What’s It Like To Be Japanese In Brazil

YouTuber Erika Smith breaks down Asian stereotypes in Brazil versus in the U.S.

Erika Smith
In Brazil. Photo: Erika Smith

As the largest and most populated country in South America, Brazil lays claim to a rich and unique culture all its own. Like the United States it’s very much a melting pot, home to people of European, Native Amerindian, and African descent. These various groups of people have, over the centuries, mingled and merged into something completely new. And since the country’s formation, immigration has changed its demographics in many more ways. For instance, Brazil has a surprisingly large East Asian population, many of whom stem from Japanese immigrants who migrated to Brazil around the turn of the century. You may be surprised to learn that Brazil and Japan are connected by a deep and complex history, and that Japanese-Brazilians have had a sizable role in Brazilian society.

Japanese immigrants came to Brazil at the turn of the century, partially because of a joint program established by the Brazilian and Japanese governments and partially because there was simply nowhere else for them to go. The end of the feudal era in Japan left many farmers out of a job, and because both the United States and Australia barred any immigration from Japan their options were limited. Meanwhile in Brazil, a slowdown in immigration from Italy left the country desperate for laborers. By the 1930s there were about half a million Japanese in Brazil. Most worked on the coffee plantations outside of Sao Paolo. As they worked they faced cruel overseers, prejudice, and attempts at forced assimilation in the 1930s.

By the time World War II rolled around things only got worse for Brazil’s Japanese population. In the years leading up to the conflict Brazil grew increasingly nationalistic; because Japanese immigrants (who maintained their culture and desire to isolate themselves from the rest of the country) refused to assimilate they were often seen as dangerous. With Japan’s defeat in the war Japanese-Brazilians found themselves at a crossroads—some accepted their homeland’s defeat, while others refused to accept it. However with time tensions slowly decreased. The latter half of the century saw Japanese-Brazilians enjoy success in their new homeland. Many left Brazil altogether, with some even returning to Japan as Brazil’s economy weakened. Others, such as YouTuber Erika Smith, went to the United States.

While today Erika resides in the US with her husband and two children, she was born to Japanese parents in Brazil and lived there until she was 26. In her YouTube Video entitled “My Experience Growing Up as a Japanese-Brazilian in Brazil” she describes growing up in Brazil while also trying to fit in and grasp her identity. When I spoke to her, one thing I learned was that Japanese-Brazilians, while not discriminated against, are often pigeonholed by other Brazilians.

“In my experience Japanese-Brazilians have a positive overall image, sort of privileged in a sense,” she explains. “Of course they’re often stereotyped as being shy and very good at math.”

Japanese-Brazilians are also considered to be a closed off group, one that never socializes outside its own boundaries. While most of Erika’s friends growing up were of Japanese descent, this was mainly due to the fact that most Japanese-Brazilian parents (such as Erika’s) only sent their kids to the best schools in their area. “Because of that the majority of the students in those schools were of Japanese descent, which created several cliques – which in turn created the image that Japanese-Brazilians kids only hung out with each other…the segregation occurred naturally.”

Erika would later move to the United States, but her upbringing in Brazil colored her perspective of her identity – one which would often clash with the way Americans see race and ethnicity. “In Brazil we refer to Asians as Japanese, Chinese, Korean, et cetera,” she explains. “But when I moved to the US I was surprised when people referred to me as Asian. Being referred to as Asian was and still is confusing to me because it’s such a broad concept but at the same time very vague.” Emily also recounts an episode early in her YouTube career in which a commenter asked why she was “trying to act like a white girl,” something that she’d never even thought of. While race was never much of an issue in Brazil, the color of one’s skin was something that Americans seemed to take heavy stock in. She would also spend seven years living in Japan, which brought with it its own form of culture shock in the form of strict behavioral mores that are absolute in Japan but wholly absent in Brazil.

This form of culture shock highlights a lot of the ways that life in Brazil has changed the culture and worldview of the Japanese diaspora that resides in it. Today there are over 1.5 million Japanese people living in Brazil, and they are the largest population of Japanese people in the world outside of Japan itself. While they maintain much of their culture, there has been a definite blend between Japanese and Brazilian perspectives and ideas. Japanese food has become popular in the country, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu stems from the transfer and evolution of Japanese martial arts in Brazil. On the other hand Japanese-Brazilians speak Portuguese, and many have converted to Catholicism. On returning to Japan they are often treated as foreigners, something Erika takes note of in another video.

But interestingly enough, Japanese-Brazilians have begun spreading Brazilian culture in their ancestral homeland. They listen to samba, hold parades for Carnival, and more. Portuguese meanwhile has become one of Japan’s most spoken foreign languages, and Brazilian fashion and food have also gained a foothold in the country. It goes to show how much cultures from opposite ends of the planet can, in our shrinking world, affect and enrich one another by mutual contact and immigration. This phenomenon helps us grow closer to one another, all while turning us— like it did Erika, who was born in Brazil and lived in both Japan and the United States—into citizens of the world.

Jeremy Mancino


Jeremy is a native of New Jersey who’s been all across the country and loved every minute of it. He is passionate about the world we live in and wants to see as much of it as he possibly can. When not writing he is at the mercy of his very demanding Dalmatian.

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