Lonely Swallows

As mentioned in my quick post on Friday, this weekend has played host to London’s Japanese Film Festival Zipangu Fest. Yesterday I went along to the amazing Cinema Museum in Kennington, London to see a documentary which aimed to shed light on a little-known community within Japanese society.

‘Lonely Swallows: Living as Children of Migrant Workers’, made by university professor Kimihiro Tsumura, reveals the untold stories of young members of the Japanese Brazilian community.

Before I talk about the film, a little bit of Japanese-Brazilian History 101 (mostly courtesy of Wikipedia):

Unless you are particularly interested in Japanese culture and history, you may be surprised to hear that Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.

When Brazil abolished the slave trade at the end of the 19th century, this opened up a labour shortage, which for a time was filled by European immigrants (mostly from Italy). When the Italian government found out that their people were being treated not too differently from the black slaves which had formerly maintained Brazil’s coffee plantations, they enacted legislation prohibiting subsidized immigration to Brazil.

Another labour shortage began, which needed to be filled. Over in Japan, the abolition of the han system (the end of feudalism) had created severe poverty, and so the Japanese and Brazilian governments got together in 1907 to sign a treaty permitting Japanese migration to Brazil.

Migration remained fairly low until the outbreak of WWI in 1914, when migration from Japan to Brazil increased rapidly, with Japanese aiming to travel to Brazil to make money fast and then return to their home country. Of course, conditions on Brazilian coffee plantations were pretty terrible, and many Japanese ended up being forced to stay by controlling plantation-owners, or because they could not earn enough money to get out of spiraling debt.

Skip forward a lot of interesting history, to the late 20th century: after Japan’s economy boomed during the 70s and 80s, huge numbers of illegal immigrants entered the country seeking work. In response, the Japanese government permitted the entry of Japanese descendants, up to the third generation, along with their spouses. In came the descendants of Japanese-Brazilian immigrants from Brazil, and by 1998 there were over 2oo,ooo Japanese-Brazilians in Japan, most of whom settled in the industrial town of Hamamatsu, which now contains the largest population of Brazilians in Japan.

Unfortunately, ‘Lonely Swallows’ does not offer its audience a basic history of the situation that Japanese-Brazilians have found themselves in, but it does offer a very interesting insight into the problems facing the children of these poor migrant workers, following five young people over the course of three years (from 2008-2010).

The teenagers talk frankly about their limited chances of getting a promising career (most young Japanese-Brazilians drop out of school at around fifteen or sixteen to earn money through manual labour), how they struggle to deal with life as a ethnic and cultural minority, and how they lack a sense of identity, failing to feel truly at home either in Japan or Bazil.

These young people have clearly had a tough time growing up with absent parents, problems with drugs and alcohol, and being unable to connect with wider Japanese society. But through making close friends, participating in community education, forming b-boy crews or even criminal gangs, they have found substitute families.

All this is torn apart when, in 2009, due to the financial crisis, the Japanese government introduced a new programme that would incentivise Brazilian immigrants to return home with a stipend of $3000 for airfare and $2000 for each dependent. Many families decide to return to Brazil, taking their children with them.

The kids are uprooted from the world they have finally learned to call home, a move which for some, ends up being a positive experience but for others is deeply heart-wrenching.

Though film follows some really fascinating and poignant stories, it is very much let down by the fact that it was not made by professional filmmakers, so the technical standards are fairly poor. That being said, the content is all there, and with a more loving edit could be made much more appealing to a wider audience.

For those with a real interest in learning about Japanese culture and society, this documentary is an illuminating watch. If you have a strong desire to see it, I suggest contacting the guys at Zipangu Fest to see how you can get a hold of the film.


One comment

  1. I have read many stories and watched a few films involving Japanese/Brazilian immigrants but it has always been from a sensational standpoint (they are usually criminals/scam artists). This sounds so fascinating because it gives a wider picture.


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