The Migrant Photography of Haruo Ohara


by | Dec 28, 2018

Japanese began migrating to Brazil 110 years ago, becoming probably the most prosperous minority group in Latin America and certainly the largest Nikkei community in the globe. In 2008, media, academia, art, education—basically every Brazilian cultural outlet—paid homage to the centenary of this immigration with cultural events that have marked an artistic legacy, beyond the economic contributions for which this community is well known.

Among the featured events was the triple exhibition “Japan: Floating Worlds” (Japão: Mundos Flutuantes) at São Paulo’s SESI gallery, which displayed three of the unusual Japan-related collections of Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS). The show included a selection of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings from the Edo Period (1603-1868), Haruo Ohara’s mid-century photographs of agricultural settlements in southeast Brazil and engravings by Paulista contemporary artist Madalena Hashimoto. The title of the exhibit derived directly from the translation of ukiyo-e
⤨ “picture[s] of the floating world,” a phrase that evokes the frivolous and sensual ambience of geishas, kabuki theatre and the red-light districts of Tokyo depicted in these prints so loved by European fin-de-siècle painters.

However, the curators of the show were clearly thinking beyond this conventional meaning when they gathered such diverse artists under this rubric, and pushed the notion of “floating” from “superficial” to “movable,” “continually drifting or changing position,” and “unstable.” The art forms in question were in fact three iterations of displaced Japanese art, either in the form of an orientalist aesthetic in vogue in the West (Japonism); the work of a photographer transplanted to South America, and the Brazilian intervention of a Nipponese printmaking tradition. In order to commemorate those people who left Japan a hundred years before, the cultural center decided to honor how their art also migrated and flourished in Brazil.

This was Haruo Ohara’s (1909-1999) major solo exhibition. Arriving in Brazil in 1927, he recorded with striking poetry the lives of a pioneering generation of migrants in the developing south. His black and white prints reveal coffee laborers at work, the changing productive landscape, family portraits, still lives and abstractions in the Japanese colonies in the state of Parana. Although he always remained a farmer, Ohara developed a hobby for photography thanks to the Foto Club Bandeirante of São Paulo and the rich influx of specialized publications imported from the archipelago. The masterful use of light, meticulous geometry and poignant humanistic gaze of his images reveal the extraordinary genius of an amateur artist silently in dialogue with modern photography. His personal archive, donated also in 2008 to IMS, is considered to be one of the most valuable—though scarcely studied—photographic collections in Brazil.


Haruo Ohara back in Japan

I was fortunate to view these photo- graphs in the outskirts of Osaka in June 2016. Together with a Japanese language catalogue and a substantial marketing campaign, IMS reproduced “Haruo Ohara: Fotografias” in a yearlong itinerant exhibition in an almost identical format to the 2008 one. However, when displayed in the antipodes these images that have become icons of Japanese diaspora in Brazil were suddenly stripped of their commemorative tone. Almost a decade later and in a new setting, they posed way more intricate questions about mobility, migration and displacement in the present. Were these photographs actually coming back home, as many critics wittingly observed because one of the venues was Ohara’s hometown, Kochi? Did the exhibition, subtitled now as “Light of Brazil, Scenes of Family,” indeed suggest new forms of nation building in the Americas? Were these photographs about Brazil and Japan or rather about global labor migrations in general?

In order to explore further connotations of the term “floating,” a concept from the social sciences offers new insights into the migrant photography of Haruo Ohara. Seen from Japan, these photographs speak of “floating populations,” that is, groups of people who reside in a given community for a certain amount of time and for various reasons but are not generally considered part of the official census count. In this view, the sitters no longer appear as settlers, but as passersby. Migration, the photographs now seemed to suggest, is not a one-time event but a continuous buoyant state.

Kid with jackfruit c.1950/Chácara Arara, Londrina – PR (IMS). Criança com jaca, c.1950/Chácara Arara, Londrina – PR

Pastoral Dreams and Travel Bans

Haruo Ohara’s photographs suggest smooth assimilation. We see agrarian tools, farmers at work and rest, family gatherings and children at play. The wild Atlantic forest in the background slowly mutates into rectilinear labyrinths of coffee trees and exotic flora: cherries, plums, persimmons and pears as well as orchids, lotus, chrysanthemums and wisteria color the black and white prints with their novel textures and shapes. This is a lush land cultivated by amicable settlers closely in touch with their native culture: kids study kanji, teens perform kabuki and adults play the shamisen. It is a detached space of harmony, fertility and abundance that conveys the bucolic bliss of pastoral scenes.

As I strolled through the Itami Museum galleries wallpapered in kana scripts, the Portuguese captions beside the frames became my only curatorial guides. Suddenly the dates and locations in the cutlines glared and cast a whole new light on these photographs. The majority of these pastoral scenes are set in the Ohara family farm, Chácara Arara, during the 1940s. A family portrait dated in 1949 tells us through the caption that the Arara farm would be expropriated to give way to the construction of the Londrina airport runway, and after 1952 pastoral scenes are set in the properties of the Sanada, Tomita and other neighbors. Like most Japanese nationals, the Oharas were subject to Getúlio Vargas’ policies of containment of “enemy alien” populations during the war years. Suspected of being Axis spies, immigrants had their assets frozen, their travel was regulated and they were not allowed to display their foreign culture. The Oharas were bought out of their property in Colónia Ikku and had to relocate to the city of Londrina, giving up the land they had acquired and nurtured with a lifetime effort. It is striking thus that this series of photographs date from the most xenophobic period of Japanese life in Brazil but all they convey is an illusion of a tropical Arcadia untouched by its stormy surroundings.

With the goal of bringing his work to the Japanese audience, Instituto Moreira Salles’ exhibition “Photographer Haruo Ohara – Light of Brazil, Scenes of a Family” was on view at the Kochi Prefectural Art Museum, Itami City Museum of Art and Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts from April to December 2016. The exhibit showed almost 400 works; among them objects, documents, tools, albums, videos and original prints as well as a Japanese language catalogue. An abridged version of the collection was in view at the Photo History Museum at Fujifilm Square in Tokyo from October to December 2017 and at the Kobe Center of Overseas Migration and Cultural Interaction from February 17 until May 6, 2018.

Perhaps because I write this amidst a political climate where phrases such as “travel ban,” “deportation” or “threat to national security” have become so commonplace that I cannot help thinking of this dark episode in global migrations when I read the critical dates of these peaceful pictures. In fact, it was the Immigration Act of 1924 which banned the entry of Japanese nationals to the United States, that diverted emigrant vessels south and made the figures soar: while Japanese arrivals at the port of Santos were 11, 350 between 1921 and 1925, they escalated to 59,564 between 1926 and 1930, and peaked at 72,661 between 1931 and 1935. But fears of the “yellow peril” spread south too: Brazil capped Japanese entries in 1934 and suspended them altogether from 1942 to 1951. Even if this was a reciprocal state-sponsored scheme between an Asian nation with excessive labor force and a South American one in want of it, migration waves fluctuated within and beyond borders for a long time.

But perhaps what renders the artistic brilliance of Haruo Ohara’s pastoral scenes is the capacity of photography to displace images out of their original context. As an accomplished community leader, Ohara was well aware of the ongoing tensions between his people and the Estado Novo, the “New State” or Vargas era. Therefore, he made a deliberate choice to step away from the immediate present and reshape it in his craft. These pictures are more poetical than documentary because they do not simply register the immigrant’s assimilation process but rather unfold his desire to inhabit a new land. The pastoral, understood here as a rhetoric of rural migration, is a testimony of the power of art to stay afloat in turbulent times.

Model Nikkeijins

While children occupy a preeminent role in this collection, the Japanese exhibition had them as its true protagonists. Whimsical kids swarm through the prints: whether posing or captured spontaneously, they run in flocks, camouflage in tree branches and plunge into heaps of fruit. Fertility works here as a trope of the land as well as the people. When displayed in one of the most rapidly aging countries of the world, these images of fecundity gain new overtones.

To address the increased labor shortages of its demographic dilemma, the Japanese government has slowly turned to immigration, albeit in very small numbers and largely without public debate. In a society that retains a strong perception of ethnic and cultural homogeneity, immigration remains resoundingly unpopular. To work around this, in June 1990, the Japanese government introduced new legal category for Nikkeijin Nikkeijin ⤨ to refer to overseas Japanese emigrants and their descendants. It provided a long-term resident visa status with few restrictions on their economic activities. As a result, a large number of Nikkeijin from Latin American countries entered Japan to work as unskilled, temporary workers. More than 310,000 Brazilian Nikkeijin and their families currently reside in Japan, constituting one of largest group of foreign citizens (after Korean, Chinese and Filipinos).

Yet, smooth integration is far from a promise. Derogatively labeled dekasegi

which roughly translates as “working away from home,” Brazilian Nikkeijins are subject to discrimination for their difficulty with the language and their Latin ways. Some locals scorn them as the descendants of social dropouts who emigrated because they were giving up on Japanese society, whereas others perceive them more as objects of pity because they were forced into emigrating by unfortunate circumstances beyond their control.

Haruo Ohara at the exhibit.

Filha de Sumizono, amigo de Haruo, 1949/Londrina–PR.

So, how do Haruo Ohara’s pastoral scenes play against this backdrop? The dates speak again. Because the Parana photographs date mainly from the 1940s, they portray the end of a phase where immigrants were based in very “Japanese” cultural enclaves that guaranteed a smooth return to Japan after the war. The surrender changed homecoming plans, and along the postwar wave of urban migration, many of them resettled in cities like Londrina, Curitiba or São Paulo. Like other immigrant groups, subsequent generations married out of the community, educated bilingual children and blended in the local scene. However, probably more than any other group, Japanese-Brazilians distinguished themselves for their professional achievements and educational levels.

Self-Portrait: A Pause for Lunch, Kô and Haruo, c.1940/Chácara Arara, Londrina–PR (IMS). Autorretrato–Pausa para o almoço, Kô e Haruo, c.1940/Chácara Arara, Londrina-PR.

Going to harvest coffee in the morning, 1940/Chácara Arara–PR (IMS).De manhã, indo a colher café, 1940/Chácara Arara–PR.

Site of Hitoshi Sanada, 1955/Londrina–PR (IMS) .Sítio de Hitoshi Sanada, 1955/Londrina-PR.

How ironic is it then that what have become model immigrants in the Americas are now perceived as second-class citizens in their ethnic homelands? To what extent “Haruo Ohara’s: Fotografias” works as a reminder to the adamant Japanese public opinion of the cultural continuity between Nikkeijin and Japanese nationals? By no means I imply that this exhibit is a pedagogical maneuver of cultural diplomacy, where governments invest in art to harness popular perceptions (the Brazilian Embassy did assist with the sponsorship of the exhibitions, although I would have to do further research to argue for a larger claim of state intervention). Rather, I would like to stress how vehemently a change of locale can emancipate a work of art from its original sphere of interpretation and grant it with a whole new set of meanings from the new context. Unlike the artist in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel who had given up ukiyo-e painting for propaganda art and was thus trapped between generations of Japanese who found his work utterly opaque when detached from its original space of enunciation, Haruo Ohara’s work gains density as it floats between latitudes and epochs.

Children at Chácara Arara, C. 1950/Londrina–PR (IMS).Criançasna Chácara Arara, C. 1950/Londrina–PR.

We thank the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS) for the generous use of their images.


Fall 2018Volume XVIII, Number 1

Rosario Hubert is Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Trinity College (CT). She is working on a book manuscript entitled Disorientations: Latin American Fictions of China, and writes extensively about travel, geography and translation. Many of her research trips to Brazil during her Ph.D. years at Harvard were funded by DRCLAS, where she was Graduate Student Associate in 2013-2014. 

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