Comedy, capitalism, and corruption in Karen Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest

Photo from  pxhere

Photo from pxhere

In Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, Japanese American writer Karen Tei Yamashita weaves together the heavy topics globalization, capitalism, neo-colonialism, religion, and environmental exploitation into a fantastical, tragic, and at times thoroughly hilarious tale. Narrated by a semi-omniscient ball that hovers a few inches in front of the forehead of one of the protagonists, this book puts together a series of vignettes exploring the relationships each person has with the Matacão -- a mysterious impenetrable black substance that materializes one day on the Brazilian rainforest floor.
Arc has about seven or so main characters to keep track of, and the narrative jumps from character to character, which may seem intimidating at first. However, each character is fleshed out and made very memorable, and Yamashita brings together their stories with remarkable ease and skill. 

Many of the characters are genuine and earnest, starting off with the best of intentions, and it’s difficult not to grow attached to them and despair at their ultimate demises. Even the characters who are clearly not meant to be sympathetic have their laugh-out-loud moments where you have to put down the book to chuckle at the comedic absurdity Yamashita somehow manages to squeeze in. 
One might think a story that handles how Western multinational corporations abuse the environment and exploit “Third World” societies and also explores themes of religion, technology, and even posthumanism might be unwieldy, dense, and inaccessible. Yet Arc seamlessly handles all these ideas with grace, fluidity, and clarity. These abstract forces affect the lives of ordinary people around the world in very concrete ways, and Yamashita’s cast of characters start out really quite average. 

Readers along with Kazumasa Ishimaru, a Japanese man who moved to Brazil in pursuit of a more fulfilling life, become disillusioned by the realization that even if money can buy a poor family a refrigerator, they have no food to put in it. We get to see how Chico Paco, a young boy who made a pilgrimage in place of his best friend’s frail grandmother, gets swept up and consumed by a cult of personality and an expansive business capitalizing on religious zeal. 

Yamashita does not make very many heavy-handed allusions to terms like “neo-colonialism” or even “capitalism”, except for a few wry references to CIA meddling in foreign affairs and Brazil’s past and present of economic exploitation. The characters’ experiences tell the full story of how many of the processes of globalization, though often seen as a good thing, recreate the conditions of colonialism and imperialism and redraw the lines of poverty, inequality, and indifference between the developed world and the developing world. 

Despite many of the story’s lighter moments, a growing suspicion that things are going to come crashing down builds and builds and builds until it culminates at the very end. The final chapters are particularly wrenching and desperate as though the bottled-up suffering of both humans and nature suddenly burst open, agony laid bare as the birds of Brazil drop out of the sky and the stories of the characters we have grown to love come to their tragic conclusion. 

It’s a conclusion that makes you both wonder if the characters really deserved what happened to them and yet feel that there was terrible price to be paid and someone had to pay it. Through the Arc of the Rain Forest is an engaging, splendid story about how capitalism corrupts even the most well-meaning of intentions at not only tragic personal costs but also terrifying consequences for the environment and all the other living beings we share the Earth with. 

Though published in 1990, Yamashita’s novel still feels just as relevant nearly 30 years later. Perhaps it’s the magical realism, but it’s more likely the unsolved issues of poverty, inequality, and capitalism. Turning the final pages of Through the Arc of the Rain Forest will leave you with the peculiar comfort that the world, though wracked with misery, suffering, and destruction, will never be the same again, it will still return nonetheless. 

Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, though written by a Japanese American, is not really an stereotypical “Asian American” story. Yet readers looking to read Yamashita’s text through a more Asian-American or diasporic-Asian lens have plenty of material to look at with Kazumasa Ishimaru and his role in the story. How do other characters view him? As an individual or the human his mysterious ball happens to be attached to? Throughout the story, Yamashita also scatters a few references to Japan and Asia that can be picked apart for greater significance. 

Exploring the Context: A Brief Look at Japanese Immigrants in Brazil

Japanese family in Bastos circa 1930.

Japanese family in Bastos circa 1930.

For those curious about how a Japanese American author came to write a story that takes place Brazil, a brief history of the Japanese in Brazil might be useful. Yamashita herself lived in Brazil for several years, but Japanese people have been in the country since 1908. The end of Japan feudalism that impoverished rural populations demanded people look for better conditions, and the abolition of slavery in Brazil generated a labor shortage on coffee plantations, Brazil’s most significant export at the time.

Store in São Paulo circa 1940.

Store in São Paulo circa 1940.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Japanese laborers were not the Brazilian government’s first choice. Additionally, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of countries (such as the United States to name just one) strictly limited or entirely prohibited non-white immigration, at times specifically targeting Japanese people. 

Xintoist Chapel in São Paulo.

Xintoist Chapel in São Paulo.

The Brazilian government initially sought out European immigrants, pay for their transportation to Brazil, in hopes that they would facilitate a “whitening” of the country, reducing or eliminating the African and indigenous population. However, European immigrants, many of them Italian, dissatisfied with poor working conditions and low salaries prompted the Italian government to end subsidized Brazilian immigration, so Brazil turned towards Japan. Therefore, most of the first Japanese people to arrive in Brazil came as laborers, some ending up owning coffee plantations and many working on them. 

Viewed for decades a cheap labor and an unassimilable foreign population, the Japanese in Brazil suffered economic exploitation, discrimination, exclusion, and forced assimilation. However, in ways very similar to the recently improved perception of Asian Americans, the image of Japanese Brazilians did begin improving in recent years noticeably around the same time that Japan itself became a leading global economic and political power. Today, some 1.6 million people of Japanese descent live in Brazil, the largest Japanese-descended population outside of Japan.