July 17, 2015

TORONTO (AP) When the Brazilian women's softball team takes the field in the Pan Am Games, they won't look much like the stereotypical image of sun and samba.

Thirteen of the 15 players have roots in Japan - so think sake and sushi.

All the women were born in Brazil, so the South Americans aren't cheating. The softball team is just presenting another face of the diverse country, and taking advantage of its softball connections with Japan.

About 2 million Brazilians claim Japanese ancestry, the largest Japanese immigrant community in the world. Many came early in the 20th century as poorly paid agricultural workers and have stayed to dig deep roots.

''Really, people don't believe we are from Brazil,'' coach Taketomi Higashi acknowledged in an interview Friday. ''They think it's weird, a big surprise.''

This team is all about blending. They combine that Brazilian light-hearted spirit with Japanese discipline and hard work. Eleven of the 15 have also played in the United States, one is playing professionally in Japan, and the rest play in Brazil where the game is little followed.

''Maybe if we win a medal, we will celebrate with caipirinhas,'' said Nilze Higa, who was born in Sao Paulo but plays professionally in Japan. ''And maybe we will have sakerinhas, too.''

The caipirinha is Brazil's national drink, made with distilled sugarcane known as cachaca, and sweetened with lime, lemon and other fruits. The Brazilian-Japanese substitute is made, of course, with Japanese rice wine, sake.

That fusion represents the team.

Higa, who is playing her sixth season in Japan, went there speaking little Japanese - though she looks Japanese.

''It's confusing,'' she said, explaining her story in English and Portuguese. ''They think I am Japanese, but when I start talking they realize I am not Japanese. They ask if I'm Chinese. When I am say I'm Brazilian, they say I don't look like a Brazilian.''

Higa said she felt more Japanese than Brazilian until she went to Japan and experienced the vast cultural differences.

''Now I feel more Brazilian than Japanese,'' she said.

It's hard to tell where the Brazil stops and Japan starts.

Higa said before the team takes the field, they remove their caps and say ''Onegaishimasu,'' which means ''please'' in Japanese. She said they are asking the field to let the team do its best.

At the end they say ''Arigatogozaimasu,'' which is ''thank you.''

Barbara Woll, one of two non-Japanese, said she started playing softball when her mother was working as a hairdresser and had clients whose children played the game.

''I have been playing softball with Japanese-Brazilians since I was very young, so it does not seem that unusual to me,'' Woll said.

Vivian Morimoto, the team co-captain, said in her family they always use only Japanese rice, not Brazilian rice, to fix the traditional beans and rice dish.

''There are little differences like that,'' said Morimoto, who does not speak Japanese. ''There are things my dad taught me, like to be a little quieter. He tells me not to yell so much, but I do it because I'm a Brazilian.''

Morimoto, who played softball at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said she didn't like to study, but learned to ''because I needed to get good grades and have discipline, which was part of being Japanese.''

''We practice like the Japanese team,'' she said. ''We want to do everything right. We like to do a lot of repetitive things to be good, to be perfect.''

Japan's national team has won the last two world championships in women's softball, and also won the last Olympic gold medal in softball in 2008 - each time beating the United States in the final. The Americans are still a softball power and have won three Olympic gold medals in the sport, and nine world titles.

''Now with all the players going to the United States, maybe we play more like the Americans,'' Morimoto said.

That adds just a bit more to the mix.

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Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP

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