A Brief History of the Japanese in São Paulo

Liberdade Sao Paulo © Caliel Costa Flickr
Liberdade Sao Paulo © Caliel Costa Flickr
Photo of Euan Marshall
17 May 2017

While it is widely known that the cosmopolitan megacity of São Paulo has several immigrant communities from all around the world, fewer people are aware of the size of these populations. One of the most visible migrant groups in São Paulo is the Japanese, who began arriving in Brazil at the start of the 20th century. Today, São Paulo is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.

In the mid 19th century, with Brazil’s booming coffee trade and the abolition of slavery, the country moved to attract vast numbers of migrant workers from Europe, particularly Italians. Those who came, however, complained of low wages and poor working conditions, causing Italy to impose a ban on government-sponsored immigration to Brazil, and thus creating another labor shortage on the coffee plantations.

Liberdade, São Paulo, Brazil | © Bruno Soares/Flickr

Meanwhile, in Japan, the abolition of the feudal han system plunged large groups of agricultural workers into poverty and caused many to look overseas in search of a new life, particularly to the Americas. Japanese immigrants settled in Mexico and Peru, but it was on São Paulo’s coffee plantations where the community thrived.

The Japanese community in São Paulo quickly concentrated in the central neighborhood of Liberdade, where house prices were the cheapest. Almost immediately, Japanese markets and hotels popped up on the area’s streets as the population grew and grew.

Today, there are approximately 1.6 million Japanese-Brazilians living in São Paulo, making it the largest concentration of individuals of Japanese descent outside of Japan.

Star Festival in Liberdade | © Adriano Makoto Suzuki / Flickr

While the neighborhood of Liberdade is now home to immigrants from other East Asian countries, particularly China and South Korea, the region has maintained a visible Japanese character. Its streets are lined with oriental suzuran-to lampposts and cherry blossom trees, as well as traditional Japanese restaurants, supermarkets, and bars.

Every weekend, Liberdade hosts a street fair with an impressive array of foods, arts, and crafts, making it an unmissable neighborhood for any visitor to São Paulo.

Liberdade Sao Paulo | © Caliel Costa Flickr

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