Wash Post on Brazilian Immigrants & Education in Japan


Hi Blog. Here’s an update in the Washington Post on the situation in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, site of the Ana Bortz Lawsuit of 1998-99 (although mentioned below, now apparently fading into the folklore), and the Hamamatsu Sengen of 2001.

Decent rosy article, with some ideas on how the government tackled certain problems. Wish the reporter had also mentioned the Hamamatsu Sengen, and how the Hamamatsu city government has been spearheading efforts to make things more equitable throughout Japan for NJ. Much more important than repeating over and over again in the article how people can teach each other how to sort garbage. Ah well. Arudou Debito in Sapporo

In Traditionally Insular Japan, A Rare Experiment in Diversity
School Fills a Gap for Immigrants Returning to Ancestral Homeland
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Saturday, October 6, 2007; A12

Courtesy Mark Schreiber

HAMAMATSU, Japan — Five years ago, in this coastal city southwest of Tokyo, Mari Matsumoto sank her life savings into building a school for the children and grandchildren of immigrants coming to Japan. But at Mundo de AlegrXXa (World of Happiness), the students aren’t what one might expect: Children with Japanese faces and names like Haruo and Tomiko dart around the two-story building chattering in Spanish and Portuguese.

The school is the result of an unusual social experiment. Faced with labor shortages, the Japanese government opened the doors in 1990 to allow immigrants to come to the country — so long as they were of Japanese descent. Government officials thought they would blend into the country’s notoriously insular society more easily than people from other ethnic backgrounds.

But many found they didn’t quite fit. Their names and faces were Japanese, but they didn’t speak the language. They didn’t understand local customs, such as the country’s stringent system for sorting garbage into multicolored containers. In cities such as Hamamatsu, where many settled, government officials and Japanese neighbors didn’t know what to make of newcomers who seemed familiar but foreign at the same time.

Despite the frictions here and in other communities, pressure is building in Japan to take in more immigrants, forcing the country to reconsider its traditional bias against outsiders. Its population is aging and shrinking. Analysts say Japan must find new sources of labor if it is to preserve its economic power and support its retirees.

Hamamatsu was a natural magnet for the newcomers because its many factories offered entry-level employment and required virtually no language skills. Officials here like to brag that their community became the most “international” of Japan’s cities. About 30,000 of its residents, or 4 percent, are foreign-born. That’s almost twice the proportion of foreign-born residents in Japan as a whole. (About 13 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born.) Most newcomers are from Brazil and Peru. They are offspring of Japanese who immigrated to South America in the early 1900s to work in coffee fields and take other jobs.

The new arrivals here brought Latin culture with them. In Hamamatsu’s downtown, billboards in Portuguese advertise cellphones and air conditioners. In a popular market, Brazilians who long for a taste of home can buy a platter of bolinho de queijo — cheese croquettes — fresh from the fryer or rent DVDs of popular Brazilian shows.

Other parts of the city have Brazilian and Peruvian churches. One enterprising woman has built a small catering business making box lunches for homesick Peruvians.

But even as officials here tout their international credentials, they struggle to manage the diversity. That’s where Matsumoto, her life savings and the school come in.

For years, Matsumoto, a Japanese who learned Spanish and Portuguese in college, worked for Suzuki Motor, where she trained foreign workers from South America.

She soon grew alarmed by the number of immigrant children who were dropping out of Japanese public schools. Because many didn’t understand Japanese, they were falling behind in their studies. Others were bullied because they didn’t look Japanese (some of them are biracial, having Latin parents). Even though some schools hired aides to help the children, many were left to flounder, she said.

The parents urged Matsumoto to open a school for their children. Unable to get funding from government or school officials, she sank her savings into the enterprise. She began recruiting teachers willing to work for very little pay.

One recent day, as she watched her spirited charges dash around the makeshift classrooms in an office building on the city’s south side, Matsumoto said she wouldn’t have had to do this if the government had made an adequate effort to accommodate immigrant children. “That’s the root of the problem,” she said.

Problems in schools were just one sign the newcomers weren’t going to simply “blend in.” Those who lacked health insurance began turning up in local emergency rooms when they got sick. Since many depended on employers for housing, they ended up homeless if they lost their jobs.

Hidehiro Imanaka, director of Hamamatsu’s International Affairs Division, shook his head recalling angry citizens who would call city hall to tattle on foreign-born neighbors who didn’t sort the garbage properly or parked in the wrong places.

Some newcomers threw all-day barbecues with large crowds and loud music — just as they had back home. Their Japanese neighbors were horrified. At one point, tensions were so high that some merchants banned certain groups from their stores, until a lawsuit prompted them to stop.

But many immigrants say the struggle is worth it.

Roberto Yamashiro, who came to Japan from Peru when he was 15, said the adjustment was difficult. He didn’t know the language and didn’t like the food. He worked in a factory that made ice chests for several years. Now 24, he is one of a handful of immigrant students at Hamamatsu University. “I like it here a lot,” he said. “There is much more opportunity if you work hard.”

Officials in Hamamatsu say they never expected the outsiders to live in Japan for more than a few years. But now they realize they’re here to stay and must be helped along.

At city hall, officials have moved the foreign registration desk to a prominent spot on the first floor. Signs and forms are printed in Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese and English. The International Affairs Division, which used to focus on foreign exchange programs, now concentrates on the needs of the immigrant community. In an attempt to quell disputes over garbage, instructions on how to sort it are now available in four languages.

But the broader question of Japan’s traditional reluctance to accept outsiders remains.

Eunice Ishikawa, who was born in Brazil, teaches cultural policy and management in the Department of International Culture at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture in Hamamatsu. She said that when people learn where she was born, they can’t believe she’s a college professor.

For many of the immigrants from South America, “it’s almost impossible to assimilate because people have such negative images” of outsiders, she said. Sometimes her husband, a Japanese American who was born in San Diego, complains that people look down on him because they see him as an American.

Ishikawa said the Japanese may have no choice but to learn to live with outsiders, because their numbers are growing, not only in Hamamatsu, but in the country as a whole.

In 1990, about 1 million registered foreign residents lived in Japan; by 2004, that figure had nearly doubled, to just below 2 million. Most say the actual numbers are probably higher because not all foreigners register.

The pressure to let in more immigrants is building. Population experts project that by 2050, Japan’s population, about 128 million in 2005, will shrink to 95 million, about 40 percent of whom will be 65 or older. By some estimates, Japan will lose more than 4 million workers.

“With the age of globalization, these borders are going to open up,” said Fariborz Ghadar, director of the Center for Global Business Studies at Pennsylvania State University. “Unless they don’t want to see their economy grow as rapidly, they’re going to have to do something about it.”

Recently, the country struck an agreement with the Philippines to bring in qualified nurses and certified care workers. “In the near future, Japan must make a decision to receive immigrants into this country,” said Kazuaki Tezuka, professor of labor and social law at the University of Chiba, who has studied immigration policy around the world.

Joao Toshiei Masuko, a Brazilian immigrant of Japanese ancestry who opened the first Brazilian Japanese restaurant in Hamamatsu and then expanded his business to include a bakery and supermarket, predicted that immigrants will be accepted.

As he strolled through the aisle of his shiny new supermarket next to the downtown branch of Japan’s Entetsu department store, he noted that his customers are both Japanese and non-Japanese. Pointing to aisles that stock U.S., Peruvian and Brazilian products, he said his market — decorated in green and yellow, the colors on the Brazilian flag — has an “international flair” that he’s certain will translate in his adopted country.

“I opened my market to sell to Brazilians,” he said. “But now everyone comes.”

1 comment on “Wash Post on Brazilian Immigrants & Education in Japan

  • Debito, thanks for posting this. I know the article is a little old, but would you happen to have any contact info for the school or educators mentioned? I work with a charity group focusing on education upstarts and we’re really curious about these kinds of immigrant-focused schools within Japan. If you have any other leads or information about schools elsewhere, I’d be happy to know about that as well!



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