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Believe it or not, the largest overseas community of Japanese people is in Brazil. 1.3 million Brazilians are of Japanese descent, 0.7% of the Brazilian population, and there are another quarter of a million repatriated Japanese Brazilians living in Japan. By comparison, there are about one million Japanese Americans, only three-tenths of a percent of the American population.

Brazil and Japan started negotiating in the late 1890's to send Japanese workers to Brazilian coffee plantations for two to three-year work tours. Deals were eventually struck with three Brazilian states (Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and São Paulo) to bring in a thousand Japanese workers over a period of three years. The first exodus to Brazil was in 1908, when the Kasato Maru set sail from Kobe with 781 immigrants on board.

Many of the first immigrants either ran home to Japan early, or ran away from the plantations to set up colonies in the cities. Of the 781 on the Kasato Maru, only 191 were left working the fields two months later. Nonetheless, the immigration wave picked up dramatically in the following decades, and a huge Japanese expatriate community developed in Brazil that helped keep culture shock to a minimum. By 1932, there were over 130,000 nikkeis in Brazil: 90% of them were working in agriculture, but others had become businessmen, teachers, and even doctors.

During World War II, the immigration was cut off, schools and publications within the communities were shut down, and Japanese Brazilians were placed under severe restrictions, although concentration camps were never set up for them. After the war, everything was back to normal. One nikkei, Yukishige Tamura, was elected to the São Paulo city council in 1948, and six Japanese Brazilians were elected to Congress in 1962. By then, there were over 400,000 Japanese Brazilians, and many prominent Japanese leaders including Princes Akihito and Mikasa had visited their culture's greatest overseas colony.

By then, of course, the growth of the Japanese economy had ended Japanese immigration to Brazil. In 1990, facing a shortage of blue collar labor, the Japanese government offered three-year working visas to overseas nationals of Japanese ancestry, and many Japanese Brazilians used this opportunity to return to their ancestral homeland. Nowadays, Japanese Brazilians are found manning large and small factories across Japan: they account for fifteen percent of the gaijin population, five times as large as their closest competitor (Japanese Peruvians).

However, many of these new returnees are more Brazilian than Japanese, which has led them to keep their distance from Japanese society. Most live in enclave towns like Hamamatsu and Oizumimachi, where they speak Portuguese more than Japanese and live a decidedly Latin lifestyle. What's worse, many work for much lower wages and much fewer benefits than their Japanese counterparts, and often live in segregated dorms and work on segregated production lines. Nonetheless, the identity of the community is as strong as ever, and Japanese Brazilians will be a strong force in both Japan and Brazil for some time to come.

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