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FOCUS December 2009 Volume 58

Life as Dekkasseguis: The Brazilian Community in Japan

Erika Calazans

Brazil experienced one of its worst economic, social and political crises in the 1980s that led to the migration of many Brazilians to other countries. Among them, many Japanese-descent Brazilians decided to work in Japan as dekasseguis or “temporary migrant workers.”[1]

Opposite to that of Brazil, Japan was experiencing the height of its bubble economy during the 1980s. And it did not have enough workers to fill the increasing need for labor of its industries. To respond to the country's needs, Japan was forced to allow the entry of foreign workers.

In 1990, Japan amended the Immigration Control Law to allow Japanese-descent foreigners (second generation descendants or nisei-jin and third generation descendants or sansei-jin) and their spouses to come to the country to work for a long period of time. Their close ties with Japan and affinity by blood made them acceptable foreign workers in the country. Visa for the fourth generation Japanese descendants (yonsei- jin) was granted only to those who were accompanied by their third-generation Japanese-descent parents.

As of the end of 1998, the number of registered Brazilians in Japan reached 222,217 corresponding to 14.7% of the total registered foreigners in that year. (See Table 1)

Table 1: Registered Foreigners in Japan ? By Nationality

Nationality 1998 1999 2000 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Total 1,512,116 1,556,113 1,686,444 1,973,747 2,011,555 2,084,919 2,152,973 2,217,426
China 272,230 294,201 335,575 487,570 519,561 560,741 606,889 655,377
Korea 638,828 636,548 635,269 607,419 598,687 598,219 593,489 589,239
Brazil 222,217 224,299 254,394 286,557 302,080 312,979 316,967 312,582
Phil. 105,308 115,685 144,871 199,394 187,261 193,488 202,592 210,617
Peru 41,317 42,773 46,171 55,750 57,728 58,721 59,696 59,723
US 42,774 42,802 44,856 48,844 49,390 51,321 51,851 52,683
Others 189,442 199,805 225,308 288,213 296,848 309,450 321,489 337,205

Figures for selected years, taken from the original Japanese-language table (

In 2008, the number of Brazilians in Japan reached 312,582. Brazilians correspond to the third biggest group of immigrants in Japan after the Koreans and the Chinese. The Brazilian community in Japan is the second biggest Brazilian community in a foreign country, and the biggest Portuguese-speaking community in Asia. Most Brazilians are found in the following prefectures: Aichi (Nagoya city), Shizuoka (Hamamatsu, Shizuoka), Gifu (Gifu), Mie, Saitama (Saitama), Gunma (Oizumi) and Kanagawa.[2]

These Japanese-descent Brazilians, many with university diplomas, came to Japan searching for better income and better life. But they worked in jobs that were generally refused by the Japanese, and required lower educational qualification. Most of their employers were automobile and electronics companies. One report describes the situation as follows:[3]

Close to one-fifth of the entire Brazilian nikkeijin population now lives in Japan. Well- educated and middle-class in Brazil, most of them work as unskilled laborers in small and medium-size firms in the manufacturing and construction sectors. Still, based on the exchange rate, they earn five to ten times their Brazilian incomes. Like their own forebears, most of them arrive in the new country intending to work for just a couple of years and then quickly return to Brazil with their savings. Consequently, they have also become known as dekasegi, short for dekasegi rodosha, Japanese for "temporary migrant worker." But many have already brought their families to Japan, and the process of long-term immigrant settlement has begun.

The Brazilian Community and Japan's Economic Crisis

In 2008, Brazil and Japan celebrated the passing of one hundred years since Japanese immigration to Brazil started. In contrast, in 2009, the Brazilian community in Japan has nothing to celebrate due to difficulties caused by the economic crisis. The foreign workers, specially the Brazilian community, heavily felt the economic crisis. Many Brazilians are opting (or somehow forced) to leave Japan and return home to find work.[4] The situation turned very serious for those who stayed despite the economic crisis. One account expresses the situation:[5]

The crisis shows no signs of improving and because of this there are many Brazilians who used to live here and have returned to Brazil. The ones who stayed, like me, are trying to survive this mad crisis that affects Japan, almost every day I watch the Japanese news reporting on Brazilians living on the streets, people who have nothing to eat and others who live in public shelters, relying on the donations of kind people.

The problems faced by Brazilian nikkei-jin (Japanese-descent Brazilians) start with the fact that they look Japanese. But they are culturally Brazilians, and many of them cannot speak the Japanese language and are treated as foreigners. Their children also suffer difficulty because of the language barrier and a significant number of them leave school. Other children who came to Japan while very young forget the Portuguese language and lose the ability to understand their parents.[6] Besides this and many other challenges, the Brazilian community is struggling to fit into the Japanese society and stay in Japan.[7]

Many Brazilians who lost their jobs were forced to return to Brazil. But Mr. Sidival Furuzawa Pereira, 36 years old, and some other Brazilians want to stay in Japan despite the difficult situation. Mr. Pereira lost his job in mid-2009, and did not have the money to pay for house rent. He started to live on the streets of Hamamatsu in Shizuoka prefecture. Since then, he has been surviving by collecting discarded metal and electrical goods to sell at recycling centers. Mr. Pereira earned around 350 Yen (around three US dollars) a day. Instead of buying food, he saved the money until he had the minimum amount to send for his wife and children in Brazil. Seeing the harsh situation of Mr. Pereira and his effort to survive, a Japanese gave him an apartment to live in and eventually received food from a non-governmental organization (NGO).

But not getting enough for his needs, he still had to survive on food he would find in garbage bins. He said that he was very grateful for the help being given to him and he loved Japan. Every time he had the opportunity to call his wife, she would ask him why he would not come back to Brazil. Mr. Pereira would tell her that he was determined to live in Japan because he thought that Brazil had no job available for him, and he found it more feasible to scavenge for recyclable materials and send money to Brazil despite the continuing dire economic situation in Japan.[8]

Job vacancies became increasingly difficult to find even for Japanese workers, and the situation was worse for Brazilians due to the language barrier. Japanese workers are now competing with Brazilians and other foreigners in getting work in factories that used to employ mostly foreigners.

The Japanese government decided to offer Brazilians a chance to go back home by providing free transportation. This scheme has been criticized for a provision that those who availed of the subsidy cannot return to Japan with the same visa status for the "time being."[9] Many Brazilians were offended, and protested this scheme. Fifty- five-year-old J.P.H. expresses the sentiment of his fellow Brazilians:

We made a life in this country, we worked hard, we paid our taxes and now, the government instead of offering a hand to help is kicking us out of the country. We are not Japanese, but we are still human beings and we deserve different solutions for this crisis. (Interview by the author)

Some local governments[10] offer support to foreigners to enable them to integrate into the Japanese society by helping them learn the Japanese language and by giving them information on daily life. The government employment program (Hello Work) has also been providing help for thosewho lost their jobs. Many Hello Work Offices in different parts of Japan have Portuguese- language service.[11]

Other Problems Faced by the Brazilian Community

The economic difficulties of Japan brought more problems to the members of the Brazilian community. In addition to decreasing number of jobs available to them, Brazilians suffer from a number of problems.

The clustering of Brazilians in particular areas in Japan, attributed partly to special agents who arranged their jobs and accommodation, and their inability to speak the Japanese language lead to the "creation of island communities isolated from the surrounding ones."[12] Differences in culture likewise created friction between the two communities. There is an expectation from the Japanese that the Brazilians would follow the Japanese culture, which is a problem since the former do not know it in the first place.[13]

If the Brazilian children cannot attend Brazilian schools,[14] they have to attend Japanese schools that are generally not prepared to support them. They do not have teachers who can communicate in the Portuguese language much less have teaching and learning materials in that language. As a result, both the Brazilian children and schools suffer. This and the problems faced by Brazilian families likely cause the low rate of enrollment of Brazilian children in schools.[15]

Brazilians who do not have medical insurance coverage face the problem of getting medical service. This can happen to those who do not have permanent residence visa and do not enroll in the National Health Insurance system, since membership in this system is not obligatory for them.

Brazilians also face discriminatory treatment. Discrimination against foreigners often takes the form of restricted access to housing, education, employment opportunities,[16] entertainment establishments, and even ordinary shops. In 1998, a Brazilian woman was asked to leave a jewelry shop by the owner in Hamamatsu after he found out that she was a Brazilian. The woman filed a lawsuit against the shop owner and justified her action:[17]

Actually, my case was just one of many similar incidents that have occurred in this town. But I decided to take legal action because I thought somebody should stand up and let the public know that discrimination does exist in Japan.

The issue of discrimination against foreigners in Japan is highlighted by the comments/ suggestions of the Member-States in the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in the recent Universal Periodic Review:[18]

[Adopt] national legislation to bring it into line with the principles of equality and non-discrimination. (Slovenia); Consider establishing legislation defining and prohibiting discrimination in all forms (Brazil); Consider introducing a definition of discrimination in its criminal law (Guatemala); Adopt, as a matter of urgency, a national law against racism, discrimination and xenophobia (Islamic Republic of Iran).


The number of Brazilians in Japan has started to decline in certain areas due to the current economic crisis, while the number of people from other countries (such as China, the Philippines and Vietnam) is still growing due to other employment schemes (such as the trainee system).

The future of the Brazilians in Japan is still unclear, and the Japanese government still faces the problem of securing the needed labor force for industries that depend on foreign workers. But foreign workers will not be able to help much if they do not enjoy a stable life in Japan, including respect for their rights as workers. And for those with families in Japan, such as the Brazilian nikkei-jin, it is even more difficult to live as dekasseguis in the country.

Erika Calazans has LL.M in International Law from the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais - Brazil (2006); worked as a researcher on International Law at Hokkaido University (2007); currently a Ph.D. Candidate at Kobe University (2009) and intern of HURIGHTS OSAKA. For further information please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA.


1.Takeyuki Tsuda, "No place to call home: Japanese Brazilians discover they are foreigners in the country of their ancestors," Natural History, Volume 113, Number 3, April 2004, available in i_m1134/I, s_3_113/ai_n5990766/

2.Akio Kamiko explains that the concentration of Brazilians in particular areas in Japan is partly caused by the arrangements made by "specific agents who not only arrange their flights to Japan but also provide them with accommodation and jobs." As a result, some towns have significant number of Brazilians relative to the total town population. Akio Kamiko, Japan's Experiences with Japanese Brazilians, downloaded from %8B%E5%91%BD%E9%A4%A8 %E5%A4%A7%E5%AD%A6-eboo k.html , page 4

3.Tsuda, op. cit.

4.Tony McNicol, "Mixed results with foreign influx," The Japan Times, avail able in

5.Paula Goes, "Japan, Brazil: Crisis puts an end to the dream of a better life," Global Voices, 11 March 2009 in end-to-the-dream-of-a-better-life/

6.Mariko Yasumoto, "Japanese-Brazilian families face serious challenge in communication," Japan Today (online news and discussion website) in

7.Goes, op. cit.

8. "Atriste historia de um braziliero desempregado," 14 January 2009 in

9.Yasushi Iguchi, Impact of Financial Crisis on Migration from the Perspectives of destination for Asian migrant workers in Japan and other OECD countries, presentation made in Bangkok in May 2009.

10.For examples of local government programs, see the Kobe city program in and Konan city program in

11.See the website of Tokyo Employment Service Center for Foreigners for the list of Hello Work Offices with Portuguese and other languages services,

12.Kamiko, op. cit. page 5.


14.The number of foreign students attending foreign schools declined by 30-50% as of March 2009. A number of schools for non- Japanese children, including Brazilian schools, closed due to bankruptcy. See Iguchi, op. cit.

15.See Chubu Region Multiculturalism and Gender Equality Research Group, "Open Letter to United Nations Special Rapporteur Doudou Diene: Report on Education Issues of Foreign Children in the Chubu Region," 2007, for a discussion on this issue.

16.See 2008 Human Rights Report: Japan, United States Department of State, available in

17.Toshi Maeda, "Brazilian files discrimination suit," The Japan Times, in

18.Universal Periodic Review of Japan, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, UNGA, 30 May 2008 A/HRC/8/ 44, page 17.