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Thinking about the Kasato Maru Emigrants

At this time 100 years ago, the Kasato Maru was at sea with 781 contracted immigrants and free travelers on board. It had been 60 days since it left Kobe Port until it arrived at Santos Port on June 18th.

It seems there is no such thing as a group photo of the Kasato Maru immigrants. The only photo I knew of was one that was taken by a person from Kagoshima Prefecture at a shrine in Kobe. I can say "only" because I had a chance to see another photo just recently, which I am posting here. It is a commemorative photo of the immigrants gathered on the deck of the Kasato Maru, probably taken before departure.

Images are a strange thing. Even for someone with a weak imagination like me, a glance seems to stimulate something in me, and bring out all sorts of thoughts. It seems that this photo has long been known to those who know about it, but for me, who has been interested in the history of Japanese immigration to Brazil but has not been able to form a very clear image of the Kasato Maru immigrants, this was a new and small encounter.

Only a few people in the foreground are clearly visible, but how should we interpret the faces of the immigrants, or rather their expressions, which one might call their looks? I sense neither anxiety nor a refreshing sense of determination, but even a vague rebelliousness. Perhaps this is because I know that many of the people who went to work on coffee plantations in Brazil were angry about their treatment and went on strike, or quickly gave up and went to work in the city or as far away as Argentina, and that those who stayed on the plantations were tenacious enough to not let Japanese immigrants be labeled as no good, despite all those troubles. Either way, to me, the expressions on their faces do not look like those of the same Japanese who have lived through the Taisho, Showa, and Heisei eras to this day.

In the first place, there are no longer any unknown lands that take 60 days to reach. There is no choice to risk one's life and the lives of one's family to a place about which there is almost no information. Travelers who can gather detailed information through the Internet are now in an age where it is not uncommon to "reunite" with local residents they have met through e-mail as if they were old acquaintances, and to effortlessly blend into the local network.

If this photo was taken on deck at the time of departure, it means that they are about to embark on a journey that we cannot even imagine, and there is no turning back. What kind of expression would a person have at such a time? It may be natural that I cannot read it.

Still, looking at this photograph makes me want to think again about what it was that drove them to head to Brazil.

Why do people emigrate? The most common and persuasive answer is the explanation based on the economic situation at the time. If you overlay a graph showing the economic situation in modern Japan and the number of immigrants sent out, the correlation is clear. People cross the sea to eat, to feed their families, to enrich their lives. It's a very simple explanation.

Is that all? However, there was always something else that didn't quite seem to make sense to me.

Were there no other ways to make a living other than immigration? It is hard to accept that they would have had to take such a risky move away from their hometown, live among people who didn't even speak their language, and jump into a life with no guarantees, relying only on rumors that there was a money tree (did they really believe them?).

Looking at the photographs with this thought in mind, the immigrants who boarded the Kasato Maru appear to have had a special "spirit of adventure" (I'm sure there's a more appropriate word but I can't think of one) even at the time. Even now, I sometimes feel this way when I come into contact with the unique personalities of the first generation of immigrants. I believe that a true spirit of adventure is not a quality that everyone has, but something that only a certain kind of person possesses.

It dulls rational thinking, drags those around them down impossible paths, and often results in "failure." Of course, "failure" is merely an assessment based on one set of values. These people were probably just people obsessed with wanting to see things they'd never seen before, go to places they'd never been to, and experience a life no one else could. I sense a mysterious energy in this photograph, and I think it emanates from the gathering of people with that kind of spirit.

Ultimately, the world has managed to survive this long thanks to people like this who have carved out new paths, sometimes making irrational choices that don't benefit them. One could also say that the reason adventurous people who often suffer losses as individuals have not been eliminated for so long is because their existence benefits humanity in the long run. If we think about it this way, there are many descendants of the Kasato Maru immigrants throughout human history.

Some people see the Kasato Maru immigrants as victims who were deceived by false propaganda and came to Brazil. I do not deny that this is an aspect of the story, but I feel that such a one-sided view is disrespectful to them.

In the photo, the group is looking directly at the camera. Mizuno Ryu, who may have been standing right next to them and was the person who led them to Brazil, may have been thinking what on earth he was thinking when he undertook such an undertaking, which is also a topic worth reconsidering.

© 2008 Shigeo Nakamura

About this series

This is a 15-part column that introduces the lives and thoughts of the Japanese community in a small town in the interior of the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo, interweaving the history of Japanese immigration to Brazil.

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About the Author

Researcher at Rikkyo University Institute of Asian Studies. From 2005, he served as a curator at a historical museum in a town in the interior of the state of São Paulo, Brazil, as a youth volunteer dispatched by JICA for two years. This was his first encounter with the Japanese community, and since then, he has been deeply interested in the 100-year history of Japanese immigration to Brazil and the future of the Japanese community.

(Updated February 1, 2007)

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