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Japanese-Brazilians struggle with dual identities

Published on NewsOK Modified: June 17, 2014 at 3:02 am •  Published: June 17, 2014

SAO PAULO (AP) — 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.


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."

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