Nikkeijin – The Japanese Peruvians
Philanthropist, volunteer worker and resident of Peru, Scott Jeppesen of the charitable organisation Sonrisas en Peru, explores the fascinating history of Japanese immigration to Peru and the strong influence that Japanese culture has played on various aspects of Peruvian society.
I currently reside in Lima, the capital of Peru. Every day I am faced with some characteristic of Peruvian culture that has been derived from Japanese origins. Urged by curiosity I soon discovered the intriguing story of the Japanese Peruvians, a large ethnic immigrant group in Peru.
The Japanese Peruvians
The Japanese Peruvians are Peruvian citizens of Japanese ethnic origin. They constitute around 0.3% of Peru’s population (estimated at nearly 90,000 in 2008) which is the second largest population of people with Japanese ancestry in Latin America after Brazil.
Peru was the first Latin American country to accept Japanese immigration. Back in 1899 the first wave of 790 Japanese immigrants arrived at the Peruvian seaport Callao aboard the “Sakura Maru” from the Japanese port of Yokohama and thus spawned the Nikkei ethnicity in Latin America.
Most notably, Japanese Peruvians were brought to the world’s attention in 1990 by the election of Alberto Fujimori, son of Japanese immigrants and the 90th president of Peru. Fujimori was the first person of Asian descent to become president of a Western country.
Immigration To Peru
Peru and Japan have held close ties for well over a century. They established diplomatic relations in 1883 making Peru the first country in Latin American, and tenth country in the world, to establish this kind of formal link with Japan.
But what prompted the Japanese to migrate to Peru?
In the later half of the 19th century the Meiji Restoration brought an end to feudalism in Japan generating great poverty in its rural population and causing a surplus of skilled farmers. Seeking relief from the increasing unrest of the agrarian class, the Japanese government saw emigration as a tool to relieve some of the suffering caused by the nation’s rapid modernization during the Meiji era.
The first Japanese settlers to arrive in Peru were primarily Japanese farmers escaping impoverished conditions in Japan’s rural areas. Most left Japan to work as contract laborers on Peru’s coastal sugar and cotton plantations who were suffering a labor shortage at the time. The Japanese arrived with a sojourner mentality or temporary intentions, that is, the dream of finding wealth in a faraway land and a view to eventually return home with their hard earned savings.
Based on statistics from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 33,070 Japanese had emigrated to Peru by 1941
Settlement In Peru
When the Japanese immigrants arrived on the Peruvian farms and plantations, life was not as expected. They were subjected to hours of exhaustive work and often suffered physical violence. As a result, many Japanese immigrants abandoned their jobs or fled. Those Japanese who fulfilled their contracts remained free and went to the cities where they started small businesses that required little capital, such as stores, hairdresser shops, small coffee shops, or restaurants. Others opted to work as gardeners or household servants for wealthy families.
Over time the Japanese Peruvians evolved into a dominating part of the Peruvian economy, but their growing success led to other problems.
Insularity And Racialisation
Rather than assimilating into Peruvian society the Japanese isolated themselves, lived in separate communities and generally only associated with other Japanese. They sent their children to Japanese-language schools and continued many practices typical of Japanese culture.
As the Japanese in Peru became economically successful, the Peruvians saw the Japanese as a threat that ultimately festered into a racist attitude towards the Japanese which led to discrimination not only at a social level, but eventually at a political level.
In 1940 riots broke out in Lima and Callao instigated by anti Japanese Peruvian sentiment that left 10 Japanese Peruvians dead, hundreds injured and numerous Japanese Peruvian businesses and homes destroyed. The Peruvian government reacted to the riots by suspending future immigration rights to the Japanese and by taking away the citizenship of native-born Japanese Peruvians.
The WWII Internment
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States reached an agreement with the government of Peru and 1,771 Japanese Peruvians were deported from Peru to the United States and were interned for the duration of the war in American internment camps. At the conclusion of the war, the Peruvian government refused to allow the detainees to return.
Most detainees, fearing never being able to return to Peru accepted transportation back to Japan. The rest stayed in the US where they eventually obtained US citizenship.
The Japanese In Peru Today
The Japanese Peruvians have made a substantial impact on the economic and cultural diversity of Peru. Today, they are basically a closed society with a tremendous pride in preserving traditional values and Japanese culture and heritage. They have managed to maintain a strong attachment to Peru but without abandoning their Japanese roots.
The embedded video below shows a slideshow of an amazing collection of historical images of the Japanese Peruvian people.
Please take the opportunity to visit my website Sonrisas en Peru, meaning “smiles in Peru” in Spanish. It is an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of under-privileged children in rural Peru.