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Oriental excavations

Coming from Japan in 1934, archeologist Kiju Sakai produced a rich collection based on his scientific expeditions to the interior regions of Brazil.

Hattori, M.L. and Strauss. A / Bulletin of the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará Watercolors painted by Sakai depict fragments of ceramics collected during his field workHattori, M.L. and Strauss. A / Bulletin of the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará

Japanese anthropologist and archeologist Kiju Sakai disembarked in Brazil in May 1934 in the midst of an intense migratory flow begun three decades earlier, in June 1908, with the arrival of dozens of Japanese families at the port of Santos. However, unlike the majority of Japanese immigrants, who were generally laborers planning to work on the coffee plantations in the interior of São Paulo State, Sakai set out on scientific expeditions to areas in Brazil’s interior. His work was part of a broader research project sponsored by the Kurihara Institute of National Sciences, founded in 1931 at the Fazenda Primeira Aliança, a center of Japanese colonization in the region of Mirandópolis, in inland São Paulo. Little known at the time, Sakai’s work is now beginning to be studied more fully, revealing his contributions to the history of archeology in Brazil in the early 20th century.

Kiju Sakai (1910-1986) was born in Tomakomai, Japan, but spent his childhood in Sapporo. After completing his schooling, he moved to Tokyo, where he began studying ethnology at the Meiji Gakuin University. His interest in science became evident very early. Even as a child, Sakai had been interested in the phonetic connections between words in modern Japanese and those of former inhabitants of the province of Hokkaido, in northern Japan. It was not unusual for his affinity for ethnography to lead him to spend hours in villages in the interior of that country, observing the lifestyles of the local population.

Hattori, M.L. and Strauss. A / Bulletin of the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará Sakai (at center) during excavations of human skeletons in northeastern São Paulo StateHattori, M.L. and Strauss. A / Bulletin of the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará

As soon as he arrived in Brazil, Sakai joined other Japanese immigrants who had settled at Fazenda Primeira Aliança. He soon became involved in the research being carried out by the Kurihara Institute. Headed by farm worker Shinishi Kamiya (1893-1960), mentor of the scientific activities, the institute was investing in studies about such fields as astronomy, meteorology, zoology, botany, archaeology, anthropology, and history. Sakai became responsible for archeology and anthropology, and started documenting the lifestyles of the residents of the Vale do Ribeira and going on scientific expeditions to the sambaquis, prehistoric deposits of seashells and other debris along river banks in southern São Paulo State. He coordinated field research in at least seven municipalities of the state and excavations at seven archaeological sites, as well as producing ethnographic descriptions of the Guarani and Kadiwéu indigenous peoples.

Sakai’s expeditions resulted in the collection of dozens of stone and ceramic artifacts as well as the discovery of ancient indigenous structures and sambaquis, as historian Marcia Lika Hattori from the University of São Paulo’s Museum of Archeology and Ethnology (MAE-USP) has confirmed. Alongside archeologist André Strauss, a visiting professor from the University of Tübingen, Germany, Hattori examined documents produced by Sakai, photos of archeological campaigns from the 1930s, and water colors painted by the Japanese archaeologist in an effort to portray the physical culture and describe items from his archaeological collection. His field work had enabled him to gather prehistoric human skeletons, chipped stone tools, polished hatchets, arrowheads, lances, and ceramics used by indigenous peoples.

Hattori, M.L. and Strauss. A / Bulletin of the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará Cover of the journal Natura, a scientific publication by the Kurihara Institute that publicized the work of its researchersHattori, M.L. and Strauss. A / Bulletin of the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará

Sakai’s research continued at an intense pace until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. In 1941 he traveled to Japan, hoping to raise funds to expand the institute’s work. However, after the Japanese navy attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor and the war intensified, he was prohibited from returning to Brazil. His collection was on exhibit at the Kurihara Institute, whose headquarters at the time had been transferred to the Liberdade district of the city of São Paulo. “When Brazil entered the war, the status of Japanese immigrants in Brazil deteriorated,” Strauss explains. “Many began to feel intimidated by actions taken by the government, such as the decree that froze their assets.”

Worried about the fate of the collection, especially the human skeletons exhumed during archeological research undertaken by Sakai, members of the institute in Brazil decided to divide up the collection to prevent it from being confiscated. Part of it was left with Hidefumi Okubo, one of the researchers. The rest was hidden in crates of plants and taken to Paraná State as part of a shipment of other crates, thus foiling the authorities.

Sakai returned to Brazil in 1967, but not until 1978 was he reunited with his archeological collections and field diaries. Anxious to make his works better known, in 1979 he published the Japanese version of Notas arqueológicas do estado de São Paulo (Archaeological Notes on the state of São Paulo). In 1981, he released a Portuguese edition, published by the Paulista Institute of Archaeology.  Sakai lived the final years of his life at a rest home in Ferraz de Vasconcelos on the outskirts of the city of São Paulo. In 2002, his collection was donated to USP. For almost a decade the team at the Laboratory for Human Evolutionary and Ecological Studies (IB-USP), coordinated by bioanthropologist Walter Neves, was devoted to the sanitizing, curating, and organization of this material. Sakai’s archaeological collection is currently on exhibit at the Historical and Archeological Museum of Lins, a city in western São Paulo State.