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The land of rising science

Japan's contribution to Brazilian research

Reproductions from the book on the centennial of Japanese immigration to Brazil, as shown in photographs The following is an ancient Japanese saying: “Listen to one word, understand ten.” It is no surprise that “kagaku”, the Japanese word for “science”, is a combination of two ideograms that mean “study, learning” and “excellence, distinction”. For decades after their arrival in Brazil in 1908, the Japanese were “attached” to land and farming. Once the Nikkei (Japanese born outside Japan) realized that their tropical sojourn was permanent, many migrated to cities. “Farmers abandoned their farms so that their children could get an education, which they viewed as a way up the social ladder. Life in the city strengthened their belief that education was the only available path for social mobility,” wrote Ruth Cardoso in her doctoral thesis Estrutura familiar e mobilidade social: estudos dos japoneses no estado de São Paulo (Family structure and social mobility: studies of the Japanese in the State of São Paulo). For the Japanese, science and knowledge became a way of distinguishing themselves in a society that took a long time to accept them.

Nikkei families value schooling more than the acquisition of assets that show off social and economic prominence. Education is a value that has been pursued by many Nikkei families, ever since the Meiji era, when Japan had already solved its illiteracy problem, decades before Europe and the United States had done so,” wrote sociologist Sedi Hirano in his book O nikkei no Brasil (The Nikkei in Brazil). “Nonetheless, people still say half-jokingly: ‘did you kill a Japanese to get into USP’s medical or engineering school?’ This is a clear sign of discrimination.” The renowned Oriental wisdom has chosen to disregard such prejudice. Thanks to the unique characteristics of the Japanese immigrants (68% in the case of the ship Kasato Maru), the cultural activities of the so-called Japanese community began early and scientific research was no exception. However, many people question the statement that the Japanese immigrants were already involved in natural science and science activities in the 1930’s, even before the foundation of USP. One example of this involvement is the Instituto Kurihara de Ciência Natural Brasileira, natural science institute, founded in 1931, and self-described as the “world’s smallest astronomical observatory,” points out Ana Maria Kazue Miyadahira, a full professor at USP’s Nursing College and coordinator of the project Encontros e memórias: a inserção nikkei na USP e na sociedade brasileira (Encounters and recollections: the Nikkei insertion into USP and Brazilian society), to be published in a book.

In the beginning, scientific exchange between the two countries was insignificant. “At that time, Brazil was a primary exporter, and was barely industrialized. Japan, on the other hand, was not a scientific power yet, because Japan’s development had been fast and had been based on importing know-how,” explains historian Shozo Motoyama, from USP. Brazilian researchers preferred to maintain contact with the European scientific community, especially the French one. To complicate matters, the 1920’s and the 1930’s witnessed the onset of anti-Japanese campaigns in Brazil, whose scientific community was actively involved in the ideals of eugenics. The foundation of the Instituto Kurihara by farmer Shihishi Kamiya and a group of amateurs from the town of Mirandópolis, was a noteworthy feat. Important research studies on astronomy, meteorology, zoology, botany, archaeology, anthropology and history were conducted at the Institute. Kamyia and his friends had transformed an old chicken coop into an astronomy observatory which sent data to Japan’s Kwazan Observatory and to Brazil’s National Observatory.

The end of the conflict allowed scientific activities to be shared again by Brazilians and Japanese, especially in the fields of physics, which witnessed noteworthy progress, thanks to the military investments of the Japanese Empire. The main players in this respect were Hideki Yukawa and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, who were interested in quantum physics, which attracted little interest in Japan at that time. “In 1934, Yukawa proposed the existence of a particle called meson to challenge this lack of interest; his discoveries, however, did not stir any enthusiasm among the members of the physics community,” says Shozo. In 1947, César Lattes was one of the scientists who had empirically observed the meson-pi atomic particle, thus helping Yukawa achieve the recognition of his theories. In Brazil, however, the Japanese community was going through difficult times, as a result of Japan’s defeat in the war, which shattered the immigrants’ dream of returning to Japan. The Japanese community was divided into the katigumis, who believed in the Empire’s victory and wanted to go home, and the makegumis, viewed as defeatists, a minority (20%) that accepted Japan’s defeat by the Allies. Interested in upholding the truth and while also maintaining the morale of their fellow countrymen, the makegumis decided to invite Yukawa, the first Japanese Nobel Prize laureate, to come to Brazil in 1949, to talk about the end of the empire. The community raised close to one million yen to this end, but the physicist, who was ill at the time, was unable to come (he eventually came to Brazil in 1958). The money was donated to the University of Kyoto, which was going through a difficult time in the post-war years.

“The money from Brazil encouraged the creation of a research group, which worked on pioneering experimental research on nuclear emulsion. This group was comprised of Yukawa, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Masatoshi Koshiba (winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1949, 1965 and 2002, respectively),and Mituo Taketani, who later invited Brazilian scientist César Lattes to set up a partnership of theoretical and experimental physicists from both countries,” explains physicist Edison Shibuya, from Unicamp, who worked with Lattes. “The fact that the Japanese community had invited Yukawa to help with the problems being faced in Brazil contributed directly to the creation of the CBJ and indirectly towards the consolidation of elementary particle physics.” In 1958, physicists Roberto Salmeron and Paulo Leal Ferreira were looking for a director to head the Theoretical Physics Institute/IFT, created in São Paulo, in 1952, along the lines of Germany’s Max Planck Institute. “I recalled my conversations with a friend of mine, Hiroomi Umezawa, a young Japanese physicist from the University of Tokyo, who had told me that after World War II, there were very few jobs available at Japanese universities. I asked her for a recommendation and a couple of weeks later, I was informed that Taketani, one of the big four in Japan’s physics community, was interested in heading the IFT,” says Salmeron in a recent article written about the institute. “He publicly stated that he had come to Brazil, grateful for the money the Japanese community had donated to the Elementary Particles Group,” says Shibuya.

GILBERTO PAULO ARRUDA/FTBrazilian physicists welcome Nikkei colleagues (Taketani in the middle) GILBERTO PAULO ARRUDA/FT

Physics was an important field in terms of the collaboration between the Nikkei and the Brazilians. However, one cannot deny that the Japanese also contributed greatly to medical achievements. In 1923, Japan’s Ministry of the Interior provided a 23 thousand yen donation to implement medical care services. “Communication difficulties (because of language problems) between the immigrants and the medical services in the community led government authorities to establish an agreement between the two countries so that physicians could come from Japan and provide medical care for their countrymen. These Japanese physicians were referred to as the haken-i and were only allowed to care for the Japanese community,” says Doctor Renato Yamada, a professor at USP’s Medical School. “The lack of physicians led to a high number of Japanese students graduating from medical schools, because many Japanese parents wanted at least one of their children to become doctors, which attests to the terrible circumstances of the Japanese immigrant. Thus, ever since 1939, many Nissei have graduated from USP.” And ever since, 20% of the students getting into the top medical schools in the country are Nikkei. Besides helping their countrymen, many of them were victimized by malaria, tuberculosis and other tropical diseases and by diseases caused by changes in eating habits, becoming a doctor was part of the desire for social mobility which in the 1950’s and 1960’s emphasized professions in the fields of medicine and engineering. Dojinkai, a Japanese aid society established in 1926, brought Japanese physicians to Brazil. The accomplishments of these doctors include the detection and treatment of trachoma and vermin-caused diseases (especially hookworm), research studies to control malaria, and the dissemination of information on leishmaniasis, tuberculosis, etc.

The major technical and technological contribution of the Japanese immigrants who came to Brazil up to the World War II was in the field of agriculture. The Nikkei revolutionized Brazil’s agricultural techniques. At first, they relied on the technical assistance of the Japanese Government, which placed agronomists, technicians and agricultural implements at the disposal of the immigrants. One should keep in mind that, back then, agriculture was Brazil’s chief economic activity and the Japanese immigrants were responsible for introducing technology and genetic improvements, as well as new species of fruit and vegetables (in the early 1900’s, only 20 agricultural products at most were being grown in Brazil.) New marketing techniques, improved planting techniques, dissemination and imports, and, above all, the implementation of farm cooperatives – the first of which was established in the Triangulo Mineiro region in 1913 – were responsible for the creation of a “membership” culture, long before a law on farm cooperatives was enacted. Many years later, the experience of the Cooperativa de Cotia cooperative was an outstanding element in the attempt to develop the marketing of farm products. “Farmers felt they were being exploited by wholesalers and vendors of products and equipment; as a result, they decided to get organized as a cooperative to buy and sell their products,” says agronomy engineer Isidoro Yamanaka, a special advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Another major contribution of Japanese farmers was the diversification of crops, which began in the 1930’s. These pioneers were responsible for achievements such as the thorn-less pineapple, the persimmon and the papaya. The first attempts at sericulture, in 1912, were made by Ikutaro Aouagui, founder of the Japanese community in Iguape and a passenger on the ship Kasato Maru. Ikutaro unsuccessfully tried to implement silk farming. Efforts were made in this respect, and in 1938 Bratac/Sociedade Colonizadora do Brasil, provided the technology to drive silk farming forward. Even the development of the layers for white eggs was a result of the Nikkei’s efforts, who were also responsible for marketing eggs for the first time in 1926. Previously, eggs had been sold by producers who raised poultry in their backyards. The modernization of Brazil’s poultry farming sector is the result of the work of technicians trained at the Instituto de Práticas Agrícolas agricultural institute, run by KKKK; the Japanese Consulate in São Paulo provided the KKKK with the first poultry parent stock.

At the Japanese Embassy and Japanese Consulates spread around the country, agricultural attachés sent by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture helped the immigrants and provided them with technical guidance regarding their crops and the processing of farming and ranching products. In 1927, the creation of the Sociedade Cooperativa de Responsabilidade Limitada dos Produtores de Batata em Cotia, a potato growers’ cooperative, the future CAC, introduced pioneering farming techniques to Brazil, such as soil adjustment with chemical and organic fertilizers to improve quality and productivity. CAC has improved agriculture in the last 70 years, thanks to its technical staff, by means of internal surveys and by importing expertise from other countries. We have CAC to thank for, for having introduced such techniques as the planting of vegetables in greenhouses, plant grafting to improve quality, the creation of new varieties etc. The scientific and technical collaboration was maintained in subsequent years, generating such programs as the Cedaval/Centro de Desenvolvimento do Vale do Ribeira development program, the Centro de Pesquisa do Cerrado research program (which was started in 1975, in partnership with Embrapa), the Prodecer/ Programa de Cooperação Nipo-Brasileira no Desenvolvimento da Agricultura dos Cerrados agricultural development program, and the implementation of the Forest Hydrology lab in Cunha, among other ventures.

Today, agribusiness accounts for 33% of our GDP, 42% of our exports and 37% of the jobs in our country. “Part of this success can be credited to our immigrants. Thanks to this wave, Brazil and Japan  have entered into agricultural cooperation agreements and we have managed to benefit from high technology and valid experiences, which are the elements that  have turned Brazilian agribusiness into what it has become,” says Bonifácio Nakasu, former executive director of Embrapa. “The lessons taught by the Japanese immigrants regarding respect for the environment and making sacrifices to benefit the young cannot be forgotten. The Japanese acted as interpreters and connecting elements; thus, they facilitated the implementation of a philosophy based on the Japanese spirit, the results of which are undeniable,” says Ana Miyadahira. Indeed, the word kagaku, “science” in Japanese, also means poetry.