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OHAYO Bom dia

Chapter 19: To Be Nikkei

As I was leaving the Anna Rosa subway station one day, I overheard a conversation between some students behind me. “She’s too good. It’s because she has ‘Asian neurons’.”

What did they mean by “Asian neurons”? It was the first time I had heard of such a term. Since there were some high schools and prep schools nearby, I thought maybe these boys had failed an exam while they believed “she” was able to pass because she was Asian.

It has long been popular to describe Nikkei students as studious, honor-roll students. Students of Korean and Chinese descent have recently begun to be included in this grouping as well. Therefore, “Asian neurons” is a term likely popularized by students to describe Asian genetics.

Just the other day at the store, I caught myself listening to the following conversation between the store employees. “Joanna’s trying to look Japanese, making her eyes look thinner.” They were discussing the recent trend in eye makeup. The other employee responded, “It might make her look Japanese on the outside, but it won’t help her brain…”

Genes, smarts, brains. This reminded me of something: It was right after my first work was published—a reporter form a Nikkei newspaper told me, “There’s a doctor that wants to study how your brain works.”

That experiment never materialized, but I still think about it today sometimes. How exactly is my brain working? Is it functioning like a Japanese person, or a Brazilian person?

A while back, I read about a study of the brain by a Japanese scientist, Kazuo Ishiguro.

Ishiguro was born in Japan, but moved to England at a young age and therefore was raised bi-culturally. As a British author, he received the Booker Award—the highest literary prize in England—on multiple occasions, including 1986, 1989, 2000, and 2005. I wasn’t able to find out about the results of the study on Ishiguro’s brain, but I still find these matters intriguing. 

It is a lot of fun to be Nikkei. We can be exposed to so many experiences.

I am Brazilian, but others often label me as “Japanese”. Sometimes I get dragged into unusual situations due to that that assumption.

I once visited the home of a Brazilian couple. They lived on a farm near the foot of a mountain, and they had just moved in. As they showed me around their farm, I was suddenly asked to name one of the plants. I said “I don’t know,” and the wife shouted in surprise, “What? Aren’t you Japanese? You’re supposed to know these things!”

At work, one of my co-workers assumed I was Buddhist and asked me questions about “Zen”. I told her that my grandfather was Buddhist, but I am Christian. She was not convinced. “But you’re Japanese, right?”

Brazilians don’t know about the term “Nikkei”. To Brazilians, regardless of whether we’re born in Brazil, we’re all the same—we’re all Japanese.

When I was waiting in line at city hall, a city worker called out a Japanese name. The name was called several times, but that person was not there. Others waiting near me started pointing at me, asking, “Isn’t that you?” I wanted to reply, “I know what my own name is—I haven’t gone senile yet”… but I just politely shook my head and let it go, wearing a fake smile.


Most other Nikkei in my age group have Japanese names, but I don't have one. My father had some negative experiences with having a Japanese name, so he thought it would be best for me to have a simple, short Brazilian name. My father moved to Brazil when he was two years old and his parents registered his name in Japanese order: Hasegawa Seikai.  The problem was that Brazilians thought his given name was Hasegawa and Seikai was his surname, when it was actually the other way around. On top of that, since Hasegawa ended in an "A", people assumed it was a feminine name.

So I was named with a simple Latina name, Laura. However, at the time others had a hard time understanding why a Japanese-looking girl had only a Brazilian name. When I was born, a neighbor—assuming my name was Japanese—had asked my mother, “How do you say ‘Laura’ in Portuguese”? My mother was at a loss for words. When I was in second grade, my teacher asked, “What does your name translate to?” I was in disbelief.

Brazil is the melting pot of mankind, and although we Nikkei are a minority of less than 1% of the Brazilian population, we tend to stand out. We definitely look different, and our average height is shorter than westerners. Portuguese is different from Japanese, so Nikkei have always been ridiculed for speaking “bad” or “odd” Portuguese. Until recently, a “Japanese” character was often used for TV commercials or comedy programs.  A stereotypical Asian character would be bucktoothed with thin eyes, straight hair, and wearing a kimono. They would speak Portuguese with a variety of accents. Most Nikkei probably saw this and only thought it was “funny,” but I didn’t agree. I wrote a letter to the editor about my disapproval of the commercial. Maybe it was coincidence, but after my letter was published on the papers, the commercial disappeared from the broadcasts.

I first identified myself as Nikkei and felt proudly about it in my first year of high school. It was 1963, and a Japanese song had become globally famous and hit #1 on the American Billboard music chart. 

The song was called “Ue o muite arukou”, by Kyu Sakamoto. In English it was titled “Sukiyaki”, and in Portuguese it was known as “Olhando para o céu”.

Thanks to “Ue o muite arukou”, I became popular at school. It was during a time before Japanese comics and anime became known worldwide, so Japanese songs were unusual and my classmates would ask me what the lyrics meant. We stayed in the classroom during recess as I wrote down the lyrics in their notebooks. I even taught them how to pronounce each word.

Making use of my Nikkei heritage, I was able to become an author of short stories in Brazilian literature. It was my dream to write a story with a Nikkei main character. This led to the birth of “Kimiko”. She’s a normal girl, but the way she thinks, acts, and expresses herself is different from a Brazilian woman, yet also different from a Japanese woman at the same time. There are other Nikkei characters as well, each with a unique personality. Although a work of fiction, I wanted to depict the Nikkei world surrounding me.

Unfortunately, due to the publisher’s decision, only 300 copies of the sequel to Kimiko’s story were published. Later, I worked on a project for the 100th anniversary of Japanese Immigration—my first work in both languages—but that year (2008) I ended up going to Japan, and the project was canceled.

When I returned to Brazil, the 100th Anniversary celebration was over, and I was unable to find a publisher that would accept my work. I thought “It’s the end of the road for me as an author,” but I often felt “it would be a waste” if I stopped writing.

Then I was introduced to Discover Nikkei, which breathed life into my dreams once again. There’s no greater happiness than to be able to continue doing what you love. It makes me so happy to be able to share my experiences with people all over the world!

Like a rare species of plants, I will cherish my Nikkei heritage and continue doing my best to live strongly.

© 2011 Laura Honda-Hasegawa

Brazil identity Japanese minority nikkei

About this series

My grandfather immigrated to Brazil from Japan about 100 years ago, and I was born in Brazil. That is why I strive to become a ‘bridge’ between Brazil and Japan. I treasure the ‘Japan’ rooted deep in my heart, and I want to keep that part of me protected in my homeland of Brazil. This series was composed with those feelings in mind. (“Bom Dia” is “Good morning” in Portuguese)