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New book explores ‘true’ Japan on the edge of a Brazilian forest

The nation of Brazil is home to 1.5 million people of Japanese descent, the largest such population outside of Japan, larger even than the number of Japanese Americans. For her new book, Associate Professor of Anthropology Nobuko Adachi studied one group that considers itself a direct legacy of the “real” Japan.

image of Nobuko Adachi

Nobuko Adachi

“They let me know that they are real Japanese, while I myself just happen to come from Japan,” said Adachi, who was born and raised in Japan. “For them, being Japanese means staying true to nature and the purity of Japan’s farming tradition.”

Adachi’s book, Ethnic Capital in a Japanese Brazilian Commune: Children of Nature, examines the inhabitants of the Japanese commune of Kubo, which lies more than 350 miles from the metropolis of São Paulo on the border of the Mato Grosso do Sul (“thick forest of the south”). Less than 100 people live in the commune, but they share many of the same values as the Japanese descendants who arrived in Kubo in the early 1900s, noted Adachi.

image of the cover of the book Ethnic Capital in a Japanese Beazilian Commune.

The cover of Nobuko Adachi’s new book that explores the Japanese Brazilian commune of Kubo.

“The founder of the Kubo commune gathered people from Japan to come to Brazil to build a ‘new Japanese community’ because they saw the purity of their world vanishing. They did not come simply to escape poverty, as had many other Japanese,” said Adachi. By the end of the 19th century, the feudal system, based on farming, was breaking down in Japan. Seeing a direct connection between purity and nature, the founders of Kubo encouraged the new migrants to make a new life in the Brazil hinterlands centered around traditional Japanese farming virtues and cultivating the human spirit.

By establishing the commune, the Kubo residents felt they bore a sacred duty to protect the essence of Japanese culture. “This idea of ‘purity’ is what the commune considers essential to being ‘Japanese.’ But it is by forming their capital, their ‘ethnic capital,’ that allows them to flourish,” said Adachi. She added this idea can be seen in Kubo’s rich artistic history. “For example, they have two grand pianos, and a dance teacher, who was a professional trained in Japan, teaching the arts to children and even adults.”

One boy gave me a look and said slowly in Japanese, “That. Is. A. Cow…. Are you stupid or something?” — Nobuko Adachi, talking of her anthropological studies in Kubo 

Each chapter of the book explores a theoretical question in anthropology through stories and anecdotes of those living in Kubo, and of Adachi’s experience there. While trying to investigate the prominence of the Japanese language in the commune, she asked a gathering of young boys the names of items. “After I pointed to the fourth or fifth item—which was a cow—and asked the name, one boy gave me a look and said slowly in Japanese, ‘That. Is. A. Cow…. Are you stupid or something?’” Adachi laughed at the memory. “So the answer is yes, Japanese certainly is the language of the commune.”

In fact, Adachi found that only Japanese is spoken in the commune, though children attending the Brazilian village school in nearby Aliança speak Portuguese (the official language of Brazil). “But as soon as they enter the commune, it is Japanese only,” she said.

The village and the area have good relations with outsiders, said Adachi, who added that the commune members are allowed to marry whomever they want. “The only rule is that they cannot live on the commune itself and raise children there if they marry a non-Japanese person,” she said. “The people there want to continue to consider themselves true Japanese, the descendants of a pure Japan, even on the edge of a Brazilian forest. If they allowed non-Japanese Brazilians to live there, they fear they would lose their special uniqueness: a true Japanese, and Japanese-speaking, society that happens to lie in the Brazilian interior.”

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