South American misfits in Japan

Peru's former President Fujimori retreats to his parents' homeland, but not all outsiders feel welcome.

When Mario Makuda finished high school 10 years ago, he didn't see many job opportunities in his native Brazil. But Japan, then experiencing an economic boom, was looking for people of Japanese descent to come to work in the land of their ancestors.

Yet, like the fall weather in this small city north of Tokyo, Mr. Makuda found the reception rather chilly. "Some of the other workers in the factory told me, 'Go home to Brazil.' "

Many Japanese descendants here tell similar tales of the struggle to gain acceptance and equal rights in the homeland their parents and grandparents left behind. But this week's decision by Japan's Justice Ministry to recognize ousted Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori as a Japanese citizen has put a spotlight on the sensitive relationship Japan has with its nisei and sansei - second and third generation of emigres who left Japan, often for South America.

Under fire for his alleged involvement in a bribery scandal, Mr. Fujimori sought refuge in Tokyo last month and faxed his resignation to Lima. Peru's Congress voted to depose him, declaring him unfit to be president.

The question of whether Peruvian-born Fujimori would be granted Japanese citizenship has served as a reminder of the complexities faced by the approximately 270,000 Brazilians and Peruvians working in Japan, as well as many more nikei around the world. About 10 years ago, the government estimated more than a million people had left Japan, mostly for economic reasons.

Fujimori was deemed eligible for citizenship because his birth abroad, Japanese officials say, had been registered with authorities in Kumamoto, his parents' hometown. However, for many whose parents did not register their births, gaining citizenship is a much more difficult prospect. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry says that anyone who has lived in Japan for five years and has one Japanese parent can acquire citizenship. But many are discouraged by a dual-nationality prohibition. Fujimori says he will not give up Peruvian citizenship, potentially flouting the ban in an unusually public way.

For the Japanese government, the Fujimori decision was a political as well as legal one: Japan has no extradition treaty with Peru, and Fujimori says he won't go back to stand trial because his safety there cannot be guaranteed. But for many of those who were lured to Japan by promises of lucrative jobs - the reason their forebears left Japan - the dilemma is primarily a social one.

The town of Oizumimachi is dominated by the factories of Sanyo, Fujitsu, and Subaru, as well as a large Roman Catholic church - an otherwise uncommon presence in Japan. The 15 percent of the population here from Brazil and Peru faces questions as weighty as what to do when their children suffer bullying, and as light as where they can find food to fit Latino taste buds.

That's why, at the Brazilian mall, business is buzzing for Makuda, who now directs sales and marketing for International Press, a successful Portuguese-language newspaper. But outside his own community, he says he still feels the walls go up once the people he's talking to realize that he's not "really" Japanese. "I may have a Japanese face," says Makuda. But "if I go out with friends and salespeople hear us speaking Portuguese, they always follow us through the store."

Part flea market and part community center, the mall is a social hub where Brazilian music pulses over shoppers picking out magazines in Spanish and Portuguese, and neon-bright clothing that looks torn from a page of Carnivale.

"Our clothes are sexier - much more stylish," says Marcia Yumi Beppu, a third-generation Brazilian-Japanese who runs a clothing shop. After five years here, she can't hold a conversation in Japanese. Her two children would also have difficulties. They attend private Brazilian schools "because we will go home some day," she says.

Many, however, do send their children to public schools. Local educators are trying to accommodate the students, following criticism that the famously rigid school system doesn't make room for children of different backgrounds.

At least half of Silva Rogera's classmates in a catch-up Japanese class look more South American than Japanese, revealing the mixed ancestry that can make it difficult for them to "fit in."

"I'm going home soon, I hope," says Silva, a 10-year-old boy singled out by teachers for his impressive progress. Parents of these children, however, often spend long hours on assembly lines and pick up far less of the language.

The school district, says Chiba Masaru, the school principal, is trying to bridge those gaps. "It costs more for these children, and their parents are always changing jobs in the middle of the year. But our goal is to provide education to children equally."

Differences don't always end at the schoolyard. In town, the South Americans rankle neighbors by having boisterous gatherings and not following the complex trash schedule. "They get together and talk until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning," says Massanobu Itoi, a city official. "They have often been disturbing the peace here, but the Brazilians say that there is no such word in Portuguese for that."

The community now employs translators, runs a Portuguese radio station, and has stacks of bilingual public information. And Mr. Itoi says he can understand the immigrants' frustrations.

Ten years ago, companies here desperately needed low-skilled labor. "Most Japanese ... have an image of these jobs as dirty, tough, and dangerous," he says. "At home, [the immigrants] were Japanese, but they came here, and they were called Brazilian and had to register as foreign residents. It's natural for them to want to go back."

That, ultimately, is Makuda's plan. He stayed on because wages, even if lower than a citizen's, are so much better here: an average of $3000 a month, compared to about $150 a month in Brazil. But, he misses the warmth and informality of Brazil. "I don't really like it here, but it's comfortable and safe. I saw that if I went home, there aren't enough jobs, and I'd be wandering around doing nothing," he says.

Not all nikei wind up unhappy. Alberto Diamantes, a Peruvian of Japanese descent, is Japan's most renowned salsa musician. "To feel Japanese is not easy, but to me, it's important to try to be," he says.

"I think Japan is now feeling that it has to change itself in many ways, so maybe it is good to have people from the outside, like me," he adds. "The second and third generation can really contribute because we have something of both in us."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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