Why Are There So Many Japanese People in Brazil? Japonêsです

    If you live in South America and love Japan, then a visit to the Land of the Rising Sun might be closer than you think. Well, kind of.

    Brazil is not only the home to awesome things like bossa nova and Pelé, but the biggest Japanese population outside of Japan is – believe it or not – in Brazil. About 1,500,000 ethnic Japanese people live in Brazil, and have been there for over a hundred years.

    But why Brazil, of all places? How did so many Japanese find themselves 10,000 miles away from their homeland?


    It seems like practically every post I write I talk about the Meiji Restoration; and for good reason.

    The Meiji Restoration is a Big Effin’ Deal when it comes to modern Japanese history. In the late 1800s, the entire Japanese government was restructured, and many of the social systems in Japan (such as feudalism) were changed or outright dismantled.

    The structural reforms of the Meiji Restoration had put Japan in a pretty tenuous situation. The overwhelming change that had swept through the country had displaced a lot of people’s ways of life, forcing them to live in squalor or look elsewhere for opportunity.

    street in Liberdade Brazil
    The historically Japanese neighborhood of Liberdade in Sao Paulo, Brazil
    Source: Luciana Christante

    Some found that opportunity in Brazil, where an increasing demand for coffee and the abolition of slavery meant that there was a big need for laborers. From about 1908 onward, many Japanese immigrated to Brazil to help harvest coffee crops.

    Few Japanese went to Brazil with the intention of staying there for good, but planned on returning back to Japan later. Unfortunately for those immigrants, they weren’t able to make as much money in Brazil as they had hoped or were promised. Without the money, these Japanese immigrants were basically stranded in a land far from home.

    Soon, the Japanese had established a community within Brazil, and more and more Japanese immigrants made their way over to Brazil. Over time, lots of Japanese settled into the city of São Paulo.


    Lots of Brazilian Japanese have tried to repatriate back to Japan over the years, but have found it difficult, to say the least.

    Brazilian Japanese living in Japan are called dekasegi, which means “working away from home.” This is kind of offensive to Brazilian Japanese, since lots of them still view Japan, not Brazil as their true home.

    To add insult to injury, the Japanese government has actually offered to pay people to leave Japan if they are originally from another country in order to free up the job market for native Japanese. Yikes. Nothing says you’re not wanted like your own government paying you to get the hell out of Dodge.

    But maybe I’m being too grim about the situation of Brazilian Japanese. Not everything is bad for Japanese who immigrated to Brazil.

    Since the Japanese arrived in Brazil they’ve made an impact on Brazilian culture, including introducing one of the most popular martial arts out there today: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

    Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

    At the turn of the 20th century, a Japanese man named Mitsuyo Maeda was an accomplished judo fighter at a time when judo was just starting to get noticed by Western audiences. He traveled around the world in the early 1900s to show off his impressive skills (and beat up some Westerners).

    After Maeda visited Europe and the North America, he ended up in Brazil. Maeda became incredibly popular there, and eventually settled down in the country and opened up his own judo school.

    Two Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighers grappling
    Crap, do I have something on my shirt?

    One of his students was a boy by the name of Carlos Gracie. Carlos was a quick learner and soon, he began teaching what he had learned from Maeda to his brothers. The Gracies began practicing martial arts on their own, refined their technique, opened their own school, and eventually created what’s now known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

    The Gracies now are a kind of martial arts dynasty. Not only did the family basically create Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but the lots of members of the family have become accomplished fighters in their own right. It’s staggering to look at the “Gracie family” Wikipedia page and see what kind of legacy the Gracie family has left.

    spectators watch jiu jitsu match
    Source: Fabiano Kai

    And, as I’m sure some of you out there know, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has been extremely influential on mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting, an increasingly popular sport.

    To me at least, it’s strange and interesting to trace such a long trail of causation and links. Is it an oversimplification to say that the burly tough guys of MMA organizations like UFC are the direct result of a bunch of Japanese laborers picking coffee beans? Absolutely.

    Still, there is a connection there, no matter how convoluted and indirect. Again, strange and interesting.