Japanese-Peruvians-Reviled and Respected: The Paradoxial Place of Peru's Nikkei

September 25, 2007

Percy Takayama says that several times recently when he’s approached a Lima newspaper kiosk, people gathered to scan the tabloid headlines have yelled at him that “Japanese should go back to their country!” Others have shouted that the Japanese have robbed the country blind; he recently tried to buy something at a store, only to have the clerk say, “I don’t wait on criminals.”

Takayama, a Peruvian journalist, is accused of no crime. He is the target of abuse simply because he, like Peru’s now-discredited former president Alberto Fujimori, is of Japanese descent. Fujimori’s government collapsed in scandal last year; Fujimori himself has been officially accused of dereliction of duty and there have been allegations that he, like his erstwhile adviser Vladimiro Montesinos, illegally profited from his job and has the proceeds stashed away in foreign accounts. Fujimori is currently living in exile in Japan. Some Peruvian politicians and the tabloid press have attacked Fujimori in ways that subtly—and sometimes not-so-subtly—implicate the entire Japanese-Peruvian community in his government’s misdeeds. The result, says Takayama, has been verbal attacks on those with Asian features (including Chinese-Peruvians), offensive graffiti scrawled on Japanese-Peruvian-owned businesses, and even physical assaults, such as the mauling that one young man received while standing in line at a Lima bank. A mob of retirees beat him up, yelling that Fujimori had made their pensions less secure.

The history of Peru’s nikkei, or people of Japanese descent, has been marked by even more serious examples of discrimination, including anti-Japanese riots in Lima in 1940 that left 10 Japanese-Peruvians dead. During World War II, thousands of Japanese-Peruvians were incarcerated in U.S. detention camps, the largest Latin American group held in the camps.

But the place of the nikkei in Peruvian society is more complex and paradoxical than all this might suggest. The Peruvian stereotype of the nikkei is not that of thieves, but of honorable, ambitious hard workers. Considered as trustworthy as Toyotas, the nikkei have often served as treasurers in clubs and schools. The first Japanese arrived at the end of the nineteenth century as indentured plantation workers; today many nikkei run successful businesses, large and small, and Japanese-Peruvians are more often than not economically well-off.

Alberto Fujimori, in 1990 the virtually unknown dean of Peru’s agricultural university, used the nikkei stereotype to his advantage, adopting the campaign slogan “Honesty, Technology, Work.” Fujimori also dubbed himself El Chino, “the Chinaman.” Peruvians routinely use the term “chino” to refer to nikkei; usually there’s no intent to insult. But the term suggests the Japanese are indistinguishable from other Asians, and many nikkei consider it derogatory. By embracing the term, Fujimori undercut its negative charge and symbolically allied himself with the mass of Peruvians who use it. At the same time, he often campaigned wearing traditional indigenous clothing and hats, symbolically making the point that Peru’s indigenous and mestizo voters—groups which together make up some 80% of the population—should consider Fujimori to be someone like themselves, in stark contrast to the rich, white opposition candidate, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.

Today, Peru’s 54,000 nikkei form one of the nation’s largest immigrant-descended ethnic groups, though they make up only a tiny one-fifth of 1% of the population of 27 million. Seventy percent of Japanese-Peruvians live in Lima; the city boasts a nikkei cultural center and museum, and magazines and newspapers aimed at nikkei readers. In recent years, owing to Japan’s economic boom and Fujimori’s now-vanished prestige, more nikkei have shown an interest in connecting to their ethnic roots. But the community as a whole has tried to keep a low profile and until the 1990 election, political participation was not encouraged.

The first Japanese to come in significant numbers arrived at the turn of the last century, lured by promises of steady work on Peru’s coastal cotton and sugar plantations. Eager to escape crippling unemployment and poverty in Japan, they avidly signed labor contracts, hoping to come home rich in a few years. The first boatload of contract workers arrived in 1899; they soon discovered that the life of a laborer on Peruvian farms was one of overwork, abuse, and disease. Many fled the plantations; some managed to buy and work their own farms in the coastal and jungle regions, and others went to cities where many established small stores.

If the early Japanese migrants had too little capital to open shops, they often compensated ingeniously. The day after arriving in Peru, Heitaro Hayashi bought cosmetics, pantyhose, and handkerchiefs and headed for the red-light district. Knowing no Spanish, he wrote phrases like buenos dias and muchas gracias on flash cards. Prostitutes paid cash for his merchandise, enabling him to buy more goods. These were the origins of the soon-to-flourish Hayashi Company.[1] Others with insufficient capital worked from ubiquitous, shoddy-looking bazaars. With frequent “liquidation” and “inventory” sales, they catered to the poorest Peruvian consumers, who felt exploited, even as they gravitated toward this type of bargain shopping.[2]

Because Peruvian banks wouldn’t lend to Japanese, the immigrants pooled money in cooperative arrangements called tanomoshi, providing small loans to one family at a time. With a tiny advance from a tanomoshi, Samuel Matsuda’s father established an inn and then a café. “That’s how we’ve advanced, little by little,” says Matsuda, who continued his family’s ascent by becoming a congressman.

Japanese business successes aroused a nativist response; Peruvians groused about Japanese monopolies and unfair competition: “It can be said that there is not a street in which there is no Japanese barber shop,” said a 1926 article calling for all Japanese businesses to close immediately. Enraged by the predominance of Japanese and Chinese shops, a nationalist wrote in 1927, “Asiatic immigration is for the race what cancer or syphilis is for the human body.”[3]

Meanwhile, Peru’s Japanese community continued to grow, swollen by new arrivals. By 1936, the 23,000 Japanese-Peruvians represented 45% of Peru’s foreign population, distantly followed by the 7,000 Chinese and then by scant numbers of Italians, English, and Germans.[4] Densely clustered in Lima, the Japanese seemed even more numerous than they were.

Nativist resentment was further fueled by a U.S.-led international campaign that tied anyone of Japanese descent to Japan’s role as a World War II enemy. For two days in May 1940, Peruvians sacked, looted, and burned more than 600 Japanese homes and businesses in Lima, killing 10 Japanese and injuring dozens. The looters stripped Japanese property of windows, floor planks, wallpaper, and tiles, even carting off toilets, all in full view of the police, who made no attempts to intervene. Almost all Japanese-owned shops were destroyed, and there was an estimated $6 million in property damage.[5] In the wake of the riots, there was an exodus back to Japan.

Expatriate Peruvian writer Herbert Morote has lambasted then-Peruvian president Manuel Prado for allowing riled-up citizens to sack the businesses of honorable immigrants so he could look good to “Uncle Sam.”[6] In the war years, the United States was demanding hemispheric unity in fighting totalitarian regimes, asking Latin American governments to root out supposed civilian subversives. The FBI drew up a list of the most “dangerous Axis nationals” and set out to investigate them, though 35 years later a chief intelligence officer would admit that he and his colleagues “found no reliable evidence of planned or contemplated acts of sabotage, subversion, or espionage.”[7]

In Peru, the government allowed the FBI to spread anti-Japanese propaganda and to investigate individual Japanese. Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 prompted the Peruvian government to freeze and confiscate Japanese assets, forbid Japanese-Peruvians to assemble in groups larger than three, and shut down Japanese-language newspapers and schools. Following the U.S. lead, Peruvian authorities blacklisted prominent Japanese and later the entire community, prohibiting the patronage of Japanese businesses.

As part of a U.S.-designed plan to repatriate Axis officials, Peru forced some Japanese to return to Japan. When this proved impractical and expensive, the United States and Peru agreed that Japanese-Peruvians should be deported to the United States. In 1942, Peruvian officials began rounding up scores of Japanese-Peruvians, stuffing them into the bowels of rancid boats, shaving their heads, and spraying them with DDT. On their arrival in the United States, the 1771 detainees were confined to dusty, barbed-wire-enclosed concentration camps in Texas. In exchange for the prisoners, Peru received $25 million from the U.S. government.[8]

Eleven other Latin American countries, including Ecuador and Panama, shipped Japanese to U.S. camps, but 84% of the 2,118 imprisoned Latin American Japanese came from Peru.[9] Mexico moved its Japanese to inland areas but deported none. Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela also refused to deport Japanese, as did Brazil, though Brazil’s Japanese community was by far the largest in Latin America.

The non-Peruvian Latin American deportees were freed from the Texas camps soon after the war ended, but most Japanese-Peruvians remained in detention till late 1946 because Immigration and Naturalization Service officials had seized their passports and then accused them of being illegal aliens. Eventually most went to Japan or stayed in the United States, for Peru readmitted only 79 of those who had been deported.

About 10,000 Japanese-Peruvians remained in Peru during the war, and that group chose to keep living there afterward, rather than moving to a devastated postwar Japan. The younger nikkei felt entirely Peruvian anyway, some unable to speak Japanese. The climate in Peru remained anti-Japanese for some time, so the community tried to keep as low a profile as possible. “The Japanese were afraid that all the past discrimination would be repeated,” explains Olga Okuma, a Peruvian nikkei now living in California. “They wanted their kids to assimilate.”[10]

Fujimori’s 1990 election, and his appointment of four Japanese-Peruvians to cabinet posts during his ten years as president, brought renewed public attention to the nikkei community, attention that the community did not completely welcome.[11] Japanese-Peruvians were far from unanimous in supporting Fujimori’s candidacy: He had not actively associated himself with the community, and his populist pronouncements had little appeal for middle- and upper-class nikkei, many of whom backed Vargas Llosa’s conservative FREDEMO party, as did well-off Peruvians in general. Indeed, three nikkei ran for congress under FREDEMO auspices. At one point, a group of nikkei marched in front of Vargas Llosa’s house, accusing Fujimori of pushy, un-Japanese behavior for daring to run.

Amelia Morimoto interviewed nikkei at random in April and May 1990, between the first round of the election and the runoff between Fujimori and Vargas Llosa.[12] At that time, 25% of her interview subjects thought it premature to have a nikkei candidate. One asserted, “A Japanese can’t govern Peru. A pure Peruvian, native to here, has to assume the presidency.” Vast numbers of participants felt that Fujimori was simply not ready to be president. One said, “He doesn’t have a plan for governing. I’m deeply worried, because he isn’t prepared to govern the country.” Fear dominated the responses, as with this comment: “The whole colony is afraid that he’ll do a bad job and that 91 years after our grandparents arrived, he’ll fail, erasing the positive image that the colony has worked to achieve.” Some nikkei worried that a Fujimori victory could bring new attacks on the community. Others, however, voted for Fujimori out of fear that a poor electoral showing would discredit the nikkei.

For its part, the opposition campaign used a broadly circulated flyer to ridicule Fujimori’s Japanese ancestry. Rumors, fueled by the opposition, had it that Fujimori had been born in Japan, not Peru. If true, that would have made Fujimori constitutionally ineligible to serve as president.[13] True or not, the reports served to paint Fujimori as a foreign interloper, in contrast to Vargas Llosa, whose white Spanish-descended forebears could be traced back for generations. “No Japanese will govern Peru,” said widely displayed campaign signs. Some upscale restaurants refused to serve nikkei, and there were some attacks on nikkei businesses and homes.

Nikkei organizations did little to protest the anti-Japanese aspects of the campaign, limiting themselves to statements about how nikkei should conduct themselves to minimize the risk of attacks: During election week they should stay out of public places, avoid traveling alone, and have neighbors watch out for them. Fujimori’s then-wife, Susana Higuchi, later assailed the nikkei for their silence during the elections, saying, “The nikkei are passive. There are few nikkei who fight.... During Vargas Llosa’s campaign, the colony squelched itself.”[14]

Following Fujimori’s election, one nikkei observed: “There’s sympathy and pride that a Japanese is president, even if no one wants to say so. But we’re also afraid that if his government doesn’t work out, they’re going to attack us.”[15] In fact, while the Fujimori victory touched off a brief wave of enthusiasm for all things Japanese in Peru, it also provoked a new wave of racism, including remarks about the “flat-faced first lady,” Susana Higuchi. A 1991 newspaper editorial accused the nikkei of promoting prostitution in the past and of exploiting poor people. Three visitors from Japan were murdered. Other attacks, including a car bomb set off next to the Japanese embassy, were likely guerrilla actions aimed at drawing attention to the Fujimori government’s improved economic and diplomatic ties with Japan. But they left many in the nikkei community feeling vulnerable.

This fear led thousands of nikkei to flee to Japan in a reverse migration called dekasegi. Peru’s economic crisis had already prompted movement to the thriving islands in the 1980s, but Fujimori’s presidency accelerated the exodus. While fewer than 1,000 Peruvian nikkei lived in Japan in 1988, more than 31,000 did by 1992, mostly young adults. Currently, 15,000 Peruvian nikkei live in Japan, leaving a generation in Peru decimated.

As the Fujimori government was progressively discredited by the accusations of corruption, abuse of power, and serious human rights violations lodged against his closest associates and finally against him personally, Peruvian political discourse became increasingly anti-Japanese. In the 2000 election campaign, supporters of then-presidential candidate Alejandro Toledo chanted, “cholo yes, chino no.” (Toledo describes himself as a cholo, or an urbanized person of indigenous background.) Toledo, now Peru’s president, has sometimes referred to the “Oriental Mafia,” as well as the “criminal Japanese and his accomplices,” thus turning denunciations of Fujimori government misdeeds into racial attacks.[16] In this year’s national elections, there were several nikkei candidates, but all lost, except for Susana Higuchi, Fujimori’s ex-wife, who won a congressional seat. It remains to be seen, then, whether the Fujimori era will be remembered as one in which the Peruvian nikkei fully and permanently entered the nation’s political life or one in which they were cruelly and definitively set back.

Eve Kushner is a freelance writer in Berkeley, California, who often writes about topics related to Japan.

1. Seiichi Higashide, Adios to Tears: The Memoirs of a Japanese-Peruvian Internee in U.S. Concentration Camps (Honolulu: E&E Kudo, 1993), p. 89.
2. Clinton Harvey Gardiner, The Japanese and Peru, 1873-1973 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975), p. 65; J. F. Normano and Antonello Gerbi, The Japanese in South America: An Introductory Survey with Special Reference to Peru (New York: International Secretariat, Institute of Pacific Relations, 1943), pp. 92-101.
3. Gardiner, The Japanese and Peru, p. 66.
4. Mary Fukumoto, Hacia un nuevo sol: Japoneses y sus descendientes en el Perú (Lima: Asociación Peruano Japonesa del Perú, 1997), pp. 240-241.
5. Fukumoto, Hacia un nuevo sol, p. 522; Higashide, Adios to Tears, pp. 108-110. Higashide says this figure corresponds to “U.S. dollar value at that time.” Oddly, Gardiner, The Japanese and Peru, p. 53, puts the number much lower at $1.6 million.
6. Herbert Morote, Réquiem por Perú, mi patria (Lima: Editorial Horizonte, 1992), p. 122.
7. Clinton Harvey Gardiner, Pawns in a Triangle of Hate: The Peruvian Japanese and the United States (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981), p. 22.
8. Historian Amelia Morimoto, interviewed in the documentary “Humillados y Ofendidos,” aired on the U.S television newsmagazine Aquí y Ahora, June 5, 2001.
9. The other nine countries were Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua. See Gardiner, The Japanese and Peru, pp. 87–88.
10. Author’s interview, Albany, California, September, 2000.
11. The cabinet ministers were Jaime Yoshiyama and Daniel Hokama (both ministers of energy and mines), Victor Yamamoto (minister of health), and Jaime Sobero Taira (minister of fishing). Other Japanese-Peruvians won congressional seats during Fujimori’s era.
12. All the following quotes about Fujimori’s candidacy come from Amelia Morimoto, Los japoneses y sus descendientes en el Perú (Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú, 1999), pp. 218-222.
13. Reports that Fujimori had doctored his birth documents to prove that he had been born in Peru rather than Japan continued to circulate during his presidency; if, however, it were proved that Fujimori had been born in Japan he would have had automatic Japanese citizenship, making it impossible to deport him to stand trial on corruption charges in Peru. Earlier this year the Peruvian press reported that careful examination of his parents’ immigration and other records indicated a Peruvian birthplace.
14. Fukumoto, Hacia un nuevo sol, p. 336.
15. Fukumoto, Hacia un nuevo sol, p. 337.
16. Author’s correspondence with Percy Takayama.

Tags: race, Peru, Japanese, immigrants, discrimination, Alberto Fujimori

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