Satsuma Fields: Encounters with the diaspora provoke reflections on what it means to be Japanese

Photo: Around 80 Peace Boat passengers joined a programme to learn about Nikkei culture in Peru last year.
Around 80 Peace Boat passengers joined a programme to learn about Nikkei culture in Peru last year.

When the Sakura Maru departed from Yokohama in February 1899 bound for the Peruvian port city of Callao, its 790 passengers must have had high hopes. The Meiji Government had been run campaigns advertising a better quality of life overseas, and the Morioka Emigration Company and other agents promised solid pay for four-year contracts on sugar plantations.

But conditions on the haciendas were much tougher than passengers had been led to believe – 150 of them did not live to see the end of the contract. Since then successive waves of migrants and their Nikkei offspring – as members of the Japanese diaspora came to be known – garnered a collective reputation as industrious and dependable members of Peruvian society. Through the 1990s, Alberto Fujimori made it to the very top, as Peru’s divisive reforming president.

When Peace Boat docked in Callao this time last year, I was assigned to join some 80 passengers, almost all above 50-years-old, on a popular excursion to meet members of Peru’s Nikkei community and learn about their lives. But after rounding two capes and arriving at a country with a history as rich as Peru’s, what was the appeal of learning about a niche aspect of Japan’s history?

Peace Boat passenger Takenoshita Kumiko had no family connections to Peruvian Nikkei but remembered that a classmate left for Argentina when she was young. “I want to see how Japanese people live overseas,” she said through an interpreter. I found her word choice striking: were Nikkei really ‘overseas’? And three or four generations after their ancestors arrived in Peru, would they still consider themselves Japanese?

Lima first authorized Japanese immigration in 1898 in a move that suited both governments. Peru’s ‘agriculture revolution’ required new laborers to supply European demand for sugarcane and cotton when the trade of indentured laborers was outlawed in 1874; in Japan, emigration allowed the Meiji Government to control its growing population and provide overseas work for impoverished farmers that were a drain on the domestic economy.

But for migrants themselves, conditions were often difficult. Thousands endured hard labor to pay off migration debts with unscrupulous agencies; they met with unfamiliar climate and food, and suffered from diseases such as typhus, malaria and dysentery.

At the Otsuka farm, Peace Boat passengers enjoyed the traditional Inca meal of Pacha Mancha.

A small minority of Peru’s contemporary Nikkei population now works in agriculture, however almost all immigrants who arrived before the 1920s started out in the fields. To find out more about how Japanese families first established themselves, Peace Boat passengers on last year’s Nikkei tour drove to a tangerine farm two hours north of Lima.

In front of dusty beige hills, 83-year-old Anita Otsuka told passengers how her father had founded the farm when he arrived in Peru. Anita’s father came from Satsuma, now called Kagoshima, in the southwest of Japan, and had brought seedlings of the eponymous fruit to plant on land he had cleared.

Anita now runs her father’s farm along with 54-year-old Masu, Otsuka’s grandson. Through an interpreter, Masu explained that some years ago he decided to plant a local variety of tangerine called Rio de Oro adjacent to his grandfather’s Satsuma crops. “If you only have one strain there is only one harvest every year; with two strains there are two harvests,” he said. It turned out to be a good business move and Masu now exports fruit to the US and China.

Photo: A Peace Boat passenger inspected Rio de Oro tangerines planted by Masu Otsuka.
A Peace Boat passenger inspected Rio de Oro tangerines planted by Masu Otsuka.

Masu’s Satsumas and Rio de Oros seemed like a nice metaphor for the cultural synthesis that enabled the Nikkei to succeed in Peru, but it was difficult to discern how the Otsuka family construed their own identity. Passenger Tsurugai Keiji said, “I thought that it must have been really tough for Anita having such a big farm on the other side of the world. But she was talking about her life so matter of factly, like it was no big deal.” Like Takenoshita, Tsurugai seemed to consider Peruvian-born Anita Japanese.

Due to unfavorable conditions and deaths, contract migration to Peru was abolished in 1923 and replaced by migration by invitation. Conditions improved for the Nikkei community, but it was short lived. In 1940 anti-Japanese riots erupted across Lima killing 10 people.

World War II brought more difficulties for Peru’s Nikkei. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Peruvian government, under agreements of Continental Unity with the USA, shut down Japanese institutions including schools and associations and took possession of Nikkei assets and bank accounts. Meetings of more than three Nikkei were prohibited, speaking Japanese was forbidden, and on April 1942, a deportation programme began sending community leaders to detention camps in the US.

During a lecture on Peace Boat, Peru-based photographer Yoshii Yutaka said, “many Nikkei feel that the Second World War only ended in 1996 with the official apologies of the Peruvian government to the Japanese community in Peru.”

Photo: The Peru Shimpo has recorded Nikkei culture and news from Japan since September 1, 1950.
The Peru Shimpo has recorded Nikkei culture and news from Japan since September 1, 1950.

To learn more about post-war conditions, Peace Boat passengers on the Nikkei tour headed to offices of the Peru Shimpo – the country’s first Nikkei newspaper. Diro Hasegawa founded the Peru Shimpo on September 1, 1950, and under a plaque bearing his image Peace Boat passengers leafed through the yellowed pages of its breakout edition. ‘Japan’s True Self Resplendent in Peace’ ran one headline. In a wooden cabinet, encyclopedic binders chronicled the paper’s back issues.

Nowadays Peru Shimpo’s Japanese language section is limited to a few pages, but originally the entire newspaper was written in Japanese. It was a vital tool for Nikkei, explained Japanese section director Ricardo Goya – for many it was the only source of news from Japan.

Matsuda Yukiharu, a passenger on the tour, wanted to know how the paper stayed afloat with overseas news now easily accessible online. “Of course, that’s a challenge for our industry,” Goya admitted. “Now we only publish the most important news from Japan, but while there are still issei (first generation immigrants) living in Lima, we will continue to print Japanese news.”

Photo: A painting at Inka Gakuin advertised an Undokai, or traditional Japanese sports day.
A painting at Inka Gakuin advertised an Undokai, or traditional Japanese sports day.

After viewing an inert printing press and buying souvenir editions of the paper, the Peace Boat group visited Inka Gakuin, a school set up in 1982 to educate Nikkei and other Peruvian children. It was a weekend, so no students were around but passengers snapped pictures of signs written in Spanish and Japanese.

According to photographer Yoshii Yutaka, schools were an important part of maintaining Japanese identity, and often served as community centers for Japanese groups. “The Italians built churches; the English built clubs; the Japanese built schools,” he said. Today, many Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) volunteers coordinate ‘Saturday schools,’ which teach Japanese culture and language.

A teacher at Inka Gakuin told the Peace Boat group that nowadays only 20% of her students were Japanese, and the language of instruction was Spanish. Nikkei school choices, she said, were based mostly on location, cost, and institutional prestige rather than Japanese culture or language programmes.

Photo: A cemetery in Lima decorated with Christian and Buddhist imagery demonstrated the synchronicity of the Nikkei population.
A cemetery in Lima decorated with Christian and Buddhist imagery demonstrated the synchronicity of the Nikkei population.

The last stop of the day for Peace Boat passengers was a Nikkei cemetery on the outskirts of Lima. Along the perimeter inlets in the white stone were filled with crucifixes and boxes of yellow flowers; in the center was a Buddhist style monolith. Some passengers recited prayers, and others stood in silence as incense filled the air.

For Tsurugai Keiji, whose daughter had passed away the year before, the visit was a chance for reflection. He said that the cemetery made him think about whether he wanted to be buried or cremated when his time came. “I’m worried about the cemetery. Right now it is really clean and beautiful but in ten or twenty years when we get to the fifth and sixth generation of Nikkei, will they still care about maintaining it?” he said.

Between visits to the school and the farm, meeting Nikkei doctors who specialized in the removal of varicose veins, and passing the place where Peru’s first Nikkei priest Father Kato set up a retirement home, I was confused about what to take from the tour. Similar Peace Boat programmes in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile had also been popular and at least four lectures onboard had focused on Nikkei. Was it narcissistic to focus so intently on one’s own culture?

The more I thought about Tsurugai worrying about whether the cemetery would be maintained, the more confused I became. Perhaps all travel is the search for self and instead of exploring that in relation to ‘the other’ the best kind affords us a glimpse of our doppelgänger. It forces a consideration of what our culture will leave behind, and who will be left around to care.

Photo: Guest Educator Monica Kogiso gave a series of onboard lectures on Nikkei identity.
Guest Educator Monica Kogiso gave a series of onboard lectures on Nikkei identity.

However, others on Peace Boat had a keener sense of the relationship between Nikkei and Japanese identity. “The history of Japan does not acknowledge the amount of people who have been forced to live abroad, or live in Japan as a consequence of war. There is not enough discussion of that,” said Keiko Ono, a volunteer English teacher onboard Peace Boat.

According to Ono, for the Meiji Government emigration served a convenient purpose of pacifying separatist movements and threats to the state such as unionized coal workers and burakumin (social underclass or outcaste). A significant proportion of emigrants were from Okinawa, the former independent Ryukyu Kingdom which was annexed by Japan in 1879.

Nikkei have also struggled for acceptance in contemporary Japan. In part due to the difficult economic conditions of the 1980s and 1990s, some Nikkei ‘returned’ to Japan to find work. There were reports of labor and housing discrimination against Nikkei, and when the Japanese economy tanked in 2009 and many lost the unskilled jobs they had been able to land, the Japanese government offered to pay for return flights to Latin America rather than providing social welfare support.

Onboard Peace Boat Monica Kogiso, head of the Pan-American Nikkei Association (PANA) in Argentina, gave a series of onboard lectures on Nikkei identity. In one, she showed slides from PANA’s ‘Discover Nikkei’ project, in which people with a connection to Japan were interviewed about their identity. One respondent, who had no ethnic links to Japan, described her Nikkei identity as “an endless connection with Japan; to dream about Japan; to push for Japan.”

Japan is often conceived as a mono-cultural, mono-racial society. However around 530,000 ethnic Koreans, 670,000 ethnic Chinese and 10,000 indigenous Ainu people live in the country. Of the more than 2 million foreign residents Japan, over 60% are non-white.

Photo: Keiko Ono, a volunteer English teacher on Peace Boat, said that she joined the voyage in part to explore her connection with Japan.
Keiko Ono, a volunteer English teacher on Peace Boat, said that she joined the voyage in part to explore her connection with Japan.

Amidst the discussions of Nikkei in Latin America, Keiko Ono, along with other volunteer language teachers and interpreters onboard, led a series of workshops on Japanese identity. They posed the question: what does it mean to be Japanese?

Some Peace Boat passengers connected Japanese identity with language or intimate familiarity with traditions such as flower arranging and tea ceremonies, others thought it had to do with adherence to Bushido ideals or a special appreciation of the virtues of nature, and some speculated that it might be related to character traits such as ‘shyness’ or shame.

Such discussions are not new. In her essay Fetishized Blackness: Hip Hop and Racial Desire in Contemporary Japan, Nina Cornyetz writes of pre-World War II Japanese identity: “Japan related culture to a repository of Japaneseness, an ideology informed by the necessary internalization of technology, then the science of the other. “Culture” was construed as the essence of Japaneseness, common to all Japanese and unknowable to non-Japanese; a category of Japanese superiority to offset the self-perception of inferiority in science and technology.”

During the tour in Peru, I had been struck by the inclusiveness of Japanese identity – the sense of pride with which Peace Boat passengers noted Anita Otsuka’s work ethic or Japanese cultural influences at the Nikkei School. But it seemed like the definitions changed when they were applied within Japan.

Volunteer interpreters Kenta Mori and Moe Sasaki – who are Japanese by nationality but have spent significant portions of their life in Canada and Rwanda, respectively – said that they had found their Japanese credentials called into question after returning from abroad. Mori, who recently finished job-hunting, was interrogated in job interviews, “There was a lot of English written on my resume. They asked me are you Japanese, are you Nikkei, can you read the newspaper?” he said.

For mixed race Japanese, the questioning can be more confrontational. “Me saying that I’m Japanese is never enough. Japanese people to try to validate that statement by asking where I’m from, can I use chopsticks, how my parents met, and if they are still married,” said Ono who is Japanese-Papua New Guinean. “People who are mixed race are called hafu (half) or double – we have to quantify our identity. I’ve lived in 12 countries and been a foreigner everywhere, but nowhere am I more a foreigner than in Japan.”

Human Journey


Meet the Author
Joseph Hincks is a writer and photographer of no fixed abode. His freelance features on sports, culture, and international development have appeared in The New York Times and The Guardian, among others. From November 2014 to March 2015, Joseph will be blogging a round-the-world trip on board Japan-based NGO Peace Boat.