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Exploring Oizumi, Japan’s little Brazil

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Green Road, a main shopping street in Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture, where a building and streetlights are painted in the colors of the Brazilian flag

By Yutaka Ishiguro / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterOIZUMI, Gunma — In the 1990s, when I worked in Rio de Janeiro as a Yomiuri Shimbun correspondent, it was around a peak time for Brazilians of Japanese ancestry to go to Japan to work. They headed for the home country of their parents and grandparents, as their lives in Brazil were not improving. Seeing them leave their home country made me feel depressed.

I often remembered the sight of their backs as they departed, and this was why I did not feel like visiting Oizumi, a town called a “Brazil in Japan.”

When I got off a two-car train at Nishikoizumi Station, which serves as the gateway to the town, I found just one taxi waiting in front of the station, where a strong, dry wind was blowing.

However, Takara, a supermarket within walking distance of the station, was crowded with customers as it offers a wide array of foods from Brazil and many other parts of the world.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    The front wheel of a bicycle that the town’s tourism association rents to visitors features a sign with the phrase “Welcome to Oizumi, a Brazil in Japan.”

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Pao de queijo

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

In a corner of the supermarket is a Brazilian restaurant run by Marco Miyazaki, 52, a second-generation Japanese-Brazilian.

He had enjoyed a comfortable life as a dentist, living in an apartment with a pool in southern Brazil, but came to Japan in 2003 out of concern over security in his home country.

“I was robbed of my car with a gun pointed at my head,” Miyazaki said. “When I went to the police after having been informed that my car had been discovered, I was asked [by the police] to pay a huge amount as a reward.”

“I thought I would not be able to live there anymore,” he added.

Miyazaki is now preparing to open another eatery in Sano, Tochigi Prefecture. His days are busy as he is also running an organization to provide support for the education of foreign children.

According to data as of the end of last year, Oizumi had a population of 41,560, of whom 7,180 were foreign nationals. They accounted for 17 percent of the total, one of the highest ratios among municipalities nationwide. Among the foreign residents, 4,110 were Brazilians.

In Oizumi, there are also many foreigners of Japanese ancestry from South American countries other than Brazil.

Yoneko Lourdes, 41, who runs a clothing store, is a third-generation Japanese-Peruvian born in Lima. She has been living in Japan for 22 years since she came here in 1995. During that time, she has given birth to two sons.

“My older son will start university this spring to study tourism,” a smiling Lourdes said.

A spike in the number of South Americans of Japanese ancestry heading to Japan was triggered by a revision of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law in 1990, aimed to encourage second- and third-generation descendants of Japanese emigrants, along with their family members, to settle in Japan as part of the workforce.

Oizumi and its neighboring areas are home to factories of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. and Sanyo Electric Co., the latter of which has been bought by Panasonic Corp. The town therefore has many affiliated small and midsize firms, which have provided employment for South American nationals of Japanese ancestry.

However, many of them have returned home in recent years as Japan suffered a sluggish economy. Immigrants who put down roots in local communities still remain here, such as those who started up businesses and secured jobs as regular employees at companies.

As a “Brazil in Japan,” Oizumi is changing from a town of migrant workers to foreign settlers.

On the Green Road shopping street, running north from Nishikoizumi Station, there are many shops run by foreigners. Among them is Axe Bar, run by Hitomi Sonoda, 52, a second-generation Japanese-Brazilian, and her husband Salomao Nilson, 51.

“Our son got a job in Brazil, while our daughter found a job in Gunma Prefecture. They’re developing their own careers,” a proud Hitomi said as she was making a cocktail for a customer.

By the time I left the bar, the gloom I once felt on behalf of South Americans of Japanese ancestry had been washed away by the energetic way they are living in this town.

Iconic bread

One of Brazil’s iconic foods, pao de queijo is a cassava-flour bread that can stimulate your appetite with browned cheese on the surface. The item features a crisp outside, with the inside having an al dente texture.

At a bakery named Padaria do Tomi, pao de queijo is sold at ¥55 a piece.

“Bread is a living creature,” said Kumiho Matsuyama, 39, who runs the bakery. “For example, temperature management and how much we need to knead flour. [Making bread] is a really serious task every time.”

The bakery was founded a decade ago by Matsuyama’s husband, Tomiharu, who is now deceased. A Japanese-Brazilian who used to work at a supermarket, Tomiharu learned the techniques from a Brazilian professional baker in the Chubu region. He started the bakery to realize the desire of customers at the supermarket to eat bread as authentic as that in Brazil.

Access

From Kitasenju Station in Tokyo on the Tobu Isesaki Line, it takes about 50 minutes by express to Tatebayashi Station in Gunma Prefecture. Change trains to the Tobu Koizumi Line for an additional 20-minute ride to Nishikoizumi Station, the line’s terminus.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit http://the-japan-news.com/news/d&d

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