by Gerard Aziakou
SAO PAULO, July 17, 2012 (AFP) - Backed by its gastronomy, martial arts, music and manga culture, Brazil's small but influential Japanese community is wielding soft power to assert ethnic pride and preserve century-old ties.
Japanese Brazilians are among the most successful and well-integrated of the South American giant's communities but keep in touch with their roots through events like the annual Festival of Japan, which wrapped up Sunday in Sao Paulo.
A record 190,000 people, half of them non-Japanese, turned up for the three-day celebration, according to the event's organizer KENREN, the Federation of Associations of Japanese Provinces.
Sponsored by top Japanese brands such as Honda, Mitsubishi and Toyota as well as by leading Brazilian bank Bradesco, the festival was a major success, according to coordinator Erika Yamauti.
"We have Japanese descendants representing all of Japan's 47 provinces and they showcase their respective foods, dances and music," she added.
"More and more visitors turn up every year, and half of them are non-Japanese. They come for the food, to learn about Japan."
Started small 15 years ago, the event has morphed into a mega-festival which attracts Japanese from neighboring Paraguay, Argentina and Peru.
"The essence of the festival is gastronomy and the culinary diversity of Japan's 47 provinces," said Nelson Maeda, president of the fest's organizing committee adding that it would highlight sustainable production.
"But the main objective, beyond the preservation of the Japanese culture, is furthering the integration of the Japanese and broader Brazilian communities," he stressed.
"This year, we marked the 104th anniversary of Japanese immigration to Brazil ... We are very well accepted by the broader Brazilian community and so we want to reciprocate by opening our doors to them."
Brazilians of Japanese ancestry currently number 1.8 million, or a little less than one percent of the country's total population, according to Yamauti.
Around 60 percent of them live in Sao Paulo state, with other major concentrations in the states of Parana and Matto Grosso.
Their numbers have been swollen in recent years by the return of tens of thousands of Japanese Brazilians who had moved to ancestral Japan during its economic boom in the 1970s and 1980s.
The spectacular growth of Brazil, now the world's sixth largest economy, coupled with Japan's downturn has lured back as many as a third of the estimated 300,000 Japanese Brazilian immigrants since 2008.
According to research by the Brazilian national statistics agency IBGE, the first Japanese immigrants -- a group of 781 people -- arrived as farm workers in the port of Santos aboard the ship Kasato Maru in 1908.
The new arrivals became successful farmers and landowners and large Japanese-run farm cooperatives still supply most of the fresh fruit and vegetables for the Sao Paulo and Rio markets.
The closely-knit community, the biggest Japanese population outside Japan, is widely seen as a successful, highly educated and well integrated minority. Many of them hold high ranks in government, finance, academia and business.
"Younger Japanese Brazilians are very well integrated but many of them do not speak Japanese," Maeda said. "That's why we are trying to expose them to Japanese traditions, not just the food."