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Inspire Forward: Nikkei Heroes Under 30

Graziela Tamanaha: Young Leadership and Inspiration in the Brazilian Nikkei Community—Part 1

Graziela at age 1 with her parents, 1996  (photo: personal archive/Graziela Tamanaha)

Her father’s family is from Nishihara, Okinawa; her mother’s is from Hokkaido, Japan. Her grandparents were very engaged in cultural activities and following in their footsteps is their granddaughter, Graziela Tamanaha, a 26-year-old Sansei. Boasting an impressive 7-year trajectory in the Japanese-Brazilian community, she started out by attending the main events once a year, then gradually increasing her presence until finally reaching its current full commitment.

Family Roots

Her paternal grandparents in the living room of the house where Graziela grew up and continues to live to this day (photo: personal archive/Graziela Tamanaha)

“I grew up with two cultures at home,” she says, “Japanese and Uchinanchu [Okinawan, in the local dialect]. For this reason, I feel that I learned everything twice, as each object can be referred to by two different names [e.g., chawan and makai (bowl)], in addition to idioms, expressions, and more.”

Graziela never got to know her grandfathers, but her parents used to tell many stories about them. “My odi (paternal grandfather), Seikiti Tamanaha, made a sanshin [typical Okinawan musical instrument] out of snakeskin, something that was very common at the time, and he liked to play it at gatherings with his friends. My jiichan (maternal grandfather), Etuzi Nakamura, was a black belt in judo, sang at karaokes, and worked in the theater, acting in plays and even dancing.”

Her maternal grandfather acted on the stage and liked to sing karaoke (photo: personal archive/Graziela Tamanaha)

From the time she was a little girl, she lived close to her oba (paternal grandmother), Kame Tamanaha, of whom she has many memories. Her bachan (maternal grandmother), Ossamu Nakamura, lived in São Bernardo, São Paulo state (SP), with her cousins. “In spite of [the distance], I also learned a lot from her, who made a point of encouraging her grandchildren to practice something related to Japanese culture. I even got my first yukata from her and I still wear it to this day!”

Graziela with her paternal grandmother, oba, and her cousins (photo: personal archive/Graziela Tamanaha)

“When oba offered ocha (tea) and crackers to my odi at the butsudan [oratory], I liked to take part in it too because it felt natural to me,” she recalls.

Oba also had the habit of going to the kaikan every Sunday. “One time, during undokai [traditional sports competition], I remember her coming back with a little bag filled with stuff, like pencils and notebooks. She even had a ball in her other hand.” Intrigued, her granddaughter asked where all these things had come from. Without going into details, Dona [Mrs.] Kame replied that she had won everything at a Japanese provincial association event, and that it was all a gift for the little one.

Her maternal grandmother, Bachan, dancing bon odori  (photo: personal archive/Graziela Tamanaha)

Along with bachan, Graziela participated in several matsuri and other festivals in [São Paulo’s] Liberdade district, in which she performed bon odori. “We used to meet [bachan] before the performance, always looking good in the group’s attire, and I was delighted to see her dancing.”

Over the years, oba gradually stopped attending the kaikan. But despite her age, she was “strong and independent,” living to the age of 102. For her part, bachan was concerned about which of her granddaughters would be given her kimonos when she could no longer dance; in the end, Graziela was the one who was most active in the Japanese community—she kept one as a memento and donated the others.

Her father's side of the family congregated for oba's 100th birthday celebration, 2008 (photo: personal archive/Graziela Tamanaha)

Regardless of the fact that her grandmothers had stopped taking part in those activities, she saw “little things that kept such cultural moments alive, whether in their gestures or in how they took care of the home, and especially in their food preparations.” She confesses, “I really miss bachan’s mazegohan.”

Whereas her roots and ties to Japan are consistent, this Sansei has relatives of other nationalities as well—her godmother is of Italian descent. “It’s always great fun whenever the two families get together at Nona’s house; she’s my aunt’s mother.” The party comes with a diverse menu, which includes onigiri, barbecue, harusame salad, sashimi, and even Nona’s special cappelletti soup. In the words of this Uchina (Okinawa) descendant, it’s “a junction of cultures.”

One of the family gatherings at Nonna's house; Nonna was the mother of Graziela's aunt (photo: personal archive/Graziela Tamanaha)

Values and traditions

Connected to traditions since childhood, this granddaughter of Japanese nationals carries within her values such as family unity, respect for everyone (especially one’s elders), and humility.

“Once I started working in the Japanese community,” she says, “I became closer to the culture on both sides (the two cultures are extremely rich and different), for I began to understand why things are the way they are and how they’re connected. Although I grew up in accordance with certain customs, when I learned more about them it always felt like a new discovery—and I’ve been learning more and more by being in the community.”

“In 2018, I lost my father to a stroke and, as an only child, I felt a responsibility to give continuity to our traditions. These days, I share with my mother many of these traditions. We do what we saw oba do, and as a result I’ve become more connected to the Uchinanchu side.”

“I grew up listening to various musical genres, and Japanese music was always present, like enka and traditional artists. Maybe that’s where my passion for music comes from. I had my first contact with sanshin in 2019, at a workshop that the Bunkyo Youth Commission (CJB, Seinenkai Bunkyo)—a division of Bunkyo, the Brazilian Society of Japanese Culture and Social Assistance—had organized with the sensei Takao Yoshimura. I found it interesting, and I thought a lot about the issue of it being an instrument passed from generation to generation. In early 2020, I borrowed one from a friend of my mom’s because my odi had sent his back to Okinawa. For over 10 years I knew how to play the guitar, so I looked up sheet music online and tried it out a little. It’s these little things that make me feel a little more connected to the culture,” she adds.



Graziela remembers that, when she was around 2 years old, she saw her paternal grandmother sunbathing in the backyard. “She liked to sit on the bumper of the car to read a book while I played next to her. It was me and my oba always together; wherever she went, I followed [laughs]. I paid attention to everything my oba did. It was common for her to practice memory exercises, when she’d count to 10. That’s why, when I was learning to count, I picked up her accent, as I heard her say “um [one], douisu [instead of dois], turesu [instead of três]...” [Laughs.]

Dona Kame was already of a certain age when her granddaughter was born; even so, she wanted to be close to her, to hold her in her arms. “Seeing this photo brings back good memories,” Graziela adds, “because I loved this little shirt [laughs] and it has the VW Beetle and the scrunchie that my mother used to put in my hair.”

Graziela and her oba were inseparable (photo: personal archive/Graziela Tamanaha)

Something that this person of Japanese ancestry found to be characteristic of Japanese culture was the custom of making mochi at home. “My mother helped out with the more laborious part because oba was older, and when I saw them in the kitchen, I also wanted to help! That was something joyful; I’d end up looking like a little ghost [laughs]. My dad would get the camera and have some fun.”

At the age of 3, Graziela had a ball while trying to help her oba make mochi (photo: personal archive/Graziela Tamanaha)

Something to remember

At the centenary of Japanese immigration to Brazil, her paternal grandmother received an invitation from Bunkyo, which was paying tribute to those over the age of 99 at a ceremony held annually at that institution. Later on, she received another invitation, when the Japanese prince came to Brazil. “We were super happy because we had no idea that Bunkyo did these kinds of celebrations. Then my father asked my mother to come along as his companion—he couldn’t get by in Japanese all that well. I asked if I could go too because I wanted to know what it was like, but they said I had to go to school [laughs]. We were flattered to have had this moment with the current Emperor of Japan; it was remarkable,” she says. And so began this third-generation Nikkei’s journey in the community.

On the occasion of the Centenary of Japanese Immigration to Brazil in 2008, Graziela's oba attended the reception for Japanese Prince Naruhito, the current Emperor of Japan (photo: personal archive/Graziela Tamanaha)

Working in the Nikkei Community

When it all began: The first time Graziela participated in the Japan Festival, 2014 (photo: personal archive/Graziela Tamanaha)

“I became more active in the community when I went to the Japan Festival in 2014.” A high school friend had asked her to come along, as they used to attend several events together and go for walks in Liberdade. Shortly afterwards, the teenagers signed up and helped out at the entrance to the event. In 2015, Graziela was part of the HR team, helping to oversee the lunch and dinner comings and goings of the volunteers. “By that time, I’d already met the people from the Youth Commission, but I wasn’t that interested,” she says.

After once again helping out at the festival in 2016, she was invited to visit the CJB and take part in a conversation circle. “I was doing that only once a year and I wanted to do it more often; I wanted to have more of this kind of contact. They explained the group’s mission and activities, and I felt that that was something for me.”

Her first event as a Seinenkai member was a concert featuring the Hibiki Family, a musical group from Japan, alongside the 1960s Brazilian instrumental rock band Os Incríveis. “I grew up listening to this band and I really like their style.” For these reasons, it was “a privilege” to have participated in the event. “I needed a ride home because it was late at night, but everything worked out [laughs]. When it comes to these things, everyone helps one another a lot so that each one of us can get home safely.” Thus, the newcomer felt welcomed by the veterans.

“At that time, I was only going to college, so I was able to assist the group. That’s because once you join them, you help out according to your availability. It’s different when you have a position of responsibility [on the board or in the vice presidency].”

Her first event as a member of Bunkyo's Youth Commission, 2016  (photo: personal archive/Graziela Tamanaha)

In 2018, after losing her father, the recently graduated marketing professional thought about ceasing all these activities, as she found herself “groundless, I had no motivation to keep going with those things.” Her friends, however, insisted that she should keep at it: “they succeeded in giving me strength.” She stayed on at the CJB while respecting her own limitations; if she realized she wasn’t feeling well or didn’t feel up to it, she wouldn’t force herself to do anything. Undoubtedly, staying active was a great help in overcoming her grief.

Part 2 >>


© 2022 Tatiana Maebuchi

Brazil Graziela Tamanaha Okinawa Sansei Uchinanchu

About this series

This monthly series features interviews with young Nikkei who are 30 years old and younger from around the world who are helping to shape and build the future of Nikkei communities or doing innovative and creative work sharing and exploring Nikkei history, culture, and identity.  

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