In a classroom in the Japanese town of Haruhi, 10 youths hunch over car engines, while others speak animatedly with a teacher. .
The classroom is part of Toyota's modern five-story technical school in Haruhi, a small town of narrow, tree-lined streets and old wooden houses about 30 minutes from Nagoya.
The students appear to be eager Japanese youths in one of Japan's best training schools for auto mechanics. But first impressions are deceptive.
The children actually are the Brazilian descendants of Japanese emigres, and they speak Portuguese. At the end of the yearlong course, they will return to Brazil as trained Toyota mechanics.
In fact, they are the beneficiaries of a delicate act of business diplomacy that will help Toyota Motor Corp. expand into Brazil. About 250,000 Brazilians now live in Japan, the third largest foreign group - behind the ethnic Chinese and Koreans -in this racially homogeneous country.
Although some low-skill factory jobs are available to them, they cannot get better jobs without more training. Many cannot get additional schooling in Japan because they don't speak Japanese well enough. Meanwhile, they are losing their Portuguese fluency.
Moreover, they are caught between two dramatically different cultures. The Brazilians feel isolated in a country that they say is mistrustful of gaijin, or foreigners.
How did all of this come about? It began with a wave of immigration of Japanese citizens to Brazil in the early 1900s. There now are 1.2 million Brazilians of Japanese descent.
When the Brazilian economy began to stumble, many Brazilians with Japanese ancestry sought work in Japan. Many of them returned to Japan with their families in tow, including teen-agers who had to leave friends, schools and relatives and who do not speak Japanese.
Enter Toyota. The Japanese automaker's training program gives the young Brazilians a chance to build a career. Plus, the students get to go 'home.' And they do consider Brazil their home.
The students have little chance to get jobs in Japan as auto mechanics. Japan does not recognize the one-year certificates the students will receive at the end of the program.
Expansion in Brazil
Toyota do Brasil 'has expressed a willingness to hire them' to work in its 66 Brazilian dealerships and 83 service shops, said Shigenobu Uchikawa, Toyota's deputy general manager of international public affairs.
'Toyota plans to make Brazil their headquarters in South America in the future and double the size of the factory in the next century,' Uchikawa said. 'This will require the help of the Brazilian government.'
Uchikawa was referring to a new assembly plant that launched production of the Corolla last September. This year, Toyota expects to sell 16,000 vehicles in Brazil. A decade from now, however, Toyota wants to gain 10 percent of the Brazilian market.
As Uchikawa makes clear, Toyota has plenty to gain from good relations with the Brazilian government.
A call for help
In fact, it was Guimaraes Reis, the Brazilian ambassador, who asked Toshiaki Takaguchi, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America Inc., to help the Brazilian community in Japan. He told Takaguchi the story of his Brazilian friend, whose son was having a difficult time finding work in Japan, Uchikawa said.
In response, Takaguchi created the mechanic training course. Toyota provides the classrooms, living arrangements, 300 test vehicles and sophisticated testing equipment. The course costs ¥90 million, or $900,000, for the initial three years. Toyota contributes $600,000, while the students pay $400 per month.
Toyota will see how the program unfolds before offering any further commitment. But Genesio Da Costa, a counselor with the Brazilian Embassy, says the program's directors are encouraged.
'Brazilians are contributing tremendously to the Japanese economy,' Da Costa says. 'There is a tremendous difference in salaries between the two countries. They save their money here, then go back to Brazil to open businesses and buy houses.'
Eager to learn
So far, more than 50 students have applied for the program, which is taught in Portuguese. Participants were chosen on the basis of tests and interviews.
'The students are highly motivated,' says Akio Inokawa, the director of the education division at the college. 'In a way, they are more motivated than the Japanese students. They are hungry and want to make their lives better.'
Instructor Antonio Bruschi, 27, says the career training has given the students hope for a better life.
'Most of them didn't want to come to Japan but had to because their families came here for work,' he said. 'They left behind their friends, relatives and schools. Once they came to Japan, their schooling stopped and they worked 12 hours a day in the factories.'
Aside from teaching auto maintenance, Bruschi teaches them how to cope with life in a different culture. Five of the students have recently received high school diplomas from Brazil.
'This is a mirror for other companies to do the same,' Bruschi says.
Still, Toyota and its training program cannot eliminate ethnic tensions. The students say older Japanese are frightened by their South American exuberance. Sometimes they are turned away at discotheques or stores.
A case of a Japanese-descended Brazilian woman recently made headlines in Japan. She was thrown out of a jewelry story after she asked a question, and the store proprietor realized from her accent that she was a foreigner. She sued under the terms of the U.N. Human Rights Convent-ion and won.
There also were problems in Nagoya, where Japanese residents complained that the Brazilians held noisy parties at night. The Yakuza, or Japanese mafia, tried to scare away the Brazilians. The police became involved, and the case was settled last spring.
Despite the cultural pitfalls, the Brazilian students say they are pleased with their new training. They talk excitedly about the opportunities the program has provided them.
'It's more than the money now,' 20-year-old Paola Takahanshi says. 'I came to Japan to make money, but now I have a big chance to do something in my life. I can go back to Brazil and be a mechanic.'
Fabricio Chagas, 21, who came to Japan five years ago to be with his Japanese mother, agrees. He too wants to go back and work for Toyota do Brazil. 'Now I have a chance to study and get an occupation,' he said.