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After identity struggles, Japanese-Brazilian boy gains interest in his roots

A boy with Brazilian citizenship participates in group work at Seto Juvenile Detention Center in the Aichi Prefecture city of Seto on Feb. 12, 2020. (Mainichi/Hitomi Takai)

SETO, Aichi -- The 18-year-old boy stands 178 centimeters tall, with long eyelashes and strong facial features. He was born and raised in Japan, loves to eat natto -- fermented soybeans with a pungent smell -- and all of his friends are Japanese. He is a third-generation Japanese-Brazilian who has only been to Brazil once when he was very young. He'd always thought of himself as Japanese, but had been distraught by his "non-typically Japanese" appearance.

Once he began junior high school, the boy started to feel the gaze of students he did not know. Whenever he walked past other students, they would turn back to take another look at him, while others would whisper into each other's ears as they stared. Eventually, he began to feel that there was something wrong with his appearance. Not wanting to be seen, he began wearing masks to hide his face, and stopped talking as much as he used to. When he became the target of bullying as well, he stopped going to school. He resented his own roots. "I wished I'd been born with a typically Japanese face," he said.

The boy holed up in his room, and looked for a place where he could feel he belonged to on the internet. From late afternoon till morning, he spent his time playing games or watching videos on the internet. The internet, where no one could see him, was a comfortable place where he could be his cheery self.

In his third and final year of junior high school, the boy was still going to school in the afternoons or leaving early. His life lacked discipline, and soon he fell in with the wrong crowd. When he was 17, he was introduced to a job involving going to receive cash from a victim in a fraud scheme. He carried out the job and was arrested. At the Seto Juvenile Detention Center in the central Japanese prefecture of Aichi where he was ordered to stay for rehabilitation, he encountered group work that boys with roots in other countries partook in.

In group work, the boy talked with the others about the grudges he held. He spoke about how he had been embarrassed to have his Japanese friends see his blond grandmother, that he didn't like it when people asked him to speak in Portuguese because he thought of himself as Japanese. When he shared his feelings, many of the other boys could relate to him.

In addition to boys with foreign roots, there were troubled Japanese boys who also participated in the group work. And they did not see the boy as a "foreigner" but just simply as a human being. That helped him out of his fear of being seen by other people.

Through group work, the boy began to cultivate an interest in Brazil, which he'd never had before. He realized how ignorant he was of his roots when he was asked about the town in Brazil where his mother had grown up, or the reason why his family had come to Japan. "I might as well think of myself as having two home countries," the boy said. Once he gets out of the detention center, he hopes to ask his family about his other home country, Brazil.

(Japanese original by Hitomi Takai, Nagoya News Center)

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