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A Look at the History of Korean Studies in Brazil

Yunjung Im
Professor, University of São Paulo
The year 2023 marks 60 years since 102 Koreans set foot in the Brazilian port of Santos, which was exactly on the other side of the world from their home, after a two-month maritime voyage. During the past 60 years, the Korean community in Brazil has grown to 50,000 people, having experienced unimaginable twists and turns. Brazil, which was called a "country of the future" until the 1970s, underwent the hard times of "lost 20 years" during the 1980s and 1990s, whereas South Korea reaped the fruits of the "Miracle on the Han River" and elevated its international status.

In June, the University of São Paulo hosted the "10th University of São Paulo Korean Studies Conference" on the theme of the 60 years of Korean immigration to Brazil. About 80 people participated in person and another 160 joined the conference virtually. About 10 domestic and international researchers shared their research findings on the history of Korean immigration to Brazil and South America and the current status of overseas Koreans. The conference also included screening of "Immigration Diary" (directed by Nick Farewell), a documentary film commemorating the 60 years of Korean immigration to Brazil, and an open discussion.

The "University of São Paulo Korean Studies Conference", which is supported by the Academy of Korean Studies, has become an annual international event of the university's Department of Korean Language and Literature. It was additionally meaningful that the 10th edition of the conference took place on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the department.
The 10th University of Sao Paulo Korean Studies Conference

At the time of the opening of the Department of Korean Language and Literature at the University of São Paulo in 2013, Korean studies in Brazil was sporadic and involved only a handful of researchers. The results of the "EECAL-Latin American Conference on Korean Studies," which has been held biennially since 2003 with the support of the Academy of Korean Studies, show that there had been some research achievements in the fields of economics, management, and international relations, but even they were declining.

History of Korean Studies in Brazil

What can be considered the first case of Korean studies in Brazil began when Professor Lytton Guimarães of the Department of International Relations took charge of the Center for Asian Studies (NEASIA) at the University of Brasília (UnB) in the Brazilian capital, where the South Korean Embassy is located. NEASIA, built around the Department of Japanese Language and Literature which had opened in 1981, was originally a research society formed in 1987 within the CEAM (Center for Advanced Multidisciplinary Studies). As Professor Lytton, who had a strong personal interest in Korea, became the fifth president of NEASIA in 2003, NEASIA began publishing research papers on Korean studies. It went on to organize the "First Academic Forum on Korean Studies" at the university in 2007. However, the lack of resources other than the professor's passion resulted in no more progress, and Korean studies at the University of Brasilia became dormant after Professor Lytton's retirement.

In 2003, when Professor Lytton was president of NEASIA, Professor Henrique Altemani (International Relations) of the Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), who was close to him, formed the Group for the Study of Asia and the Pacific (GEAP) at the university, which was joined by Professor Gilmar Masiero (Business Administration) of the University of São Paulo (USP). This led to the "3rd EECAL-Latin America Conference on Korean Studies" held at the Catholic University of São Paulo, but the conference too was discontinued. In order to create a new momentum, Professor Gilmar Masiero established the Asian Studies Program (PROASIA) at the University of São Paulo's College of Economics in 2010, and hosted the "8th EECAL-Latin America Conference on Korean Studies," but the program too failed to draw enough young people to continue and expand research programs on Korean studies, officially discontinuing in 2019.

A New Beginning

Korean studies in each foreign country tended to change significantly in line with the spread of hallyu, the Korean Wave, and Brazil is no exception. Like in other countries, Korean studies in Brazil before 2012, when the Korean Wave began to thrive in earnest, Korean studies in Brazil had been focused on international relations, economics, and business administration. The fact that the University of Brasilia and the Catholic University of São Paulo made some Korean studies initiatives in 2003 is not unrelated to the election of President Lula in late 2002, which brought the Workers' Party to power for the first time. The Workers' Party, full of dreams, looked upon South Korea as a model for Brazil's economic development. And there was the time when Brazil had flashes of interest in South Korea, with the belief that Korea's remarkable development is ascribed to its excellent education system.
There may be many reasons why such efforts have fizzled out. And Professor Gilmar Masiero, who founded PROASIA at the University of São Paulo but had failed to enroll undergraduate and graduate students to study Korea, Japan, and China for nearly a decade, argues that it's not because Korea is not an interesting country. According to the professor, the economics department at the University of São Paulo, the country's undisputed top-ranked university, has not shown any academic interest in China, which has been Brazil's largest trading partner for more than a decade. In other words, there has been no interest in Asia at the University of São Paulo's School of Economics.

In order for a new discipline to take root and sprout in a university, it requires to have a department, but it must be noted that the academic culture for regional studies was underdeveloped in Brazilian universities, especially public universities.
February 16, 2005 VEJA Weekly Cover
Therefore, it was in colleges of language and literature where Korean studies could take root in the Brazilian national universities, and it was in 2009 when a project to establish the Department of Korean Language and Literature at the College of Humanities of the University of São Paulo was proposed. However, it was not until June 2012 when the project was finally approved after going through a maze of administrative procedures for three years. Just a month later, Psy's "Gangnam Style" hit the world. Few had known at that time, but 2012 was recognized as the year when the Korean Wave went in full swing in Brazil. It was interestingly coincidental that the Department of Korean Language and Literature was authorized in June 2012 and enrolled its first class in 2013.

The Department of Korean Language and Literature, which drew 13 applicants, two short of its quota, for its first class in 2013, marked its 10th year, with the exam passing mark of its applicants exceeding that of applicants to the Department of English Language and Literature. There are currently 90 students in the Department of Korean Language and Literature, and its graduates are gradually broadening their careers into business, Korean language education, and literary translation. Of course, an increasing number of them is, based on their study of the Korean language and literature, specializing in Korean language education and translation of Korean literature.
Department of Korean Language and Literature, University of Sao Paulo
To sum up, Korean studies in Brazil can be divided into two periods -- before and after the establishment of the Department of Korean Language and Literature at the University of São Paulo, and it should be noted that the Korean Wave is the powerful factor dividing the two periods. If the first period of Brazilian Korean studies that had centered on economics, management, and international relations was driven by "academic interest," the second period was driven by "emotional passion" prompted by the Korean Wave. Indeed, it seems to hold true that humans are not animals of reason but of emotion.

According to the principle of light propagation discovered by Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens in the 17th century, when a wave of light propagates, every point on the wave front becomes a new source of light, each forming a secondary wave front. In other words, each particle that receives light becomes a new source of light. I remember hearing this shocking principle in the physics class in high school. Now, the students of the Department of Korean Language and Literature at the University of São Paulo, armed with passion and excitement, are standing at the beginning of the second generation of Korean studies in Brazil.

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