Bridge-building among Latinos in Japan

When we walked in, everything looked and felt like a Japanese church. About 30 people in four rows of chairs facing the pulpit and a few were speaking Japanese. Almost everyone looked to be of Asian descent. Japanese song lyrics were displayed on the screen at the front. Water for tea was in electric pots near the back. Tables were laden with typical Japanese snacks and bags for burnable and plastic garbage underneath the tables. All our senses told us this was a mostly homogeneous group of Japanese people worshiping in a traditional Japanese way.

Then the time for greeting one another began. In stark contrast to Japanese culture, where people rarely touch each other but instead somberly bow in honor to each other, people came up to us with huge smiles and hugged us, even putting their cheek against ours. We had experienced this many times in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Belgium, and France, but never in Japan. They greeted us not with konnichiwa but with tudo bem? in Portuguese. We were welcomed as if we were old friends. We enjoyed the rest of the service, singing in Portuguese and Japanese and hearing a sermon in Portuguese, translated into Japanese. Though we were at a church in Japan, we had just experienced a service for Brazilian nikkei (Japanese emigrants and their descendants).

Although not obvious at first glance, many Latinos and Brazilians live in Japan. Many of them are ethnically Asian, so it is only by talking to them that you discover their different backgrounds. Their parents and grandparents are of Japanese descent (often 100%), but they were born in countries like Brazil, Argentina, or Peru and then moved to Japan to live and work. They look Japanese but speak Portuguese or Spanish. On the inside, they feel much more Brazilian or Hispanic than Japanese. They eat feijoada and know how to dance salsa.

Japanese in Latin America

Brazil is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan.1 A migration agreement was signed between Brazil and Japan in 1907, and the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil in 1908. The number of Japanese living in Brazil in 2009 was estimated to be 1.6 million.2 The highest concentrations of Japanese people in Brazil are in the states of São Paulo and Paraná. Liberdade is São Paulo’s equivalent to Japantown in the US.

Latinos in Japan

While Brazil’s economy was troubled in the 1980s, Japan’s boomed, and many Japanese Brazilians went to Japan as contract workers. In 1990, Japanese law was changed and descendants of Japanese citizens were eligible for long-stay visas, which encouraged more immigration from Brazil.

Latin Americans are the second largest group of immigrants in Japan after Asians. Most Latin Americans in Japan are Brazilian or Peruvian. The Brazilian community in Japan consists predominantly of those with Japanese ethnicity.

Japan has the largest number of Portuguese speakers in Asia. Portuguese is the third most-spoken foreign language in Japan, after Chinese and Korean, and is among the most-studied languages in the country.3 Japan has two Portuguese-language newspapers as well as Portuguese radio and television stations. Brazilian fashion and bossa nova music are popular among Japanese. The highest concentrations of Latin Americans are found in Toyota in Aichi prefecture, Hamamatsu in Shizuoka prefecture, and Ōizumi in Gunma prefecture, where it is estimated that up to 15% of the population speaks Portuguese as their native language. Brazilians tend not to live in cities like Tokyo or Osaka, but rather in places with big factories.

Our ministry to nikkei in Japan

We, an American, a Brazilian, and a three-year-old daughter, moved to Japan in July 2015 to work with the nikkei population, mainly Latino and Brazilian Japanese. We see ourselves as bridge builders: we look for ways to bridge the cultural and language barriers and also encourage our friends to embrace and get to know Japanese culture so they can thrive here.

When we first meet with people from these groups we have many questions: What is it like for this person to live in Japan? How might he or she be feeling unheard and unseen? How do Japanese people view this person and how does this person view Japanese people—with respect, disdain, or neutrality?

What are the family dynamics? Which language is spoken at home? If the parents don’t speak Japanese and the children have not learned much Portuguese or Spanish, how is the family communicating? Do the children feel Japanese, foreign, or more like a third-culture kid (where their identity is found in a third category rather than one of the two dominant cultures)?

Lastly, what does this person need from us? A friend? Resources in their mother tongue? Connections with other people who understand where they are coming from? Reconciliation with Japanese culture or another culture? A stronger sense of identity?

And so our work begins. Each person represents a unique world—a set of relationships with distinct struggles and specific needs. There are many difficulties in the ministry, but we are encouraged as we learn about Jesus’ ability to cross cultures and overcome language barriers.

1. “Fact Sheet 3. Brazil – the Country and its People” (PDF). Embassy of Brazil in London – Schools’ Pack, Brazil 2009. 2009. Archived from the original on December 26, 2011

2. Statistics Bureau, Population Census

3. Wikipedia

Johnna Hayward Muniz serves with the Evangelical Covenant Church as a cultural bridge builder, French and English conversation facilitator, speaker, and preacher. Married to a Brazilian with Italian roots, she has two daughters and lives in Fujisawa, Kanagawa.

Photo provided by the author

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