The Historical Museum of Japanese Immigration in Brazil – Digital resources for researching Japanese immigration

Many people may be unaware, but Brazil has the most numerous Japanese community outside Japan, with a population of more than 1.6 million people of Japanese descent scattered all over Brazil. The history of Japanese immigration to Brazil goes back more than a hundred years, when the ship Kasato Maru, the first of many to aport the city of Santos with Japanese families that would work in the plantations (mainly, but not exclusively, coffee), arrived on June 18, 1908. This date is generally considered the historical milestone of Japanese immigration, although there are records of Japanese who entered Brazil through the north from Peru, where immigration began earlier.

This wave of Japanese immigration continued until World War II, when Brazil and Japan were on opposite sides, and was restarted, albeit on a smaller scale, after the war had ended. Many Japanese cultural associations are still vibrant and active, and local initiatives promote Japanese culture and language to nikkei (a member of the Japanese diaspora) and non-nikkei participants. In addition, bigger projects are carried out in order to register and archive memories, engage with the public, and provide information for researchers. The Historical Museum of Japanese Immigration in Brazil is one of these projects. Its web page (in Japanese, here) has many interesting features for those who study Japanese emigration to Brazil and elsewhere. In addition, the museum is conducting a number of digital projects.

Firstly, it is possible to take a virtual tour of the museum. Of course, it is not the same experience as being there in person (for a thought-provoking article on it, see Elizabeth Lee’s “Cultural Heritage Online: What do we lose when exhibitions go digital?“). Nevertheless, it undeniably invites everyone to know more about Japanese culture settled in a diverse time and space. The technology provided comes from Matterport, a 3D data platform that allows the user to capture a space (even by using a regular phone), customize it with an app, and share it on websites and social media. The platform has a free subscription limited to one active space, one user, and access to a suite of tools at a time. This technology allows users to have a similar experience to that of walking through the corridors of a museum and seeing the items in the exhibition. It also provides the possibility of watching small videos or reading some information in specific spots. The platform can be navigated through dollhouse and the floor plan views, and the floor selector.

Dollhouse view of The Historical Museum of Japanese Immigration in Brazil.

Floor plan of The Historical Museum of Japanese Immigration in Brazil.

Matterport is a resource that can be used for other kinds of projects in the humanities: to show archaeological sites, historical sites, libraries etc. Though it is best suited to museums, any physical space that can be shown can profit from being exhibited with it. It is possible to include video links in the 3D presentations, as well as comments and other references, that can be easily accessed by clicking on the white spots:

The main limitation of the exhibition right now is that the videos in the virtual tour do not have the option to display subtitles in Japanese or English (even on the Japanese version of the exhibition), so being proficient in Portuguese is crucial to understanding the videos. In any case, researchers, students, or anyone interested in the subject can click on the play button at the bottom left of the screen and let themselves be carried away on this tour. If a specific object (like ukiyo-e, musical instruments, the samurai armor brought as a family treasure, for example) or information on the walls (in Portuguese and English) captures the user’s attention, all one needs to do is to click on the same button, now with the symbol of “pause”, and navigate more slowly through the items.

The Historical Museum of Japanese Immigration in Brazil also has a project called Ashiato — which means “footprints” and also refers to the record of page visitors that appears on a social networking site, for instance. With the precious help of more than 100 volunteers, mostly elderly immigrants, almost all the passenger lists of the emigration ships registered by the Japanese Emigration Companies, mainly from the period before World War II, were digitized. According to the Museum’s website, the first group of volunteers read the original lists in Japanese ideogram (kanji) and wrote the names in hiragana, which is the Japanese syllabary. There was a second group that romanized these hiragana and later, the third group of volunteers typed them into the Museum’s database.

Let us imagine that someone in Japan wants to find family members that came to Brazil. The search system accepts the entries of the name of the ship/airplane, province of origin, year of arrival, and name/family name. It is not necessary to indicate more than one of the categories, but obviously the search is refined with more filters.

If I need the passengers’ list of the first ship to arrive — the Kasato Maru — I just have to select this name out from the first box using the arrow and the results will be the following:

From left to right, the columns correspond to 1) name of the ship; 2) date of departure; 3) date of arrival; 4) province of origin; 5) destination in Brazil; 6) family name; 7) name. All in one click.

Finally, the Museum is conducting a digitization project of its collection of about 10 thousand photos, aiming at its preservation. A small number of them, as well as some pictures of personal objects from the collection, can already be seen on the website (one of these objects is the suitcase in the image above). It also has some videos, but until now most (if not all) of them are available only in Portuguese. Anyway, little by little, with the aid of technology, stories and memories continue to be rescued and archived, as the Museum invites us in.

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