SAO PAULO — Everything was going just as planned for the Hashimoto siblings in Japan. Sheila, 29, Eliane, 26, and Gerson, 23, had moved there to work for a couple of years in the world's second largest economy, in hopes of saving to buy a house back home in Brazil.
They were among the 316,967 Brazilians registered to work in Japan as of the end of 2007, according to CIATE, an agency that helps dekasseguis — as Brazilian workers in Japan are known — to find jobs. Nowadays, Brazilians make up the third largest group of immigrant workers in Japan, behind Chinese and Koreans.
The connection between the two countries dates back more than 100 years.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Brazil’s economy was booming, thanks to the coffee industry. As a result, immigrants were needed to work in Brazil's fields and factories, and the Japanese seized the opportunity to leave an overpopulated and jobless country. In 1908, 781 Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil on the Kasato Maru ship, according to the Immigrant Museum in Sao Paulo, marking the beginning of what would become the largest Japanese colony outside Japan.
In the 1940s and 1950s, nearly 275,000 Japanese immigrated to Brazil, according to Brazilian government statistics.
The migration between the two countries switched direction in the 1980s. Nearly 30 years ago, Brazilians of Japanese descent began moving to the homeland of their parents and grandparents, fleeing Brazil's unstable economy. Thus began the dekasseguis movement.
Back then, job offers were abundant in Japan. And just as Brazil welcomed early Japanese immigrants seeking work in fields and factories, Japan absorbed the dekasseguis, many of whom spoke little or no Japanese.
But with the global economy in dire straits, today's dekasseguis are no longer finding Japan so welcoming.
On Dec. 1, 2008, the Hashimotos learned that they were being laid off from the Sumitomo factory, which produces electronics in the city of Shiga-Ken, near Nagoya. They weren't alone: The same factory fired 400 other Brazilians.
“We had to leave it all behind and come back because everything is so expensive there,” said Sheila, who is now back living with her family in Sao Paulo.
Japan’s gross domestic product fell 3.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, the biggest drop since the oil crisis in 1974. “The factories are closing their doors and the economy is doing poorly,” said Terushiko Sakura, director of CIATE. Sakura pointed to the reduction in Japanese exports, particularly in the automobile and electronics sectors.
The problem is serious enough that the Japanese government recently created an emergency plan to help the dekasseguis return to Brazil, and to help those who decide to stay in the country find jobs in other areas, Sakura said.
“I can’t specify an exact number of how many Brazilians have lost their jobs in Japan, but I can tell you the job offers in the agency have dropped exponentially,” he said. Foreign workers are the most affected by unemployment, said Sakura, because the government is focused on protecting the Japanese-born.
According to Japan Airlines, the passenger flow from Japan to Brazil increased more than 30 percent in the final months of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007.
Aboard one of those flights was 53-year-old Alice Makishi, who is now working as a vendor. She returned to Brazil with her husband and 10-year-old son after nine months at a food manufacturer in Japan. “We were a bit deluded to think that it was going to be a paradise. It wasn’t,” she said. “One of my colleagues in the factory, who has been working there for 18 years now, had said she’d never seen such a crisis.”
A female worker from a factory in Japan can make up to 250,000 yen (a little more than $2,500) a month, including overtime, while a man could make 350,000, according to Vanessa Fugita, 31, who worked at a carburetor factory for seven years. Now, hourly wages have fallen about 20 percent, and overtime has been slashed. Fugita came to Brazil to visit relatives, and is among the few heading back to Japan.
“I’ll take the risk and live off my savings for a while in Japan,” she said.
The Hashimotos have been back in Brazil since Jan. 22. In Japan, the three of them used to work eight-hour days, plus three hours of overtime, even on Saturdays and Sundays.
“But in the middle of October, they cut our hours and we couldn’t do overtime anymore,” Sheila said. “With our regular salary, we were barely paying our bills and it was only enough to buy groceries.” She noted that the factory officials apologized profusely for firing so many people all at once, in a “very Japanese manner.”
Now the Hashimotos are making new plans. “We are taking courses and looking for jobs, but we don’t know what we are going to do yet,” Sheila said.
But the outlook in Brazil isn't bright. Beginning late last year, the global economic crisis began to percolate through many parts of Brazil's economy and, according to the Ministry of Labor, there have been nearly 800,000 layoffs since November.
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