Japan may seem far removed from the global debate about identity and immigration sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement. But these are issues Japan is slowly being forced to confront — as it seeks to attract foreign workers and also celebrates mixed-race stars, such as tennis player Naomi Osaka and basketball player Rui Hachimura of the Washington Wizards.
“We’ve often been told, ‘You are no good, what you are doing is really no good,’ ” said Swag-A. “But we will make it, absolutely.”
Four members of the band, including Swag-A and his twin brother, Flight-A, are fourth-generation descendants of Japanese families who emigrated to Brazil a century ago and began returning in the 1980s as Japan’s economy boomed and Brazil’s faltered.
The group’s leader, Acha, is Japanese Peruvian, and the sixth, Crazy-K, who is Japanese, said he made friends with the others as a rebellious teenager.
All but two band members — who go by Barco and DJ Pig — were born in Japan, all went to Japanese schools, speak the language fluently and say they feel culturally Japanese. They rap in Japanese, an important signal of their bicultural identity. But only Crazy-K holds a Japanese passport.
Under Japanese law, the others are gaijin, or foreigners, immigrants who are tolerated rather than welcomed here. As foreign passport holders, fourth-generation Japanese Brazilians born in Japan can apply for residency here but have to renew that status every one to three years.
None of this will hold them back, they insist.
'Kind of freewheeling'
“Even though I came from what’s called a slum, I will feel the flashbulbs popping,” Flight-A raps in “E.N.T.,” a song about growing up with dreams of stardom in the Toshincho (East New Town) Danchi housing project in Iwata, about 130 miles southwest of Tokyo.
The band’s name refers to their childhood among the green rice paddies that encircle Iwata, but their songs are often about their struggles in a place far different from Japan’s prosperous image.
“I was kind of freewheeling, air guns in the Danchi, kids behaving violently, it’s different town, a crazy town,” Acha sings, before other members of Green Kids take up the refrain.
“Where you grow up doesn’t matter — really, we’re grateful for this town,” they sing.
In Brazil, the Nikkei, as Japanese immigrants are known, became relatively successful members of the urban middle class. (In Peru, Alberto Fujimori, the son Japanese immigrants, rose to become president in 1990.)
But a succession of economic crises in Brazil encouraged many to seek their fortunes back in their ancestral homeland. Japan, needing cheap labor in its boom years, opened its doors, offering permanent residency for former emigrants from 1990.
The money was better in Japan, but many of the dekasegi, or people working away from home, saw their social status tumble. University graduates and engineers became contract workers, doing unskilled jobs in Japanese factories.
Longing to leave
The “Land of Yen” was viewed as a means to an end, as many longed nostalgically for a return to Brazil, said Angelo Ishi, a university professor and journalist who was born in São Paulo but moved to Japan in 1990.
When Japan’s economy was battered by the 2008 global recession, contract workers were the first to be fired. Poverty gripped Toshincho Danchi, and many families left.
Still, more than 200,000 Brazilians of Japanese descent are here, making them the fifth-largest ethnic group in the country, behind Chinese, South Koreans, Vietnamese and Filipinos. Over the years, many expressed their yearning for Brazil in samba nights, Carnival parades and meals of feijoada, a Brazilian black bean stew.
But if life in Japan has been a struggle for the dekasegi, it has been even tougher for their children. Some, whose parents planned an eventual return to Brazil, attended Portuguese-language schools — leaving them unable to speak Japanese and unable to compete in the job market if their families end up staying in Japan, as many do.
Others attended regular Japanese-language schools, struggling with a language they had never spoken at home, often with little or no support from the school. Swag-A remembers crying on his first day of school as a 6-year-old, not understanding a word of what was being said.
Often shunned by their classmates, many ended up dropping out. In Toshincho Danchi, some took drugs.
'Gaijin, go home'
For the members of Green Kids, growing up has meant constant, low-level discrimination, being told “gaijin, go home” by classmates, struggling to get work or rent a room as foreigners.
“Frankly speaking, being a foreigner, I often get stopped by police even if I’m not doing anything, just walking,” Swag-A said. “They suspect we are carrying drugs. When they question us, they search our car thoroughly, maybe take off our shoes and our caps.”
Several wear tattoos expressing their pride in where they grew up: Swag-A has 0538, the local dialing code, on his right arm, Acha has East New Town on the back of his left hand and Flight-A’s right arm has Toshincho in Japanese kanji characters.
In the process, they are consciously breaking a taboo in Japanese society. Tattoos are typically associated with the yakuza, members of organized crime gangs.
“I first got a tattoo knowing people would react negatively,” said Flight-A, who added that he was partly inspired by tattooed foreign chefs he has watched in online videos.
But getting a tattoo was also a statement against discrimination.
“Why I feel strongly is because I don’t want people to judge me based on how I look,” he said. “I tattooed the memory of my old days on my body, and made it into art.”
DJ Pig said he has watched the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and wishes Japan would have its own national conversation about discrimination.
“Over there, people have been killed,” he said. “It’s much deeper.”
Japan desperately needs foreign workers to fill in the gaps created by its shrinking and aging population but is reluctant to let them put down roots here.
A 2018 revision to the immigration law effectively drew the line under the third generation of Japanese Brazilians and other former emigrants, as the last who can claim permanent residence here: The fourth generation, including many of the Green Kids, in principle have no such right, even if they were born here.
If they were to leave the country to live abroad, their Japanese residency could lapse, and they would have to apply to return, just like other immigrants.
“A line has been drawn: The government sees the fourth generation’s linkages as not being as strong, that their Japanese blood is thinner,” Ishi said.
That is causing frustration among many fourth-generation Japanese Brazilians, who “feel the government is colder toward them. They feel hurt,” he said.
The irony, said Shigehiro Ikegami, a professor at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, is that children who make it through the school system end up fluent in Portuguese and Japanese, and some are now going on to build successful careers at Japanese companies.
At a time when Japanese companies say they are seeking global talent, they have a largely untapped resource under their noses, Ikegami said. But the Japanese education isn’t set up to provide the Japanese Brazilian community with the support it needs.
“With our friends, we used to hang out in front of a convenience store,” the Green Kids sing in “Real Daily,” a song about reality and ambition. “Still seriously trying to make our dreams come true.”