During World War II, in the wake of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans in what were called “war relocation camps,” principally on the West Coast. It was one of the most shameful episodes of U.S. domestic history.
But, perhaps unknown to most Americans, something similar also happened in Brazil -- and now Brazilian authorities are finally and formally apologizing to their Japanese community for the abuse and racism they suffered during the war; a quarter-century after the U.S. took similar measures of expressing its remorse. In 1988, the U.S. government paid out $1.6 billion in compensation to surviving Japanese-Americans who lost their freedoms, homes and properties during the war.
The Guardian newspaper reported that the apologies issued by a Brazilian “national truth commission” over the maltreatment suffered 70 years ago may lead to compensation claims from surviving victims and their relatives.
As in the U.S., in 1942, after Brazil -- as an ally -- declared war on Imperial Japan, thousands of Japanese residents in the country were either arrested or deported on grounds that they presented a grave security risk to the state. Many more were relocated to areas near the coastline, while hundreds of Japanese schools were shut down. Japanese people were also forbidden from speaking or writing their native language. According to reports and testimony from survivors, the Japanese under detention were tortured, degraded and humiliated --- some were even forced to step on an image on the much-revered Emperor Hirohito as a test of “loyalty.”
"A bit of the truth is better than silence," Akira Yamachio, who said his father was detained and tortured, testified before the truth commission. "There inside [the prison] there was persecution and torture. They ordered people to take off their clothes and pass through a 'corridor of death'.”
The truth commission will prepare a final report on wartime abuses and present it to the government. "I apologize and ask forgiveness on behalf of all Brazilian citizens with a generous view of society because the background of this episode is racism. The Brazilian elite have always been racist," said Rosa Cardoso, a lawyer with the truth commission. "They [Japanese-Brazilians] were totally isolated culturally. Then many were imprisoned. It's time for us to ask forgiveness in relation to the Japanese. There has never been anything formal. I have now asked through the truth commission."
Mario June Okuhara, a Japanese filmmaker who recorded testimonies from many victims for a documentary, thanked the commission. "There were a lot of torture, discrimination and violence, legitimized by the nationalism of that period," Okuhara said. "This was silenced during the dictatorship and many have forgotten it, like they have forgotten to speak Japanese. Rescuing the truth about the arduous ordeal of the Japanese was a bold initiative."
Fernando Morais, who wrote a book about the detention, torture and killing of Japanese immigrants, and also of some Germans and Italians during the war, believes the Brazilian government should pay compensation, noting that victims of the repression often lost their assets and property. "Brazil should not only apologize. It owes money, a lot of money, to the Japanese community," he told the Globo newspaper. "The confiscation of assets is well documented in the Central Bank's archives. Nobody ever got anything back."
Japanese-Brazilians, now numbering some 1.8 million, have lived in the South American country for more than 100 years and represent the largest single ethnic Japanese community outside of Japan itself. The Guardian noted that most Japanese immigrants came to Brazil from the impoverished northeast of Japan in the early 20th century. Many initially worked in coffee plantations (filling a labor shortage caused by the abolition of slavery in 1888) before moving to Sao Paulo and forming a sizable community in the Liberdade district there. (Roughly one-third of all Brazilian-Japanese now live in Liberdade).
"When [the Japanese] arrived here planting coffee wasn't so productive," Lidia Yamashita of the Museum of Japanese Immigration in Sao Paulo told the BBC. "Then, because of World War ll, they could not consider returning to Japan. The expectations changed. They had to stay here in Brazil and think of it as the land where they were going to live."
In the early 21st century, after decades of marginalization and discrimination, many Japanese have made their mark in an overwhelmingly Latin society, becoming a permanent and well-integrated part of the social landscape. Ruy Ohtake, a prominent architect, told BBC that the Japanese comprise an important part of contemporary Brazilian society. "Everyone is Brazilian and they have an influence which is positive," he explained. "I don't think it is good to create segregation, or to live in an isolated way. Integration with the population of Brazil is very important."
Japanese innovations have made significant contributions to Brazilian agriculture, cuisine, martial arts, art and architecture.
But Arlinda Rocha Nogueira, a historian, asserts that some Japanese remain isolated. "I would not say [Japanese are] 100 percent integrated, no," she said. "They are moving towards a state of integration in the third or fourth generations -- but not in the first or second. There are many Japanese societies that are closed."
As an addendum, a Brazilian man named Paulo Siqueira who grew up in São Paulo with many Japanese friends, described the cultural gulf between these two very different peoples. “I can’t think of two cultures that are more different than Brazil and Japan,” Siqueira told the New York Times. “When you say 'hi' to someone in Brazil, you kiss or have physical contact. Japanese are really reserved, and everything works in [their] society because nobody gets out of line. In Brazil, there is no line.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.