Japanese Brazilians: A Positive Ethnic Minority in a Racial Democracy

By Adachi, Nobuko | Studies on Asia, October 2014 | Go to article overview

Japanese Brazilians: A Positive Ethnic Minority in a Racial Democracy


Adachi, Nobuko, Studies on Asia


Introduction

Today Brazil is home to about one and half million people of Japanese descendant.1 This number makes Brazil home to the largest Japanese diaspora in the world. The ancestors of today's Japanese Brazilians came in the early twentieth century. Since then, together with other modern ethnic immigrants (particularly Germans and Italians), these Japanese Brazilians form the new middle class in a society that has long been divided into a small rich elite vs. a large population living in relative poverty.2

At least one American anthropologist, Takeyuki Tsuda calls Japanese Brazilians a "positive minority." 3 According to Tsuda, Japanese are demographically and politically not a major power in Brazil; however, Japanese Brazilians enjoy higher socioeconomic status than the majority of the populace and their distinctive cultural qualities and social positions are respected. The term "positive minority" is roughly equivalent to other "model minority" monikers used for Asian Americans in North America. Various scholars, including the authors in this special issue, have pointed out how contentious such terms are. However there have been very few studies on positive-minority-images out side of the United States in general or of Asian Brazilians in particular.

Brazilian society has been termed a nation of racial democracy, because there is supposedly no skin-color-based discrimination.4 However, such claims have been challenged by new research5 reporting that discrimination based on physical appearance exists in Brazil, perhaps even to an extent equal to that of the United States. Scholars argue that using terms like "positive minority" in a "racial democracy" blinds not only social scientists, but the general population as well. Such discourses may blind minority individuals themselves who overlook real discrimination or other social problems (e.g., a lack of equal opportunities in education) by denying they could possibly be based on physical appearance.

In a "multiracial democracy" class trumps race. As Wagley wrote "'Money whitens the skin,' is not unmeaningful. It is easy to lower or to raise the color status of people from one grade to another according to criteria other than color."6 In other words, the social attitude of Brazilians is if people work hard and receive a higher education, anybody can change their social class, and when people of color fail to raise their social status, it is because they lack skill, ambition, or are just lazy. Members of minority groups who end up impoverished in Brazilian settings often blame the corruption of their government rather than racial discrimination. Yet even those who recognize discrimination are oblivious to seeing how their problems articulate with race, ethnicity, and harassment.

Bonilla-Silva points out that in the United States, "today 'new racism' practices have emerged that are more sophisticated and subtle than those typical of the Jim Crow era. Yet ... these practices are as effective as the old ones in maintaining the racial status quo."7 In this article I examine how people of Japanese descent in Brazil have faced social and political discrimination historically because of their physical appearance. And although they are thought to be a "positive minority," Japanese Brazilians still face racial and ethnic harassment under the guise of 'new racisms' today. In particular I ask four questions: (1) Why did the majority of the first Japanese migrants move into the hinterlands of Brazil to create Japanese-style farm villages, and how did they succeed against the many physical and social obstacles facing them? (2) Why did the second and third generations of Japanese Brazilians abandon this successful agrarian lifestyle, and move to the cities? (3) Why are Japanese Brazilians seen as a positive minority in Brazil, while in Japan they are devalued? (4) if they are a positively valued minority in Brazil, why are Japanese Brazilians still labeled with the pejorative ethnic label "japonés? …

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