Japan’s Brutal Modernization That Pushed Millions of Immigrants into Latin America | World

In 1639, Japan adopted a policy known as sakoku (closed country), whereby the Asian nation closed its doors to the rest of the world by forbidding people from entering and leaving.

Anyone who enters or leaves the country will be sentenced to death.

This isolation lasted for over 200 years until, in 1853, an American naval officer named Matthew Perry entered what is now Tokyo Bay with a fleet of fighters.

Perry succeeded in getting Japan to open up to international trade, but the country continued to forbid its citizens from leaving the territory.

Only with the coming of Emperor Meiji, 15 years later, did Japan allow immigration.

He not only allowed, but encouraged it.

Meiji applied a government policy that represented a 180 degree turn for an Asian country.

He ended the feudal system and began to transform the country from an agrarian economy into an industrial-capitalist one.

The modernization process carried out during the so-called Meiji era, between 1868 and 1912, eventually made Japan one of the world powers.

But the Western-inspired reforms were so swift that they caused almost instantaneous social upheaval, displacing thousands of people from the countryside to the cities.

Major urban centers such as Tokyo and Osaka began to experience overcrowding.

Emperor Meiji turned Japan into a power, but the social cost was enormous – Photo: Getty Images/BBC

It was in this context that the first great wave of Japanese immigration began.

The immigrants, who would later be known as the Nikkei, left their country in search of better opportunities, encouraged by a government that sought not only to solve the problem of overpopulation, but also to expand Japan’s political and economic influence in the world.

The first Japanese overseas immigration took place in 1868 and the destination was Hawaii, which at that time was not yet part of the United States.

It was a small contingent of 148 rural workers.

More than 400,000 Japanese arrived in the United States before the country closed its borders to Japanese immigration, forcing new migrants to seek other destinations.

“Hawaii needed agricultural labor, especially on its sugar farms, and an agreement was signed with the king of the archipelago,” historian Cecilia Onaha, Professor of Japanese Studies (CEJ) at the National University of La Plata, Argentina.

According to the records of the National Museum of American History, many of these early immigrants later moved to the United States, settling in California, Washington, and Oregon.

The United States has been a major destination for Japanese immigrants since the days of Commodore Matthew Perry.

“Almost all migration at that time was to the United States or Canada because those were the countries with the highest wages,” Onaha explains.

The country’s Library of Congress estimates that between 1886 and 1911 over 400,000 Japanese came to the United States. Most settled in Hawaii or the West Coast.

The wave of Japanese immigration was so great that in the early 20th century the US government decided to intervene by banning newcomers from Japan.

It was this restriction that prompted many Japanese and the Japanese government to become interested in a new direction: Latin America.

The first official immigration project for Latin America was organized in 1897, when about 30 Japanese were sent to Chiapas in southern Mexico.

This was done at the initiative of former Japanese Chancellor Enomoto Takeaki, one of the biggest supporters of Japanese immigration.

In 1891, when he became the head of the Foreign Ministry, Enomoto established an agency dedicated to finding new territories for the Japanese abroad.

After leaving the government in 1893, he founded the Colonization and Emigration Association (Shokumin Kyokai).

According to academic Alberto Matsumoto, a specialist in the history of Japanese immigration, Enomoto became interested in Mexico because that country had signed a treaty of friendship and trade with Japan in 1888.

In 1891, when he was chancellor, he established the first Japanese consulate in Latin America in that country.

Then-Mexico President Porfirio Diaz “facilitated the influx of foreign capital for infrastructure development and was happy to welcome immigrants to populate the country,” Matsumoto says in a series of articles he wrote for Discover Nikkei.

The second largest Latin American destination for Japanese migrants was Peru. In 1899, 790 people landed from the ship “Sakura Maru” in the port of Callao, near Lima. — Photo: Museum of Japanese Immigration Peru/BBC.

“Studies done by the Japanese government at the time concluded that they could make a lot of profits from farming, which later turned out to be not an easy adventure,” he says.

A small group of Japanese settlers arrived in Chiapas with the intention of establishing a coffee plantation. But climatic difficulties and the acquisition of plants not suitable for this region led to the failure of the project in a short time.

The so-called Enomoto colony disintegrated, and according to Matsumoto, the vast majority of the people went to other parts of Mexico “in search of more promising horizons.”

However, the failure of the project did not end Japanese immigration to Mexico.

The government of Porfirio Díaz granted new concessions for mining and railroad construction, and the companies in charge demanded more labor than they could get in Mexico.

The early Japanese immigrants farmed the land, but many eventually left the rural areas and settled in the cities, where they set up shops and other businesses.

The early Japanese immigrants farmed the land, but many eventually left the rural areas and settled in the cities, where they set up shops and other businesses.

The early Japanese immigrants farmed the land, but many eventually left the rural areas and settled in the cities, where they set up shops and other businesses.

Contract immigration has attracted thousands of foreign workers to the Latin American country.

In Destino México: A Study of Asian Migration to Mexico in the 19th and 20th Centuries, author Maria Elena Ota Mishima emphasizes that 10,000 Japanese workers arrived in Mexico between 1900 and 1910.

The vast majority ended up crossing the border into the United States.

Aware of this phenomenon, the US government signed agreements to restrict Japanese immigration to Mexico.

This is why the Japanese community in Mexico will end up being significantly smaller than in Brazil and Peru, the two South American countries that attracted the most Japanese workers in the early 20th century.

The first Japanese to arrive in Peru and Brazil were indentured immigrants.

At the end of the 19th century, Peru needed labor for its growing sugar industry, and that is how the first 790 Nikkei arrived in 1899, hired to work on farms along the coast.

According to the Museum of Japanese Immigration in Peru, this first group was all-male, but was followed by 82 more groups, already formed of women and children, until 1923, when indentured immigration ended.

In Brazil, Japanese immigration did not begin until 1908, when 781 peasants hired to work on coffee plantations arrived.

But a decade later, the largest country in Latin America will become the main attraction of the Japanese.

Of the nearly 245,000 Japanese who immigrated to Latin America in the 1940s, three-quarters—189,000—went to Brazil, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

By comparison, 33,000 Japanese arrived in Peru, 15,000 in Mexico, and 5,000 in Argentina.

According to Onaha, “many of those who came to Latin America in the early decades of the 20th century had the intention of raising money and returning to Japan, but defeat in the war put an end to that goal,” says the historian.

“Massive Japanese immigration ends in the 1970s when there are no more Japanese immigrants abroad because the country’s economy is already developed.”

Japan’s economic strength in recent decades has reversed the migration phenomenon, prompting some Nisei (Nikkei’s sons) or Sansei (Nikkei’s grandsons) to move to the country.

Onaha highlights the deep imprint left by the Hispanic migration phenomenon in Japan.

“Latin America is so important to Japan that today the largest Japanese community abroad is in Brazil,” he emphasizes.

“Meanwhile, Brazilians became the third largest minority in Japan in the 1990s after Koreans and Chinese.”

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