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Monday, April 13, 2015

Oizumi - Brazil in Rural Japan

群馬県 大泉町

Oizumi is a small town north of Tokyo, in Gunma Prefecture, noted for its large Brazilian population. Of Oizumi's approximately 40,000 residents (which actually makes Oizumi the largest town [but not city] in Gunma Prefecture), close to 6,000 of them are non-Japanese. However, the majority of the this non-Japanese population is all but indistinguishable at first glance from the local population, being Brazilians of Japanese extraction  who make up about 10% of Oizumi's residents.

Torii of Nagara Shrine, Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture.

The industrial history of Gunma prefecture is a long one, and before and during the war, Oizumi was the site of the Nakajima aircraft factory, which made fighter planes. After the war, the Nakajima factory became what is now the Sanyo and Fuji Heavy Industries factories, which are the main employers here, especially of foreign labor. The Ajinomoto Frozen Foods and the Toppan Printing plants also employ a lot of locals.

The non-Japanese influx dates back to 1990 when the Japanese government changed the immigration laws to allow foreigners of Japanese descent to work freely in Japan. At the time, the municipality of Oizumi, unable to make ends meet, was a subsidized body, and therefore actively recruited newly eligible foreign residents to come and settle there. The resulting population increase boosted tax revenues and brought Oizumi back into the black.

Buildings on Route 354, Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture.

I visited Oizumi last Saturday with my partner, who is Brazilian Japanese, for an event his company was running there. It took about an hour and ten minutes from Asakusa Station in Tokyo. The Tobu line train took us to Ota Station (Ota City is adjacent to Oizumi) and it was a 15 minute drive to Oizumi from there.

The main street, Route 354, is little different from any main street in a small Japanese town, with an unplanned hodge-podge of old and not-as-old buildings—more or less concrete cubes—raggedly lining it. However, what catches your eye here are the numerous shop and restaurant signs in Portuguese, and the shops and supermarkets themselves, a lot of which stock only Brazilian produce.

While my partner was busy, I went for a neighborhood stroll with my camera and was pleased to find that once I left the main drag, the little streets behind were mostly rural (i.e., agricultural) in feel, and quite picturesque.

Pulled up plants on the roadside, Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture.

My first real stop was Nagara Shrine, which seemed to be the remnants of a shrine that had been chopped up by residential development. The main shrine was on the edge of a tract of land that could well still be the shrine grounds, but which is now used as a playing field. The only thing that readily identified it as a past or present shrine precinct was the big torii gate on the street side. A walk across the field, where two little boys were kicking a soccer ball, brought you to the tiny old shrine that was almost in a state of disrepair.

As I stood in front of it taking photos, an old woman walked by. I said konnichiwa. She greeted me back and said foreigners were a rare sight around there. We chatted for a few minutes. She spoke pretty good English. On my asking why, she said she'd worked on the nearby American base for a few years after the war. I looked at her with a question in my eyes, because she didn't look much over 60. "I'm 83, she said, going on 84." She'd lived here all her life, right behind the shrine.

Nagara Shrine, Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture.

While we were chatting, one of the little boys kicking the soccer ball would come up, yell hello and shake my hand.

I spent another half hour wandering the neighborhood. Rustic though it was, there was an element of modern industry in almost every scene: the garish green pick-up truck parked near the shrine, the small metalworks across from the market garden, the massive power pylons planted in fields and beside trees. But the stars of the landscape that weekend were the blossom trees, cherry, plum and one or two others I couldn't identify. The cherry blossom was just starting to fall and carpeted the ground like pale pink snow. And the plum blossom still on branches were like embers against an overcast early spring sky with its peeps and patches of ozone blue.

To see all the photos I took, browse the Oizumi Google+ photo album I made of my walk ... and please +1 pics if you like them.

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