Yamato Hirai used to struggle to get into the starting line-up when he arrived at his local soccer pitch to play alongside his fellow -Japanese-Brazilians. However, these days, there are barely enough players for a game. Many of those who made their home in Japan have upped and left, off to seek their fortune in booming Brazil while the world’s No. 3 economy stutters.
Soccer and its five-a-side variant, futsal, have helped bind Brazilians in Japan — most of whom are offspring of Japanese who migrated to Brazil in the 20th century — in a pastime that honors the heritage of their homeland.
However, in cities like Toyohashi in Japan’s industrial belt, “the beautiful game” is becoming ever rarer because of the exodus of people like Hirai, who came to Japan two decades ago as a second-generation Japanese-Brazilian.
Every Wednesday evening after work, Hirai takes his 14-year-old son Yosuke to a futsal pitch in Toyohashi to train for weekend matches.
“On some Wednesdays, not enough of us show up. Or we’ve got 10 players, just enough to train,” said the 48-year-old manager of an employment agency, recalling how there used to be 30 players on his team. “This is happening because there are far fewer Brazilians living here.”
Over the past four years, the number of Brazilians in Toyohashi, about 250km southwest of Tokyo and a major center for Toyota and its subcontractors, has halved, to about 7,000.
Japanese migrants began crossing the Pacific in large numbers in the early 20th century, with Brazil welcoming its first settlers in 1908, where they worked on coffee and other plantations after the abolition of slavery.
Despite the often low wages and poor working conditions, the community grew into the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.
According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, there were between 1.4 million and 1.5 million people of Japanese descent in Brazil as of 2000.
Japan’s rapid economic growth of the 1970s and 1980s provided a tempting reason for many in the community to reverse the journey their ancestors had made, settling in industrialized cities like this one, where they established -Portuguese-speaking communities.
“Twenty years ago, the costs of living in Brazil were still low, as opposed to the high wages earned in Japan,” said Toyohito Tanabe, director of the Brazilian Association of Toyohashi.
“So, many Brazilians would save money here and buy houses in Brazil,” the 43-year-old added. “Even doctors would open their own clinics after working in Japan for a few years. Back then, people came here with big dreams and goals.”
A famous example of such ties lies in former Japan international soccer player Marcus “Tulio” Tanaka, who was born in Brazil to parents with Japanese, Brazilian and Italian heritage before moving to Japan as a teenager. The Brazilian population in Japan expanded rapidly after 1989, when the Tokyo government abolished an entry limit on Japanese-Brazilians, up to the third generation, to make up for Japan’s own shortage of labor.
It topped 300,000 in total for four years until 2008, when the global financial crisis felled Japan’s export-driven manufacturers.
The number has since slumped to touch 210,000 at the end of last year, but even with the dramatic fall-off, Brazilians remain the third-biggest ethnic minority group in Japan, behind Chinese and Koreans.