Author explores 'bridge of migrations' between Japan and Brazil

Japan and Brazil: It's hard to image two countries further apart, or two cultures more disparate. But after almost a century of economic and social ties, Japan and Brazil have built a "dynamic bridge of migrations," says author Karen Tei Yamashita. Her book Circle K Cycles (Coffee House Press, 2001) explores these connections through the lives of Brazilians of Japanese descent living in Japan. Yamashita will read from her work at 7 p.m. on March 11, at the Santa Cruz Central Branch Library, 224 Church Street. Cosponsored by the Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Library and the Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries, the event is free and open to the public.

"Brazil is literally on the opposite side of the world from Japan," said Yamashita, an associate professor of literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A third-generation Japanese American, she lived in Brazil for nine years while researching and writing her first two novels, married a Brazilian, and began raising her two children while in Sao Paulo. "The connection of Japan and Brazil seems to be a very extreme example," said Yamashita, "but it's not that strange in the global circumstance."

Economics, agriculture, and immigration laws created the conditions for a wave of Japanese immigration to Brazil in the early 20th century. Brazil needed contract labor for its booming coffee plantations. Japanese companies needed new countries in which to place workers after exclusion acts ended legal immigration from Asia to the United States. Today, Brazil has the largest community of Japanese and their descendants outside Japan.

But in the 1980s, driven by a faltering Brazilian economy, the tide of migration began to shift back from Brazil to Japan. In response to the trend, the Japanese government passed an immigration law providing special visas to people who could prove they were of Japanese descent. Even the key stipulation that visa holders could only engage in manual labor didn't slow the reverse migration. "Now there are 200,000 Brazilians living in Japan, mostly working as factory laborers," said Yamashita. "There are even 'Brazil towns'!"

Circle K Cycles chronicles life in Brazilian communities across Japan. "Brazil towns are very dynamic communities," said Yamashita, who lived with her husband and children in Japan for six months while gathering material for her book. She conveys the community's energy by combining genres in an unusual format. Chapters include monthly journal entries Yamashita posted online during her stay in Japan and fictional stories based on the lives of the Brazilian immigrants she interviewed. Popular cultural graphics fill the book, mirroring the inundation of images in Japanese cities. The confusion of a new language is conveyed through chapters in Japanese and Portuguese, which are both translated into English. The book's title refers to the ubiquitous Circle K convenience stores, open 24 hours a day and providing a de facto extension of home life and a common ground for all city dwellers. Circle K Cycles captures the community's vitality and the residents' mutual culture shock as Brazilians encounter what Yamashita calls "this other place which is supposed to be a kind of home."