When I stopped by the konbini for lunch at the start of Spring, I made my cursory glance through the constantly rotating stock of temporary soft drinks to see if anything caught my eye. Something did.
It had been a while – the winner being “Menthol Shock,” a soft drink literally peddled by a Japanese Tobacco Company seeking to branch out, and the last being Pepsi Pink, a strawberry-and-milk-flavored concoction that tasted like concentrated fruit sugar (which it was). Pepsi had provided a handful over the years – including the Christmas-themed Hazelnut Pepsi, and Pepsi Dry, which seemed to be designed specifically for mixing with gin.
“Latin Biorhythm Mate” is a Coca-Cola product, the English words emblazoned around the Japanese product name, which includes at least one character from each of Japan’s three alphabets. The slogan for the drink: “Play! Eat! Drink Mate,” is just two exclamation marks short of the best advertising campaign the world has ever seen.
The road to naming a mass-marketed beverage is a long one, and this name was so awkward, and my day so dull, that I found myself wondering why the marketing department at Coca-Cola Japan had settled on it. From there, I fell into a rabbit hole of poor translations, cultural assumptions, and revelations of my ignorance.
Let’s start, as most people in Japan might, with the real Japanese product name, which is this: 太陽のマテ茶. People with any grasp of Japanese will see that this is nothing like “Latin Biorhythm Mate.” The most stifling, dictionary-straight definition would be: “Solar belonging to the friends of tea,” or generously, “The sun belonging to the friend of tea.”
As the sun belonging to the friend of tea washes over your tongue, tea enthusiasts will discover another piece of the product-naming puzzle: The mate doesn’t mean “friend,” it means Yerba Mate, a South American tea.
The Letter E
Yerba Mate is native to Brazil, which still produces most of the world’s supply.
English speakers distinguish the tea from the friend by calling it “maté” – with an accent mark on the e – just because it looks more foreign and cool, and we don’t care that “maté” means “to have murdered,” which is presumably a reference to what English-speakers do with accent marks.
Despite the snide dismissal of English speakers toward Japan’s use of decorative English, we’re guilty ourselves of the minor abuse of accent marks, which is a perfect match.
Is this on par with the massacres inflicted by the Japanese on our language? No. But it does illustrate the nature of Japan’s over-reliance on the Roman alphabet. “Latin Biorhythm Mate” is on that label for the same reason that the accent mark is on the “e” in Brooklyn tea houses wherever “Yerba Mate” is served: Because it looks cool, even when it looks wrong.
Catch the Latin Biorhythm
Latin Biorhythms is another thing altogether. To parse that one out, you have to learn a little something about the Brazilian Coffee Industry in the early 1900’s.
In 1850, Brazil banned the slave trade, opening up extremely miserable jobs with barely any wages to immigrants who wanted them. Europeans poured in, until they realized that the Brazilian plantation culture wasn’t a totally awesome career path. After 50 years, Italy banned immigration to Brazil outright and Brazil started looking to Asia.
The first Japanese immigrants came to Brazil in 1908. By 1930, the United States and Australia had banned Japanese immigrants outright. The Japanese, mostly poor thanks to farming reforms of the Meiji Restoration and having few other options, flocked to Brazil. Just 82 years later, Brazil has the largest population of expat Japanese in the world.
The coffee plantations didn’t improve their labor standards over slavery. Suicides were common, and anyone wanting to go home was threatened by debts, contract laws, or violence.
Just before World War II, Japanese immigrants in Brazil were forcibly redistributed. The idea was that large clusters of Japanese immigrants would never assimilate, but small clusters of isolated immigrants would be forced to. Inter-marriage was encouraged as a long-term plan to “whiten” the Japanese to better resemble the Portuguese.
After World War II, of course, things didn’t improve. A Japanese immigrant wasn’t allowed to drive or own a radio. The government abolished Japanese schools and Japanese-owned companies. 10,000 were kicked out of the city of Santos with just 24 hours notice. Japanese workers at a pepper farm were imprisoned and forced to work on the same pepper farm without collecting wages.
This Brazilian Life
The end of the war didn’t bring any difference to the Japanese expats in Brazil. That wouldn’t happen until Japan got rich in the late 1970s.
When it did, Japanese Brazilians went back to Japan, and in 1990 Japan specifically allowed Japanese Brazilians of up to three generations the right to return under a special “Nikkei” visa program.
Oddly enough, most Japanese Brazilians in Japan still work lower-wage jobs. They’re not considered Japanese – most speak Portuguese as their primary language. They’re culturally Brazilian.
But the exchange has influenced a lot of Japanese culture, particularly in the Japanese embrace of Bossa Nova music, which was also a force behind the Shibuya-Kei sound of Japan in the swingin’ 1990s, just around the time Brazilians were sought out to come back to Japan.
It also explains why once, in the middle of a strip mall in the middle of a suburban area next to a Costco, my shopping was interrupted by 8 Brazilian women in thongs and glitter-covered feathers dancing to samba music.
It is also likely the force behind the branding for “Latin Biorhythm Mate.”
Nihongo or Go Home
In 2009, when Brazilians in Japan just about matched the number of Japanese in Brazil, Japan panicked and offered $3,000 for airfare back to Brazil and an extra $2,000 per dependent. Acceptance of the stipend included a promise that you’d never come back to Japan looking for work.
That didn’t go over so well. About 100 Brazilians took Japan up on the offer, small potatoes compared to the 225,000 or so immigrants eligible. Everyone else just kind of got totally pissed off – one particularly controversial detail was that the children of the immigrants would also be forbidden from seeking work in Japan.
This would seem ridiculous given Japan’s population crisis, but everything Japan does about its population crisis has been ridiculous. In Japan’s mostly conservative quarters, preserving the country’s way of life is more important than preserving its population.
To its credit, Japan has offered “integration” programs, such as Japanese classes and free job training to Nikkei workers. But it’s clear that the Brazilians are a little too edgy for Japan.
Which is precisely why an appeal to the Latin subculture would make sense – edgy, cool, funky, and with a hint of yerba mate. The Latin Biorhythm implies a laid back, relaxed Brazilian vibe in a brilliantly backhanded bit of damnation through faint praise.
If you know how to put the squiggly over an e, you can like This Japanése Lifé on Facebook.
So how was the beverage?
It was mediocre, actually. A kind of rooibois-ey tea flavor but kind of weak, seems like it needed a stronger concentration or something (and I usually drink rooibois straight, and hot).
thanks for the brief history of the brazil/japan relationship, i’ve been curious about that. tulio tanaka was my world cup 2010 crush.
also, i got a free bottle of this stuff in tenjin. they are promoting it so heavily! but it came with a brochure that was pretty silly, i’ll show you if i kept it. it has pictures of ladies in bikinis winking at the camera and stuff…i found it slightly offensive, and as you said, the drink wasn’t so remarkable either!
[quote] “In Japan’s mostly conservative quarters, preserving the country’s way of life is more important than preserving its population.” [/quote]
You are not correct about japanese people in Brazil. Especially in Sao Paulo, they have assimilated well, and most are successful. Many japanese have small farms, especially in the production of fruits and produce. Many doctors in Brazil are of Japanese origin. Many engineers too. I can say I have never seen a poor Japanese-Brazilian.
If 1% of Japanese descendants went back to Japan, it is too much. Japanese came to Brazil to stay, they are a very important part of Brazil.
As I wrote in the article, assimilation of Japanese-Brazilians has been smooth since the 1970s. But before that, the situation was very different.
I see where you got your info, from Wikipedia. The article is basically a list of anti-Japanese speeches and actions by the fascist Getulio Vargas regime in a very short period of time. It is totally biased and it doesn’t represent the reality. Some actions were taken during WWII, but they were very limited and never went beyond 1945. Forced assimilation ? Redistribution ? Never happened ! I live here in Sao Paulo, I know many Japanese descendants here in Sao Paulo and I know their stories.
Japanese people were exploited by farmers in the beginning of the XX century, but Italians and other immigrants were also. They soon escaped the clutches of the coffee land owners and bought land, especially in the regions of Marilia and Mogi das Cruzes in Sao Paulo and also in Parana and became small farmers. There was no “persecution” not even during WWII. One can’t say that surveillance in ONE city during the war was persecution.
During all this time, even before and during WWII, Japanese were prospering in their small farms and providing almost all produce to the big cities. Only after 1970 ? No way.
The second generation of Japanese Brazilians went to universities and became doctors and engineers. Many married white people because they wanted, not because they were forced.
Your readers deserve to know that.
OK, so, there was no persecution, except for all the persecution that you’ve just agreed happened, but it doesn’t count because it only happened under the leadership of one guy. Also, it doesn’t count because the exploitation happened to all kinds of immigrants, not just the Japanese, and the seizure of the assets of a primarily Japanese city, whose Japanese inhabitants were then forced to work for free, doesn’t count, either, because it was “just one city.”
I’ll keep that in mind next time the US decides to make all the ethnic minorities of Des Moines, Iowa into slave labor. “Eh, just one city, can’t really call that persecution!”
Got it. Thanks for the info.
Hey, great blog! I’ve been looking for something like this for a long time. Finding a westerner’s blog about Japanese culture is harder than it sounds. The internet is full of cute cats – who doesn’t loves them? – but seems to lack cool insight blogs.
Anyway, Japanese immigration here in Brazil is kind of concentrated in a region. There are lots of Japanese immigrants in São Paulo and Paraná but not that much in Rio de Janeiro (where I live) and other regions. Actually, Chinese are probably in bigger number in Rio and they are still coming here. Brazil has a big history in immigration, much like the U.S, and most of us – these days – like immigrants. Even tough most immigrants don’t really assimilate that well here – my grandpas haven’t learned portuguese or lost their accent in 50 years – we don’t mind, at least in a appearance level. After all our culture is really rooted in these different people coming together here. But I would be naive to say that there is no prejudice against foreigners in Brazil. Especially with the ones from “poorer” countries. People here seem to adore Europeans and Americans as superior people that graces us with their knowledge. That explains why so many people are blinded with pride from their “mighty” german or italian heritage when they forget most of the people that came here weren’t that literate or rich for starters. They aren’t proud of their family hard work but of some abstract concept of superior culture that they inherited from their grandparents. As an example none of my grandpas even got into high school back in Europe.
However everybody here seems to love Mate ( I don’t, but my friends and girlfriend just adore it). If you ever drop by here, try drinking some in the beach, maybe it’s better than the one there!
Also, I don’t want to be nitpicky (I don’t think this word exists) but we don’t call it Yerba Mate. This is spanish for Erva, the portuguese word. Also, the verb Maté is spanish too. In Brazil we say Matei. But I have to give you a break, you are learning or already has learned Japanese which is probably as hard as it gets and Argentina and Paraguay have a big “Mate culture” and they both speak spanish.
Sorry if I lost myself from the post but I don’t always get to write about immigration which I love talking about. And I really really enjoyed your blog. I will surely read it from now on.
Great comment! Thanks for the insight.