In the summer of 2013, I spent a week on the University of East Anglia campus for the BCLT literary translation summer school. Most of that week was spent translating a text with my group of fellow Portuguese translators, alongside the story’s author, Cristhiano Aguiar. One of the characters in that story is a student from the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, introduced as being the grandson of Japanese immigrants. While most of us in the room grazed over this detail, moving onto more thorny translation issues, it was met with quizzical looks by a couple of editors who sat in with us one afternoon. We realized at that moment how people with little to no firsthand experience with Brazil are often unaware that the country is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. The first Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil in 1908, and as of 2000 there were between 1.4 and 1.5 million people of Japanese descent in Brazil. I devoured more gyoza and yakisoba in the four years I lived in São Paulo than all the rest of my years combined.
This “a-ha” moment made me question where and how this population is represented in Brazilian literature, and by whom. While I’ve come across passing mentions of the Japanese community and a handful of minor Japanese-Brazilian characters, I desperately wanted to get my hands on a strong novel with compelling Japanese-Brazilian protagonists, but struggled to find it. So I was delighted to discover Nihonjin by Oscar Nakasato. In an interview with Nakasato in Brazilian lit mag Rascunho, he reveals a similar frustration led him to write the novel. Researching his doctoral dissertation, he was troubled by the way Japanese-Brazilians were represented in literature (or total lack thereof) and decided to write a novel about the Japanese immigrant community in Brazil.
The book follows three generations of one family in Brazil through windows on major life events, accompanying the family’s proud patriarch, Hideo Inabata, from Kobe to the port of Santos with the first wave of immigrants from Japan. We witness their hardships during the years spent laboring alongside Italian immigrants on the coffee plantations, then follow the family to the bustling neighborhood of Liberdade in São Paulo, where new conflicts arise, rooted both within the family and in the community and world around them.
Despite the epic-sounding nature of this book, it is only 175 pages long. It has no intention of providing grandiose accounts of the history of Japanese immigration (which you can find elsewhere), or detailed explanations for why these people trekked across the globe to a country and landscape so culturally different from their own. Instead, through Hideo’s grandson, the book’s narrator and the only unnamed character in the book, the reader is presented with a sort of family album of personal memories and impressions. Family members die, new generations are born, children are disowned, new relationships are forged, and dreams of returning to Japan wither away.
Nihonjin was the recipient of the first-ever Benvirá prize, awarded by the publisher Saraiva to new, undiscovered Brazilian authors. After winning the Benvirá, it went on to win the Jabuti for best novel. Of all the awards in Brazil, the Jabuti seems to be the one most plagued by literati drama. Not for the first time, or the last, 2012 was a bit of a weird year for the prize, and Nihonjin got wrapped up in the middle of it. The short version of the story is that one of the jurors went rogue and the ensuing kerfuffle brought attention the book otherwise might not have received. Unfortunately the side-effect was that some folks questioned its right to be there, when the book, and its very real merits, had nothing to do with the controversy.
I found this book to be a breath of fresh air in so many ways. The writing is direct, devoid of flourishes or sentimentality, but it also has a delicate, dreamy depth to it. This understated elegance and serenity in the face of the ever-present conflict between the characters’ two “worlds” feels appropriate, a sort of zen-like written representation of the Japanese aesthetic. Standing firmly outside the same names circulating and recirculating on the Brazilian literary scene, this book represents none of that, with fresh talent, fresh subject matter, and fresh characters. And its literary strength and impressive awards are proof that it’s worth digging.
Oscar Nakasato hails from the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, and is the grandson of Japanese immigrants. He has a Masters in Comparative Literature and a PhD in Brazilian Literature and teaches in his home state. Several of his short stories have been awarded prizes. Nihonjin is his first novel.