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Japanese-Brazilians struggle with identity despite long history in World Cup host nation

  • Brazil WCup Japanese Brazilians-1.jpg

    In this June 10, 2014 photo, Wagner Yoshihiro Higuchi tends the Bar Kintaro, with a woodblock print of Japan’s quintessential sumo sport and a Brazilian flags hanging on the wall, in Asian-flavored Libertade district of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Brazil hosts the world’s largest ethnic Japanese population outside Japan -1.5 million, or half of the roughly 3 million scattered around the globe. Many “Nikkei” like the Higuchi brothers have forged vibrant hybrid identities where sumo meets samba. (AP Photo/Joji Sakurai) (The Associated Press)

  • Brazil WCup Japanese Brazilians-2.jpg

    In this June 10, 2014 photo, William Takahiro Higuchi, left, and Wagner Yoshihiro Higuchi tend the Bar Kintaro, in Asian-flavored Libertade district of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Brazil hosts the world’s largest ethnic Japanese population outside Japan -1.5 million, or half of the roughly 3 million scattered around the globe. Many “Nikkei” like the Higuchi brothers have forged vibrant hybrid identities where sumo meets samba. (AP Photo/Joji Sakurai) (The Associated Press)

  • Brazil WCup Japanese Brazilians-3.jpg

    In this June 10, 2014, photo, Sao Paulo’s former Miss Okinawa, Lais Miwa Higa, speaks during an interview at Bar Kintaro in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The elite Sao Paulo University Master’s degree student in anthropology, who is considering a PhD, has trouble being perceived among Brazilian peers as more than a Japanese geisha doll. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama) (The Associated Press)

  • Brazil WCup Japanese Brazilians-4.jpg

    In this June 10, 2014, photo, Sao Paulo’s former Miss Okinawa, Lais Miwa Higa, speaks in an interview in front of paintings of sumo and a Brazilian flag at Bar Kintaro in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The elite Sao Paulo University Master’s degree student in anthropology, who is considering a PhD, has trouble being perceived among Brazilian peers as more than a Japanese geisha doll. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama) (The Associated Press)

  • Brazil WCup Japanese Brazilians-5.jpg

    In this May 2014 photo provided by Yudi Rafael Koike, a wooden easel mounted with a mirror, one of his installation, is displayed. Below the mirror is written: “This is the shape of the Brazilian eyes.” “Any shape of eyes,” 28-year-old artist Koike says, “is the shape of Brazilian eyes.” (AP Photo/Yudi Rafael Koike) (The Associated Press)

The sumo wrestler brothers send up belly laughs from behind the counter of their hole-in-the wall bar in the Asian-flavored Liberdade district. Next to woodblock prints of Japan's quintessential sport hang green-and-yellow Brazilian flags, and the raucous babble of conversation tosses up sprays of Japanese and Portuguese.

William Takahiro Higuchi and Wagner Yoshihiro Higuchi, second-generation Japanese-Brazilians who teach sumo by day, keep the atmosphere hopping at Bar Kintaro with rivers of sake and caipirinhas — Brazil's national drink.

"Since we were kids we were taught you're not just Brazilian, you're Japanese as well," says William Takahiro, the elder brother. But he leaves no doubt about where his loyalties lie. With both Japan and Brazil in the World Cup: "I want Brazil to win."

Brazil is home to the world's largest ethnic Japanese population outside Japan — 1.5 million, or half of the roughly 3 million scattered around the globe. The first wave arrived in the early 20th century to work as farm laborers. Many "Nikkei" like the Higuchi brothers have forged vibrant hybrid identities where sumo meets samba. But scratch the surface and a tale of alienation emerges.

In interviews with some two dozen Japanese-Brazilians, from trendy twenty-somethings to distinguished septuagenarians, one message emerges clearly: While cherishing our roots, we are first-and-foremost Brazilian. Yet other Brazilians don't accept us as one of their own — even though Brazil is a nation built on hybrid identity.

Sipping Japanese shochu liquor in a corner of Kintaro, the Sao Paulo region's former Miss Okinawa, Lais Miwa Higa, says that at home she eats traditional Japanese "gohan" rice smothered with Brazilian feijoada, the national bean dish.

Beauty pageants are famously part of Latin American culture, but Higa entered one out of a very Japanese sense of filial duty: "When I was a child my grandfather was always telling me he would really like me to participate," she says. "Then he died and my grandmother said she wouldn't die happy if I didn't do the pageant."

Higa, 27, says Brazil is home for her, but that Brazilians don't always see things that way: "When someone looks at me ... it's always, are you Japanese? Are you Chinese?"

That means they create barriers, right?

"Noooooo," she laughs. "They WANT me! Japanese women are fetishized. It's DISGUSTING!"

The Sao Paulo University Master's degree student in anthropology has trouble being perceived among Brazilian peers as more than a Japanese geisha doll.

BRAZILIAN EYES

Yudi Rafael Koike, a 28-year-old artist, reflects on such stereotyping while sipping espresso and nibbling on a pastry in a cafe off Paulista Avenue — Sao Paulo's Fifth Avenue.

"In the beginning I was very angry," he says. Now he's found peace — "mainly through art."

One of Koike's works is a wooden easel mounted with a mirror. Below the mirror is written: "This is the shape of the Brazilian eyes."

"Any shape of eyes," Koike says, "is the shape of Brazilian eyes."

The work is a jab at the way Asians are caricatured in Brazilian culture in everything from television, where Fu Manchu-like portrayals that disappeared from the U.S. decades ago are common, to ordinary social life — where Brazilians sprinkle conversations with "Japa" without imagining they might be giving offense.

A recent article in Brazil's respected Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper earnestly explained how Brazilian actor Rodrigo Pandolfo prepares for his TV role as a Korean gossip columnist: "The characterization includes ... a special tape that gives the actor the effect of slanted eyes."

"If you talk about people of Asian descent, it's like they don't have a history," says Koike, known as Yudi Raphael in the art world. "It's like they came from nowhere. Every generation of Japanese is the first generation."

Brazilians talk about everyone being mixed, but Koike feels excluded: "In Brazil there's this thing that's we're a mix of everything — except Asians."

Jeffrey Lesser, an Emory University historian who is one of the world's foremost authorities on immigration in Brazil, explains things this way: "A black person in Brazil is called a black Brazilian but a Japanese-Brazilian is called a Japones. ... There is always a separation, the assumption that they like sushi, not feijoada."

ANOTHER DEGREE OF SEPARATION

The gritty streets of Indaiatuba, about a two-hour drive from Sao Paulo, are a world away from the leafy upper-class boulevard where Koike spoke.

In a lizard-green concrete block called the "ORIGAMI Perfumeria," George Norio Tawara broods from his upstairs office decorated with a red Japanese "chochin" paper lantern over a domain filled with '60s-style mannequin heads topped with wigs, bright nail varnish and everyday toiletries.

Tawara has come a long way from the grunt work he performed as one of the hundreds of thousands of laborers known as "dekasagui" that Japan imported from Brazil as part of a reverse wave of immigration — the "yen rush" that took off as the ancestral homeland became rich.

Japanese-Brazilians carried out work the Japanese termed as the three "K's" — kiken, kitsui, kitanai — or dangerous, tough and dirty. Tawara worked a series of backbreaking jobs.

Many like him went to Japan hoping to reconnect with roots, only to find themselves treated like Brazilians for the first time

"It's tough for Nikkei people. In Brazil, people treat us like 'Japanese! Japanese!' and when we go to Japan it's 'Gaijin! Gaijin!'" he says, using Japan's pejorative term for foreigner.

The 44-year-old has settled into a comfortable life with his wife Erika Hitomi and two children since opening his shop 20 years ago.

Every Sunday, Tawara plays on a local amateur soccer team with a group of middle-aged buddies, a few of them Nikkei. He admires Brazilian superstar Neymar — and hopes his country goes all the way in the World Cup, while harboring a soft spot for Japan.

Such harmony may not be so easy for the Kagajous, who live in the town of Sorocaba, just outside of Indaiatuba.

"If Brazil and Japan end up meeting in the tournament there'll be trouble," chortles retired teacher Lais Kagajou. "My husband is a first-generation immigrant, so he supports Japan. But since this is my country, I'll support Brazil ...

"It'll all end up in divorce!"

THE VIEW FROM THE TOP

When Anselmo Nakatani retired as CEO of Furukawa Industrial S/A Produtos Eletricos — the Brazilian subsidiary of a major Japanese electronics maker — his company had 1,500 employees with annual revenue of about $600 million.

"I'm Brazilian. I was born here," he says, then adds: "I'm Japanese in the eyes of Brazilians, but I'm not Japanese for Japanese."

The 72-year-old achieved spectacular success as one of eight children of immigrants from Hiroshima who toiled on a coffee plantation. "My parents ... worked as almost slaves," he says. "They suffered a lot."

Eventually they were able to acquire their own land and create a successful farming operation.

Nakatani's father forced the children to learn Japanese instead of Portuguese. He eventually mastered the language and entered prestigious Sao Paulo University.

"I said to my son, 'Don't learn Japanese. You study Portuguese and English, and if one day you need Japanese you can go to school.'"

He and many other Japanese-Brazilians say what's important is to transmit the values of Japan — not the language.

"My mother country is Brazil, but the country of my heart is Japan," says 67-year-old retired pharmacist Augusto Sakamoto. "So I need to have two hearts. ... If Brazil had to play against Japan, who would I root for? That's a tough one. But of course, in the end, I'll root for Brazil — it's my mother country."

Then he adds wistfully:

"But heart is important as well."