Battling the Bloodlines

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It's the small things the Brazilians do that annoy some Japanese in Toyota City. The immigrants don't throw their garbage where they are supposed to. They gather outside and play loud music at night. They play a strange card game that involves yelling Truco! at the top of their lungs. To Japanese in one densely populated public housing complex, it feels as if the foreigners are closing in on them, the smoke from the barbecues suffocating them, the Latin music drowning out an imagined tranquility. Ten years ago there were 200 Brazilians in the complex. Today there are 3,500. The sidewalks are getting narrower, said a Japanese woman as she maneuvered a grocery cart through a gathering of Brazilian families. There's no room for us anymore, said her friend. Foreigners of any stripe can be upsetting in Japan, where conformity is a national creed and wa, the concept of harmony, is integral to maintaining stability and peace in a country of 126 million people crowded onto four islands. I don't think it's a good idea to concentrate Brazilians in one place, said Masae Matsui. Two years ago, a residents' association Matsui headed proposed restricting the number of foreigners in his public housing complex; in April, he was elected to the city assembly. The dark side of wa, the part that excludes outsiders, erupted into violence earlier this summer in Toyota City, home to thousands of workers of the carmaker Toyota, its subsidiaries and suppliers. After a dispute with a noodle vendor got out of hand, about 100 supporters of a right-wing nationalist group paraded around the public housing complex where 3,500 Brazilians live. They shouted through a loudspeaker, Foreigners go home, taunted the Brazilians to come out and fight and waved metal pipes in the air. I was really scared to leave my flat to even go to the store to buy food, recalls Odolir Antonio Caseiro, 53. I was afraid that I would be beaten up. That the Brazilians are actually of Japanese descent makes the Toyota City incident especially alarming. In the early 1980s, a labor-starved Japan opened its doors to nikkei-jin, foreigners of Japanese descent. Brazil has one of the largest populations of such people--a century ago, many Japanese went there, looking for jobs. The first wave of Brazilian nikkei-jin that arrived in Japan in the 1980s wasn't big enough to pose a threat. A lot of the Brazilians work very hard, says Takayuki Kato, Toyota City's deputy police chief, adding that this is because they are of Japanese descent. But as the Brazilian population grew--there are more than 270,000 in Japan today--the cherished wa was disrupted. They thought they would be getting people like them, who would fit in, says Silvio Fugisawa, 25, a used-car broker who moved to Japan nine years ago. They found out we are more Brazilian than Japanese. Small slights began to add up. During soccer games at schools, teacher Masami Ono says, Brazilian boys pass the ball to Japanese, but Japanese don't return the ball to Brazilians. The foreigners say they have heard a supermarket loudspeaker announce: A Brazilian is here, so be careful. Deputy police chief Kato says that crime has increased because of the Brazilians, though he admits he has no statistics to back up that assertion. Says Kenji Yoshimura, a Brazilian of Japanese ancestry who has lived in Toyota City for nine years: People began to generalize that all Brazilians are criminals. The stage was set for a confrontation. In late May, after the noodle vendor got into an argument with some young Brazilians, a brawl broke out between Japanese and immigrant youth gangs. The vendor turned out to be sympathetic to a right-wing group, whose members organized a motorcycle rally at the complex. Other such incidents have ended in tragedy. In October 1997, a 14-year-old Brazilian-Japanese boy was beaten to death by a Japanese gang after a racial incident. This month in Ibaraki prefecture, police arrested nine Brazilians in connection with the death of a 42-year-old Japanese man during a melee that started after a traffic accident. Certainly there are many Brazilians who get along fine with their Japanese neighbors. But the bloodline visa experiment has not gone over well with some Japanese. The Brazilians have been accepted simply as a labor force, says Ono, the teacher. The government never thought of their human rights. An official economic plan announced in July encourages importing more skilled labor but is conspicuously quiet about such unskilled workers as most of the Brazilians. Japan's soured economy makes finding a job difficult. Most companies say they want someone who speaks Japanese, says Jose Antonio de Melo, 24. Before, the same jobs didn't require knowing the language. The Toyota City government has formed a committee to work on improving relations between the two nationalities. The committee does not include any Brazilians.