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100 years of Japanese immigration to Brazil

world Updated: Jun 15, 2008 12:36 IST

Brazil this month is celebrating 100 years of Japanese immigration -- an inflow that has created the biggest Japanese community in the world outside of Japan itself.

The focus of the partying is Sao Paulo, the country's biggest and most multi-cultural city, where a packed program of cultural events began on the weekend.

The highlight will be June 19-21, when Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito attends ceremonies marking the centenary of Japanese immigration, including a large procession next weekend including dancers, martial arts and military bands.

An estimated 1.5 million Japanese descendents live in Brazil, most in and around Sao Paulo.

Today, they are largely integrated into Brazilian society. At the same time, sushi restaurants are common here and there is great interest in learning Japanese as a second or third language.

The first Japanese came to Brazil on June 18, 1908 on a ship carrying 781 of them looking to work in the booming coffee plantations around Sao Paulo.

Since then, the inflow has swelled and and many streets in the center of Sao Paulo have the feel of a Little Tokyo, albeit one driven by tropical rhythms and the freewheeling Brazilian character.

Those who arrived after World War II "were more influenced by Brazilian society" than those -- more conservative, more tied to Japanese traditions -- who arrived before, Celia Oi, a historian and journalist specialized in the Japanese immigration, explained to AFP.

For the celebrations underway, Japanese traditions are prominent.

One unusual custom seen on the first day of the Japanese Culture Week marking the centenary was the transformation of a Brazilian-Japanese man into a geisha.

Akito Hibiki, who stripped off, dabbed on white make-up and was helped into an elaborate kimono and wig, explained that the transvestite spectacle in fact harked back to the 17th century, when men were hired to dress as geishas in parties for the wealthy in Japan.

Keeping the tradition going is not cheap.

"These ornaments," Hibiki said, pointing to silver threads hanging from his impressive black wig, "cost 16,000 dollars. And the wig itself is worth 30,000 dollars."

Other events, including Kendo, the wooden sword-fighting, and Taiko, synchronized Japanese drum-beating, also took place in Sao Paulo's main exhibition center.

Julie Onishi, a 28-year-old "sansei" -- or third-generation Brazilian-Japanese -- walking around looking at the shows, said "I think it's important to show all the Brazilians our culture."

She added that, despite her ties to Brazil, and her 13 years of learning Japanese, "I don't feel completely Japanese or Brazilian," but felt that Brazil would benefit by taking on more of the Japanese character nestled within it.