I had a rare opportunity to visit Sao Paulo, Brazil, in South America, from August 13 to 21, my maiden trip to that country. Supported by the Reitaku University and Japan Foundation Sao Paulo Office, I was invited to deliver two lectures at Rio Branco Faculdades Integradas (on August 16), and the University of Sao Paulo (on August 18) to undergraduate and post-graduate students and faculty. The topics assigned for Rio Branco were the ‘Collective Self-defence and Constitutional Revision Debate in Japan’, and for the University of Sao Paulo, ‘Japan’s Declining Population and Demographic Challenges’. Unlike students in Japan, students in Brazil were inquisitive and raised some interesting questions.
Having travelled from Japan, I had some interest to understand the old connection between Brazil and Japan. Informal talks with some Brazilians of Japanese descent were revealing. There are about 1.5 million Brazilians of Japanese descent and mostly of third or fourth generations. Many had migrated during the early phase of the Meiji period and settled there. The other country in South America where a large number of Japanese migrants are settled is Peru. Though some of the third generation of Japanese descendants speak Japanese, most of the younger ones speak only Portuguese, Brazil’s national language, and have little knowledge about Japan.
Having grown up in the Brazilian cultural milieu and having been disconnected with a major part of Japanese culture, some educated Brazilians of the third generation shared their experiences, when they had the chance to visit Japan either as tourists or on business or for emotional connection, that they found it difficult to adjust with the traditional Japanese culture. Since they look the same being from the same race, they are often looked with suspicion by the native Japanese as their mannerisms and social etiquette or conduct of public life are based on Brazilian culture and therefore not in tune with Japanese culture. Since most are settled in their new settings in businesses or other professions, there is little incentive for them to return to Japan.
Brazil also finds special focus in the Japanese Government’s foreign policy. Sao Paulo was one of the first countries where the Japan Foundation’s overseas office was established in 1975, within three years of its founding. In order to deepen ties and expand Japan’s cultural presence, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to open the Japan House to have major Japanese activities, such as exhibition hall, library, bank, theatre, restaurant, etc under one roof. Sao Paulo in Brazil was the first city where the Japan House was inaugurated in April 2017, with Los Angeles and London to follow soon. The building looked quite impressive with modern architecture and showcasing various facets of the Japanese culture under one roof. It was impressive to witness a large number of Brazilian students flocking the exhibition hall and listening to the leader with rapt attention about every exhibit. Even the new Japan Foundation office was quite impressive. The library stocked a good collection of books on Japan in three languages – Japanese, English, and Portuguese.
Travelling from Tokyo to Sao Paulo via Paris meant flying from Asia over the Pacific Ocean to Paris in Europe and then after a six-hour transit again flying from Europe over the Atlantic Ocean and reaching Sao Paulo in the third continent of South America over 30 hours of flying time was indeed tiring. But the adventurous spirit took away all tiredness and I was on my foot soon after I arrived on August 14 morning. The following day was India’s Independence Day and I attended the flag hoisting ceremony at the India Consulate Office. I met the new Consul General briefly and other staff. Some Indian residents were also present. The following day, I had a formal meeting with the Consul General, who had joined the office a month ago from his last posting in Paris, and discussed a host of issues, including cultural relations between India and Brazil.
The ICCR has an overseas office in Sao Paulo and being an ICCR Chair holder myself, it was natural for me to talk about the Cultural Centre’s activities in Sao Paulo. I was told that the head of the Indian Cultural Centre was a woman officer who was attacked on the head with a bottle by a Brazilian woman, a drug addict and robber, some seven months ago when she refused to part with her valuables. After this unfortunate incident, the woman officer returned to India and the post was vacant since then.
This is the dark side of Brazilian cities. Some Indian friends had cautioned me on e-mail communications even before I left Japanese soil about this dark side of Brazil, especially to avoid favela (slums and shanties) and to be careful. Even the taxi driver who came to the airport to receive me, a talkative guy and spoke good English, cautioned me about the gun culture and robbery in certain areas but said that can happen in any part of the city at any time of the day. He further said that even Brazilians are afraid of such goons and avoid going to certain areas of the city. It was also revealed that the capital city of Rio de Janeiro was more unsafe than Sao Paulo, even for Brazilians. I wondered if such is the case, how did Brazil manage to host the last Olympics in Rio?
There’s another side to this story. The economy of the country is in a very bad shape. Sao Paulo, the largest city of Brazil with 17 million people compared to 13 million people who live in Rio de Janeiro, is the main commercial city of the country. The economic growth rate is a dismal below 2 per cent. Having spent a huge amount of money on the Olympics, the country is facing a large debt problem. In many parts, economic activities have come to a standstill. The unemployment rate is rising. In order to lessen burden, many companies are doing away with regular employees and hiring part-timers to save costs. Such a situation also fuels social discontent, leading to arson and looting.
A visit to Ibirapuera Park, the biggest green space in central Sao Paulo, was indeed memorable. Inaugurated in 1954 to commemorate the city’s 400th anniversary, the park was designed by renowned landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. One can find a series of landmark buildings in the park that are the work of modernist master Oscar Niemeyer. The leafy 2 sq-km park serves as a thriving centre of the city’s cultural life. It has a large area for leisure, jogging and walking, and provides a nice ambience for Brazilian culture with a series of museums, performance spaces, music hall, and planetarium where one can go with friends and family with wine and cheese and enjoy a great picnic. The park also provides space for Sao Paulo’s renowned Art Biennial or Bienal in Portugese.
Its importance to Sao Paulo is often comparable to that of Central Park to New York City, Golden Gate Park to San Francisco, or Ueno Park to Tokyo. Ibirapuera is one of South America’s largest city parks, together with Chapultepec Park, in Mexico City and Simon Bolivar Park in Bogota.
Seen as the lungs of Sao Paulo, this park is safe during the day with plenty to do and lots of eating and drink kiosks and restaurants around. It provides the right ambience where one can sunbath or stroll through contemporary art, expositions, listen to intercultural music or simply relax. Most of the landmark buildings in the park are linked by a long and distinctly serpentine covered walkway. Though it was raining in Sao Paulo throughout my short stay, my visit to Ibirapuera was not dampened as the covered walkway provided enough protection. I missed the dedicated Japanese garden, however, as it remains open three days of the week and was closed the day I visited.
Another place that impressed me was the University of Sao Paulo. This is where I delivered my second lecture. This is the largest Brazilian public university and the country’s most prestigious educational institution. It holds a high reputation among world universities and is involved in teaching, research, and university extension in all areas of knowledge, offering a broad range of courses. Founded in 1934, it has 90,000 students with 11 campuses, with the main campus quite spread out. The courses taught here cover all three branches of humanities, science, and commerce. It has a large department on Japanese studies, culture and language with an impressive library exclusively dedicated to Japan. The central library looked well stocked with books, periodicals, and electronic access gateways.
Though I had a wish to visit a beach, it was not so near and time did not allow me that luxury. This was compensated, however, with a visit to the Municipal Market, a large public market in Sao Paulo. With eclectic style, as noted for its columns, vaults and stained glass, the construction of the building started in 1928 and inaugurated on January 25, 1933, by the office of the architect Francisco de Paula Ramos de Azevedo, with a facade designed by Felisberto Ranzini. It is a wholesale and retail outpost specialising in fruits, vegetables, cereals, meats, spices and other food products. The market was formally renamed the Mercado Municipal Sao Paulo in 1995, taking the neighbourhood name of Mercado, and was renovated in 2004.
Commonly known in Sao Paulo as the Mercadao, or “big market”, it is a noted meeting point for residents of Sao Paulo and one of the most visited tourist spots in the city. While the ground floor of the market is occupied by retailers, the second floor mezzanine serves as a restaurant hub. The market area occupies some 12,600 square metres and employs around 1,500 people. About 450 tonnes of food passes through the market per day in more than 290 boxes.
My last visit was to the Municipal Football Stadium, colloquially known as Estadio do Pacaembu, located in the Pacaembu neighbourhood. Owned by the Municipal Prefecture of Sao Paulo, the stadium was inaugurated on April 27, 1940, and has the capacity to accommodate 37,370 people. On the compound of the stadium, a Museum of Football was inaugurated in September 2008 that tells the history of Brazilian football. Covering 6,900 square metres, the museum is located below the stadium’s bleachers. Brazil is a football crazy country. If cricket is religion in India and Sachin Tendulkar is God, football is religion in Brazil and the legendary Pele is God. Overall, the Brazil sojourn shall remain an unforgettable memory.
The Brazilian sojourn – The Writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan