Nikkeis are becoming less appealing to Japan

There’s been renewed activity in recent years in the Japanese government’s relationship to dekasseguis, Japanese descendants who settled in Japan in large numbers beginning in 1990, claims Masashi University researcher

By Elton Alisson, in Tokyo

Agência FAPESP – The nikkeis, Brazilian descendants of Japanese, have experienced a change in the way they have been perceived in Japan in the last 20 years, when, attracted by a change in the Immigration Law in the early 1990s, they began to settle in Japan and have now become the third largest ethnic group in that nation – behind only the Koreans and the Chinese.

The treatment shown to the nipo-Brazilian community in Japan by the society at large and the Japanese government in particular, however, did not change and in fact has experienced renewed activity in recent years as policies began to be made to promote the return of the foreign laborers to their countries of origin.

“There’s an important discrepancy between the change in self-perception by the Brazilian nikkei in Japan and the way Japanese society perceives their presence in the country, which has stayed nearly constant over the course of many decades,” explained Angelo Ishi, professor in the School of Sociology at Musashi University in Tokyo to Agência FAPESP.

Ishi was one of the lecturers at the Japan-Brazil Symposium on Research Collaboration, held by FAPESP and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) March 15-16 in Tokyo.

According to Ishi, beginning in the 2000s, many Brazilian nikkeisin Japan began to identify themselves less as short-term workers or dekasseguis – as they became known as in Japan and Brazil at the start of the immigration process to Japan – and view themselves more as immigrants who settled themselves in the country permanently.

One example of this change in self-perception was noted in March 2011, at the time of the earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Besides being unlike the 1995 Kobe earthquake that resulted in the death of many Brazilians, the 2011 disaster had no Brazilians among its fatalities. Even so, according to Ishi, many Brazilian residents from other Japanese provinces traveled quickly to the affected regions to try to help the survivors.

“This is an important point that reveals a commitment and self-perception by the Brazilians as citizens of Japanese society,” said Ishi. “There was no ethnic group reasoning among the Brazilians. For them, the issue was one of solidarity among members of the Japanese society, which many of them feel an integral part of.”

The researcher goes on to explain, however, that the Japanese government has for some time been disenchanted with its relationship to the image of the nikkeifrom Brazil and other South American countries as the ideal laborer, as it believed when the immigration law as changed to make it easier for foreigners to come into the country. “Japan has become less welcoming to the presence of immigrants, and has given off several signals related to this change of opinion.”

Changes in treatment

One of these signals, says Ishi, was the introduction of a system to collect fingerprints and photographic records of foreigners at Japanese airports similar to what is seen in the United States.

“With the exception of the Korean residents in Japan – who make up the largest foreign ethnic group and exert significant influence on Japanese society – all nikkeis, including Brazilians with permanent visas to live in the country, must pass through the system to detect potential terrorists or immigrants who plan to establish themselves illegally in the country,” said Ishi.

According to the logic that led the Japanese government to reform the 1990 immigration law – which states that the nikkeifrom any country, as a result of having roots in Japan, had the right to an expedited visa to enter the country –, according to Ishi, all of them, without exception, should have been exempted from the mandatory nature of the detection system. But that is not what happened.

Another controversial measure discussed by the Japanese government in recent years was its mandate that the nikkeishave at least a minimum knowledge of the Japanese language as a condition for being granted a permanent visa, alleging that resident foreigners in the country who do not have the minimum command of the native language would only cause problems.

If the requirement is instituted, according to Ishi, a sociologist and journalist who for two decades has lived in Japan and worked as a newspaper columnist for the Folha de S.Paulo, more than half of all nikkeisin Japan would not pass the language proficiency exam.

“Even if this measure does not materialize in the short term, just the fact that it is being discussed shows that the image of the nikkeias manpower to work in Japan is no longer a priority or is something no longer desirable in the eyes of the Japanese government,” he explained.

The last straw in the relationship between the Japanese government and thenikkeis, according to the researcher, was the announcement of a program to help immigrants return to their countries of origin. The program would provide financial assistance to the immigrants, under the condition that they never return to Japan.

The measure generated a firestorm of protests by immigrants in Japan – who alleged that it was unfair retribution for the contribution the nikkeishad made to the country – which caused the government to retract it and announce that it would reconsider its position over the next three years and perhaps would again allow re-entry into Japan to Japanese descendants with permanent visas who chose to return to their countries of origin.

The deadline, however, expired in April 2012, and the nikkeiswho had received voluntary assistance with the process of returning to their countries of origin were not allowed back into Japan. “This caused those who returned to their countries of origin to begin to pressure the Japanese consulates there to ask when the Japanese government would take a clear stand with regard to this issue,” said Ishi.

Underestimated numbers

Despite the renewed activity in the relationship between Japan and the Brazilian nikkeis, according to the researcher, the number of Brazilian descendants of Japanese with permanent visas in the Asian country has increased in recent years. In 1999, 4,592 permanent visas were issued to Brazilian nikkeis. By 2011, the number had risen to 119,748.

In addition to the Japanese descendants with permanent visas, says Ishi, there is currently a silent boomof Brazilians who are obtaining Japanese passports and are not being accounted for in the official statistics for the number of Brazilians in Japan.

“It’s said that there are 210,000 Brazilians registered by nationality in Japan, but there is an invisible mass of Brazilians who are not a part of this calculation because they already hold Japanese passports,” Ishi asserted. “The Brazilian government needs to increase its mapping of the Brazilian diaspora in Japan as well as in other countries.”

According to Ishi, the number of Brazilians in Japan diminished substantially in 2008 at the beginning of the global financial crisis, which reduced by a third the contingent of approximately 320,000 Brazilians who were living in the country.

The 2011 tsunami caused nearly 10,000 Brazilians to leave the country. “But the huge tidal force that washed many Brazilians away from Japan and back to Brazil had already occurred with the 2008-2009 wave of unemployment,” claimed Ishi.