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125 Years after the First Japanese Immigration to Mexico: The Soul of Relations between Mexico and Japan - Part 1

From the 1897 Opening to the War of the Pacific

The start of diplomatic relations between Mexico and Japan in 1888 enabled the first waves of Japanese workers to arrive in Mexico, beginning in 1897. Over the past 125 years, since the first 34 workers were brought to Chiapas to help develop a coffee plantation, the path of migration has been paved with enormous difficulties. It’s impossible to encapsulate the history of these immigrants, through the fifth and sixth generations, in a short article, so I will focus on a few specific circumstances, illustrating this long journey through their stories.

Jesús Kumate Rodriguez at age 4, with his parents (Shozo Ogino Collection)

One of these immigrants, married to a Mexican woman, told his 12-year-old son shortly before dying: “Son, you must pay this country what I owe to it.” That young boy, born in Sinaloa in 1924, fulfilled his father’s wish many times over throughout his 94 years of life. I’m referring to Dr. Jesús Kumate Rodríguez, an eminent infectious disease specialist who trained generations of doctors in universities in Mexico and abroad, and also served as the country’s Secretary of Health. Kumate represents the spirit of hard work and dedication of the generations of immigrants and their descendants who have lived in Mexico over the past 125 years.

In those first four decades of the 20th century, the pathway of immigrant workers in Mexico not only required enormous sacrifice and effort, but they also faced a hostile environment created by the United States, which considered these workers throughout the continent to be part of an “invading army” from the Japanese empire. The demand for labor that couldn’t be met by the local population led U.S. companies that owned mines, railroads and sugar plantations to seek workers from Japan to help support the rapid growth of their industries. Japanese immigrants were lured to Mexico by the promise of better wages and working conditions than they could find in Japan. In the first two decades of the century, close to 10,000 workers came to Mexico, mostly settling in the states of Baja California, Sonora, Sinaloa, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Jalisco, Chiapas as well as Mexico City.

Tombstone of Santo Nagano, which still remains at La Oaxaqueña plantation (Photo: Shozo Ogino)

Alongside Mexican workers, these immigrants built thousands of kilometers of railroads between Colima and Guadalajara, connecting them to the U.S. border and Mexico City. Another wave of Japanese immigrants was distributed among the Cananea copper mines in Sonora, the coal mines of Coahuila, and the sugar cane plantations in southeast Mexico. Hundreds found work at La Oaxaqueña plantation south of Veracruz in 1906. The sweet cane product was transformed into bitterness, however, as dozens of workers perished, both immigrants and Mexicans, their experience similar to the immigrants in northern Mexico’s coal mines. This was the result of 12-hour workdays without rest and the unhealthy conditions in which they lived and worked.

The overall situation of the working class throughout Mexico led to protests and strikes and finally, an uprising against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz during the 1910 Revolution. Among the immigrants joining the various revolutionary armies was Antonio Yamane, captain of the constitutionalist army of Venustiano Carranza; José Tanaka, who reached the rank of lieutenant in the army led by General Álvaro Obregón; and Kingo Nonaka, who served in Pancho Villa’s army.

Nonaka drives a cart alongside Pancho Villa.

Immigrants participated in the troubles that Mexico faced in the early part of the century, as well as its festivals and traditions. In September 1910, just before the Revolutionary War broke out, Japanese immigrants played a role in celebrations of the centennial of Mexico’s independence. The Japanese government sent a large show that was exhibited at the Crystal Palace (known today as the Chopo University Museum). There, immigrants led by Tatsugoro Matsumoto built an elaborate Japanese-style garden. The show and garden made a strong impression on the thousands of attendees, familiarizing them with Japanese culture. Meanwhile, immigrants joined the Mexican people in the joyous celebration of every year of their national independence.

Japanese garden at the Crystal Palace

Another key development that deepened the relationship of Japanese immigrants with Mexico occurred after the Revolution, when the immigrant community declined to sue the Mexican government for property damage suffered as a result of the conflict. This decision was in sharp contrast to demands made by U.S. and English citizens, who through their respective governments sought enormous sums of money from the government of President Álvaro Obregón (1920-24). Japanese immigrants in Chiapas made it clear that they considered themselves members of the Mexican population, and therefore demanding compensation would not be acceptable. Obregón’s government, in addition to expressing its gratitude for the gesture, sent the funds to assist the thousands of people affected by the Kanto earthquake that caused widespread damage to Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923.

Dr. Matsuda in his library in Chiapas, 1948.

Yet another highlight occurred when war broke out between the United States and Japan in 1941 and Japanese communities in Mexico were relocated to Guadalajara and Mexico City at the request of the U.S. government. Not all immigrants were relocated; in Chiapas, they were initially allowed to stay in their homes. However, in 1944 they were also forced to move to Mexico City. At the time, biologist Eiji Matsuda, who had settled in Chiapas in 1922, sent a letter to President Manuel Ávila Camacho to request that the relocated immigrants be returned, as they were carrying out important literacy work. The government authorized the immediate release of Japanese immigrants who wanted to return, including Matsuda, who went back to his teaching and research on the flora of Chiapas. This body of work, widely recognized by the National University, resulted in the identification and classification of more than 800 species of cactus and other plants, and Matsuda continued it until his death in 1978.

Over those first decades, waves of immigrants put down roots in the places where they found work. After 1920, many workers started to look for wives and companions. Without an in-person meeting, through letters and photographs sent to Japan, they offered future partners the opportunity to start a family and a place to live and work alongside them. Japanese immigrants settled down in diverse Mexican states, where their children were born and they maintained close relationships with the local population. In many parts of Mexico, communities of Japanese immigrants were a large mosaic, diverse and broad, that adapted to local customs and ways. In these places, they created and recreated their own transnational culture, the product of the cultural capital they brought with them and the cultural norms they acquired as the years went by.

When World War II broke out, immigrants and their children in the United States were sent to internment camps. In Mexico, upon the request of the U.S. government, communities that lived close to the U.S border were immediately forced to move to Guadalajara and Mexico City, in the winter of 1941-42. Undoubtedly, their concentration in those cities represented for the Japanese immigrants and their children a painful renewal of an immigration marked by political and racial persecution. On the other hand, this forced relocation revealed how much support these immigrants enjoyed in their respective local communities, as community members sent letters to the government authorities asking that it rescind the concentration order. Furthermore, the forced relocation of communities distributed throughout the country enabled Japanese immigrants to create a more unified community, strengthening their solidarity and mutual support of one another in the places where they were sent to live. This new community bonding resulted in the founding of several schools where children learned about Japanese language and culture, and also reinforced the skills they were learning in public elementary and high schools. With such a solid foundation, many went on to successfully graduate from prestigious public universities in both cities.

Festival at the Chuo School (Hara Family Collection)

While their internment in Mexico provided the Japanese community with access to education and enabled them to progress financially, in Japan the population experienced a period of hunger and misery that extended well after 1945. The difficult situation faced by the Japanese people was also borne by those children of immigrants who happened to be in Japan at the time and were trapped there during the conflict.

Separation of immigrant family members during the war was perhaps the most painful aspect. Children and young people who were in Japan when relations were severed lost all contact with their parents. Some examples were Ernesto Matsumoto, the son of Sanshiro Matsumoto; the four children of Zenzo Tanaka, who had settled in Sonora; and Fernando Hiramuro’s three children, originally from Guadalajara and who survived the atomic bomb in Nagasaki.

If many of the immigrants still dreamed of returning to Japan prior to the war, after it ended that idea was completely discarded. Immigrant communities in Mexico not only made the definitive decision to build a future in the country that had received them, but often provided ongoing assistance to their parents and siblings in Japan, sending clothing, food, and medicine.

Part 2 >>


© 2022 Sergio Hernández Galindo

125th anniversary community Japan Mexico Migration