The 165 Japanese families that disembarked from the ship Kasato Maru at the Brazilian port of Santos on 28 April 1908 had little idea what fate held in store for them. All that small band of pioneers knew was that, following a 50-day voyage, they had come to work, and to work hard. And they would not be the only ones. Between then and 1940, some 180,000 Japanese would make the journey to Santos to begin a new life in Brazil.

The story of Japanese immigration to Brazil essentially revolves around a country’s need for labour, and the welcome it gave to people who chose to leave their homeland behind because of war and demographic crisis. It is a story that reveals the hospitality and easy-going nature of the Brazilians and the dedication and discipline of the Japanese.

So well did these immigrants integrate in fact that, as the years passed, subsequent generations of Japanese immigrants began to feel more Brazilian than the Brazilians themselves, a process whose impact would extend to the sport of football.

An example of this can be found in the trickery of the maestro Ronaldinho, whose repertoire features the elástico, in which he flicks the ball to one side with the outside of his boot before immediately flicking it back in the opposite direction, bamboozling defenders in the process.

Though the popular belief is that Ronaldinho inherited the trick from the one and only Roberto Rivellino, the fact is that it was patented by Sergio Echigo, a nisei – a child of Japanese immigrants – who played for Corinthians in the 1960s.

Years later Rivellino, a FIFA World Cup™ winner with Brazil at Mexico 1950, recalled the first time he saw Echigo perform the move: “He was playing in a trial match when the ball came to him out wide and he just did it. Our full-back Eduardo just about ran off the pitch.”

Explaining what happened next, Rivellino said: “I couldn’t believe it. I looked over to him and said: ‘Hey, Japanese guy. What did you do there?’ And he showed me how to do it. All Echigo says is that he invented it and I perfected it.”

A two-way street
While Brazilian football benefited from fancy Japanese footwork, the Japanese game is greatly indebted to the services provided by Brazil’s footballers, chief among them Zico, whose move to Kashima Antlers in 1991 was inspired mainly by the club’s desire to harness his sumptuous skills.

Such was the understanding between the player and his new employer, however, that as well as being an ambassador for them and the newly founded J.League, he also helped bring some much needed discipline and organisation to Japanese football. Such has been Zico’s contribution to the game there that Kashima is home to two statues of the player and a museum in his honour.

“I knew that they wanted me to play but I wasn’t sure if I could,” the Brazilian legend told FIFA.com. “I made it clear that at the age of 38 I was winding down and looking to do other things.

"The idea was to help with the changeover from an amateur to a professional game, and for me personally to go in search of Japanese culture and the discipline, drive and determination inherent in it. The doors were beginning to open back then and we managed to really take the game forward across the whole country.” 

Zico’s contribution did not end there, as he went on to explain: “The only reason I took over as Japan’s national team coach (from 2002 to 2006) was to do it for them, for the people. The Japanese have always been so grateful to me that I couldn’t say no. The everyday cultural experiences I enjoyed off the pitch made me feel right at home there. I couldn’t have started my coaching career in any better way.”

It’s definitely going to motivate the boys even more, though they’ll also have responsibilities too. It’s a bit like being at home.

Alberto Zaccheroni, Japan coach.

Blending in
Though the connection between the people of Japan and Brazil has been a happy and productive one, cultural and footballing differences have occasionally hampered mutual understanding. It is difficult to know who had it harder: the Brazilian pioneers such as Ruy Ramos, who set about raising standards in a Japanese game that was all but amateur in name, or young Japanese hopefuls like Kazuyoshi Miura, who sought to make their name in a country where talented footballers are hardly in short supply.

Born in Shizuoka, Miura joined the youth ranks of Sao Paulo outfit Juventus as a 15-year-old in 1982, and went on to fulfil his dream of turning professional and playing at the highest level with a club of the calibre of Santos. For a player hailing from a country with no real footballing tradition back then, it was no mean feat to make it in Brazil.

“I was young. I was only 21 when I went to Santos and I learned a lot on and off the pitch,” said Miura in fluent Portuguese on being named Santos’ Japanese ambassador in 2011, ahead of O Peixe’s participation in the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. “I’m very grateful for all the affection the Santos fans still show me.”

The equally intrepid Ramos inspired similar feelings when he made the journey in the opposite direction, building up an even stronger and longer-lasting relationship with his host country.

“I arrived in Japan as a 20-year-old in 1977, when there was virtually nothing,” he told FIFA.com. “The league was amateur, games were played on dirt pitches, and the food was sushi. That was my life. I got used to it though. In fact, I fell in love with the place. Japan is my country and I’m Japanese now.”

Sporting a tattoo of the Japanese flag on his shoulder, that much is clear. As well as learning the language, he took out Japanese nationality in 1988, played for his adopted country and only returns to Brazil for the occasional holiday. That said, Ramos has retained his Rio de Janeiro accent and turns of phrase.

The relaxed, fluid relationship between the two cultures will come to the fore once more when Japan’s national team arrives in Brazil this June for the World Cup. As well representing their country, the reigning Asian champions will also be playing for 1.5 million Japanese Brazilians, the largest population of expatriate Japanese anywhere in the world.

“It’s definitely going to motivate the boys even more, though they’ll also have responsibilities too," Japan’s Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni told FIFA.com. "It’s a bit like being at home.”

Though times have changed and Japanese football has stepped up a level, the feeling stays the same. Over 100 years after the first Japanese set foot on Brazilian soil, the next wave of visitors from the country will soon find the place familiar themselves.