"I fear for Asian communities in Brazil"

As anti-Asian hate crimes rise in the Western world, can Brazil avoid joining the trend?

Gabriel Leão | Al Jazeera Gabriel Leão is a journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil.

2 Apr 2021

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's anti-China rhetoric may result in a surge in anti-Asian racism in Brazil, writes Leao [Ueslei Marcelino/File Photo/Reuters]

The March 16 Atlanta spa shootings, in which eight people including six Asian women were killed by a white assailant, brought renewed attention to the rise in anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes in the United States and beyond.

Indeed, since the emergence of COVID-19, East and Southeast Asian communities in the US, United Kingdom and continental Europe have been facing a new wave of hate, discrimination and abuse.

Former US President Donald Trump tried to blame the pandemic on China, not only to gain leverage against a powerful rival but also to avoid being criticised for his failure to respond to this global public health emergency efficiently. As he repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung-flu”, politicians and influential public figures in other countries swiftly adopted his inflammatory anti-China rhetoric. This coupled with existing anti-Asian prejudices, resulted in Asians becoming a primary target of white supremacist and racist violence in many countries. For example, in the first year of the pandemic, nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate crimes have been recorded in the US, and Britain’s East and Southeast Asian communities have seen a 300 percent increase in hate crimes.

As I watch the deadly virus of racism devastate Asian communities across the Western world, I cannot help but fear Asians in my country, Brazil, may soon face the same fate.

Brazil is home to a large Asian community, including the world’s largest community of Japanese descendants outside of Japan, numbering about 1.9 million people. Asian communities in Brazil are economically better off than other racial groups on average, but this does not protect them fully from racism.

Anti-Asian bias has a long history in Brazil.

First Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil in 1908 to work in coffee plantations. As their numbers slowly increased over the years, they faced abuse and discrimination not only from the landowners they worked for, but also the Brazilian state itself.

In 1934, the government of Getulio Vargas passed an Immigration Quota Law, limiting the number of new immigrants from each country to two percent of the number of their citizens who had already settled in Brazil in the previous 50 years. While the law appeared to be an attempt to limit all migration on paper, it was actually aimed at curtailing Japanese migration, in particular. As there was only a small number of Japanese nationals settled in Brazil before the passing of this law, the two percent quota ensured that only a handful of new Japanese migrants could enter the country each year.

According to historians, the Vargas administration’s anti-Japanese policies were rooted in its concerns about Japan’s “imperial ambitions” – Brazilian leaders feared that the Japanese community in Brazil could act as an outpost of Japan and pose a threat to Brazil’s sovereignty.

These fears, and the consequent rise in anti-Japanese sentiment in the country, only heightened after Brazil declared war against Japan in 1942.

During the war, the Brazilian government severely restricted the movement of Japanese nationals within the country and banned Japanese language education in schools. Japanese language newspapers were also banned and thousands of Japanese nationals were arrested or expelled from Brazil on suspicion of espionage.

After the war, the Brazilian state’s perception of Japanese migrants gradually changed. As Japanese migrants in the country achieved great economic success despite many obstacles, and as Japan emerged as a peaceful economic powerhouse in the international arena, the Brazilian state started to see the Japanese as good migrants who added value to the country. While this significant change in perception helped people of Japanese descent gain some prestige and respect in Brazil, it did not save them from racism that remained entrenched in Brazilian society.

Despite joining the Brazilian middle classes and obtaining some of the privileges that came with that status, Japanese Brazilians, like other Asian migrants, have never been fully accepted as equal members of Brazilian society. They continued to face racist “jokes” about their appearance and culture as well as race-based discrimination in their daily lives.

In my teenage years, I attended a predominantly white Catholic private school and witnessed first-hand the bullying of a pupil of Japanese descent because of his ethnicity. I was bullied and ostracised for being Black, while he faced similar abuse for being Asian. Students who pestered me to “sing and dance Samba” repeatedly asked him whether he knew “martial arts”, or told him he should be a “math wiz”.

Over the following decades, most Brazilians’ opinion of Asians continued to be shaped by racial stereotypes and simplifications. It is, for example, still common for Brazilians to refer to all Asians, regardless of country of origin, as “Japanese”.

And things got significantly worse after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, following in Trump’s footsteps, treated the emergence of the novel coronavirus as an opportunity to attack China.

According to renowned Brazilian journalist Tales Faria, Bolsonaro became convinced that COVID-19 is “part of a Chinese government scheme to expand its global power” in early 2020, and started feeding his staff conspiracy theories about China.

On March 18, 2020, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of President Bolsonaro, publicly blamed China’s governing Communist party for the coronavirus crisis sweeping the world.

“It’s China’s fault,” he claimed on Twitter, retweeting a message that said: “The blame for the global coronavirus pandemic has a name and surname: the Chinese Communist party.” After facing a major backlash, he tried to walk back on his words and tweeted that he has “never wanted to offend Chinese people”. The damage, of course, was already done.