Modern and Stateless: A Case Study of the International, Racialized Modernity of the Peruvian Nikkei

Posted by Amy Obermeyer, doctoral student in Comparative Literature at NYU

The history of Japanese immigration to, and their descendants in, Peru is a vexed story that seem more at home in a spy novel of “international intrigue” than in the pages of academic scholarship. It begins in the late-nineteenth century on a stranded ship with a “cargo” of Chinese indentured workers bound for the now-illicit Peruvian “coolie” trade, becomes entangled with extraordinary rendition during World War II, and rises to international attention at the end of the twentieth century, with the ascent of an infamous dictator who, during campaign appearances, was photographed in turn carrying samurai swords and dressed in “traditional” Incan apparel. While such incidents may appear as merely interesting or perhaps salacious episodes in the continuously-developing process of global capitalism, they are not singular. Rather than being an exceptional case, the trajectory of Peruvian-Japanese relations underscores the systemic paradoxes at the heart of liberalism and modernity, paradoxes that cannot fully be accounted for within a traditional area studies framework, which typically separates Japanese imperialism from the historically subaltern position of Japanese Latin Americans. These paradoxes have remained partially-hidden specifically in the Peruvian Nikkei context by way of a conjuncture of state interventions and academic limitations. Yet to elide the multifocal world-historical context of these events is not only to subtly reify the dispossession and physical erasure of scores of individuals at the conjuncture of three sovereign states, but also to miss potential insights into the rationale of modernity in the global context. Seiichi Higashide’s 2000 testimonio, Adios to Tears, however, provides a means of positioning such paradoxes within the multiple and sometimes competing histories, while reinscribing subjectivity in a world-systems context.

Originally published in Japanese as Namida No Adiosu in 1981, the work crosses generic as well as national boundaries. Higashide recounts his life as a Peruvian Issei, having migrated to Peru from Japan at the age of twenty-one, his story reaching its crescendo when he is abducted by United States authorities, with whom the Peruvian state was complicit, and taken (along with approximately 1,800 other Nikkei) to the United States Japanese internment camps in Crystal City, Texas. He found, upon his release, that he and his family (his wife and most of his children, it should be noted, were Peru-born) were legally barred from returning to Peru, yet classified in the United States as undocumented and illegal aliens. The text, whose genesis was Higashide’s involvement with the 1980-1983 U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, sheds light on events that were previously little known and little documented. Higashide’s narrative serves as an ideal locus for examining the interlinking operations of race, family, and nation in the context of global capitalism and modernity.

A passport of one of the early Japanese immigrants to Peru. From the collection of the Museo de la Inmigración Japonesa al Perú “Carlos Chiyoteru Hiraoka”, a part of La Asociación Peruano Japonesa in Lima, Peru.
A passport of one of the early Japanese immigrants to Peru. From the collection of the Museo de la Inmigración Japonesa al Perú “Carlos Chiyoteru Hiraoka”, a part of La Asociación Peruano Japonesa in Lima, Peru.

It is with this narrative in hand that I’ve traveled to Lima, Perú, in search of archives relating to the Japanese Nikkei community of the twenties and thirties, hoping to shed some light on this complex and often heart-breaking history. Thus far the search has led me to a diverse collection of documents from Japan, Peru, and the United States, whether governmental, quasi-governmental, academic, or journalistic. In 1926, scholar Francisco Loayza makes, through an appeal to linguistic anthropology, the argument that Manco Cápac, the reputed founder of the Incan empire, along with several members of his court, were Japanese sailors blown off course. In 1934, the Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai (loosely, The Society for International Cultural Relations), a Japanese quasi-governmental agency, releases a pamphlet in Spanish outlining the necessity for cultural exchange. In 1935, a journalist for The American Mercury makes the claim that Japan’s push toward immigration to and cultural exchange with Latin America is a form of covert “invasion.” The project is ultimately a history of process rather than place, and with each new document uncovered in the archives, its contours and mechanisms are thrown into ever more relief.

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