Japanese-Latin American Relations

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Japanese-Latin American Relations

The history of Japanese relations with Latin America dates from the early seventeenth century. By means of the Manila Galleon, Japanese and other Asian merchants developed a thriving trade with New Spain. Throughout most of the Tokugawa shogunate (1639–1857), however, Japan remained isolated from most foreign contact. The impetus for modernization, begun during the Meiji Restoration of the late nineteenth century, led Japan to cultivate commercial and diplomatic relations with the Pacific nations of Latin America. Seeking a precedent for the establishment of co-equal treaties with the major world powers, Japan signed a commercial treaty with Mexico in 1888. These initial trade ventures with Mexico, and later Peru and Chile, were soon overshadowed by Japanese government-sponsored immigration to Latin America. Designed to alleviate increasing economic distress among Japan's agricultural population, these first immigrants (nikkei) were recruited mainly from southern Japan and particularly the island of Honshu. Later, these nikkei would be joined by immigrants from Okinawa.

While some of the first nikkei learned Spanish and converted to Roman Catholicism, most remained determined to promote the Japanese language and culture within their Latin American immigrant communities. Cultural organizations such as Peru's Nihonjin Doshikai (Japanese Brotherhood Association) and Mexico's Confederación de las Asociaciones Japonesas en la República Mexicana, enhanced Japanese cultural awareness and solidarity. Second-generation Japanese (nisei) in Latin America were generally educated in Japanese language schools, and the children of prosperous issei (first generation) were frequently sent to Japan to complete their education. Ironically, the very success of Latin American issei and nisei in building prosperous and culturally cohesive communities was at once their greatest strength and most significant vulnerability.

The first Japanese nikkei faced the same opposition earlier Chinese immigrants to the Western Hemisphere had encountered. After the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907, Japanese immigration in the hemisphere was redirected from the United States and Mexico to the South American nations, where the issei made their livelihoods in commercial agriculture and later in urban commerce, with Brazil becoming the destination for the vast majority of Japanese. On the eve of World War II, approximately 190,000 of Latin America's 250,000 Japanese resided in Brazil, largely in agricultural cooperatives in São Paulo State.

Japanese militarism in the 1930s and the early financial success of many Latin American nikkei exacerbated the existing ill will and suspicion displayed by many Latin Americans toward the highly insular Japanese communities. After Pearl Harbor, nearly 2,000 Latin American Japanese, mostly from Peru, Central America, and Mexico, were deported from their adopted countries and interned in camps in the western United States. The Mexican government adopted a domestic internment policy similar to that of the United States, while Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay allowed their nikkei populations to remain in relatively isolated agricultural colonies where minimal security measures were taken. Tokyo made only limited attempts to establish espionage networks in Latin America during the war. These efforts were largely confined to the Japanese diplomatic communities in Argentina and Chile before both nations broke relations with the Axis. Japanese nationals in Latin America were generally instructed to maintain a low profile, and the vast majority did so, with the exception of the fanatically nationalistic Shindõ Remmei patriotic league in Brazil.

By the early 1950s, Japanese immigration to Latin America resumed with the governments of Paraguay and Bolivia actively seeking these new colonists. As Japan emerged to become an economically powerful nation in the 1960s, many Latin American nations began to perceive themselves as Pacific Rim states and sought active trade relations with Tokyo to counterbalance the dominance of the United States in the hemisphere. By the 1980s, Japanese economic power made that country the second-largest trading partner with Peru and Chile, and the third-largest investor in Mexico. In 2004, Japan signed a free-trade pact with Mexico. Japanese immigration to Latin America effectively ceased by the late 1960s as the Japanese agricultural sector attained unprecedented levels of prosperity.

There have been major changes among the Japanese in Latin America in the 1990s. Thousands of Latin American Japanese, mostly Brazilian nisei and sansei (third generation), are immigrating to Japan now that foreign-born Japanese can more easily obtain work permits. Over 200,000 Japanese Brazilians live in Japan and are the largest group of Portuguese-speakers in Asia. But given the questionable economic future of many Latin American nations, it now seems clear that the historic pattern of Japanese immigration and settlement is not likely to be renewed. In the future, Japan's influence is likely to grow, but more through trade and culture than through settlement of new groups of pioneering nikkei. In Peru the election of nisei Alberto Fujimori to the presidency in 1990 elevated public awareness of the Japanese presence in Latin America.

In 1997 Fujimori gained great popularity by rescuing Japanese citizens held hostage at the Japanese embassy by the revolutionary group Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA). Fujimori won the next three presidential elections, but after a scandal in 2000, early in his third term, he went into exile in Japan. There, the Japanese government revealed that he had never given up his Japanese citizenship. Despite Peru's extradition requests, the Japanese state allowed Fujimori to reside in Japan.

See alsoAsians in Latin America; Fujimori, Alberto Keinya; Manila Galleon.


James L. Tigner, The Okinawans in Latin America (1954).

Norman Stewart, Japanese Colonization in Eastern Paraguay (1967).

Philip Staniford, Pioneers in the Tropics: The Political Organization of the Japanese in an Immigrant Community in Brazil (1973).

Nobuya Tsuchida, "The Japanese in Brazil, 1908–1941" (Ph.D. diss., UCLA, 1978).

Amelia Morimoto, Fuerza de trabajo immigrante japonesa y desarrollo en el Perú (1979).

C. Harvey Gardiner, Pawns in a Triangle of Hate: The Peruvian Japanese and the United States (1981).

Maria Elena Ota Mishima, Siete migraciones japonesas en Mexico, 1890–1978 (1982).

Susan Kaufman Purcell and Robert M. Immerman, eds., Japan and Latin America in the New Global Order (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Di Tella, Torcuato S., and Akio Hosono, eds. Japón-América Latina: La construcción de un vínculo. Buenos Aires: Nuevohacer, Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, 1998.

Murakami, Yusuke. El espejo del otro: El Japón ante la crisis de los rehenes en el Peru. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1999.

                                     Daniel M. Masterson

                                          John F. Bratzel

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