Japanese Immigration to Brazil

I had the chance to visit Brazil for the first time last month. It was a brief business trip which mainly consisted of long days in conference rooms negotiating a business deal in Sao Paulo. The parties involved came from various corners of the world. It was a good experience, but what was even more memorable was the chance I had to visit an old area of the city I first heard about many years ago, while in college, and studying Japanese immigration to Brazil. The area was Liberdade.

When my hosts learned of my knowledge of the vast numbers of individuals in Sao Paulo with Japanese ancestry, they all conspired to take me to the old Japan-town that night for sushi. And it turned out to be extraordinarily good sushi. While my Japanese language skills are much better than my Portuguese skills, I realized upon arriving at the restaurant that my Japanese would be useless, as the employees at the restaurant were just as Brazilian as my hosts. And I would have expected nothing less, given that those with Japanese ancestry in Brazil are three or four generations removed from their ancestors who made the trek across the ocean to a brave new land.

One of those pioneers was named Masatomo Murakami. As part of my senior research paper for my bachelor’s degree in history as an undergraduate student, I had to pick a topic and write about it. That topic for me was Japanese immigration to Brazil, a phenomenon I first learned about while living in Japan and coming across numerous individuals from Brazil of Japanese descent. I met the granddaughter or Mr. Murakami and had access to primary sources. I went back recently to the paper I wrote and relived the amazing story. I ended the paper in 2003 with the following last three paragraphs.

“Masatomo’s idea was to construct a Japanese Buddhist temple on a designated piece of his land. He did not get around to beginning the construction of the enormous project before his death, however. Nobuko, still in good health and living off the money her husband had saved, took up the construction of the temple as her project to complete before she passed on to be with her husband. She knew little of the construction of Buddhist temples and could do little to help, but it reassured her greatly to know the temple was being built where and how her husband desired.

Masatomo Murakami’s legacy lives on in the city and state of São Paulo. Nippakuji, the Japanese name of the recently completed Buddhist temple, lies just southwest of the sprawling city of São Paulo in the rolling, green hills that Masatomo spent so much of his life in. It stands as a witness of a great man that achieved his dreams a world away from his birthplace. Nippakuji, though more of an emblem to the Japanese heritage in the area than a religious structure, stands boldly in a beautiful valley flanked by rising hills, its newness and dominance radiating in the Brazilian sun.

On special occasions, the priests of the Nippakuji temple ring the large bell that stands guard in front of the main gate to the temple. Its tone resonates throughout the countryside, the breeze propelling the sound over the hills to the neighboring community. With most of her family now back in Japan, Nobuko especially enjoys the nights the priests ring the bell. She sits on her porch in the evening warmth down the road from the Buddhist temple made possible by her late husband and imagines the fond years she spent with him. Gradually, both the lingering daylight and echo of the ringing bell fade from Nobuko, carrying with it the memories of her ancestors and the distant land she hardly knew.”

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16 Years Later

Our Japan trip was amazing. It was so good to be back after 16 years; nostalgic even, as if I was returning to a dream or a prior life. The surroundings were familiar, but different in some ways from what I recalled from my two years in Japan years ago. When I first went to Japan in 1998, it was like I was going into the future given the technology disparity between the US and Japan – the mobile phones in Japan were amazing, more functions were automated at the time and so on. But I felt that less this time around, since no matter where you go in the world today, people have the same iPhones and earbuds and apps and games. I did, however, appreciate the food more this time around and had more cultural context to understand what makes the Japanese culture unique. And it is unique. It is orderly, clean, and respectful in a way that much of East Asia is not. Japan is a fantastic country.

This trip also marked my first trip to Tokyo, and wow, what a fantastic city. The size and scale of the city is incredible, both in terms of humanity and infrastructure. We stayed near Shinjuku Station, which is the busiest train station in the world. As someone who has commuted daily through New York’s Grand Central Terminal, I was used to a busy train station. But let me be clear: New York has nothing on Tokyo. Nothing. Shinjuku alone has around 3.6 million people a day traveling through its tunnels, walls, shops and connections. And there are multiple other stations in Tokyo alone that are almost as busy. It was incredible to see the morning rush hour. And in the evening, I was amazed to see that 11:00 pm felt almost as busy as 6:00 pm, not that I should have been surprised given the hours the typical Japanese salaryman works. But still, it was impressive and overwhelming.

One of the trip’s highlights was the day trip to Kyoto. Yes, that’s right, with our JR rail pass and thanks to the shinkansen bullet train, we were able to make a trip to Kyoto and Osaka from Tokyo a “day trip.” It was a long day, but we did it. We visited some sites I had never seen before, including Arashiyama, Fushimi Inari Taisha and the Gion District. Kyoto has a much different feel from Tokyo and was worth the effort to visit while there.

We also spent a day in Kamamura just south of Tokyo along the coast. It was a quaint, touristy place and we walked the streets and hills of the town exploring the Buddhist and Shinto temples, including a temple built into a cave where the promise to visitors is that if they wash their money with the natural spring water from the mountain their money will double. We’re still waiting to see our Yen double from such a washing.

Overall, it was a great trip. Japan is a country that, despite its quirkiness, I still think I could live in. I fit there, even if I am a tall, white gaikokujin. But that’s just me. I am not sure my family would fit there. And were I ever to have an opportunity to move there, I am pretty certain that doing so would result in a substantial downgrade in comparison to our way of life here in Salt Lake City. Living quarters are smaller, working hours are longer, commutes are exhausting, housing is more expensive, not to mention the language difference. My time to move back to Japan has passed; I just don’t see how it could ever make sense with four children and our current lifestyle. But I do hope to visit again and can only hope it doesn’t take another 16 years.

It’s Finally Happening

Almost exactly five years ago, on September 1, 2011, I wrote the last paragraph below regarding my desire to return to Japan. Well, it’s finally happening – I am returning to Japan for a week. Better late than never, right? When I left Japan in August 2000, I truly believed I would be back within a short time, a matter of years at most. Of course, by attending college in Hawaii, I literally put myself as close as possible physically and culturally to Japan without leaving the United States, and my Japanese skills flourished as a result.

But then came marriage and a family and a large chunk of my Japanese skills and travel flexibility disappeared. The true test will be how easily my language skills come back while in Tokyo in a few weeks. I know Japanese is in my head somewhere, I just need to dust it off. Will I realize I missed the country as much as I thought I did once I’m there? Will it have noticeably changed in the last sixteen years? Will my desire to return again be just as strong this time when I land at LAX? I’ll report back next month.

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It has been too long. I can’t believe that I left Japan in August 2000 and as of September 1, 2011, I have yet to return to visit – not even once. From 1998 to 2006, a good chunk of my adult life, I have identified myself partly as someone who was interested in Japan, its people, culture and language. Once people met me for the first time, it didn’t take long for them to know that I used to live in Japan and spoke Japanese fairly fluently. But since 2006, my Japanese speaking opportunities have dwindled as my family life has flourished. But I am still interested in Japan, although I have accepted that my career won’t revolve around Japan like I once thought it would. But that may not be a bad thing, as the country is not what it used to be in the world and may never be again. There are so many things in Japan, though, that I would still like to see and experience. Maybe one day I’ll be able to get back, if even for a short time, and experience life as a gaijin again. I still speak Japanese well enough that traveling throughout the country wouldn’t be a problem. It is just a matter of finding the right time and arrangement to be able to go back. My target Japan visit date is sometime in fall of 2013, two years from now. Unbelievably, it has been longer than I ever would have imagined it would have been. I just hope that this drought doesn’t continue for longer than I am imagining it could.

Smart Watches

Almost six years ago I published a post entitled, The Timepiece as Art. I am still into wristwatches and have added to my collection significantly since then (Thanks, Dad!), but I wrote a line in that post that stated that I wanted a watch to feed me information. In addition to the local time, a typical mechanical watch can offer one or more of the day, date, month, world time or other time increments. But there are limits of what information can be offered. All of that is about to change.

Smart watches that link to a user’s phone is not a new concept; fitness trackers and other smart watches have been on the market for many years and have been meaningfully improved recently. But similar to my post below, because of the Apple Watch that was further detailed today in San Francisco by Apple, I am excited at the possibility of what the coming years hold. When the iPhone was announced in 2007, competitors’ phones began improving immediately. The Samsung Note 4 that I use today is a great phone, but is the sum of the successes and failures of prior phones across the global market the last eight years. I would expect a similar trajectory for smart watches.

But here is my conundrum. I still love mechanical watches. Having the time, day, date or other information in my palm or pocket on my phone has not caused me to stop wearing a wristwatch on my left wrist everyday. But when I can get all of that information and more on my left wrist, what do I do then? I don’t think we’re going to see the days where people wear multiple wrist accessories that are intended to do the same thing – for example, no one will be wearing an Apple Watch, FitBit, Rolex, etc. There will be only one winner in this game and the big losers will likely be the Swiss and Japanese watch making industry.

I have yet to join the iOS ecosystem and have been a Google/Android user since 2006. I don’t see myself with an Apple Watch, but I do see myself one day with a smart watch – probably an Android-based device several iterations from what is available today. But that prospect concerns me when I think about my wristwatch collection and what the future holds for it. I know classic watches will never go away or out of style, and I hope the prevailing style is to find a way to use both mechanical and high-tech watches, but I hope I don’t eventually become a wearer of solely a niche item.

A Look Back

Some days I go back and re-read what I wrote on this blog. Unbelievably, there are posts I don’t remember writing when I go back far enough. As the snow falls here in Salt Lake, I found this post from 2007 and had to repost.

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As I sit in my office on the 32nd floor and look out at the snow that has begun to fall over Manhattan I remember back to a train ride I had over seven years ago. It was February of 2000, Y2K had proven to be no big deal and I was in the mountains of Japan. I was living near The Japan Sea at the time and was requested to move from the city I was in, Fukuchiyama, to Toyooka, a smaller city farther north and in a different prefecture. The night before the move we heard from friends, who knew how clueless we were to the local news, that there was a large snow storm predicted to roll in that night. The weathermen did not disappoint. I woke up early to several feet of snow, and it was still coming down hard.

Having already shipped most of my supplies, I carried what remaining items I had down the isolated snowy streets to the train station and took the train to my new temporary home in Toyooka. The ride was beautiful as I watched the sunrise over the mountains and the snow blanketing the rice fields and small villages along the way. In many ways, rural Japan is a beautiful place. I remember listening to the soundtrack of Mononoke Hime, one of Japan’s blockbuster animation films of the last decade. I felt peaceful and happy. Now, as I struggle sometimes to find the necessary hours in each day to complete what must be done, I think back to a time when, like today, I was watching the snow fall, and I am at peace.

Was it all just a dream . . .

Just over fourteen years ago, I returned home from two years in Japan. At that time, I was certain that I would be returning back to Japan in the near future, if not to visit, to resume my life for an additional period of time in the land of the rising sun. With college ahead of me, I chose to head off to Hawaii, the closest I could be geographically and culturally o Japan, and spent the next three years maintaining and improving my Japanese. In planning for my next step from college, I was drawn to the U.S. mainland for graduate school. Don’t worry, I thought, I will just complete my education, start working and will be back in Japan in no time – again, at least to visit.

Now, in the fall of 2014, I have yet to return to Japan. My memories of those two years come back to me often, but they are just memories now. There are some nights when I still dream in Japanese and sometimes come across sights and sounds that remind me of Japan, but these are fleeting moments. I would have never thought that by 2014 I would not have returned to Japan. Maybe it was not meant to be after all. Maybe it all was just a dream. Maybe, just maybe, I will find a way back some day – you know, at least to visit.

English-Only Salary Man

I was on a business call recently with some Japanese colleagues and a third-party in Japan. There was an interpreter on the line as well and was the intermediary between my colleagues and me and the third party. She was good. I didn’t know every word, didn’t catch everything she said, but I knew enough that I knew she was good. I couldn’t have done that job, but like most people who profess to be semi-bilingual, I can understand more Japanese than I can speak.

Which raises the question: what happened to my dream of going to Japan. Fifteen years ago on this day I had been in Japan for less than two weeks. I didn’t know a thing and was barely getting by with the language. But I had a desire to learn, to take in as much as I could, and when I left the country in 2000, I was confident I would return shortly.

Now, as we approach the end of 2013, I have yet to return to Japan. The large part of me that was so focused on the language, culture, people and all things Japanese is now a 12-hours-a-day, English-only-salary-man, similar to the Japanese men I would see returning home from the office in their wrinkled suits at 9:00 pm each night, only to return to do it the next day. Fortunately, I don’t work quite the same hours, but it sure does feels like it at times.

Japanese will forever remain a hobby for me, but it was clear as I was on the business call this week for work, that, while I could understand some of what was going on, the chance to head to Japan for work may forever be behind me.