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Japanese-Brazilians have split allegiances

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Chants of “Nippon!” broke out in a Japanese-Brazilian cultural center in Sao Paulo as 300 fans cheered on the Asian team in their World Cup game against Ivory Coast.

For the large community of Brazilians of Japanese descent, it was time to put on the Blue Samurai jersey for one night before switching back to Brazil's yellow and green.

“I am rooting for a Brazil-Japan final,” said Ivo Tobioka, a 29-year-old massage therapist who was wearing a T-shirt bearing the picture of Japanese playmaker Keisuke Honda.

But make no mistake. If his dream final in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium comes true, he wouldn't hesitate: “I would cheer for Brazil.”

Just as Brazil's Selecao is a symbol of national identity, supporting the Blue Samurai is a way for Brazilians of Japanese descent to reconnect with their ancestors' homeland.

The crowd at the cultural center watched the game on a big screen in a room decorated with paper lanterns in the colors of Brazil and Japan.

They roared and jumped from their chairs when Honda opened the score against Ivory Coast in late Saturday's game in the northeastern city of Recife.

They screeched in horror as the African team came back to win it 2-1, but they clapped the Japanese team after the final whistle in their first cup game.

Brazil is home to the world's largest Japanese community outside Japan, with some 1.8 million people of Japanese descent. About 60 percent live in Sao Paulo state.

The first wave of Japanese migrants came to Brazil to flee poverty in their country and work in the South American country's coffee plantations under an agreement between the two governments.

Aware of the connection, five Japanese national team players taped a video message for the community, which was played before the game at the Brazilian Society of Japanese Culture and Social Welfare.

Team captain Makoto Hasebe said they were knew that they were the “second team” of Japanese-Brazilians and that their support “brings a great feeling.”

'Brazilianized'

Before kick-off, the marriage of both cultures was on display as a taiko drums group performed traditional Japanese beats, followed by samba dancers.

The harmony director of the Aguia de Ouro samba school, Celso Mizukami, is third generation Japanese.

“Japanese-Brazilians are so 'Brazilianized' that they are integrated in samba schools,” he said.

The cultural center is located in a Sao Paulo district called Liberdade, a neighborhood lined with red Japanese-style street lights, restaurants serving tempura and shops selling anime videos.

The stores, however, are mostly decorated with Brazilian flags for the World Cup and one of the hottest-selling items is Brazil's team jersey.

Still, for some in soccer it remains difficult to choose between Brazil and the country of their elders who arrived in the first wave of Japanese migration in 1908.

“I am divided, but I am more of a Brazil fan,” said Maria Cristina Igarachi, 30, an engineer who wore a Japan jersey but had a Brazil scarf around resting on her shoulder.

Claudio Kurita, director of the Japanese-Brazilian cultural center, said having Japan play in Brazil was a chance for migrants to feel closer to their ancient land.

Some 3,000 Japanese-Brazilians went to watch the Blue Samurai practice outside Sao Paulo last weekend, he said.

“Anything that brings the pioneers closer to Japan makes them happy,” said Kurita, who wore Hasebe's number 17 jersey. “Even the elders who know nothing about football were very excited.”

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