On a Sunday in Ota, a small rural town north-west of Tokyo, a largely Brazilian congregation spills out of a Catholic church into the late afternoon sunshine chatting, smiling and greeting neighbours.
There is a sense of emptiness in the air, however. The church is half as full as it used to be, and for many, beneath the smiles lies a much bleaker reality. “The church used to be packed, with people having to stand in the aisles,” observes Sister Yoshiko Mori, who like the congregants is a Brazilian of Japanese descent, or “Nikkei Brazilian”.
For those still in attendance there are also signs that life is more difficult than it used to be. After leaving the church, a few members of the congregation make their way towards an adjacent building and climb metal stairs to a large room. Half the room is filled with tables upon which lie large plastic bags packed with rice, black beans, flour, salt and other staples available for those in need. The other half is covered in soft matting, a place to sleep for those with nowhere to go.
Nikkei Brazilians are Japan’s third-largest immigrant community and the one that has, arguably, been affected most by the global economic crisis.
Armed with working visas created especially for them, many ethnic Japanese Brazilians in recent decades took the return journey back to Japan, the country their forebears had left a century before.
They worked long hours in vast factories, churning out everything from vehicle parts to mobile phones to feed the seemingly insatiable demand from the US and Europe–until it came to a shuddering halt late last year as the economic crisis choked Japan’s main engine of growth.
Without the security of permanent employee status, the Nikkei Brazilians, along with the huge number of Japanese contract and temporary workers, were the first to be cut. That, and offers from the government to pay for their flights home, has created a surge in returnees.
The Brazilian embassy in Tokyo estimates about 40,000, or 12 per cent, of the 317,000-strong community have already returned to Brazil, and more are leaving daily, particularly as those with six months’ unemployment benefit ends.
Arnaldo Kiyohito Shiowaki, a travel agent used by the Nikkei community, says the scramble to get flights home has “for the most part calmed down”. Business, however, is far from quiet, he says. The vast majority of flights he books are still for one-way tickets to Brazil and demand is up just 200 per cent now instead of 300 per cent earlier in the year.
That has been fed by a Japanese government offer of Y300,000 ($3,180, €2,240, £1,960) to each Nikkei Brazilian choosing to return to Brazil, though the plan was controversial because it banned recipients from returning to Japan “for an undetermined period”. It was eventually amended to allow Nikkei Brazilians to return after three years, if the economy improved.
For many returnees, readjusting to life in Brazil has been difficult. Tatsuo Miyashiro and his wife Hatsuko Kurahashi Miyashiro re-turned this year after 13 years in Japan, but have struggled to adjust since.
Japan was better for work, but Brazil is better for life, they argue. But they are still ambivalent about their move to the sleepy farming town of Cambará in south-eastern Brazil. Tatsuo says they returned to Brazil for lack of choice. He used to make up to Y300,000 a month with overtime at a factory. But the overtime ended last October, by December they were both made redundant, and by March they were returning to Brazil on an aircraft packed with other one-way travellers.
Their future now is uncertain. Hatsuko’s brother, who moved to Cambará shortly before them, is setting himself up as a market trader in farm produce. They are staying in the spartan house he has borrowed from another relative. But Tatsuo has not been able to find work and at 54 he is worried he may never find a job.
Cambará, a small town of 25,000 people, has a vibrant Japanese community, with at least two supermarkets and several smaller shops bearing Japanese names. But the contrast with Japan remains a shock. “It is really odd to be here,” Mrs Miyashiro says. “It’s not something you can understand quickly.”
Perhaps for that reason, in Ota many of the stories people share suggest a determination to weather the storm in Japan rather than return to Brazil. Some say they cannot go back to live as they now have a Japanese passport. Some say they prefer to stay. Others are not convinced the situation would be any better in Brazil.
All face a complex web of cultural, emotional and physical ties with both Brazil and Japan. Paulo Nakagawa earns far less than he used to at the small parts factory where he works. But he has yet to decide whether to leave. “I’m Japanese but my heart is Brazilian,” he says.