A new documentary shows the surprising, circular journey of Japanese Brazilians

The World
Bruno grew up in Brazil, but attends school in Japan

Bruno grew up in Brazil, but now attends school in Japan.

Courtesy of Litvinsight Productions

In the past century, hundreds of thousands of Japanese immigrated to Brazil. In cities like São Paulo, whole neighborhoods feature Japanese street signs, shops and restaurants. Around 1.4 million people of Japanese descent now live in the South American country — the largest population outside Japan.

But in the last 25 years, a wave of Japanese Brazilians has moved to Japan. A 1990 Japanese law allows people of Japanese descent to settle in Japan for work. Of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have done so, many work challenging jobs in factories.

In other words, Japanese migrants migrated to Brazil in search of work and a better life — yet many of their descendants migrated to Japan with the very same goals.

A Japanese-Brazilian migrant in Japan

"One Day We Arrived in Japan" follows three migrant families from Brazil to Japan. Many migrants, once they arrive in Japan, work in factories like this one.


Courtesy of Litvinsight Productions

The journey began early in the 20th century, according to Ana Paula Hirano, a Japanese Brazilian filmmaker. “In Japan ... there was overpopulation in the cities,” she explains. “And in Brazil, they needed people to work in the coffee plantations.”

Hirano says Japanese families tended to integrate quickly in Brazil. She didn't speak Japanese at home, and most of her friends and colleagues weren't Japanese Brazilian. As a result, migrants who move to Japan typically struggle to adapt.

“Here in the West, they usually say that they are going 'back' to Japan,” says Hirano. In Brazil, by contrast, Japanese Brazilians are simply seen as Brazilian. “They were already born in Brazil. So they are going for the first time to Japan.”

A decade ago, Hirano teamed up with Aaron Litvin, who is now a graduate student in literature, to shoot a film about the Brazilian migration to Japan. “One Day We Arrived in Japan” follows three migrant families over 10 years. Right now, they're running a Kickstarter campaign to fund post-production of the film.

One of their subjects was Bruno, a Japanese Brazilian boy who moved to Japan when he was 5. “When I started first grade at the Japanese school, I didn't understand anything, and I cried and cried,” said Bruno in a 2008 clip. He was sitting on his bed, tearfully describing in Portuguese his first weeks there. “I stood there wondering, what are they doing? What are they saying? And then I thought, I'll stop doing what I want and I'll imitate them.”

Litvin showed that clip to Bruno and his family seven years later, when he was about to start high school. In the meantime, Bruno had mastered Japanese. “He became a bit emotional,” Litvin remembers.

“In the future, I want to live here in Japan,” said Bruno in 2015, speaking Japanese. “But if I have money and vacation time, I'd like to return to Brazil once, to travel and see my grandma and aunt. I haven't seen them in about 10 years.”

Bruno's family seems like the exception rather than the rule. Of the three Japanese Brazilian families Litvin and Hirano followed for their film, two have moved back to Brazil. “When you look Japanese but you don't speak Japanese, and you don't know how to behave in the Japanese way, then it breaks the expectations,” says Hirano.

For Japanese Brazilians who do stay in Japan, assimilation takes decades — just like it did in Brazil. “My mom says that when I speak Portuguese, I'm Brazilian, and when I speak Japanese, I'm Japanese,” Bruno said in Portuguese. “But I identify as Brazilian.”