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Dekasegi Drawn by Promise of Jobs

Economic woes prompt exodus of ethnic Japanese to ancestors' homeland

WHEN Hama Yamamoto's parents put her on Japan's first contract-labor ship to Brazil in 1908, they hoped the eight-year-old would earn good wages in South America and come back home to Yamaguchi in five years. But events turned out very differently.

Ms. Yamamoto traveled with the Okamoto family as the third pair of "strong arms" that Brazilian law required of families coming from Japan.

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Brazil, where African slavery had ended only 20 years before and labor was scarce, was much different from home. On the train from the port of Santos to the farm where she would work as a maid, Brazilians tried to trade salami for her beautiful silks and hair ribbons, but she was afraid to make a deal. The landowner gave the Japanese families sausage, she later told her daughter, but they all dumped it in a field because it was so strange-looking.

Wages in Brazil were not as high as the Japanese had been led to believe, and they also had to pay back their passage. There was lots of disease and life was hard.

Yamamoto ended up staying in Brazil, marrying a Japanese man, and having eight children, most of whom got jobs in the city. Her grandchildren all went to college. She died in Brazil having never seen her parents and brothers again, although her daughter recalls letters from Japan that made her cry. Mother would be pleased

The child immigrant never imagined that one day her grandchildren would become, like herself, dekasegi - a word in Japanese meaning people who go back and forth to earn money - in the very land she left behind so long ago.

"She never thought that would happen.... My mother would be pleased," says Kisahe Yamamoto, Hama's daughter. But, she adds, her mother-in-law "was against the idea at first, she thought we had worked so hard to give them a life, an education."

Kisahe's son Mauro Iwao, a dentist, went to Japan seven months ago to assemble elevators at the Hitachi Elevator Company, and plans to stay a year. His sister Sonia Maria, an acupuncturist and homeopathic doctor, has a plane ticket to Tokyo for March 9.

"I got my degree in 1982 and Brazil was all right then" says Sonia. "But with all this inflation, people's purchasing power has gone down a lot." She hopes to learn Japanese and find a job taking care of elderly people, the best-paying type of work for dekasegi women.

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The latest dekasegi cycle began in 1988. The Brazilian economy had been in tough straits since 1981. Although most of the descendants of the original Japanese immigrants are today among the college-educated elite in Brazil, they began discovering they could earn much more doing unskilled jobs in Japan than if they stayed at home.

Soon, the flow was so big that the expanding visa section at the Japanese consulate in Sao Paulo pushed the office of Consul General Yasuji Ishigaki's upstairs into a conference room.

Today about 10 percent of the 1.2 million Japanese-Brazilians (the largest community outside Japan) are working in Japan. Brazilian officials won't say how much money they send home, but Japanese-Brazilians familiar with the dekasegi phenomenon say they probably remit about $2 billion a year to Brazil, almost twice what the country earns exporting coffee.

Most dekasegi, says Masakazu Shoji, editor of two Japanese-Brazilian magazines, spend their money on real estate, small business ventures, and consumer goods. Labor for Japan

The Japanese-Brazilians are filling a desperate need for unskilled labor in Japan, and the government there recognized this in 1990, when it changed the law to allow them to work on three-year renewable visas.

Even so, their presence has created problems. Japanese labor contractors tend to take advantage of Brazilians' illiteracy and ignorance. There have also been two cases of homicide allegedly committed by dekasegi.

"This is a new thing for Japanese society [where people] are not used to foreigners," says Mr. Ishigaki. "[And the dekasegi] are foreigners. They look Japanese, but they don't speak the language or understand the customs."

Ishigaki says the government has a "neutral" position on the dekasegi, but local governments have begun to offer more services to meet their special needs. Some even allow dekasegi children, who tend to be ostracized, in their school systems. Advice for dekasegi

The advice on life in Japan which Mr. Shoji publishes alongside employment opportunities in his magazine Going Patricios, counsels rapid adaptation.

"There, everyone gets to work 30 or 40 minutes before starting time, they work, and go home 40 minutes after the shift ends," writes dekasegi Mauro Fujiwara in a magazine column. "They are used to doing things like cleaning the bathroom and the workplace. This is part of life in Japan. No one thinks of charging overtime."

Going Patricios also says to be punctual, not be put off by bosses who shout, expect to be discriminated against, stick to one job, and get used to Japanese food. "In Japan," one article says, "[our typical lunch] of steak, salad, rice, and beans is a deluxe dish."

The dekasegi of Hama Yamamoto's generation, and those that followed her until 1965, made important contributions to Brazilian life, providing political leadership as well as introducing new plants and agricultural techniques. "We have had four ministers, eight federal deputies, 120 aldermen, and 20 mayors of Japanese origin," proudly says Diogo Nomura, a federal deputy.

Today's dekasegi may also make a difference, in a world that has become much smaller and more interlinked since Hama Yamamoto came to Brazil 84 years ago.

"Before, I didn't think much about Japan, but since my brother went I thought of going and seeing our roots, I began to be more interested in the language, the history, and customs," says Sonia Maria Yamamoto, who hopes to meet and marry a Japanese man.

"If things work out," she says, "I could stay longer and do an acupuncture course."

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