Liberdade: São Paulo’s Fabulous Japantown

More than many people realize, Brazil is an international melting pot, a nation of immigrants. There are, for example, more Italians, Portuguese and Japanese in Brazil than anywhere …

The torii, Japanese arch, that marks the entrance to Liberdade, Sao Paulo.

More than many people realize, Brazil is an international melting pot, a nation of immigrants. There are, for example, more Italians, Portuguese and Japanese in Brazil than anywhere outside of their respective countries and more people of Lebanese descent in Brazil than the entire population of Lebanon.

Nowhere is the melting pot nature of Brazil on more dramatic display than the Liberdade district of São Paulo. Liberdade is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan. It is also a fabulous place to spend a lazy weekend day in São Paulo.

Liberdade’s Diverse Nature

The best was to see the Liberdade area is to start at the Liberdade metro station and head down Rua Galvão Bueno, which is lined by a distinctive pattern of red arches overhanging the street, three Japanese style white lights hanging from each one. As you walk, you will pass shops and vendors, grocery stores and restaurants – all with an eclectic mix of signs in Japanese and Portuguese, and even Chinese and Korean.

Liberdade's distinctive arches decorated with Japanese lanterns set the scene for this Japanese section of the city.
Liberdade’s distinctive arches decorated with Japanese lanterns set the scene for this Japanese section of the city.

Newspaper stands sell standard Brazilian papers like Folha de S. Paulo, but they also sell Japanese language papers like the São Paulo Shimbun and Nikkey Shimbun, both of which are published right in Liberdade.

A few blocks down from the metro station on Galvão Bueno is a 30-foot tall torii or distinctive Japanese arch that is often used to mark the entrance to Shinto temples. It has been towering over Liberdade since 1974.

From Galvão Bueno, you can branch out to explore some of the other main streets like Avenida de Liberdade, Rua da Glória or Rua dos Estudantes. Liberdade is a relatively cozy 1.5 square miles – just perfect for exploring without it feeling overwhelming.

Be sure to come hungry so that you can eat as you walk, sampling the inexpensive and delicious traditional Japanese food for sale all through the district. Coming to Liberdade for lunch is a tradition for Paulistas every day of the week.

Lazy Liberdade Weekends

Liberdade is a great place to explore any time, especially at lunch time, but weekend days are extra special. On Saturday and Sunday, there is a street market with booths selling all sorts of crafts and souvenirs near the Liberdade metro.

On Sunday, downtown São Paul is filled with bicyclists from 7 AM to 2 PM when many streets are set aside for cycling. A loop including Liberdade, Praça da Sé (only a few blocks away) and even Ibirapuera Park (4 miles away) can make a fabulous Sunday combination.

Liberdade street market food stall. Photo by Vitor Leite.
Liberdade street market food stall. Photo by Vitor Leite.

Or for a different Sunday experience without the need for a bicycle, start with brunch and Gregorian chants at Mosterio de São Bento and end with the Liberdade street fair. It is an easy trip from the São Bento metro station to the Liberdade metro or a short half hour walk passing through Praça da Sé.

How Japan Came to Brazil

The relatively small Liberdade district is home to over 50,000 people. In addition to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan, there are growing communities of Chinese and Korean immigrants as well.

A large wave of Japanese immigration into Brazil began in the early 1900s. A 1907 treaty between the Brazilian and Japanese governments opened the way for first Japanese immigrants to Brazil in 1908. Most people came seeking jobs, especially on coffee plantations, as the end of feudalism led to poverty in rural Japan. Japanese immigration reached its peak in the 1920s and 30s.

According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, there were roughly 1.5 million people of Japanese descent in Brazil in 2010. However, the Japanese population in Brazil is declining and aging. Today return immigration to Japan is more common than immigration into Brazil. Other factors include declining birth rates and intermarriage with other groups.

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To learn more about the history of the Liberdade area and about the strong presence of Japanese immigrants in general in Brazil, the Museum of Japanese Immigration to Brazil (Museu Histórico da Imigração Japonesa no Brasil ) on Rua São Joaquim in Liberdade is well worth a stop. It is open in the afternoons, 1:30-5:30 PM, except on Mondays.

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