan, long-term residence abroad did not weaken their sense of
national allegiance to their homeland.
Japans threatening rise in the global order: the yellow peril and the
ethnic repression of the Japanese in Brazil
Unfortunately, this initial period of relative ethnic tolerance towards the
Japanese in Brazil was short-lived. Although Brazils respect for Japans
rise in international stature had a benign effect on the minority status of
the Japanese at rst, as Japan increased its military might as a world
power and engaged in aggressive imperialist expansion, the country
came to be regarded by Western nations as a dangerous global threat.
As a result, Brazilian perceptions of the Japanese in Brazil dramatically
worsened in the 1920s and 1930s, leading to immigration restrictions and
increasingly discriminatory governmental policies. What was initially an
asset (Japans increasing status in the global order) that enabled the
Japanese to emigrate to Brazil soon became a liability that considerably
worsened their ethnic status.

Japanese emigration to Brazil


By the 1920s, Japanese imperialism in Asia caused considerable fear

and consternation among the Brazilian elite and xenophobic reactions
to the Japanese in Brazil (the yellow peril) increased in both the mass
media and political debate. During the 1920s and the beginning of the
1930s, half of all new immigrant arrivals in Brazil were Japanese, partly
because of the discriminatory closing of the United States to further
Japanese immigration, which diverted the migrant ow to South
America. This massive inux alarmed the Brazilian elite and public as
the meaning of Japanese immigration suddenly changed from much
needed labour power to potential foreign invasion. In addition to
earlier negative assessments of the Japanese in Brazil as an unassimilable race detrimental to Brazilian national unity and racial balance, they
were now also portrayed as part of Japans imperialist policy for global
This increase in anti-Japanese, nativist sentiment in Brazil fuelled a
public campaign against further Japanese immigration. Articles in the
Brazilian press during the 1930s viewed Japanese immigration as a secret
imperialist effort by the Japanese government to colonize Brazil and
compared it to the invasion of Manchuria (Lesser 1999, pp. 11617). The
Japanese in Brazil were sometimes even portrayed as vanguard soldiers
for a subsequent invasion force. The purchase of large tracts of Brazilian land by Japanese emigration companies for settlements was seen as
an attempt to create a new Japanese empire in Brazil and Japanese agricultural enclaves in the Amazon were called imperialist outposts.
Of course, this rising tide of anti-Japanese sentiment was not merely
a reection of a threatening global re-orientation of geopolitical power
in favour of Japan against the West but was also a product of purely local
conditions and antagonisms. The tremendous economic success of the
Japanese colnias and their agricultural cooperatives generated considerable ethnic resentment among other immigrant Brazilians. In fact,
Brazilians of Spanish and Italian descent even organized a boycott
against these Japanese cooperatives, which eventually failed when the
Japanese created a new distribution system to overcome such restrictions
(Lesser 1999, p. 111). The negative attitudes towards the Japanese were
also simply a prejudiced response to the cultural and racial differences
of the Japanese, their strong and persistent tendency to segregate themselves in rural ethnic enclaves, and their continued refusal to assimilate
and adopt Brazilian ways. Indeed, in the years leading up to World War
II, Brazilian newspapers, politicians, and even the National Academy of
Medicine continued to stress the unassimilable nature of the Japanese
and their strange cultural customs and compared them to the undissolvable nature of oil or sulphur (Leo 1990, pp. 95111).
Although such local ethnic antagonisms were of crucial importance in
producing negative attitudes towards Japanese immigrants, they had
always existed and do not explain the sudden rise in Brazilian ethnic


Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda

hostility at this historical moment. The true signicance and scope of

such local anti-Japanese reactions only emerges when they are contextualized within Japans changing position in the global order. For
instance, when the ability of Japanese cooperatives to overcome the agricultural boycott was viewed from the context of Japans menacing rise
in the global order, it intensied fears about the danger of Japanese
economic power in Brazil (cf. Lesser 1999, p. 111). Likewise, those
Brazilians who felt Japans global imperialist ambitions were a direct
national threat interpreted the refusal of the Japanese in Brazil to assimilate as evidence of a Japanese invasion through migration. For instance,
the Jornal do Comrcio, which was the most vocal in propagating such
globally motivated anti-Japanese fears, stated: The jornal . . . is convinced that there is no worse thing Brazil can do than to permit the inltration of a people who are unassimilable, physically inferior, morally
different from us, and a passive instrument of imperialist politics.
Indeed, prejudiced descriptions of Japanese culture at this time not only
portrayed it as strange and peculiar, but emphasized the fanatical
samurai ethic of the Japanese and their cunning, ambitious, warlike, and
land-hungry nature, reinforcing the notion that the Japanese in Brazil
were a threat to Brazilian national security. In this manner, Japans new
global status as an imperialist menace during this historical period gave
new urgency and exacerbated the local ethnic antagonisms generated by
the Japanese immigrant community in Brazil.
In the 1934 Brazilian Constituent Assembly, a erce debate ensued
between the deputies who were proponents of Japanese immigration and
those who were opponents. Those who supported Japanese immigration
argued that the Japanese were industrious, diligent, and intelligent and
would assist in Brazils economic growth and eventually assimilate to
Brazils national culture (cf. Niemeyer 1925, pp. 247). Others contended
that mixing Japanese blood with the Brazilian populace would lead to
favourable results (Lesser 1999, pp. 11819). Opponents of Japanese
immigration used inammatory anti-Japanese rhetoric to further their
objectives by arguing that Japanese immigration, as a strategy of world
domination, represented a serious military danger to Brazil. Among the
three delegates who were the most vocal against Japanese immigration
was Miguel Couto. I dont see this only as an issue of immigration, but
of our own national existence, he claimed. If we arent careful, Brazil
will soon become a Japanese possession (Sakurai 1995, p. 135). The wild
rhetoric frequently verged on the incredulous. For instance, some delegates in the assembly argued that Japan was planning to use its settlements in the Amazon to conquer Brazil and make the country a base of
operations against the United States (Fukunaga 1983, pp. 856). Meanwhile, other delegates claimed that the incorporation of an unassimilable
and inferior race with secretive and strange practices would undermine

Japanese emigration to Brazil


efforts to create a strong and racially unied country and eventually

degenerate Brazils population, disrupting its attempts to whiten its
racial stock (Fukunaga 1983, pp. 7981; cf. Pickel 1993, pp. 5678;
Sakurai 1995, p. 135; Lesser 1999, pp. 116118).
Although the pro-Japanese delegates were quite vocal, restrictions on
Japanese immigration were eventually implemented. The new constitution included an article that restricted the entry of new immigrants
from a specic country to 2 per cent of the total arrivals of the past fty
years and prohibited the exclusive concentration of immigrants in any
one area or community. An additional amendment required all education to be conducted in Portuguese. Although these restrictions pertained to all immigrants, they were apparently directed mainly at the
Japanese. Partly because of concerns about offending Japan, the new
immigration quota was not strictly enforced, but the volume of Japanese
emigration to Brazil was dramatically reduced by 50 per cent (Lesser
1999, pp. 121122).
In 1937, the Estado Novo (New State) was established by Getlio
Vargas. The new regime intended to transform Brazil into a modern,
economically developed nation-state by consolidating and increasing
state power and promoting national unity, partly as a response to increasingly threatening global conditions immediately before World War II.
Various nationalistic policies were implemented under its Brazilianization campaign in an attempt to forcibly assimilate foreign immigrants
and eliminate foreign inuences among rural immigrant communities,
which effectively shut down hundreds of Japanese community schools
and had a devastating effect on Japanese community newspapers. In
addition, the regimes nationalistic rhetoric renewed and intensied the
xenophobic, anti-Japanese movement as fears of Japanese imperialism
The nationalist policies of the Vargas regime became even more stringent and ethnically repressive after Japan entered World War II by
attacking Pearl Harbor and Brazil sided rmly with the Allies, eventually declaring war against Japan. As Brazil severed diplomatic relationships with Japan, the Japanese consulate was closed, depriving the
Japanese immigrant community of their only link to Japan (Sakurai 1995,
p. 138). All Japanese newspapers were banned (even if written in Portuguese), freedom of movement was revoked, meetings of more than
three Japanese were prohibited, and the use of Japanese outside the
home was not permitted. Japanese agricultural cooperatives were
brought under greater Brazilian control because of fears that they were
actively attempting to keep certain products from being used by Allied
countries. Despite repeated assurances by the Japanese government that
it had no imperialistic intentions in Brazil, a further intensication of
anti-Japanese propaganda occurred and even led to unfounded reports


Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda

about an imminent Japanese military attack and occupation of the state

of So Paulo and the Brazilian coast with the collaboration of Japanese
immigrants. Wild reports circulated almost daily in Brazilian newspapers
about the arrest of Japanese in Brazil who were covertly serving as spies
for the Japanese military. Incidents of police harassment occurred and
Japanese homes were frequently invaded and searched for subversive
and suspicious material (Handa 1987, pp. 63356; Sakurai 1995, p. 138).
Books were conscated and individuals detained (Handa 1987, pp. 636,
638). Because of the suspicion that Japanese agricultural enclaves in the
Amazon region were fth columns secretly aiding the Axis powers,
police were ordered to round up Japanese citizens living in the area and
relocate them to Tome-Au, where they could be kept under surveillance
(Lesser 1999, pp. 133, 135).
Two divergent responses to negative minority status: defensive ethnic
ultranationalism vs. assimilative ethnic accommodation
We have seen how changing global conditions structured local Brazilian ethnic reactions to the Japanese and therefore negatively influenced their minority status. As the status of Japan in the global order
changed from a backward Asian nation attempting to gain international respect to a global menace that threatened Western
hegemony, Brazilian ethnic perception of the Japanese in Brazil considerably worsened, making them a negative immigrant minority
subject to discriminatory anti-Japanese policies and xenophobic public
sentiment. Such Brazilian reactions to Japans threatening global
status imposed new constraints on the ethnic identity of the Japanese
in Brazil by forcing them to adapt to their unfavourable minority
When faced with such negative ethnic perceptions and discriminatory
treatment by majority society, an immigrant minority group can respond
ethnically in two divergent ways. On the one hand, discrimination
increases the immigrant groups negative perception of the dominant
society and causes them to psychologically distance themselves from the
host country by renewing their nationalist feelings of attachment to their
home country (cf. Clifford 1994, p. 311). This type of deterritorialized
migrant nationalism thus becomes a defensive counter-identity
(Simpson and Yinger 1972, p. 198; Tsuda 1999c) in which the minority
group asserts their ethnic differences in opposition to majority discrimination.2 On the other hand, minority individuals who have the will and
ability to adopt majority cultural patterns may react to such negative
majority treatment with a more accommodating, assimilation-oriented
strategy in which they attempt to avoid discrimination by better
incorporation and acceptance into majority society.

Japanese emigration to Brazil


Anti-Brazilian counter-identities: the fanatical intensication of

Japanese migrant nationalism
The assertion of anti-majority counter-identities as a reaction against
ethnic discrimination and repression is most characteristic among unassimilated and enclaved minorities for whom a more ethnically accommodating approach is not a viable or realistic option. In the case of the
Japanese in Brazil, the issei (the rst generation immigrants) still maintained an ideology of return to their beloved homeland and had made
no attempts to incorporate themselves into Brazilian society.3 Even a
good proportion of the second-generation nisei, who were born and
raised exclusively within ethnically isolated rural enclaves, did not speak
Portuguese adequately and generally had not begun to assimilate to
Brazilian society (cf. Kumasaka and Saito 1973, p. 451; Maeyama 1996,
p. 320).
When the nationalistic and assimilationist policies of the Vargas
regime were rst implemented before World War II, the Japanese initially maintained a low prole and refrained from expressing their cultural
and political solidarity with Japan in order to avoid attracting attention
and causing a further intensication of anti-Japanese feeling (Fukunaga
1983, pp. 901; Handa 1987, p. 636). However, as the governments
policies became more effective and ethnically repressive during the war
and anti-Japanese xenophobia continued to worsen in Brazilian society,
most of the Japanese community responded by strengthening their
nationalistic and patriotic Japanese sentiments. Since most did not have
the Brazilian cultural and linguistic ability to avoid discrimination
through a strategy of cultural assimilation, when confronted with
mounting discrimination and ethnic repression, their natural recourse
was to defensively retrench and intensify their Japanese nationalist
counter-identity in opposition to Brazilian society. In other words, they
met the repressive nationalist policies of the Brazilian government with
an increasingly virulent ultra-nationalism of their own based on uninching loyalty to Japan and the Emperor. As Lesser notes, the social and
ethnic tension created by the anti-Japanese attitudes {in Brazilian
society} led members of the Japanese . . . community to strike back
against the public order by becoming increasingly Japanese (1999,
p. 136).
As a result, not only were the discriminatory ethnic policies of the
Brazilian government privately violated, ritual practices of Emperor
worship became more active as an expression of nationalist identity. More
important was the formation of numerous secret societies, which were
not only radically nationalistic, but frequently fanatic. In fact, increased
Brazilian ethnic repression and anti-Japanese propaganda simply intensied the assertion of oppositional nationalist counter-identities within
the Japanese community through the activities of these secret societies,


Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda

which eventually unied under the Shindo Renmei (The League of the
Way of the {Emperors} Subjects), whose leaders were furious at Brazil
for becoming the enemy of the Japanese. Shindo Renmei persisted for
years after the war and its main purpose was to return the Japanese immigrant community to true Japanese ways based on Emperor worship and
to foster Japanese nationalist spirit through the maintenance of Japanese
culture, language, and religions. When World War II ended, the Shindo
Renmei, utterly convinced that Japan could never be defeated, refused
to believe that the country had lost the war. Because of their ethnic isolation, the conscation of radios, and the ban on Japanese language newspapers, most of the Japanese in Brazil did not receive much information
from the outside world. The Shindo Renmei exploited this situation by
engaging in an active propaganda campaign that insistently proclaimed
Japans glorious victory in the war, which found many willing believers
among the Japanese immigrants. In fact, an amazing 95 per cent of the
Japanese in Brazil are estimated to have been members of Shindo
Renmei at one point (Maeyama 1982, p. 179) and it was rare to nd a
region where the group was not operating (Handa 1987, p. 675).
Soon the immigrant community divided into two antagonistic factions.
Those who believed in Japans victory were referred to as the kachi-gumi
(the victory group) and the small minority who felt that the reality of
Japans defeat should be acknowledged were called the make-gumi (the
defeat group).4 However, the nationalistic fanaticism of the kachi-gumi
became so extreme and militant that they soon created tokkotai (attack
teams) to terrorize, punish, and assassinate those of the make-gumi as
traitors. Such attacks and violence were not always contained within the
Japanese immigrant community but sometimes directed at Brazilians as
well. The fanatical belief in Japans victory in World War II remained
unshaken among Shindo Renmei leaders for years despite evidence to
the contrary and attempts by Brazilian and Japanese authorities to
convince them of the truth.
Of course, ultranationalist movements among the Japanese in Brazil
were not simply a counter-response to mounting Brazilian discrimination
and ethnic repression caused by Japans status as the global enemy of
the Americas. Because the Japanese immigrants had been inculcated
with strong patriotic beliefs in Japan and remained staunchly loyal to
their homeland, the outbreak of World War II naturally intensied their
nationalist sentiments. However, this strengthening of Japanese
nationalism would not have reached fanatic proportions had it not been
fuelled by a globally conditioned, anti-Japanese xenophobia in Brazil.
The avoidance of discrimination through ethnic accommodation and
integration: the development of inclusive dual ethnic identities
Since the manner in which individuals adapt to a certain minority status
created by global conditions ultimately depends on personal perceptions

Japanese emigration to Brazil


and ethnic abilities, the same external pressures and constraints can
produce varied responses among different individuals. In the period
immediately before and during the war, the Brazilian-born nisei found
themselves caught between the anti-Japanese nationalism of the Brazilian Vargas regime and the anti-Brazilian counter-nationalism among the
Japanese in Brazil and were forced to choose sides. Most of the nisei,
especially in the rural areas, maintained their loyalty to the Japanese
immigrant community (Maeyama 1982, pp. 401; Handa 1987, p. 600).
However, a still small, but increasingly prominent group of nisei students
(as well as some issei students) had already begun to emerge who lived
in urban areas and had been educated in Brazilian schools. They had
acquired Brazilian cultural and linguistic competence and had already
begun to incorporate themselves into Brazilian society. As a result,
instead of embracing a defensive Japanese counter-nationalism when
faced with increasing Brazilian prejudice and discrimination, they
adopted a more accommodative and conciliatory ethnic approach by
negotiating a synthetic and bi-cultural ethnic identity as Japanese-Brazilians (Lesser 1999, pp. 1234). Such inclusive dual ethnic identities
enabled them to express a certain amount of afliation, if not loyalty
towards Brazil in an attempt to overcome Brazilian discrimination and
eventually escape their stigmatized minority status by furthering their
sociocultural assimilation to mainstream society.
These acculturated urban nisei students were generally shocked and
embarrassed by the fanatical intensication of Japanese nationalism that
they witnessed among their ethnic peers and were afraid it would further
increase Brazilian discrimination and anti-Japanese feelings, threatening
their socio-economic future in Brazil (Maeyama 1996, pp. 2578).5 To
counter such extreme reactions, they created their own student organizations before the war, such as the Nipo-Brasileiro (Japanese-Brazilian)
Student League, convened meetings, and published newspapers and
magazines that intended to promote a more accommodative ethnic
approach and greater acculturation by claiming that they had developed
loyalties to Brazil and were in a transition stage from Japanese to Brazilian (Maeyama 1982, pp. 445; Lesser 1999, pp. 1301). These secondgeneration youth saw themselves as people who were born and would
remain permanently in Brazil and whose descendants would eventually
become completely Brazilian. As a result, they began to regard their
homeland as Brazil (instead of Japan) and expressed increased afliation, if not dedication and love towards the Brazilian nation (Maeyama
1979, p. 602; Maeyama 1982, pp. 401).
Of course, there was considerable internal debate within the NipoBrazilian Student League about what acculturation meant and to what
extent it should be pursued. Although some attempted to deny any connection to Japan by claiming that they had already become completely
Brazilian (Lesser 1999, p. 131), an accommodative, dual ethnic approach
prevailed in which an acknowledgement of the importance of their


Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda

Japanese cultural background was combined with an emphasis on the

necessity of adopting Brazilian ways and developing national loyalties to
their country of birth (cf. Handa 1987, pp. 6245). Their emerging dual
ethnic identities embodied a desire to Brazilianize and gain acceptance
from mainstream society, thus avoiding the rampant discrimination and
anti-Japanese perceptions that they experienced as a Japanese immigrant minority in Brazil.
In the post-war period these assimilation-oriented efforts to improve
their ethnic integration in Brazil and escape their undesirable minority
status continued to gain momentum among the nisei (see Cardoso 1973;
Sakurai 1993, pp. 867). A fundamental change in ethnic orientation
occurred among the Japanese-Brazilians as they switched from a defensive insistence of their Japanese ethnic differences in the face of Brazilian
discrimination to a strong desire for rapid assimilation, causing them to
de-emphasize, if not deny their Japaneseness (Maeyama 1996, pp. 3212).6
Japan at the top of the global hierarchy: positive current perceptions
of the Japanese-Brazilians in Brazil and the construction of a
Japanese minority identity
Close to half a century later, the Japanese-Brazilians now nd themselves in a dramatically different minority status. Their population has
increased substantially to about 1.2 million and they have become
socially and culturally well-integrated in Brazilian society. They have
experienced a considerable amount of social mobility since World War
II and are now part of the urban middle class. In vivid contrast to their
immediate post-war efforts to assimilate and escape ethnic discrimination by disavowing their Japanese ethnicity, the current generation of
Japanese-Brazilians have moved in the opposite direction and now
prefer to emphasize their Japanese ethnic distinctiveness and identity
which remains considerably stronger than their identication with the
Brazilian nation (cf. Maeyama 1996, p. 398).
In order to fully understand this dramatic change in minority status
and ethnic identity, we must again contextualize their local ethnic
experiences within Japans shifting position in the global order. The
Japanese-Brazilians have become a well-regarded and respected
minority in Brazil because the Brazilian perception of Japaneseness
has dramatically improved as Japan has risen to the top of the global
order to become the second largest economy in the world. In others
words, the hierarchical relationship between Brazil and Japan in the
world has been reversed. In contrast to earlier Brazilian perceptions of
Japan as a modernizing, but still inferior Asian nation, Japan is now a
highly respected First World nation which occupies a much higher and
superior position in relation to the still developing, Third World nation
of Brazil.

Japanese emigration to Brazil


As a result of Japans post-war rise in global prominence and prestige,

Brazil has been saturated with positive, if not idealistic images of Japan
through newspapers, magazines and television programmes, as well as
books, lms and the increased availability of high quality Japanese
products. Such favourable images of the countrys economic and technological advancement have been accompanied by favourable portrayals of
Japanese culture based on hard work, diligence, and intelligence. The
Japanese-Brazilians have capitalized on the current prestige of Japan in
Brazil by embracing their Japaneseness while generally distancing themselves from what they perceive to be the negative aspects of Brazilianness. Being Japanese involves both a positive contrast between the First
World (Japan) and the Third World (Brazil) and between Japanese and
Brazilian culture. Of course, the currently positive minority status of the
Japanese-Brazilians and their Japanese ethnic identity is not simply
based on Japans prestigious position in the world but also on their own
historical ethnic achievements, their currently high socio-economic status,
and their positively regarded ethnic differences. Despite these other contributing factors which currently constitute their exalted minority status
as Japanese in Brazil, virtually all of my older Japanese-Brazilian
informants agreed that their ethnic status and the amount of respect they
receive in Brazil has increased considerably in recent decades with
Japans dramatic rise in the global hierarchy of nations.
In this sense, the Japanese-Brazilians have come full circle and have
again developed a strong allegiance to Japan. However, whereas the
Japanese ethnic identity of their predecessors was a defensive counterreaction of a negative minority to intensied Brazilian ethnic discrimination caused by Japans global status as an imperialist menace, the
contemporary resurgence of a Japanese ethnic consciousness among
the Japanese-Brazilians is a receptive response of a positive minority to
the currently favourable meaning of Japaneseness in the global order.
The intrusion of distant events and conditions into local selfconsciousness is a characteristic of the modern condition (Giddens
1991). In this manner, self-consciousness becomes truly modern when it
is no longer conned to local contexts but is inuenced by changing
global conditions. Modern identities are frequently situated within the
broader global order because the worldwide movement of information
and images about other countries has increasingly penetrated particular
localities and caused individuals to globally contextualize their national
I have argued that migration contributes to the production of such a
modern national consciousness that is globally located. The relative
position of an immigrant groups origin country in the global order


Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda

undoubtedly imposes constraints on its experience of ethnicity in the

host country. In this manner, the historical changes in the ethnic experiences of the Japanese in Brazil cannot be fully understood without considering how their minority status and ethnic identity were conditioned
by Japans changing position in the global hierarchy of nations, which
directly inuenced local Brazilian perceptions and treatment of Japanese
When confronted with a shortage of European immigrants and forced
to search for inferior substitutes, Brazil chose Japan over other Asian
countries (namely China) because Japan had demonstrated its ability to
advance within a Euro-American dominated world. Despite concerns
that Brazil was incorporating inferior races into its populace, Japans
increasing global stature ensured that the rst Japanese immigrants
would not be mistreated or openly derogated. Therefore, although the
migration of the Japanese to Brazil enhanced the awareness of their
national identities, this deterritorialized migrant nationalism was more
a response to the experience of racial and cultural difference, not discrimination in Brazil. However, as Japan threateningly rose in the global
order, Brazil reacted against its Japanese minority with discriminatory
and then ethnically repressive policies in an outburst of anti-Japanese,
xenophobic nationalism. When they found their ethnicity under siege,
the reactions of the Japanese in Brazil diverged depending on differential rates of acculturation within the community. Most of the Japanese
immigrants, who were unacculturated and ethnically enclaved, defended
themselves through the assertion of anti-Brazilian ethnic minority
counter-identities, which eventually intensied into Japanese ultranationalist fervour. However, a minority of acculturated nisei adopted a
more constructive and accommodating approach in which the construction of inclusive ethnic identities was the basis for a sincere attempt to
overcome majority ethnic discrimination by incorporating themselves
into mainstream Brazilian society. Undoubtedly, immigrants do not
respond uniformly to the same locally constituted perceptions of global
conditions. Eventually, the latter type of ethnic adaptation became the
dominant mode of ethnic adaptation among Japanese-Brazilians to their
negative minority status in the post-war period.
The importance of Japans changing global stature in shaping and
reshaping Japanese-Brazilian ethnic experiences in Brazil continues to
be demonstrated today among the younger generations, who have again
renegotiated their minority status and identity in response to an entirely
new global context. The result has been a re-assertion of their Japanese
ethnic identity after decades of assimilative attempts to become more
Brazilian because of the positive meanings of Japaneseness that now
prevail in the global ecumene.
Undoubtedly, immigrant ethnicity is never constituted exclusively by
global forces but is also inuenced by a nexus of more locally-oriented

Japanese emigration to Brazil


conditions. This article has simply explored the extent to which global
contingencies are relevant as a key factor in the construction of ethnic
status and identity. In fact, I have argued that the true signicance of
local determinants of ethnicity cannot be fully appreciated without this
type of global contextualization. Global conditions can either exacerbate
the negative local reception of an immigrant group or further reinforce
already positive local perceptions of its ethnicity. Indeed, this intrusion
of the global into the local is what makes ethnicity truly modern.
However, when the ethnicity of immigrant minority groups becomes
truly modern and tied to global conditions, it also becomes vulnerable
to constant and unpredictable changes in the international world order.
Although the Japanese-Brazilians have now socio-economically established themselves in Brazil after many decades of struggle and are highly
regarded in Brazilian society, their current positive minority status has
also been dependent on a relatively recent change in Japans global
position and therefore remains fundamentally insecure and subject to
historical vicissitudes. Indeed, some Japanese-Brazilians are aware that
a negative turn of international events could damage Japans global
status and therefore erode the ethnic gains they have made in Brazil,
even possibly returning them to their previous negative minority status.
Such lingering ethnic unease was expressed by Mario, a prominent nisei
businessman in So Paulo:
The status of the Japanese-Brazilians is closely linked to Japan,
although most of us have had nothing to do with the country. How
Japan is perceived directly inuences how we are perceived here in
Brazil. I am bothered by this. If Japan does something bad, or its status
in the world declines, it will have a negative effect on us in Brazil as
Indeed, this ability of changing global conditions to suddenly reconstitute a minority groups ethnic status is undoubtedly one of the characteristics of ethnicity in the modern world. However, Mario had not
realized that the next change in the ethnic minority status of the
Japanese-Brazilians would come not from a decline in Japans global
prestige, but from return migration to Japan itself.
Epilogue: from emigration to immigration
Approximately eighty years after the rst Japanese emigrants set foot in
Brazil, the tables were suddenly turned on the Japanese-Brazilians in a
cruel twist of fate. In the 1980s, the Brazilian economy crumbled and
entered a prolonged and severe period of crisis. Meanwhile, the Japanese
economy had grown to become the second largest in the world. Confronted by shrinking economic fortunes in Brazil and lured to Japan by


Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda

an abundance of high-paying factory jobs, the Japanese-Brazilians are

again migrating across the Pacic Ocean (see Tsuda 1999a; 1999b). An
interesting migration legacy that started with emigration from Japan at
the beginning of the century has now ended with immigration to Japan
at the end of the century.
In other words, the Japanese-Brazilians have again come under the
inuence of global forces. However, instead of being affected in a specic
locality by global images of Japan, they have now been physically displaced to their ancestral homeland by the pressures of global migration,
which has again recongured their ethnicity. Although the JapaneseBrazilians are ofcially welcomed to Japan by the Japanese government, which has issued them special visas which are renewable
indenitely,7 their experiences in Japan are completely incompatible
with any notion of an ethnic homecoming. Because they have become
culturally Brazilianized to a certain extent, they are ethnically excluded
and socially marginalized as foreigners in Japan because of narrow
cultural denitions of what constitutes being Japanese and are subject to
a certain amount of prejudice and perceived discrimination (see Tsuda
1998). Such negative ethnic experiences have shattered their previously
positive images of Japan. Therefore, instead of strengthening their ethnic
identication as Japanese, they rediscover and reafrm their Brazilian
national identities in response to their alienating ethnic experiences in
Japan (see Tsuda 1999c).
In this manner, the historical development of immigrant ethnic groups
under global constraints is never a unilinear and inevitable progression
from a minority to a majority identity. Although the Japanese in Brazil
had dramatically improved their minority status after decades of struggle
by assimilating as Brazilians, they had reversed this ethnic trend
decades later because realignments in global hierarchies had added new
ethnic prestige to being a Japanese minority. However, the recent
impact of global migration on the Japanese-Brazilians has caused them
to seriously question the basis of their Japaneseness and has again
nudged them towards a Brazilian majority identity. Undoubtedly, global
contingencies constantly intervene in the local construction of ethnicity
in the modern world, making the process inherently unpredictable.
De-territorialized nationalism is somewhat analogous to what Ernest Gellner (1983,
pp. 101109) calls diaspora nationalism among geographically dispersed ethnic groups.
See Clifford (1994); Appadurai (1996), and Tsuda (1999c) for more recent uses of the term.
The emergence of similar resistance identities in the face of discrimination and
exclusion has also been noted among migrants in Europe (Castells 1997, p. 20).
Even in 1939, 90 per cent of the Japanese in Brazil intended to return eventually to
Japan (and planned to do so after the war), although many had been living in Brazil for a
long time as immigrant settlers (Kumasaka and Saito 1973, p. 451).

Japanese emigration to Brazil


A survey conducted in 1952 indicated that only 14.5 per cent of the Japanese in Brazil
considered themselves part of the make-gumi. Kachi-gumi sympathizers consisted of 56.9
per cent of the population and 28.6 per cent were fanatics (Kumasaka and Saito 1973).
After the war, many of these individuals became part of the previously mentioned
make-gumi that openly criticized and attacked the Shindo Renmei.
According to Maeyama, such tendencies among the nisei persisted into the 1960s,
when they nally began to disappear.
The Japanese-Brazilians are not granted citizenship upon return to Japan in contrast
to the ethnic Germans or European descendants in Latin America who have recently
return-migrated to their ancestral homelands.

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TAKEYUKI (GAKU) TSUDA is Associate Director of the Center for

Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San
ADDRESS: Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, University of
California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0521, USA. email:

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