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125 Years after the First Japanese Immigration to Mexico: The Soul of Relations between Mexico and Japan - Part 2

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From the End of World War II to the Founding of the Japanese-Mexican School in 1977

The renewal of relations between Mexico and Japan in 1952 after 10 years gave way to a new wave of immigrants from Japan. Children of immigrants born in Mexico who had been trapped in Japan during the war returned, while new immigrants invited by relatives or friends went in search of a better future, given the almost total destruction of their country. This new wave of immigrants was different from the workers and farmers who had arrived in the first half of the 20th century, and consisted largely of skilled and technical workers, professionals, artists, and students. The following paragraphs are about this new wave of Japanese immigration and the situation of those who had settled in Mexico before the war.

Image 7) Entrance to The Arts of Mexico exhibit at the National Museum (Yomiuri newspaper).

As part of the resumption of diplomatic relations in 1952 and the Cultural Exchange Agreement signed in 1954, both governments agreed to organize a major exposition in 1955 on The Arts of Mexico (Mekishiko dai bijutsu-ten). This exhibit was presented at the Tokyo National Museum and introduced the wonders of Mexican art and history to the Japanese people. There was a great deal of interest in the exhibit, which ultimately influenced a group of artists and students who decided to immigrate to Mexico. The exposition represented the first exposure of the Japanese people to Mexican art on a massive scale, although painter Tamiji Kitagawa (1894-1989) had raised awareness about the Mexican School of painting years before through his own work.

Kitagawa emigrated to Mexico in 1921, and throughout his 15-year stay in the country, he acquired a unique style that was heavily influenced by Mexican muralists. He led open-air painting schools for children in Tlalpan and Taxco, developing an intimate knowledge about the local indigenous communities, an experience that influenced him throughout his life.

When he returned to Japan in 1936, Kitagawa attempted to put into practice what he had learned of Mexico’s traditions, but unfortunately the bellicose atmosphere that predominated in Japan prevented him from working directly with Japanese children. Kitagawa presented his experience in Mexico through a book published in Japanese, My Youth in Mexico: 15 Years with the Indigenous People (『メキシコの青春:十五年をインディアンと共に』). The strength, style and influence of the art and people of Mexico are evident throughout his paintings and attracted a great deal of attention from the Japanese public.

Image 8) Wake in Taxco by Kitagawa, 1937 (Shizuoka Art Museum).

Once relations were renewed, Mexican popular music also became popular in Japan, including the romantic ballads of the trio Los Panchos, who immediately captivated the Japanese people. The trio was so in-demand that they eventually translated and recorded their songs in Japanese. The success of Mexican music in Japan was so significant that a version of one of Japan’s most popular songs, “Sakura sakura,” was recorded with guitars in the Mexican style.

Cover of a Los Panchos record in Japanese.

Mexican culture was so influential that by the late 1950s, Kojin Toneyana (1921-1994), Taro Okamoto (1911-1996), and Shinzaburo Takeda initiated a close relationship with Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Luis Nishizawa, the son of a Japanese immigrant to Mexico who became one of the following decades’ most important painters, and who will be discussed later on in this text.

These Japanese artists sought out new forms of expression that couldn’t be found in the Europeanized culture that dominated Japan. In Mexico they found a creative environment that enabled them to emerge with innovative work, the result of their own “oriental” cultures with roots in Mexico and Japan. After he died, some of Toneyama’s ashes were scattered in the Mayan ruins in Palenque, owing to his great love for Mexico. Okamoto brought to Tokyo a large mural he had painted in Mexico, entitled Myth of Tomorrow. Perhaps the phrase that best represents the connection these artists found with Mexican culture is an ironic remark from Okamoto: “This country is unforgivable…it’s been imitating me for thousands of years!”

Myth of Tomorrow, mural in the Shibuya metro station in Tokyo (From web site of the Okamoto Museum)

Another young woman who became interested in Mexican culture was Atsuko Tanabe. Tanabe arrived in Mexico to study in 1956, specializing in Mexican literature at the National Autonomous University (UNAM). Over the years, she and her husband Ryoshiro Baba became the leading proponents of Japanese culture and literature through publication of the magazine Japónica, published from 1983 to 1993. It is Tanabe, along with others, who we owe for the first translations into Spanish of leading Japanese authors, edited in several anthologies of Japanese short stories. Tanabe worked tirelessly to disseminate Japanese culture in Mexico and did the same for Mexican culture in Japan as a professor at the College of the Northern Border (El Colegio de la Frontera Norte until her death in Tijuana in 2000.

Another notable person, in the fields of literature and theater, was an immigrant who would leave a lasting mark on Mexican theater: Seki Sano (1905-1966). At the age of 26, Sano was forced out of Japan, persecuted by the government for his communist sympathies. Sano then embarked on a long journey that took him to the Soviet Union and several other countries until, unable to find a place that would receive him, the government of Lázaro Cárdenas offered Sano the opportunity to carry out his creative work in Mexico. From the first day of his arrival in 1939 until his death, Sano worked tirelessly to train actors, introducing to Mexico the Stanislavski method he had learned in the Soviet Union. In 1940 he directed his first play, “The Lady Coronel” (La Coronela) at the Palace of Fine Arts. Over the decades that followed, he directed many successful plays, earning him the recognition of actors and several annual awards for best theater director.

For the Japanese communities already settled in Mexico, the end of the war brought a light at the end of the tunnel, as their persecution ended. Government authorities allowed those who had been forcibly relocated to return to the places they had originally settled, but the majority decided to stay in Guadalajara and Mexico City. The corner stores, candy shops, hardware stores, stationery stores, restaurants and photographic studios they had opened were increasingly successful in the period of economic growth that followed the war. But in addition, the prestige and recognition earned by these families in their own neighborhoods enabled them to fully integrate into the country that had received them. What was very important was that their children attended public schools and universities, enabling the second generation of Japanese immigrants to become professionals. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the graduation of a large number of doctors, dentists, biologists, engineers and technicians. There were so many students of Japanese origin in the School of Dentistry at UNAM that the students were known as the “yellow section”, a term that did not have a racist or xenophobic connotation, but rather made reference to the Yellow Pages, a telephone book with more than 1,000 pages. Graciela Abe and José Ozawa, both graduates of the school, taught there for almost 50 years.

Another example is Maria Elena Ota (1931-2000), who had been forcibly relocated with her family and later enrolled at the National University. After earning a master’s degree in history, she became a professor at the Colegio de México and published the most important book on the history of immigrants: Seven Generations of Japanese Migration in Mexico (Siete migraciones japonesas en México.)

Luis Nishizawa (191802014) was also the son of immigrants who studied at the National University. In addition to becoming a professor emeritus who taught hundreds of students, he was a nationally and internationally known painter. Nishizawa is the only Mexican painter who has painted a mural in Japan that clearly reflects the cultural influences of both countries.

Creative Spirit Is Always Renewed (Fugetsu ennen), a mural at the Keisei Ueno station in Tokyo.

The Japanese-Mexican Association in 1959. The original building still exists today.

The founding of the Japanese-Mexican Association in 1956 was the crowning event of this stage of reinsertion and growing prestige for Japanese immigrants and their descendants in Mexico. The association was born from the fusion of several previous organizations created by immigrants before and during the war. In addition to that association, which is based in Mexico City, there are chapters in Ensenada, Tijuana, San Luis Potosí, Mazatlán, Monterrey, Acacoyagua, and other cities, and which continue to play an important role in relations between Mexico and Japan. Their activities and festivals bring together thousands of people interested in studying Japanese language and culture.

Japan’s rapid economic growth in the 1960s was another factor that boosted the prestige and economic consolidation of immigrants and closer ties between both countries, due to increased investment by Japanese companies in Mexico. Among them were Nissan, producer of one of the most popular cars in Mexico: the Datsun. This economic relationship generated mutual interest in connecting both cultures, and the Japanese community in Mexico became an important support for thousands of Japanese companies that entered the Mexican market and continue their presence today.

But that’s not the only reason why the image of Japan and the Japanese became better known in Mexico. In 1961, internationally known actor Toshiro Mifune traveled to Oaxaca to play the role of an indigenous man in the film The Important Man (Ánimas Trujano) directed by Ismael Rodríguez. Mifune’s performance, along with that of actress Columba Domínguez, was widely acclaimed and the movie was nominated for an Oscar. The son of a family of immigrants, Luis Kasuga, served as translator for the actor throughout the filming and his stay in Mexico.

Movie poster for The Important Man (Ánimas Trujano).

Speaking of Luis Kasuga, it’s worth noting that his parents and siblings were the owners of a small factory that produced inflatable toys, Industrias Kay. The company was responsible for making the enormous Olympic rings that floated in the sky above the Olympic Stadium during the 1968 Games in Mexico.

In that same decade, many Japanese students and professors began to some to Mexico to study. Michiko Tanaka was one of the first Japanese students educated at the College of Mexico. As a professor at that institution, she has taught Japanese studies to hundreds of students from Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Tanaka has spent more than 50 years as a professor at the College and is an essential part of its Asian and African Studies Center. Professor Yoshie Awaihara, in that same institution, and Yumiko Hoshino, at the National University, are the best-known specialists in Japanese language teaching and programs for Spanish speakers for the past four decades. Professor Kazuko Hozumi, who came to Mexico in the 1970s, is another pillar of the Japanese teaching community in the private sphere, at the Japanese Mexican Cultural Institute. Another private institution, the Chuo School in downtown Mexico City, was founded during World War II and has provided Japanese language classes for children and adults for more than 75 years. Professor Kayo Matsubara, the daughter of immigrants, has been one of the school’s greatest proponents and continues to lead it today.

From an educational perspective, the opening of the Japanese-Mexican School in 1977 was the culmination of a long road traveled by the Japanese community since the creation of their own study centers upon arrival in the early part of the century. The opening of a school of that size, which serves children from preschool through high school, was made possible by a confluence of factors. On the one hand, Japanese communities in different neighborhoods of Mexico City operated four schools that were combined to create one, pooling their experience and funding. In addition, the school received support from Japanese companies with operations in Mexico, who needed a school that the children of their Japanese employees could attend. Finally, as part of an environment of cooperation that continued to deepen, the governments of Mexico and Japan provided substantial resources for the school’s founding. Over the following decades, the Japanese-Mexican School has become an institution attended not only by students from Japan or Japanese descendants, but largely serves Mexican students by providing them with a bicultural education.

Part 3 >>


© 2022 Sergio Hernández Galindo

anniversaries artists communities international relations Japan Japan-Mexico relations Mexico
About the Author

Sergio Hernández Galindo is a graduate of Colegio de México, where he majored in Japanese studies. He has published numerous articles and books about Japanese emigration to Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

His most recent book, Los que vinieron de Nagano. Una migración japonesa a México (Those who came from Nagano: A Japanese migration to Mexico, 2015) tells the stories of emigrants from that prefecture before and after the war. In his well-known book, La guerra contra los japoneses en México. Kiso Tsuru y Masao Imuro, migrantes vigilados (The war against Japanese people in Mexico: Kiso Tsuro and Masao Imuro, migrants under surveillance), he explained the consequences of conflict between the United States and Japan for the Japanese community decades before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

He has taught classes and led conferences on this topic at universities in Italy, Chile, Peru, and Argentina as well as Japan, where he was part of the group of foreign specialists in the Kanagawa Prefecture and a fellow of the Japan Foundation, affiliated with Yokohama National University. He is currently a professor and researcher with the Historical Studies Unit of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Updated April 2016

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