Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, yet the fortunes and status of the Japanese migrants have been extremely variable since the first boat arrived in 1908. At the end of the Meiji era as the society attempted to transition from feudalism towards a modern economy, Japan was a poor country and with exclusionary acts often blocking migration to countries such as the United States many travelled to South America and in particular to Brazil, which was desperate to recruit cheap labour following the end of slavery, to seek their fortunes intending to return in a few years’ time having made enough to set themselves up at home.
This is one reason given for why many settled in the harbour town of Santos, thinking it not worth their while to move further inland when they’d be going home soon enough. Yoju Matsubayashi’s documentary Okinawa Santos (オキナワ サントス), however, centres itself on a little known and traumatic episode of Brazilian-Japanese history, the forced relocation of the city’s Japanese community on July 8, 1943. Interviewing several of those who experienced the relocation first-hand many of whom were children at the time, Matsubayashi explores the position and legacy of the diaspora community the majority of whom hailed from the Okinawan islands rather the mainland.
One of those interviewed explains that the rationale for the relocation was that Allied boats were sinking off the coast of Santos with alarming frequency and the authorities began to view the Japanese community, against whom there had already been a degree of prejudice, as potential spies. One now elderly gentleman recalls with sadness that his Brazilian friends abruptly stopped playing with him, calling him a “fifth columnist” in the streets. Japanese-language newspapers had already been shut down which is one reason few primary documents relating to the relocation exist, while speaking Japanese in public had also been banned. This might have seemed ironic to those who’d travelled from Okinawa where they also found themselves oppressed by the majority Japanese culture whose attempts at forced assimilation ran to banning the native Okinawan language, something they were comparatively free to preserve after relocating to Brazil.
Midway through his documentary, Matsubayashi encounters this same divide even within the Japanese community receiving a phone call from a Brazilian-Japanese woman he’d interviewed who asks to be removed from the project apparently because of his interviewing so many from the Okinawan diaspora. An older man who later went into politics recalls the community having been largely segregated with the mainland Japanese often looking down on the Okinawans while each operated separate communal halls and intermarriage was frowned upon. Some hid their Okinawan heritage out of shame as Okinawans were regarded as not really “Japanese” but somehow other. This rift was apparently unhealed until the contemporary era though as the phone call implies may still to some extent survive.
All were however subject to the relocation order as the now elderly children explain their fear and confusion in being cast out of their homes with little warning, having their farms looted while forced to leave most of their property and possessions behind. Crowded onto a train they were taken to an immigration centre in São Paulo before being moved on further into the interior but with little assistance or support dependent entirely on friends and relatives, other members of the diaspora, already living and farming inland. Many of the now elderly members of the community tearfully recount crushing poverty and discrimination, never having talked about their experiences even with their own children and describing them as unreal, like a sad dream from which they have never quite woken up. Meanwhile they continued to face prejudice after the war due to the presence of a minority group who couldn’t accept the Japanese defeat and apparently committed acts of terrorism against those who could, further harming the reputation of the Japanese community in mainstream Brazilian society to the extent that legislation was proposed to halt immigration from Japan which was finally defeated only on the grounds of democratic principle. Nevertheless, though many of those interviewed have been able to build happy, successful lives they are each affected by the traumatic legacy of forced displacement unable even to speak of their childhood suffering.
Original trailer (no subtitles)