Osaka and the Dekasegi

I met my first talkative local wandering Osaka looking for the famous Umeda Sky building.
View of the streets below the Umeda Sky Building in Osaka.

He stood out for two reasons; firstly he struck up conversation with me on the street – something that the Japanese tend to avoid like the plague.  Secondly, as it turned out, he was not born in Japan – meaning that he was a member of a very exclusive club of Japanese foreign nationals.  He recognised a lost traveler when he saw one and my initial suspicion of strangers providing unsolicited help gave way to curiosity about what life was like as an immigrant.  In a word, the answer appeared to be difficult. While our new guide proceeded to get us even more lost he discussed education, music and relationships in Japan. Most of the difficulties of fitting in and making friends sounded familiar but the school system, with its military style physical education requirements and its lofty academic standards sounded like something from another age. Later on I realised that he never really knew the way to the Umeda building and he was probably just looking for someone to talk to.  That, in itself, seemed to say something about the difficult task of integrating into Japanese society.

Like Tokyo, Osaka provided another dizzying display of Japanese nightlife. Going south from Umeda Station the wide, empty government districts gave way narrow shopping plazas overflowing with people. At times it was hard to work out when we had gone from indoors to outdoors as the streets blended into tunnel-like arcades known as Shōtengai. In the district of Dotonbori we found ourselves in a canyon of street vendors, pachinko parlors, restaurants and departments stores; all lit up in neon and presided over by giant plastic sea monsters and anime characters. It’s as if the city planners were asked to approve plans for an amusement park without realising where it was going.

Osaka has developed a reputation for its local and exotic food. It also seemed to be one of the few areas with anything resembling ethnic diversity. Blink and you’ll miss it though. In Japan the number of residents born outside the country has always been less than 2% (for comparison roughly 30% of Australians were born overseas). But in Osaka there were a handful of middle eastern vendors offering Turkish ice cream or pashmak- a sort of sesame-flavoured fairy floss. There were also a few people of African descent manning market stalls like the ones in Tokyo. Despite the vast range of food on offer our crew were still fighting withdrawal symptoms for the crepe addiction we’d acquired in the ski fields the week before so we hit up a faux-french restaurant in Nanba.

Most of the foreign-born residents of Japan live in around the industrial centers like the Aichi and Shizuoka Prefectures. Among them are almost 200 thousand South Americans – the so-called Dekasegi (roughly translated ‘to go out and earn’) – who have begun to settle in Japan over the last 30 years.

Dave buys a traditional french crepe at Creperie Alcyon in Osaka.  Unclear whether he ordered in broken French or broken Japanese or just broken English.


To a foreign observer many would be difficult to distinguish from the local population. The Dekasegi are mostly from Brazil but they are descended from Japanese workers that emigrated to South America in the early parts of the 20th century. Their story provides an object lesson in globalisation.

At the turn of the 20th Century Japan was still in the process of dismantling its feudal system and opening up its borders to foreign trade. Poverty in the countryside was endemic and early trade unions struggled to make conditions tolerable in the factories. Japanese peasants looking for a better life anywhere on the Pacific had few options at the time. Canada, the United States and Australia had all introduced laws to limit or exclude immigrants from Asia.

The Brazilian government, on the other hand, was desperate for immigrants owing to labour shortages still prevalent following the abolition of slavery. Most of the labour was required on coffee plantations and conditions for the new immigrants were only marginally better than they had been for the West African slaves. Exhausting working conditions and exploitative contracts backed up by threats and intimidation kept many Japanese workers on the plantations but, over time, some managed to acquire their own lands and thrive in their new homeland.

By the 1980s there were more than a million people of Japanese descent living in Brazil but the economy was buckling under inflation and immense public debt. In an article tracing the history of the Dekasegi researcher Miriam Kingsberg explains that:

In the late 1980s… Brazil experienced economic catastrophe. Amid domestic unemployment rates of over 30 percent and inflation of more than 1,700 percent annually, even professional employment could not guarantee a middle-class lifestyle. As a result, even well educated Japanese Brazilians were attracted by blue-collar opportunities in Japan. About a third of dekasegi held college degrees and gave up professional jobs in South America for better-paid work in Japanese factories

Roadside seafood stall in Osaka.


At the time Japan was in the midst of a massive economic boom and demand for workers pushed some prominent Japanese politicians to consider, for the first time, relaxing immigration restrictions on foreign workers. Again Miriam Kingsberg explains.

“Viewing Japan’s much vaunted alleged ethnic homogeneity as a source of its postwar prosperity and strength, government, the media and many social leaders opposed liberalizing foreign immigration policies by offering citizenship and stable working conditions to recent migrants, while making citizenship rights available to a growing number of zaiichi Koreans. Basically, descent-based migration was reaffirmed even as the nation sought to fill the worker gap.”

Although I hadn’t given it much thought I was also the target of one of these preferential immigration policies. I have an EU passport courtesy of a Dutch policy extending citizenship rights to the grandchildren of immigrants. I don’t think it had really occurred to me that it was a sort of hopeful attempt to reclaim a little ethnic ‘Dutchness’.

There’s something misguided about these policies though. Ancestry doesn’t really provide any guide for how well you will integrate into a society. Rather than providing a head start ethnic similarity often raises expectations and conceals the more fundamental differences in culture and attitude that have been instilled. In Japan researcher Kingsberg spoke to a woman named Miki Nakatomi about settling in Tokyo and trying to adjust to the local norms.

“Miki found her time in Japan lonely, even isolating. She felt ill at ease among her Nagoya neighbors, who complained that she was noisy and did not properly dispose of her trash (a process of increasing complexity in contemporary Japan) . . . Some of Miki’s discomfort undoubtedly stemmed from her phenotypic appearance as the daughter of two Japanese parents. Like many non-Japanese Asians in Japan, she struggled with the “problem of similarity”: feelings of rejection and inadequacy at her inability to fulfill social predictions generated by the fact that she “looked” Japanese.”

View of the streets below the Umeda Sky Building in Osaka.


Likewise another member of Dekasegi, a man named Santos Ikeda Yoshikawa wrote about emigrating to Japan from Peru:

Peruvian Nikkei are considered Japanese in Peru, but we never knew that the Japanese themselves would treat us as simple foreigners (gaijin)

In a way the sort of tensions between the South American migrants and their Japanese neighbours were inevitable. In the 1980s intense debates took place in Japan over the possibility of bringing in unskilled foreign workers. The vast majority of Japanese remain opposd to immigration and the few parties that raised the possibility of a more open immigration policy have faced an immense public backlash but the growing labour shortages left the government with few alternatives. The South American diaspora offered a convenient solution – but one that was based on vague assumptions of similarity and social acceptance.

That the new arrivals from Brazil have had so much difficulty integrating into Japanese society should come as no surprise. The government offered very little in the way of support or recognition and the discrimination experienced by the newcomers made them more reliant on newly-established Brazilian enclaves in the outskirts of Japanese cities. The rigid schooling system and the long hours made it difficult for workers and their families to learn Japanese – without which many Dekasegi were left with few opportunities. Kingsberg again highlights a trap familiar to new immigrants in many societies but especially acute in Japan.

While the ability to navigate Japan in Portuguese with increasing ease has diminished the urgency of learning Japanese, social scientists also suggest that many dekasegi give up or avoid language study altogether due to the fact that the tremendous investment required to acquire fluency is seldom rewarded by increased economic opportunities. Regardless of language skills, most dekasegi remain locked in low-wage, unstable positions. Both in and beyond the workplace, upward mobility is constrained by a lack of social credentials such as guarantors, family and residence records, and domestic educational credentials (Takenoshita 2013). Firms question the motivation and corporate loyalty of Japanese Brazilians, while offering only short-term contracts with no opportunity for advancement—in short, employment that discourages these qualities (Roth 2002, 75-91).

Reading about these issues you can sense the exasperation of many commentators who have watched Japan struggle to deal with a growing economic crises spurred on by a shrinking workforce and soaring pension demands. Stagnant wages and low spending has led to a years of decline in GDP while low fertility has seen the population drop by 1 million people in just the past five years. If current trends continue it’s estimated that the population will drop from 127 million to about 65 million over the next 40 years; by that time nearly half of those remaining will be over 65.

Japanese economists have begun to talk about the ‘necessity of immigration’ but current policies favour greater participation by women (and robots) to lift productivity. Immigration is still seen as the last resort. Writing for the New York Times journalist Norimitsu Onishi observes that Japan’s prospects of lifting itself out of its current long-term recession hinge on its ability to attract and support foreign workers.

To make itself an attractive destination for immigrants, the experts say, Japan will have to undergo a difficult cultural transformation for which the Japanese-Brazilians pose an elementary test case. If even they cannot gain acceptance, what chance will there be for immigrant groups that may be ethnically, racially, religiously and nationally different from native Japanese?

Repatriation But Not “Return”: A Japanese Brazilian Dekasegi Goes Back to Brazil – Miriam Kingsberg
My Experience as a Dekasegi – Santos Ikeda Yoshikawa
An Enclave of Brazilians Is Testing Insular Japan – Norimitsu Onishi
Documentary: Struggles of Second Generation Brazilians in Japan – Deana Mitchell
Brokered Homeland – Joshua Hotaka Roth
Everything you need to know about Japan’s population crisis – Sarah Eberspacher

Advertising hoardings over a street in Osaka Namba district. Entrance to the Creperie Alcyon in Osaka. Twilight Shinsaibashisuji street scene The atrium between the two towers of the Umeda Sky Building in Osaka.  You can see the enclosed 'pipes' that house the escalators that allow visitors to come and go from the observation deck. View of downtown Osaka from the top of the Umeda Sky Building. Escalators suspended 170 odd meters over the void between the two towers of the Umeda Sky Building.

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

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