The Japanese community of Liberdade (pop. 600,000) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, is discussed. Topics include Japanese cultural features in Liberdade, other East Asian groups living there, Japanese emporiums, and maintenance of connections with Japan.

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Smack in the middle of the nonstop frenzy of activity that is Sao Paulo, Brazil, an orderly neighborhood seems to defy conventional reason. Liberdade, a Japanese community of 600,000–the biggest outside Japan– sits in the center of the world’s second-largest city. And though Brazil is a predominantly Catholic, Portuguese-speaking, tropical country halfway around the world from Japan, some say Liberdade is more Japanese than even Tokyo (which has become excessively westernized). In a community that seems to occupy a different time and space, second-, third-, and fourth- generation Japanese Brazilians practice the customs of their birthplace while clinging to their Japanese roots.

“My personality is not completely Japanese and not completely Brazilian,” declares Lucia Hioko Sawaguchi Asis Gerente, an agent for Seil Travel Agency, on Liberdade’s centrally located Praca Square. “I cannot give up my Japanese background, since I look Japanese. Everything I do is connected to Japan.”


While Gerente, 39, who has a Brazilian husband, insists she can “digest either Brazilian or Japanese cultures,” she explains that she cannot “eat sushi two weeks in a row.” Gerente’s parents were born in Japan; her father moved to Brazil in 1932 and her mother in 1959. Like many of Liberdade’s residents over the years, they moved back to Japan and visit only occasionally.

“My parents are worried about my learning Japanese,” says Gerente, who has studied the language for nine years at Associaocao da Cultura do Imirim, one of many Japanese associations in the district. “I can speak the basic Japanese words but not the philosophical ones.”

Culture shock

Visitors to Liberdade are in for quite a culture shock. A towering red torii (portico) spans the main business street. At its base is a teien, a tiny, expertly manicured, and typically Japanese garden, with dark green shrubs and an arching footbridge. Beyond the portico are 450 smaller gateways, each bearing a white strobe light, pointing the way to Sao Paulo’s vast urban horizon.

Along the side streets, movie theaters advertise imported films in Japanese. Itinerant merchants with aged Oriental faces sell fresh flowers in carefully tied bunches. Signs on low-rise, concrete buildings announce centers for acupuncture treatment and meditation. Here, Japanese Brazilians take classes in judo, flower arranging, and the traditional tea ceremony. Liberdade residents can choose from three Japanese-language community newspapers and shop for Oriental delicacies at numerous neighborhood groceries.

Sampling the neighborhood’s abundant Japanese cuisine is perhaps the most direct way to experience Japan’s lingering effect on Liberdade. Every specialty is available in Liberdade’s numerous Japanese restaurants, from conventional choices such as okonomi yaki, a shrimp, pork, or fish pancake, to exotic dishes such as unagi, stewed eel served in sweet sauce.

The sprawling neighborhood, now centered around Rua Galvao Bueno, behind Sao Paulo’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, got its start on June 18, 1908, when the immigrant steamer Kasato Maru docked at Santos Harbor with a cargo of 830 Japanese. Fleeing crop failures and earthquakes in their native islands, the 165 immigrant farm families used loans supplied by a Japanese development firm to set up modest truck-farming operations in the interior of Sao Paulo State. Later, some drifted to Mato Grasso and even to the Amazon jungle, where they successfully introduced production of two unrelated commodities: jute and hot peppers. Over the next five decades, a quarter of a million Japanese followed in their footsteps.

Liberdade became Sao Paulo’s Oriental section in the 1940s, when the children (nisei) and grandchildren (sansei) of the early rural settlers joined the urban trades and professions. Today, nearly a hundred establishments stocking everything from locally made kimonos to imported Japanese condiments cater to neighborhood needs and tourists.

More than a Japanese town

Within the context of Brazil, Liberdade is a unique cultural phenomenon. But the changing ethnic makeup within Liberdade is a phenomenon unto itself, namely the absorption of other East Asian groups.

“It has been an Oriental town here since 1973: Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Taiwanese,” notes Emi Kato, administrator of the Historical Museum of Japanese Immigration to Brazil. Bolivian-born to parents who emigrated in the thirties, Kato stresses the transitional pressures at work in the once all-Japanese community. “Many Koreans and Chinese are moving to Liberdade,” she says. “The Japanese cannot run the businesses; there is often bankruptcy. Koreans, Paraguayans, and Bolivians don’t pay taxes, but they do whatever is necessary for their business to succeed.”

“I don’t feel so special about being here in Liberdade,” laments Gerente. “There are now so many Koreans, Chinese, Bolivians, Cambodians, Vietnamese. Because it is so mixed, it is now more an Oriental than a Japanese town. There are more Koreans and Chinese than Japanese living here.”

Others have a brighter view. Taiwan-born Peter Cho, 43, runs a small food store in Liberdade. Cho arrived in 1968 and has never been back to Taiwan. For him, Liberdade’s best feature is that “you can get anything you want here, because there are so many Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese.” He notes that for older residents, language is not a problem. “The Chinese and Koreans who live in Liberdade and were born prior to World War II speak some Japanese because the Japanese invaded their countries during the war,” he says.

Kato is optimistic concerning the future of Japanese living in the district. Liberdade will be very mixed, but the Japanese here will continue living together, she predicts. “Second- and third-generation Japanese have become, for the most part, completely Brazilian.”

“There are, of course, fourth-generation Japanese here, but as for nanosei (fifth generation), I don’t know of any yet!” she exclaims.

A Japanese emporium

The Japanese aesthetic remains popular in crowded emporiums such as Mizumoto, Ho Kim Do, and Minikimono, which, though far from the fatherland, sell a wide range of Oriental artifacts. These range from crass stone or plastic Buddhas to expensive, delicately carved ivory figures, hand-painted vases, and assortments of f_rins, or “bells of happiness,” which are said to drive away evil spirits whenever they tinkle with a passing breeze. There is even one store on Rua Galva, O Oratorio, which specializes in lacquered wooden altars for Buddhist worshipers. A solemn atmosphere prevails in the shop as salesmen reveal the bronze or gold linings of row upon row of portable altars.

Brazilian semiprecious stones, some mounted on flimsy wooden bases and others superbly embellished by master craftsmen, are another mainstay of the gift and specialty trade, which has flourished due to the Japanese tradition of fine craftsmanship.

One Japanese Brazilian, Neuza Miyoko Nanami de Campos, who works as a salesclerk at the Ho Kim Do gift shop just off Liberdade Square, feels a special connection with her work. “I chose this work because I am responsible to attend the many Japanese clients in this shop because I speak some Japanese,” says de Campos, 40, whose family arrived in Brazil in 1950. “The Japanese here have many partners and cultural events, and I receive the benefits from that,” she adds.

De Campos cites the many libraries and bookstores that sell Japanese books, along with the proliferation of private schools that teach Japanese, as further advantages of a Liberdade lifestyle. “The second and third generations here want to learn Japanese,” she enthuses.

Yet despite all these Japanese-style cultural outlets, de Campos insists she feels “more Brazilian because I was born here, and because my parents are dead. I basically have no connection with Japanese tradition.” De Campos is married to a Brazilian and has never visited Japan, though she has a “strong desire to visit there, mainly to visit the places where my parents were born.” Interestingly, she notes that, while she and her husband are fond of Japanese cuisine, her children prefer Brazilian.

Nisei Merceariz Heiwa Julia Toyama, 51, has, over time, harmonized her sense of dual national allegiances. “When she came here sixty-four years ago, my mother felt she was more Japanese than Brazilian because she received her education in Japan,” recalls Toyama. “One time I went back to Japan and I realized that I was more Brazilian because of my education and my life here.

“The food makes me Japanese, like the music, and there are many ways of thinking,” she adds. “It is a philosophy of life. I don’t know enough of the Japanese language to answer such questions. To live here means to have a dream, to be able to work.”

Many Japanese-Brazilian residents, like Takako Nishimura, 50, suffer from a simpler dichotomy: diet. “I like both sushi and beans and rice. I like to cook both,” says Nishimura, whose family arrived in the district in 1954, when she was 5. “My father was traditional, so we kept on eating Japanese food after we arrived in Brazil.”

Living under the bridge

Of the 600,000 Japanese now residing in Liberdade, only 3,000 were born in Japan. Their connection with their ancestral homeland remains strong nevertheless. “From 1980, there was a transitional period here, dekasegi, with some 500,000 [Japanese Brazilians] going back to the fatherland over a period of years,” says Kato. “However, they often ended up doing the dirty work in Japan that the native Japanese don’t usually do. The women would work in the kitchen making prepared food, the men would do manual labor, factory work, electronics, and labor on the production line.”

“Yes, it is prejudice,” says Kato. “When they learn Japanese, they can work their way up. If they stay a long time in Japan, they can get a good job.” Apparently, the good jobs have come. Many say that the money earned by the 500,000 descendants of Brazilian Japanese now residing in Japan and sent back to their relatives in Brazil is greater than the total of all Brazilian exports.

“Some of our youth have already gone to Japan, while some are coming back,” she notes. “Many people who went to Japan are ‘living under the bridge.’ It takes a lot of money to live, to stay, and to come back from Japan.”

To stave off any cases of homeland sickness, there is the Cofraternization Office of the Federation of Different Provinces Around Brazil, which invites associations from Japanese prefectures to visit Liberdade and share information on Japan.


Beyond the block

The neighborhood’s international mix is most obvious at the colorful and often eclectic Oriental street fair held every Sunday morning at Praca Liberdade, surrounding the district’s subway station. Dozens of wood-and- canvas stalls serve shrimp, fish, and meat tidbits from spits that sputter on open hibachi grills. Other Japanese and Brazilian appetizers are also sold, as well as the traditional native staple: beans and rice. The fair sprawls over the plaza and into neighboring streets, where stalls sell most of the Japanese-style products normally on display Monday through Saturday in Liberdade’s packed emporiums. Imports, however, are restricted–a measure designed to stimulate local handicraft production.

At night, few pedestrians pass beneath the red illuminated archways. The action is all indoors. Some of the larger restaurants feature soothing Japanese music performed by brightly costumed players using acoustic instruments, while multicourse meals stretch through an entire evening. Some establishments offer the more risque entertainment that visitors to Brazil have come to expect.

With Liberdade undergoing such strong ethnic transition, Pedro Yanno, president of the 1,200-family-strong Sao Paulo Japanese Immigration Association of Brazil, offers a global perspective on the subject. “I am a descendant of Japanese, but since I was born in Brazil, I am Brazilian, and I have to give respect to this country,” says Yanno, 66, whose parents arrived in Brazil in 1914. “The hospitality for me is the most attractive thing about this country,” he emphasizes.

“We’ve received an education and a whole system of customs and traditions [by living here]–and also the diversity of culture from Brazil and Japan,” stresses Yanno, whose organization annually sponsors several Japanese-speaking local students at the University of Kyushu in Japan.

“The association’s responsibility is to connect, through globalization programs, the countries where the nisei live, not just in Brazil, but in Uruguay, Mexico, Peru, the United States, and many others,” explains Yanno. In this effort, the nisei held their eleventh such meeting last July in Santiago, Chile, with people from eleven countries attending discussions on topics ranging from pre–World War II immigrants to Japanese youth in the upcoming millennium.

There is a saying among the Japanese of Liberdade: “First-generation [born in Japan] immigrants are the ‘real Japanese,’ while the second generation can relate to the block where they live. However, the third and fourth generations can communicate not only with every Japanese generation but with the Chinese, Brazilians, Koreans, anybody.”

It seems that as long as this process of improved communication continues and a healthy cross-fertilization of culture occurs, then Liberdade will remain full of life, color, and surprises. Visitors to this vibrant neighborhood typically have only one complaint; they cannot believe they are in the heart of South America.n

Stephen Henkin, an arts editor at The World & I, visited Sao Paulo on assignment. The assistance of Delta Airlines in researching this article is gratefully acknowledged.

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