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.

Ada Kok Sharon Strouder butterfly 1964
From left to right: Ada Kok of the Netherlands, Sharon Stouder and Kathy Ellis of the United States.


She used to train with the boys – big boys, who were boxers during the day and bouncers in bars at night. Ada Kok was a teenage swimming phenom, asked to join the Dutch national swimming team at the age of 13, but in the early 1960s in Amsterdam, athletes were on their own.

“In those days, you just had a swimming coach but nothing for any condition training. The coach of the boxing team helped me. I ran in the park with the other boxers. I skipped rope. And my friends made sure that boys didn’t give me trouble when going out in Amsterdam because they’d tell them, ‘I’ll punch you in the nose if you don’t do right by her’.”

Inspired by her sister, who competed on the Dutch swim team at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Kok became the premier butterfly swimmer in the world, setting the world record in that discipline in September, 1963, and again in May, 1964. At the age of 17, Kok was the favorite going into the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.

Nearly matching her world record time, Kok swam an excellent race in the 100-meter butterfly finals. But she lost to Sharon Stouder of the USA, who broke Kok’s world record. Going into the finals, Kok expected to win, but in retrospect, she now knows she was unwittingly swimming upstream against a US team that was more prepared and more experienced than any other team.

“I was very disappointed,” Kok told me. “I was the world’s record holder for years, and I was training hard for this event. I didn’t know Sharon Stouder. I didn’t think about my competitors. I was confident, not arrogant. But I was also naïve.”

In the end, no other country had the resources to support a swim team like the USA at the time. Not only was the Netherlands 0.4% the size, 6.3% the population, and 43% of the per capita GDP of the United States in 1964, the US had the swim clubs, the coaches and the access to international competition that very few other athletes in the world had.

Ada Kok on bicycle in Tokyo Olympic Village
Ada Kok (left) on a bicycle in the Olympic Village in 1964.

“They were more professional,” said Kok of the Americans. “They had paid coaches. Mine was a volunteer, who had a regular job. Our swim federation didn’t have the money to send us abroad so we competed in nearby countries traveling at minimum cost.”

And yet, the Dutch women’s team still proved to be a powerful force, winning silver in a team race in the women’s 4X100 meter medley relay, a competition where four swimmers swim two lengths of the pool each in four different styles in this order: the backstroke, the breaststroke, the butterfly stroke, and freestyle (which means any style other than the previous three).

As a demonstration of American dominance, the US swim coach did not even use their top swimmers in the heats. And the four swimmers who swam in the finals set an Olympic record, finishing over three seconds faster than the silver medalists, the Dutch. Making it close was Ada Kok, who got some measure of revenge against Stouder by swimming the third leg butterfly stroke over 1 second faster than the American in the finals. “The silver medal for the team was a positive surprise,” said Kok. “We couldn’t get anywhere near the Americans, but to be second as a team was fantastic.”

Kok would regain her world record in the butterfly in August, 1965, as well as win the gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly in Mexico City in 1968. But she was happy with her results in 1964. “You’re always pleased to get a medal. When you’re on the podium, and you see it and touch it, it’s wonderful.”

“One of the great advantages of Army service is the opportunity for travel to far off lands. The American Service Man has a serious job to do overseas. But off duty time often finds him enjoying his stay almost as if he were a tourist.”

The Big Picture_Sgt Queen
Sgt Stuart Queen, screenshot from The Big Picture: The Soldier in Japan

Thus begins the film, “The Big Picture: The Soldier in Japan”, one of a weekly series of television films produced by the US Army about 60 years ago. This film probably served a few purposes: as a training film for soldiers headed to Japan in the late 1950s, as a recruiting film for potential Army soldiers, and as general PR for the US Army.

The film is amazing in its coverage of Japan, commenting on almost everything you could think of: the mystique, the life of the farmer and fisherman, Shintoism, sushi and sukyaki, the coastlines and the mountains, Hakone, Hiroshima, Osaka, rush-hour traffic, tea ceremony, sumo, industry, etc. etc. etc.

There is a bit of subtle ridicule and patronization as you can imagine:

  • Yes, it could almost be the USA, if not for the proof to the contrary that strikes your eye. Those signs may be just a lot of chicken tracks to you, but to the Japanese, they mean a lot.
  • Sushi is boiled rice with a slice of raw fish on it. It tastes just like, well, boiled rice with a slice of raw fish on it.

There is also considerable praise:

  • Roads are the among the “best in our country”. The shoreline is comparable to the Rivera and the coastline in Florida and California coastlines.
  • There is almost no illiteracy in Japan.
  • What strikes you about the Great Buddha (in Kamakura) is the poise, the steady quiet calm of the face, the way the hands are laid in the lap, palms upward, thumbs touching. Poise and calm – you’ll see these qualities in the face and manner of Japanese everywhere.

The film begins with a description of two US Army archetype newbies to Japan, exaggerated but with elements of truth: Worrying Willy and Paradise Pete.

The Big Picture_Shifty Japanese
How Worrying Willy sees the Japanese, screenshot from The Big Picture: The Soldier in Japan

Worrying Willy: He remembers in WWII great stretches of Japan were leveled to rubble by American bombs. Willy still has the idea that Japan is like this (video of bombed out landscapes). Or maybe like this, carry overs from WWII – a hostile country , where down every dark winding alley looms the mysterious menace of the Orient. A straight shooter like Worrying Willy has to keep his wits about him, and his hand on his six-gun partner. Yes that’s Worrying Willy’s impression of Japan, as accurate as thinking that cattle graze on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Paradise Pete: He has an idea that Japan is an Oriental Paradise where all a fellow does is lounge around in a Never Never Land – all play and no work. Well this version of Japan, to quote a phrase he hears a lot when he gets here, “nebber hoppen”. He’d be better to approach Japan with an open mind, to get rid of phony impressions and start fresh.

The Big Picture_Paradise Pete
How Paradise Pete sees Japan, screenshot from The Big Picture: The Soldier in Japan

During the explanation of Japan’s industrial strength comes the American military’s raison d’etre in Japan: “Japanese industry ranks among the leading industrial powers in the world. Right now, Japan is the only non-communist country in Asia that can build a diesel engine. It is this giant industrial power of Japan that is a prime target of international communism. To see that this prize keeps clear of communist hands is the main reason American fighting men are in japan today.”

Ah yes, the good ol’ Cold War days. True, the film is dated. But one phrase from the film is eternal: “The way Japan affects you will depend a lot on you.”

Sazae-san_Eight and a Half Million People

Another great comic strip from Machiko Hasegawa, in the book “The Best of Sazae-san: The Olympic Years“.

Sazae-san’s husband, Masuo, is coming home from work and bumps into a friend. It’s an excuse for Hasegawa to comment on the massive population of the world’s most populous city at the time – Tokyo – which in turn is an excuse for Masuo and his friend to have a drink.

Drinking alcohol in Japan has always been a significant part of Japanese society, the lubricant that eases interactions between people who ordinarily behave formally with each other, the softener that allows the hair to come down, and the relaxant that turns those frowns upside down.

This is especially true in the office life of Tokyo, where most of the populace commute via train and bus and thus have little concern about having a drink or two or three after work. And for the retired generation, those who remember the industrious days of the 1960s and 1970s, drinking together at parties and at company trips to the countryside was the best way to build camaraderie across teams and functions. Drinking with clients after a routine meeting or at the year-end parties were ideal ways to relax the tensions built up between salesmen and customers. It is called “nomunication“, a cross between the word “nomu” which is Japanese for the verb “to drink”, and communication. Here is how Japan Today describes it:

Japanese salespeople frequently woo their clients over drinks, knowing that although explicit deal making is never done during this type of socializing, a deal is rarely won with- out it. Of course, drinking to build trust is not just a Japanese custom. Across East Asia, whether you are working in China, Thailand, or Korea, doing a substantial amount of drinking with customers and collaborators is a common step in the trust-building process.

Many people from task-based cultures don’t get it. “Why would I risk making a fool of myself in front of the very people I need to impress?” they wonder. But that is exactly the point. When you share a round of drinks with a business partner, you show that person you have nothing to hide. And when they “drink until they fall down” with you, they show you that they are willing to let their guard down completely. “Don’t worry about looking stupid,” Hiroki reassured our German manager, who had begun wringing his hands nervously. “The more you are willing to remove social barriers in the evening, the more they will see you as trustworthy.”

drinking in japan_JT

Times are changing. Alcohol consumption among men is dropping, while alcohol consumption among Japanese women is rising. Additionally, Japanese in their 20s and 30s are less likely to go drinking with company colleagues or clients at a drop of the hat as a desire for independence has grown in recent decades. I am an internal consultant in leadership development, and I remember a conversation about a Japanese leader who had strong leadership potential in sales, but was given negative feedback because he didn’t drink alcohol. “How could he shmooze the clients if he didn’t drink with them”, went the argument. Thankfully, executives in that company ignored that particular criteria, enabling that leader to climb the ranks.

Kanpai! I’ll drink to that!

ujlaky-Rejto IldikoShe is one of the greatest fencers of all time, winning two gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games on a strong Hungarian squad, one in individual foil, and another in team foil, four years after winning a team silver medal in Rome. She went on win silver and bronze medals in Mexico City, Munich and Montreal, for a total of seven medals over five Olympic Games.

And Ujlaky-Rejto Ildiko was deaf.

And just as true in Budapest as it is anywhere else in the world, a child with differences – in this case, ear pieces, reading lips and general inability to react to the sounds of the world around her – gets mocked and mired in low self-esteem.

While it is hard to find verbatim comments in English by Ildiko, there is this quote from a deaf fencer named Jennifer Gibson, who explains the challenge. “Being the only one at school who wore hearing aids was not easy and in fact, it was extremely difficult. It was the same with sports, I was the only kid who wore hearing aids on the teams I’ve played on. At the time, in the 70‘s and 80‘s, most teachers and coaches were ill prepared to deal with someone like me. They lacked the proper training and understanding on how to teach to people with a disability, particularly hearing loss. It was essentially a whole new ball game for all of us. From a very young age, I’ve had to be very forward about my hearing loss and inform the teachers or coaches that I couldn’t hear them, particularly in large or noisy environments. Very few of them took the initiative to find alternative means of communicating with me such as using a clipboard or talking to me one on one.”

ildiko at tokyo games
Ildiko, left, competing at the 1964 Olympic Games

Ildiko likely had similar experiences to Gibson, except decades earlier. She picked up fencing at 15. She worked with coaches who instructed her by giving feedback and direction on paper. But there is no getting around the fact that hearing the clash of blades is key feedback to the fencer. Again, here is Gibson explaining the challenge for deaf fencers: “One issue is that some fencing calls rely on hearing the blades come in contact with each other which means I am unable to do that. Bear in mind that it’s also very difficult to see the fencers faces due to the tight metal weave of the mask. When they try to talk to me while wearing the mask, I actually hear very little.”

But as we see from time to time, those with the will to overcome challenges often find a way to slingshot to phenomenal accomplishment.

women's hungarian foil team 1964_Ildiko 2nd left
Ildiko with the Hungarian women’s foil team (2nd from left)
Yoshida and Icho
2012 Vogue Japan Woman of the Year: Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho

There are only two people, both male, who have won individual gold medals in a single event four Olympic Games in a row: Al Oerter in the discus throw from 1956~1968, and Carl Lewis in the long jump from 1984~1996.

At the Rio Olympics in August, we may bear witness to a historical achievement by a Japanese wrestler, not once, but twice.

Both Saori Yoshida (吉田 沙保里,) and Kaori Icho(伊調馨) have won consecutive gold medals in wrestling at the Olympic Summer Games in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012). And they won their respective weight classes at the Japan national championships in June last year to get their tickets punched to Rio. In fact, they both won their 13th straight national championship.

Yoshida of Mie Prefecture and Icho of Aomori are quite simply the two most dominant wrestlers on the planet. They are both referred to as the “legends of the unbeaten streak” (不敗神話). Ito has won 172 straight times since May, 2003, and Yoshida has lost only twice in her career, most recently in May, 2012. But they are both perfect at Olympiads.


There was a brief time when both Yoshida and Icho competed in the same weight class, but fortunately, Icho moved up to the next heavier weight class, setting up this year, a historic opportunity.

For some reason, Yoshida has become more the face of Japanese wrestling, as the front person for the Japanese security company, Alsok. But they are both supported by Alsok, as you can see in the commercial below.

But come August, we will be hearing a lot about both of these two wrestling legends.

Opening Night Gala Presentation and World Premiere of "The Walk
New York, NY – September 26, 2015 – Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Philippe Petit at the Opening Night Gala Presentation and World Premiere of TriStar Pictures’ “The Walk”.
I lie against this narrow strip of unknown land, looking up, until I comprehend: it is a landing field for extraterrestrial vessels. No! A takeoff field: the clouds give it direction – a limitless runway into heaven. It is definitely not man-made, nor of any use to us humans. So uncertain is its length – call it height – and so alien its design, the dreaded word has now infiltrated my heart: Impossible! Impossible! Impossible! it pounds. I can no longer breathe. (From the book, To Reach the Clouds)

The Frenchman looked straight up and knew he had no choice – he had to lay a wire across the two towers of the World Trade Center, and walk into the void.

I just saw the film, The Walk, directed by Robert Zemeckis, based on one of my favorite books, “To Reach the Clouds“, by one of my life heroes, Monsieur Philippe Petit. I watched as if in a dream.

Philippe Petit color

Philippe Petit is not an Olympian, but he is an athlete nonpareil. The wooden balance beam that a female gymnast leaps and flips on is four inches (10 cm) wide. The steel cable that Petit walks is steel braided cable 5/8″ in diameter – essentially a toe or two wide. A woman on the balance beam would stand four feet (1.24 meters) above the floor. Petit danced on his wire 1,368 feet (417 meters) above ground. He crossed the 138 feet (42 meters) expanse between the two towers, not once, not twice, but 8 times. Petit traipsed, bowed, stood one legged, spun 180 degrees on this very highwire on that August 7 morning in 1972….for 49 minutes.

The “Coup”, as Petit has called this act of defiance and triumph, has a degree of difficulty unthinkable in any competition at the highest levels.

The Walk, as a movie, was a technical masterpiece. It is the first time in my mind that 3D and IMAX have come together with narrative and directorial vision to produce a story telling event of such visceral impact that you feel suspended a quarter mile high. (Yes, in the scenes depicting “the Coup”, my palms were sweating, and the nerves in my rear were tingling.)

the walk joseph gordon levitt
Joseph Gordon Levitt in The Walk
Petit is an inspiration. People can say “Do the impossible”. But Petit did.

It starts, as it does with all incredible achievers, with a dream.

You need dreams to live. It is as essential as a road to walk on and as bread to eat. I would have felt myself dying if this dream had been taken away from me. The dream was as big as the towers. There was no way it could be taken away from me by authority, by reason, by destiny.

Watch an interview of Philippe Petit from this fantastic documentary by Ric Burns called “New York – The Center of the World“, a history of the World Trade Center.