Michiko to Hatchin is a 22-episode anime series first broadcast in 2008-09 and set in a Hollywood-style fantasy of Brazil’s demimonde. Michiko Malandro is modeled after American “Blaxploitation” movie heroines of the Seventies such as Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown: tall, statuesque and violent African American women. In the first minute of the series, she makes a daring jailbreak and escapes to search for the child Hana Morenos, the Hatchin (or “Little Hana”) of the title, and apparently a link to Michiko’s old lover Hiroshi Morenos, now believed to be dead.
Hana, meanwhile, has been adopted by Don Pedro Berembowser Yamada,[i] the pastor of the Church of San Pedro; he is raising her along with his wife Joanna and their two children Maria and Gabriel—an arrangement ignoring the Catholic insistence on priestly celibacy.[ii] All of Don Pedro’s garments have crucifixes on them, and all members of his family wear crosses around their necks. (Interestingly, Hana is the only member of the family who does not wear glasses; an interesting bit of symbolism that suggests that both the inner vision of the Christians and their actual vision are impaired.) Christianity means nothing positive to Hana since she is brutally mistreated in the first episode by all four members of her foster family. Don Pedro likes to proclaim his good works, especially if he can profit from them, and he and his wife have taken in Hana mainly for the monthly government stipend.
Michiko makes an entrance—riding a motorcycle through a window—to take Hana away from this family; Don Pedro accompanies the police in pursuit in the hope that Hana might get killed in a gun battle with the authorities, in which case he stands to collect the insurance. At first fearful of this complete stranger, Hana eventually realizes that Michiko is the only person looking out for her.
The most telling conversion of Hana away from Christianity occurs at the end of the second episode, when Don Pedro confronts Hana on a rooftop, as he’s threatening to kill her himself. Hana pulls the crude crucifix from around her neck—carved from wood and painted green—and throws it at Don Pedro, hitting him in the forehead. In preparing to shoot Hana, Don Pedro throws the cross down and steps on it.
This gesture would resonate with a Japanese audience more than many others, given the roots of this practice. The act of fumie, stepping on a picture as a form of renunciation, goes back at least to the Tokugawa era (the early 1600s) when the nation of Japan sealed itself off from the outside world. Part of this policy was the declaration that Christianity itself was outlawed and converts were either put to death or given the opportunity to renounce their conversion.[iii] Believers were expected to step on a sculpture or drawing of Jesus, or the Madonna and Child, as proof of the renunciation. (The practice survived into World War II when those citizens suspected by the police of being pacifists or dissidents were compelled to step on drawings of American President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill to declare their allegiance to the Emperor and, by extension, to the Axis powers.)
Michiko to Hatchin is a media version of Christianity, one which shows off the worst aspects of the supposed believers. Hana’s foster family members are selfish hypocrites, casually violent and abusive toward Hana in ways that are part Cinderella and part Harry Potter. At least they are self-aware enough not to claim that their cruelty is tied to their Christian faith, but the faith doesn’t come to Hana’s aid either; she has to wait for a gun-toting escaped convict for help.
So much for television anime and fantasies of the tropics…
The truth, as the saying goes, is stranger than fiction.
According to a dialogue between the priest Caspar Coelho and Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi recorded in 1587, in the early years of Christian contact with Japan, Portuguese sailors occasionally purchased or stole Japanese women and children, took them on their ships, and sold them into slavery or prostitution in Portugal and Brazil, among other ports of call. Neither the Portuguese throne nor the Vatican allowed this to happen, but they also had no power to stop what sailors did halfway around the world. The existence of a family named Yamada in Brazil is thus not impossible.
In the modern era, there have been waves of immigration from Japan to the Americas, and vice versa. In the late 1800s, Japanese workers searching for employment went to the Hawaiian Islands to work the sugar cane plantations, following Chinese workers who had already traveled there. A priest of the Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land) sect of Buddhism named Kagahi moved to Hawaii, where Japanese day-laborers—more than two thousand by 1890—had been working the sugar cane fields for several years. While Kagahi’s establishing of the first Buddhist temple in Hawaii—in Hilo in 1889—was meant to bring spiritual comfort to the Japanese laborers, it was taken as a provocative act by the white American plantation owners, who perceived the Japanese as more “arrogant” than Chinese laborers, in wanting to be treated as equals. Toward that end, the Japanese dressed in Western clothes and studied English at Methodist church schools.
In 1892, Queen Liliuokalani had been approached by the Japanese government with the notion of a political union of Hawaii and Japan. Before any such steps could be taken, however, the Queen was deposed by United States Marines, supporting the interests of the plantation class. The United States government insisted that it had no responsibility for the coup, but, in 1898, the United States annexed the Hawaiian Islands.
The pattern was the same in Brazil, but the details were different. In the 1800s it was coffee plantations, and the owners sought cheap labor first from Africa and then from Italy. Conditions were so rough, however, that Italy made immigration to Brazil illegal in 1902.
In Japan, a half-century of modernization and westernization still left many out of work, and they were
encouraged to go to Brazil. Immigration spiked in the Depression of the 1930s, while America passed laws in 1924 specifically denying Japanese entrance to America. Most of Brazil’s plantations were in or near São Paulo, on the Atlantic coast some 150 miles west of Rio de Janeiro. Some of these immigrant workers eventually became owners of their own plantations.
However, attitudes complicated life in the new homeland for Japanese immigrants. Work was hard, pay was minimal, and the ruling class of Portuguese-born Brazilians demanded that the Japanese abandon their culture. To the extent that they did not assimilate, they were called “sulfur”—the yellow element that does not dissolve or mix in. In 1946 the government voted on an amendment specifically barring Japanese immigration; it was defeated 100-99. After the war, and especially during Japan’s economic boom of the 70s and 80s, Japanese in Brazil became far more acceptable.
As did Japanese Brazilians in Japan. Many tried in the 80s to return to their “homeland” after generations away, and the government made visas available, but they got a chilly reception. They mainly found work as automakers and factory workers, ending up with dirty and dangerous jobs. Some faced prejudice because their ancestors had “given up on Japan” in the first place by emigrating, and they weren’t as fluent in Japanese as non-Brazilians. The economic collapse of the 90s didn’t help matters. Still, the returnees formed their own communities, defined by their workplaces. Portuguese has become the third most common foreign language in Japan (after Chinese and Korean), and the Samba Festival held in the summer in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo is the largest held outside of Brazil. Whether in Japanese or Portuguese, the word that has defined the Japanese for centuries, at home or far away, is ganbatte: persist, keep trying.
[i]. The name is a strange conflation of a Brazilian musical instrument (berimbau, a single-stringed musical bow) and the distinctly Japanese name Yamada.
[ii]. One way that we know the household is Catholic is a scene where Hana is pushed down a flight of stairs; she ends up in front of an altar with candles burning in front of a picture of the Virgin Mary. There is nothing Protestant about this family, but neither is there much that qualifies as orthodox Catholicism.
[ii]. In an era when whole Japanese families converted to Christianity because they were ordered to by their local feudal lord or family patriarch, this policy made sense to a degree. The issue of free will was not always part of Japanese Christianity, especially in the period before the Age of Enlightenment; when Japan opened up again in 1853, and Christian missionaries returned, it was a very different Christianity that returned, not resembling the top-down medieval approach of the 16th century Jesuits.