Caught in a revolving door: Japan's migrants

First they went from Japan to Brazil for a better life. Their offspring went back to a booming Japan for the same. They returned to Brazil when Japan stopped booming. And now?

The revolving door connecting Brazil and Japan for 90 years is taking another turn.

* In 1908 the Japanese steamship Kasato Maru arrived in the seaport of Santos, near So Paulo, bringing with it the first 781 Japanese immigrants who were leaving behind earthquake and famine in their old world for what they hoped would be a better life in Brazil. The population of nikkei - Brazilians of Japanese descent - has grown to more than 1.3 million, making it the largest Japanese community outside Japan.

* In the past decade Japan looked so good that many Japanese-Brazilians left for the homeland of their parents and grandparents to take a job in what until last year was thought to be a land of boundless opportunity.

* Now the current turn of the revolving door. In the wake of Asia's financial crisis, many of these transplanted Japanese-Brazilians - or dekasseguis - are returning to Brazil.

With Japan's unemployment rising, immigrants are often the first to be let go - even those with a Japanese name and face.

The problem for the returnees is that Brazil, with unemployment at more than 8 percent and climbing, may be home but it is no haven.

No better off?

"You can't say they are better here, certainly not," says Yassue Kubo dos Santos, herself a former dekassegui who returned to this industrial city outside So Paulo in 1995, when things were still good.

"The difference is that here they have family to fall back on."

Japan claims 235,000 dekasseguis were in the country last year, says Shozo Otogawa of the Center for Information and Support for Foreign Workers (CIATE), a So Paulo agency linked to Japan's Labor Ministry.

"That will fall to 200,000 by the end of this year. That's how bad the employment situation is in Japan."

Those numbers surprise Jorge Watanabe, editor of Noticias do Japo, a So Paulo Portuguese-language weekly of news from Japan and So Paulo's huge Japanese-Brazilian community.

"It's hard to believe those figures, but CIATE should know," says Mr. Watanabe. "But it's true there's no place or agency that helps these people when they return."

'Unacceptable situation'

A few cases of returning dekasseguis have received shrill and rather nationalistic coverage from the So Paulo press. After a So Paulo TV station reported in July that some jobless dekasseguis were living under bridges in Japan - not exactly an unheard-of living condition in Brazil's larger cities - the press jumped on the "shameful" conditions. Said one headline:

"Dream of a better life turns into a nightmare."

The "unacceptable situation" prompted the Association of Brazilian Immigrants to mount Operation Rescue, which worked with the help of several Brazilian companies, including an airline, to bring back some dekasseguis.

Operation Rescue's initial beneficiaries received wide coverage when they reached So Paulo, many telling tales of discrimination in Japan to an avid press.

The case of the "bridge dwellers" was greatly exaggerated, says Mr. Otogawa. "Even Brazil's consul in Nagoya came here during a visit back to Brazil to tell us that only a very few [dekasseguis] were in such dire conditions, and some of those were drunks or had other problems."

Yet the confusion and uncertainty over the dekasseguis and how many of them have returned reflects other points about them.

First, as internationally migrating workers, many of the dekasseguis have already migrated between Brazil and Japan two, three, or more times in less than a decade.

They have joined a growing class of globe-trotting laborers who are increasingly subject to the vagaries of a globalized economy, but about whom relatively little is known.

Second, the nature of many dekasseguis is to blend in and get by upon returning to Brazil, out of a Japanese sense of "shame" at failure, some observers say, rather than to make a spectacle like those who returned under Operation Rescue.

"Dekasseguis feel shameful about not making it where others in their family have," says Kiyoshi Miyoshi, a photographer who lives in Suzano.

Pedro is one of those, a tense young man who would speak to a visitor about his situation recently only if his family name was not used - that would be too shameful.

Pedro was a metalworker in Suzano tempted by the tales he heard of good money in Japan.

By the late '80s the Japanese government, finicky about immigration but short on laborers for its booming economy, was facilitating the arrival of thousands of Brazilians of Japanese descent.

More money in Japan

Shortly after he and Ana were married in 1990, they moved to Japan where prearranged jobs awaited both of them. At that time "the salaries were about four times what you made here," Pedro says. "You could get a house a lot faster [in Brazil] if you worked in Japan and saved."

The couple returned to Suzano in 1993, wanting to have their son in Brazil and already having saved enough to buy a small house. But, after their good fortune in Japan, Brazil's job situation disappointed them.

In 1995 they returned to Japan. But this time things didn't work out so well.

Pedro left one job for another with a microchip manufacturer, but the salary was only double what he would have made in Brazil.

Then the company started downsizing as it subcontracted more of its work to China, Thailand, "even Mexico," Pedro says. As Asia's downturn set in, the company laid off most of the 100 workers who had made up Pedro's section, seven of them dekasseguis.

"Most saw Japan's situation and returned [to Brazil]," he says.

Now Pedro and Ana are quiet about their future as they sit in the neighborhood restaurant Yassue Kubo dos Santos and her husband, Antonio dos Santos, were able to open with the money saved and sent home during a work period in Japan.

Brazil's job market is shrinking, not growing, and then there's always the gnawing knowledge that, despite the problems, the majority of dekasseguis in Japan are sending home good money.

"We want our son to go to school here so that will keep me here, but him," says Ana, gesturing to Pedro, "he might end up going back."

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