In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Japanese Presence in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Japanese Diaspora Studies
  • Central America
  • Dominican Republic
  • Chile

Latin American Studies Japanese Presence in Latin America
Jerry Garcia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0156


Although no consensus exists, one study argues that trans-Pacific contact or trade might have occurred as early as 1200 CE through shipwrecks or deliberate navigation to the coast of California by Japanese fishermen and sailors. The same study also points to linguistic and genetic similarities between the Japanese and the Zuni of New Mexico. In general, such theories have failed to gain wide acceptance and strong evidence for such early contact continues to elude scholars. What is known is that during Japan’s feudal era (1185–1868 CE), emigration was strictly forbidden. Nonetheless, scholarship exists depicting a small and limited number of Japanese immigrating in New Spain or during the colonial period contrary to Japanese law. Stronger and more widely accepted evidence for the movement of Japanese to the Americas is seen in the late 19th century. The Meiji period (1868–1912) and its rapid changes in domestic and foreign policy provided the circumstances for Japanese emigration to Latin America. This transformative period rapidly changed Japan, causing not only development but also high unemployment and displacement, especially for those in the rural areas. Seeking economic opportunities, an initial group of Japanese immigrants went to Hawaii in 1868, but due to poor treatment the Meiji government forbade any additional Japanese to emigrate. This lull in Japanese emigration lasted for a couple decades, when in 1885 the governments of Japan and Hawaii reached an agreement to send Japanese to Hawaii under better conditions and treatment. By the late 19th century and early 20th century Japan embarked on two types of colonization: the first included military and civilian occupation such as those that occurred in Manchuria, Korea, and Taiwan; and the second involved movement of Japanese subjects to such places as the Americas where colonization was not occupation, but a form of settlement focused on strengthening Japan through commerce and remittances. In these early stages, the United States, Canada, and Mexico became the primary destinations for Japanese immigrants. However, as anti-Japanese sentiments developed in the early 20th century, especially in the United States and Canada, Japanese searched for alternative locations. Japanese emigration to Latin America during the 20th century is broken into four phases: one, pre–World War II, where the movement of Japanese to Latin America is significant and permanent communities are created; two, World War II and the return of Japanese back to Japan; three, postwar resumption of emigration; four, the phenomenon known as dekasegi migration of Nikkei Latin Americans to Japan.

General Overviews

According to some, the indigenous population of the Americas is of Asiatic origins. If this is accurate, Asians have occupied the Western Hemipshere for nearly 50,000 years. However, this western-centric belief counters indigenous creation stories that place them in this hemisphere not through migration, but by intervention through their various deities and spiritual beliefs. Putting aside these two competing positions, it is clear that Asians have played an important role in the history of the Western Hemisphere and are not “newcomers,” but arrived first in small numbers, during the 17th century. If the Manila galleons provided the initial small steps for the movement of Japanese to a region long occupied by humanity but newly “discovered” by Europeans, the modern period, with all its complexities, ushered in one the largest movements of people in history. The Western Hemisphere became the destination of choice for millions after 1492, including five million Asians. The imposition placed on Japan by Western imperialism in the 19th century forced Japan to reconfigure its society, emigration a by-product of this restructuring. The first official movement of Japanese immigrants in Latin America occurred in 1897 when thirty-four Japanese arrived at Puerto Madero (now Puerto Benito) off the coast of Chiapas, Mexico in an attempt to establish coffee plantations. This was quickly followed by Japanese immigrants arriving in Peru in 1899. By the early 20th century Japanese immigrants were finding their way to Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and in smaller numbers to the countries that make up the Caribbean and Central America. Scholars have provided a constant flow of studies to understand the process of Japanese emigration to Latin America. The following are examples of best general works produced taking a broad approach to the movement of Japanese to the Western Hemisphere.

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