Report on Feb. 2012 Monthly Meeting; An Extraordinary Journey: Film Screening of “The Grandpa from Brazil”

In an event co-sponsored by SIETAR and Osaka JALT, about 40 people gathered in Takatsuki on February 12, 2012 for a film screening of “A Grandpa from Brazil” and a question-and-answer session with the director, Nanako Kurihara.

         The documentary introduces us to Ken’ichi Konno, born in Suita, Osaka, who emigrated to Brazil in 1931 at the age of 19. After more than 70 years there, he was very much at home in Brazil. However, since 1992, he made an arduous 26-hour flight alone to Japan each year. The film focuses on the journey Konno made in 2004 when he was 92 years old.

         Some of the places he visits in this film–his former school in Tokyo, the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama, the Kobe Emigration Center–are connected with his past. We get glimpses of the harsh economic conditions and government policies that led to his emigration to Brazil, and the “past sufferings” that Konno had experienced. His trip, however, has less to do with nostalgia and more with his concern about the fate of the Japanese-Brazilian migrant workers who have come in large numbers to Japan since the 1990s. While Konno is happy and at peace in Brazil, he recognizes that the first and second generations of immigrants of any new country will struggle greatly. From his own experiences as an immigrant in Brazil, Konno feels the pain and understands the hopes and problems of his friends who work long hours to earn money in Japan and who hope someday to return to live in Brazil where life is more enjoyable. He listens to their stories, gives advice and cares deeply about their children. 

         There is one family that Konno always visits in Hiroshima. They seem to be only distantly related to him, but the two boys, Fabio and Douglas, welcome him as their very own great-grandfather. Konno visits their schools, talks to their teachers and pointedly asks if the boys or other Brazilian children at school are experiencing problems such as bullying. Foreign children are not subject to compulsory education in Japan, and many Japanese-Brazilian children do not attend or drop out of Japanese schools altogether for various reasons, including bullying. Konno worries that Brazilian children, without a proper education and without language skills, will not be able to fit in and have a good life in either Japan or Brazil. We get the feeling that if Fabio and Douglas speak Japanese fluently and seem happy and well-adjusted to their life in Japan, it is perhaps in part thanks to the efforts of their “grandpa” who keeps in touch with their family, and visits them, their teachers and schools every year.

          Following the film screening, the director Kurihara answered a wide variety of questions. She gave more details about Konno who had dealt with chickens, corn, and auto parts, changed jobs ten times, lost everything at one point in his life and took 30 years to become successful again. He and his large family (six children, 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren) had been able to see this film when it was screened in Brazil before he passed away in 2009, and the Japanese Brazilians laughed hard and long about how the Japanese government had said emigrants would become wealthy in a few years. Kurihara talked about the lack of a national policy about the education of foreign children, something that had even shocked a few people in the audience. At present, because of the economic downturn, there are fewer Brazilians in Japan than the 312,000 who were in Japan at the time the film was made, but the number who left Japan is smaller than the number who have continued to stay, and Kurihara is concerned how Japanese society seems to know so little about the lives of so many people who live in their midst.

         Kurihara, who has a doctorate in Performance Arts from the New York University, also answered many questions about herself. Although she was studying dance, she started her first film project due to the influence of a very good friend and Japanese feminist. That film, “Ripples of Change” (with the Japanese title “Looking for Fumiko”), about the feminist movement in Japan, went on to win awards. Her current project involves working with a percussion workshop for local Brazilian and Japanese children in Shiga, and documenting the workshop’s progress and performances.

         For those who are interested in having their own DVD of “A Grandpa from Brazil” (available with Japanese and Portuguese or with English subtitles), please check Kurihara’s website at She and Stephen Dalton, a teacher at Osaka Gakuin University, are also developing a study guide for interactive use in classes, and they welcome feedback and comments.

         Kurihara says she misses Konno-san very much, but his story resonates at many different levels with our own journeys through life, and her film makes him come alive as the grandpa we all wish we had and the wise senior we would like to become.

Linda Arai