Jo Takahashi in Flamingo

An Interview With Jo Takahashi About Japanese Culture In Brazil

Recently, Kieran Holland, from our Tokyo office, wrote a post on Brazilian culture in Japan that got us thinking about exploring the other side of the coin.

Japanese culture, though very different from Brazilian culture, has been a significant force since the early years of the 20th century, with the arrival of the first Japanese migrants in Brazil. Today, Brazil is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan, with over 1.5 Million people.

To get a better sense of Japanese culture in Brazil today, I spoke to Jo Takahashi, the former Art and Culture Director of the Japan Foundation in Brazil, and author of “Izakaya: Por Dentro dos Botecos Japoneses”, on the rise of Japanese bars in Brazil.

Foto: Rafael Salvador
Foto: Rafael Salvador

Tell us about your story and your relationship with Japanese culture in Brazil

My work with culture and, more specifically, promoting integration projects between Brazil and Japan goes back to the work I developed at the Japan Foundation, a cultural diffusion organization within the Japanese Government. There I dedicated 30 years, with an average of 80 projects per year, corresponding to approximately 2.500 projects of excellence, bringing the best of Japan to Brazil. In these 30 years I could absorb the experience I apply today on my cultural content production company, Dô Cultural, to where I have migrated a good portion of this experience in promoting a more intense interaction between Brazil and Japan.

How do you see the impact of Brazilian culture on the formation of the identity of the Japanese migrant in Brazil?

After the obvious moment of estrangement, given the enormous differences in cultural practices and language, the Japanese migrant was able to selectively absorb Brazilian culture, especially after the 1960s. However, it is Brazilian culture in Japan that is more surprising. Consider that the biggest market for Brazilian music outside Brazil is in Japan. It is possible that Brazilian music is more frequently consumed there than here, from MPB [Brazilian Popular Music], to grassroots Samba, to Bossa Nova, which survives intensely in Japan. There’s also the growing interest in Brazil because of football, especially after the Zico era in Japan. He’s considered a Demigod there.

In your opinion, what was the greatest impact of Japanese culture in Brazilian culture?

Undeniably, gastronomy. Only in São Paulo there are 600 Japanese restaurants, against around 200 churrascarias [Brazilian barbeque restaurants]. In the whole of Brazil there are 3600 Japanese restaurants. Even in small cities in Acre [one of the northernmost states] it is possible to find restaurants serving Temakis (which is a Brazilian invention, by the way). In Rio de Janeiro, the most ordered food for delivery is Japanese. There is an enormous fascination with Japanese culinary that needs to be more precisely dimensioned.

You have recently released a book about Izakayas in São Paulo. How do you see their growing popularity?

“Izakaya: Por Dentro dos Botecos Japoneses” [Izakaya: Inside the Japanese Bars] was commissioned to me by the editor of Melhoramentos, Breno Lerner, who foresaw their explosion in Brazil. In São Paulo, amongst these 600 restaurants, less than 10 can be classified as true Izakayas. There is already a growing demand for this type of establishment in other cities in the world. In Japan, there are around 1.5 Million registered Izakayas. So we are certain that we will have a growing demand for them here. At an Izakaya you drink and eat, as you would in a bar or boteco [very informal Brazilian bars]. This informality is in complete alignment with Brazilian behavior, which demands a more informal approach to appreciating food. There’s an immense potential for growth in this sector.

How has the perception of Japanese culture by Brazilians changed in the past 10 years?

Today Brazilians travel more. It’s easier to get to the other side of the world, with cheaper tickets. The growth in value of the Real also contributed. With the strong Real, we realized that in Japan (considered one of the countries with the highest cost of living) we can survive with less than in Brazil. Brazilians arriving from Japan demand a more authentic Japanese experience, becoming more demanding when it comes to the quality of food, sake, and culture. Mediocre cultural projects [on Japanese culture] are unsustainable now.

In your opinion, which artists better translate this cultural mélange between Brazil and Japan?

Tomie Ohtake, who at the height of her 101 years (and in full production) is to me the biggest representation of the integration between Brazil and Japan.

In Japan, singer Lisa Ono, considered today, even in Brazil, the best interpreters of Bossa Nova in the world