The Japanese Diaspora and Japan’s Shameful Secret: Japanese Citizens Shipped Out as Slaves

Fun Fact Brazil and Japan

Fun Fact #17: The biggest Japanese community outside of Japan is in Brazil.

I and my direct family and relatives are among the 1.4 million Nikkei living in the USA, which is the second largest home to people of Japanese ancestry. I had assumed American was the largest home to Nikkei (or people of Japanese ethnicity). But no, Wikipedia informs me that as many as 1.6 million are in Brazil, out of 2.6~3 million people who make up the Japanese diaspora.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan had pockets of deep poverty, and like the poor in so many other countries, the Japanese emigrated to the Americas. The Japanese were attracted to the lure of sugar in Hawaii, of oranges in California, and coffee in Brazil. When it became harder for Japanese to gain entry to the United States in the 1920s, they began to pour into the coffee bean plantations of Brazil.

Enticing Japanese to Work in Brazil circa 1900
Early 1900s propaganda poster encouraging Japanese immigration. Image courtesy of the Brazilian government.
The Japanese diaspora is not as numerous or far-reaching as the Chinese or Indian diaspora. But you will find evidence of the Japanese here and there. There are memorials dotted across Southeast Asia that note the presence of Japanese in the past two or three centuries. Surprisingly, many of them moved overseas during a period of internal conflicts and external isolationism – it was hard for Japanese to leave the country, and hard for foreigners to dock and enter Japan.

However, the Portuguese, effectively trading firearms and providing new insights into science and medicine, were allowed limited entry to Western Japan. And here is Fun Fact #2000 on Japan…something I had not known until I started looking into this so-called Japanese Diaspora: The Portuguese traders in the 16th and 17th centuries sold Japanese slaves to buyers overseas, particularly in the Portuguese colonies of India, Malaysia, Macao and Goa, India, as well as Europe.

As revealed in this research of Japanese historian, Michiko Kitahara, in his book “Naze Taiheiyo Senso ni Nattanoka (Why Did the Pacific War Break out?), “the trade between Japan and Portugal included Chinese products and, in fact, most of the products that Portuguese sold to Japanese were Chinese products, such as silk and spices.  But along with the trade of this kind, there also was a different type of trade, that has been little known both in Japan and in the rest of the world even to this day—Portuguese sold Japanese slaves overseas.”

hideyoshi toyotomi
Toyotomi Hideyoshi
When de facto leader and victor of a civil war in Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, heard that Japanese were being sold into slavery, he was outraged, and in the strongest diplomatic terms, insisted that the Portuguese stop trading in Japanese citizens and to return them to Japan at the expense of Japan. Hideyoshi understood that the Portuguese would not change, and so he applied real pressure to the only people he could, threatening the Japanese who were selling slaves to the Portuguese with execution.

The cold reality was that slavery was not outlawed in Japan, and that warring daimyos in Japan often converted their war prisoners into slaves. The most unfortunate of the unfortunate were shipped off to unknown shores, a lingering legacy of the modern-day Japanese diaspora.