Educating Transnational Japanese-Brazilian Students in Brazil: Teacher’s Perspective and Challenge

Greetings from São Paulo! This summer of 2016, I am spending five weeks in the metropolitan city of Brazil to learn about the education of immigrant children, specifically Japanese-Brazilian students who are educated in both countries. São Paulo, as an economic and cultural center, has been a gateway city for immigrants from early times in Brazilian history. The active recruitment of immigrant labor force by the Brazilian government took place after the abolition of slavery in 1888. The arrival of large numbers of Japanese occurred later than European immigration and officially started in 1908. Since then, around 190 thousand Japanese came to Brazil before the end of World War II and after the war an additional 55 thousand entered as official immigrants. Now, Brazil is known for hosting the largest population of Japanese and descendants outside of Japan. They sum up to approximately 1.5 million and over 90% of them reside in the state of São Paulo. This population of Brazilian citizens with Japanese ancestry is a mix of first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth generations in addition to the “point-five” generations who are those who were born in Japan but came to Brazil at schooling age. Since birth in Japan does not mean automatic acquisition of Japanese nationality, besides the 1.5 generation (Japanese nationals who immigrated to Brazil when young), there are the 2.5, 3.5, 4.5 generation Japanese-Brazilian children who were born in Japan or spent most of their lives in Japan but have immigrated “back” to Brazil with their parents. Considering this history of continuous migration of people between both Japan and Brazil, the Japanese-Brazilians are an excellent case to examine the many assumptions in immigration studies especially in regards to the education of immigrant children.

Anna in the field 2016 Mika Undoukai

Despite the chilly winter time weather, the months of June and July have been full of festivities and events for the Japanese-Brazilian community and the general São Paulo. Besides going to several of such events I have been spending time creating contacts with schools that receive Japanese-Brazilian students who have been previously in school in Japan. I was able to visit three schools, speak with twelve teachers. I came originally with the intention of interviewing school administrators and teachers who work with the children of these transnational Japanese-Brazilians. However, as I carried on my research, I have realized more and more how diverse those who can be categorized as Japanese-Brazilians are given the complex transnational ties that have evolved along over one hundred years of immigration and emigration. The type of schools and educational programs that cater for the education of such children is also very diverse. Naturally, teachers spoke about different issues depending on the mission of the school and the student population they served. All these variations speak for the transnational nature of the Japanese-Brazilian community, and the adaptations and blending of Japanese with Brazilian socio-cultural contexts.

To obtain a better understanding of the historical context of the educational issues of Japanese-Brazilians, I also I visited the Museu Histórico da Imigração Japonesa no Brasil (Burajiru Nihon Imin Shiryokan) and Centro de Estudos Nippo-Brazileiros (Jinmon Kagaku Kenkyujyo), both located in the Liberdade neighborhood, known as the Japan town of São Paulo. There, I have researched Japanese language publications published around São Paulo since the 1930s to the 90s to have a better understanding of the life and history of the Japanese in Brazil. Noteworthy is the transnational practices and ties that have been maintained between Japan and Brazil by this diaspora not only though family ties but also through economic, political and religious activities. The descriptions and writings about schools for Japanese-Brazilians represented in the materials reflect a concern to maintain the Japanese language alive in among the new generations and also the moral values of a good Japanese citizen. Prior to the war this was articulated in terms of educating citizens who could serve the Japanese nation from abroad but after the war it became articulated as a matter of educating citizens with the good Japanese qualities that could contribute to the development of Brazilian society.

A significant impact to Japanese-Brazilian transnational practices occurred from the 1980s, when a large number of Japanese-Brazilians started migrating to Japan in search for better earnings as they were eligible to reside and work in Japan for having Japanese ancestry. Most were absorbed into the Japanese labor-deficient manufacturing industry and were able to send money to Brazil to sustain their families or were able to return to Brazil after saving enough. Others have decided to remain and settle in Japan. This reverse-migration became known as the dekasegui*-phenomena in Brazil and Japan and it is estimated that more than 350 thousand Japanese-Brazilians have worked in Japan at least once creating a big vacuum in the Japanese-Brazilian community in Brazil (*Japanese term for going to work outside). Speaking with members of various Japanese-Brazilian educational organizations, many remembered the difficulty they had to overcome when the number of students and program participants dropped drastically with the exit of Japanese-Brazilians to Japan, which included children of schooling age who accompanied their parents or adolescents who quit school to start working in Japan.

Anna in the field 2016 Escola Roberto Norio

Despite their Japanese ancestry, the dekaseguis have not been assimilated into Japanese society (for various reasons that I will not go in depth here). Their un-assimilation generated a significant and visible “Brazilian” diaspora in Japan that did not exist before. A different dynamic and set of interests between Japanese in Brazil and Brazilians in Japan emerged across the two countries. After almost 30 years of dekasegui-phenomena, Japanese-Brazilians have been greatly concerned with the children of dekasegui that return to Brazil. Most of them are what I prefer to call “point-five” generation children who have spent most of their lives in Japan but returned to Brazil after the economic crises that hit Japan in 2008. These children do not only struggle to learn Portuguese but also to adapt to the Brazilian school system. In São Paulo, there are many bilingual private schools and educational services that have opened the doors to receive such children. In the private schools that I have visited, “point-five” students were able to have an easier transition to Brazilian society with better opportunities to enter better high schools and universities. However, my informants spoke about the financial difficulty of parents to send their children to such schools. They lamented that most children of dekasegui enter the public schools that often lack resources and structure to satisfactorily finish a regular school year. The public schools here have a stigma of being of low quality and associated with the lower social class. Of course there are those that with determination spend some extra years but graduate from the public schools or go to high school and university while working. Japanese-Brazilian organizations in collaboration with companies based in Japan have also been able to fund scholarships and free services for the “point-five” children. I could speak to several of such part-time students and had the honor of being a guest speaker for the annual reporting conference of one scholarship program.

I was also able to get in contact with the Municipal Education Secretariat department that has provided professional development for teachers of public school to improve the education of racial/ethnic and immigrant minorities. I was invited to their 2nd annual conference, where teachers presented their work with students. While the attention is usually directed to the issues of African-Brazilians, Indigenous populations and the recent immigrants from surrounding Latin American countries, the officers to whom I spoke mentioned the challenge of identifying the needs of Japanese-Brazilians. Given their Brazilian nationality and the well establish stereotype that Japanese are quiet and do well in school they become invisible for some teachers. They were aware of the free and bilingual educational services available in the Japanese-Brazilian community and highly praised them with an interest of learning for such best practices to apply to other immigrant and minority groups in the city. They mentioned about the previous partnership with the Kaeru Project, a non-profit organization initiative that provides assistance to students and their families that return from Japan and are in public schools.
Education has been an area of transnational practices for Japanese-Brazilian students but also an essential foundation to pass on language skills, socio-cultural competencies and aspirations to maintain the transnational ties. It is also an area where social class, ethnic culture and citizenship status intersect as well as where teachers’ expectations, parents’ expectations and the students’ own will also intersect in a complex way. My research this summer have enabled me to see the context and details that I need to hone in my research questions and evaluate the type of data that is available. I am eager to continue further organizing and analyzing all the data I have collected and share in the IU-Bloomington community.


Ana Sera is a Ph.D. Student in the Education Leadership and Policy Analysis department of IU’s School of Education.


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