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125 years of Japanese immigration in Peru: history and memories


When my cousins ​​and my brother get together to eat on a holiday, we always remember the sushi that our “okachan” (that's what we called our Japanese grandmother) prepared when we were kids and that we devoured by the roll.

We also remember that she grated katsuo in a long wooden box whose name escapes me.

It amazes me how these memories keep their freshness, they never get old. We always tell each other the same thing, and the smiles on all of our faces shine like the first time.

When I think about my obaa (my grandmother on my mother's side), I remember the Japanese dishes that she prepared with her daughters (my aunts and my mother) for masses, how much effort and organization they put into it from early on.

Even though they were sad occasions (the death of a relative or the anniversary of a death), I remember them with gratitude because the food was delicious (tempura with sweet potato, kamaboko, sushi, etc.).

In those days it was rare to eat those dishes; someone had to die to enjoy them.

“Okachan” with her husband and four of her children. Photo: author's family archive.

Why do I mention my grandmothers?

Because they are the ones I first remember when I think about the 125 years of Japanese immigration to Peru, which will be celebrated in 2024.

However, during my childhood they were simply my grandmothers, my parents' mothers. There was no history behind them and their countrymen (the only history I knew was that of the wars and revolutions that they taught in schools). There were no ships, no 40-day trips crossing a sea that seemed infinite to escape poverty or insecurity.

There were also no killer jobs to get ahead in a land that could be hostile due to cultural chasms or discrimination, nor looting of businesses that cost so much to build, nor lives of entire families destroyed by deportations during the war.

They were older ladies who cooked very well, but also characters (just like my grandfathers, whom I barely remember, since they died when I was very young) in a story to fit together, whose first-hand testimonies I never collected because of my lack of awareness.

The second generation

Secondly, for me the 125 years are their children, my parents and uncles and all those of their generation. I think about how difficult it must have been for them to grow up cut into often incompatible pieces, into fragments of identity, with one foot in the Japanese house and the other on the Peruvian street.

I also think about how painful it must have been to have people insult you in the 1940s when you marched in street parades with your schoolmates, all Nisei, as my dad told me, or how overwhelming it was to walk around afraid of other boys, who would hit you if they caught you in the street, as happened to my uncle, who always walked on alert, almost sticking to the wall so as not to be surprised from behind or avoiding explosive areas.

But I also think about the luck of many Japanese merchants whose stores were saved from looting thanks to the fact that their Peruvian neighbors—supportive and determined—came to their defense.

Returning to the Nisei, how can we not think about how for many—perhaps the majority—the lack of resources or the need to maintain the family business deprived them of the opportunity to pursue higher education.

Boys and girls who only studied primary school to dedicate themselves completely to work in their parents' store.

Women who, upon finishing high school, wanted to go on to university, but who sacrificed themselves (giving up their education to add their hands to the family business) for their male brothers, because in their time the money was not enough for everyone to pursue becoming professionals and the priority was for men to study.

Nisei who gave their adolescence and youth to the family store or restaurant to earn the money necessary to allow their younger brothers to study at university and use education as a catapult to rise in life.

While they worked tirelessly or faced drunk customers—sometimes violent—who did not want to pay for their purchases, the university students, thanks to the fact that their older brothers were breaking their backs, were building a future in which another life was possible.

It was not easy for the lucky ones who entered the university either, as they had to make their way on their own, with parents who, due to their limitations in the Spanish language or cultural gaps, could not help them as much as the Peruvian parents of their classmates did.

The true homeland

The 125th anniversary is also the 35th anniversary of the dekasegi phenomenon, the thousands of young Sansei who, upon emigrating to Japan in the late 1980s, in the midst of a horrible economic crisis, lost the social lift of education; however, they gained in purchasing power and experiences.

It was a trip to their origins for the children and grandchildren of Japanese immigrants, an often destabilizing experience as it led to the discovery that Japan was not the Arcadia they dreamed of nor the finally embraced homeland, but rather a cold country that opened the door to them because it needed manpower, not to welcome offspring scattered across the ocean.

The real homeland turned out to be—what a certainty found so far away, thousands of miles distant—the country they had left. In the end, Japan removed the blinders: they were not nihonjin, but Peruvians with a unique tint: Nikkei-ness. Or plain Peruvians, without additives.

Contributions and gratitude

Thinking about 125 years is also remembering the contributions of the Nikkei community to Peru. An extensive list could be made of people who have made the country great in a very wide range of activities, but it would be better to stop at the collective contributions, which were not born from talent or individual work, but from the union of efforts, from a collective will to improve Peruvian society.

There are the great works that the community has built over the course of several decades to offer good service in fundamental areas for human life, such as health: the Japanese Peruvian Polyclinic, which has been serving Peruvians for more than 40 years, and the Japanese Peruvian Centenary Clinic, close to celebrating its twentieth anniversary of operation.

The Peruvian Japanese Cultural Center (CCPJ) is a cultural hub in Lima, a space for meeting and disseminating the highest expressions of creativity and human sensitivity from Peru and Japan.

Its history summarizes that of Japanese immigration to Peru, in a way. It began with a dispossession: the confiscation of the Lima Nikko school, the largest in the community, during World War II, when the Peruvian authorities retaliated against the Japanese and their descendants for belonging to an enemy country.

About 20 years later, in the 1960s, in compensation for the theft, the Peruvian government donated land to the Central Japanese Society, on which the CCPJ was built.

Peruvian Japanese Cultural Center, a space for the dissemination of cultural expressions from Peru and Japan. Photo: Peruvian Japanese Association.

In short, a story that opens with an atrocity closes with an institution at the service of all of Peru (not just the Nikkei), thanks to the decision of a government to compensate the community and of the community to get rid of the smallest particle of revenge or resentment and look towards a common future.

The 125th anniversary is also the gratitude of the members of a community to a country that offered their ancestors a new destiny far from war or hunger, materialized in works such as those mentioned above.

This spirit of gratitude was expressed perfectly by the former president of the Peruvian-Japanese Association, Augusto Ikemiyashiro, who in an interview with Discover Nikkei said: “Why was the Cultural Center created? In gratitude to the Peruvian people for having welcomed them in Peru.”

Then he added: “We do all the works for the benefit of all Peruvians. The Cultural Center is at the service of Peru. The [Peruvian Japanese] Theater is at the service of Peru. The Centenario Clinic is at the service of all of Peru. That's why every morning at the [Japanese Peruvian] Polyclinic, we welcome the line that people form.”

Peruvian Japanese Polyclinic, more than 40 years offering health services in Peru. Photo: Peruvian Japanese Association.

A feeling of gratitude that his generation inherited from the Issei. “This is how our parents have instilled in us: knowing how to give thanks,” he remarked.

You can also say thank you and make a country bigger—and happier—through food, and this is where perhaps most people place what best symbolizes the 125 years: Nikkei cuisine.

Much has been written—and will continue to be written—about it, and this article will not repeat what has been published ad nauseam, but it is undoubtedly the main contribution of the community to the richness and diversity of a country in which different cultures coexist—often in fits and starts—and that finds in food one of its very few spaces of unity.

Food closes the circle. It never fails.


© 2024 Enrique Higa

cooking cuisine families grandparents Japanese Peruvians Nikkei cuisine parents Peruvian Nikkei cuisine
About the Author

Enrique Higa is a Peruvian Sansei (third generation, or grandchild of Japanese immigrants), journalist and Lima-based correspondent for the International Press, a Spanish-language weekly published in Japan.

Updated August 2009

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