The Liberdade district of Sao Paulo features the largest Japanese community in the world outside of Japan.
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Japan House Opens in Brazil

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by mapsbecky

Japan House, a Japanese cultural center sponsored by the government of Japan, recently opened in Sao Paolo, Brazil. This Brazilian city has the largest community of Japanese people in the world outside of Japan.

Japan House, a Japanese cultural center sponsored by the government of Japan, recently opened in São Paulo, Brazil. This Brazilian city has the largest community of Japanese people in the world outside of Japan.

The Japanese government recently opened its first Japan House in the Brazilian city of São Paulo. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has budgeted 3.7 billion yen, or about 325 million U.S. dollars, towards its Japan House project. Each Japan House is designed to teach people in each host country about traditional Japanese crafts, food, and clothing. By the end of 2017, the Japanese government plans to open two more: one in Los Angeles, California, and the other in London, England.

The opening ceremony for São Paulo’s Japan House was held on Sunday, April 30. In attendance were Brazilian president Michel Temer and Japan’s deputy prime minister Taro Aso.

Japanese Community in Brazil

The Japanese government chose São Paulo as the location of the first Japan House. The Brazilian city has 1.5 million people of Japanese ancestry living there. In fact, this South American city of over 12 millions people has the largest Japanese community in the world outside of Japan itself.

“São Paulo is the economic and cultural center of South America and is also home to the largest Japanese community [not including Japan],” deputy prime minister Aso said in a speech. “It is a suitable place from where to put out information about Japan.”

Japan House Design

The four-story Japan House opened to the public on Saturday, May 6. It is located downtown on Avenida Paulista, one of São Paulo’s busiest and most important streets. The center was designed by Kengo Kuma. Kuma is a well-known Japanese architect who is also designing the new National Stadium for the 2020 Summer Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo, Japan. Kuma’s design for the Japan House includes both Japanese and Brazilian features. The front of the building features multi-layered wooden slats made from hinoki, a Japanese cypress tree. It also includes a type of brick popular in Brazil called cobogó. Cobogó bricks are well-suited to Brazil’s warm climate. They allow both sunlight to enter and air to circulate through buildings and homes.

The Japan House features a café serving Japanese treats, a restaurant offering traditional dishes, and a store selling traditional arts and crafts items. There is also a library of more than 1,900 books about Japanese technology, design, food, and culture.

Opening Event

The center’s first public event is an exhibit of art made from bamboo. Bamboo is a type of grass with thick hollow stems. The plant is a renewable resources as it grows quickly. It is important in Japan and much of southern and eastern Asia, where it is both a building material and a food source. The Brazilian Japan House’s curator and programming director, Marcelo Dantas, points out the importance of the bamboo plant to Japanese culture, its influence extending “from the tea ceremony to martial arts, from music to architecture, from the visual arts to rural utilities, from religious rites to child pranks, from literature to innovation and technology,”

“It has permeated the whole life of this people since always, linking contemporary Japan to ‘pre-history’ Japan,” he adds.

Cultural Understanding

Those involved with the Japan House program hope that through their efforts, people around the world will gain a better understanding of Japanese people and their culture.

Michael Houlihan, the director general of London’s soon-to-open Japan House, explains, “Japan House will provide insights into the values that underpin Japan’s culture and power its focus on the future. More daringly, it will challenge our view of how we define culture by showing the pleasure and enrichment to be taken from the everyday—be it the joy of simply holding and using a beautifully crafted utensil or the social moments and stories that abound from a shopping trip.”

The Liberdade district of Sao Paulo features the largest Japanese community in the world outside of Japan.

Many people of Japanese ancestry live in the Liberdade district of São Paulo.

The History of Japanese in Brazil

Brazil is South America’s largest country. In area, it is slightly smaller than the United States. Over 200 million people live there. Most live in the southeastern part of the country, an area which includes the cities of São Paulo, Brasília, and Rio de Janeiro. People started emigrating from Japan to this country in South America in the early 1900s.

Meiji Period

In the late 1800s, Japan went through a period of modernizing. This period was known as the Meiji Restoration. During this time, the old form of military government was removed. This process brought about political, economic, and social changes. Although Japan’s economy still heavily relied on agriculture, the government was especially focused on developing Japan’s transportation and communications industries. Japan built its first railroad in 1872. By 1880, all of its major cities were connected by telegraph lines.

Although the Meiji Restoration made Japan more modern, some of its changes were hard on Japanese people. While many traditional ways of earning money were being overtaken by modern industry, many people were driven into poverty. The economic conditions led some Japanese to look for better lives elsewhere.

Where to Go?

The United States was not an option for Japanese people. Under the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, the governments of Japan and the United States agreed to limit Japanese immigration to the U.S. At that time, people in California wanted to restrict Japanese people from coming to the U.S. They were afraid that Japanese would take away jobs from native-born Americans. This was because the Japanese might be willing to work for lower wages. They were also afraid that Japanese immigrants would take control of good farming land.

Brazil, however, had no such restrictions. Also, in the early 1900s, there was increased demand for one of Brazil’s most important crops, coffee. In the 1800s, much of the coffee farm work had been performed by slaves. However, Brazil abolished slavery in 1888. This meant that there was a new need in Brazil for paid farm workers. In June of 1908, 165 Japanese families arrived in Brazil. They hoped to escape poverty in their homeland and find work in the coffee industry.

At this time, most Japanese immigrants to Brazil planned to return to Japan one day. However, they soon found that the coffee farming jobs in Brazil did not pay as well as they had hoped. “When they arrived here planting coffee wasn’t so productive,” says Lidia Yamashita of the Museum of Japanese Immigration in São Paulo.

The Japanese immigrants to Brazil simply did not earn enough money to return to Japan. Eventually, with the outbreak of World War II in Southeast Asia in 1941, many Japanese immigrants resigned themselves to the fact that they might not ever have the opportunity to return home.

Japanese Influence in  Brazil

From these humble beginnings, however, Japanese people would go on to have a major impact on Brazilian culture. Sushi, cold rice garnished with bits of seafood or vegetables, became very popular with Brazilians. Sushi restaurants are common in major Brazilian cities. Restaurants there make sushi with Brazilian ingredients, such as the tropical fruits mango and guava. Japanese martial arts also attracted attention. Today, sumo, judo, and jujitsu remain very popular in Brazil.

As Japanese immigrants found success in Brazil, some were eventually able to return to Japan. These Japanese Brazilians have had an impact on Japan, too. Carnival, an annual Brazilian spring festival, is celebrated in Japan’s capital, Tokyo. It has the largest Carnival parade outside of Brazil. Portuguese, Brazil’s official language, is the third most spoken foreign language in Japan besides Chinese and Korean. Also, since the 1960s, a type of Brazilian popular music called bossa nova has also achieved popularity in Japan.

Additional Resources

Read more about the opening of Japan House at Japanese newspaper The Mainichi and The Rio Times.

Learn more about people of Japanese ancestry who make Brazil their home at the BBC and CNN.

Visit Japan House’s English-language website.

Images and Sources

Japan House Photo: Japan House
Japan House Photo License: Creative Commons 3.0

Liberdade District Photo: Caio do Valle
Liberdade District Photo License: Public Domain