Posted by Amy Obermeyer, doctoral student in Comparative Literature
On May 13, 1940, a series of anti-Japanese riots took place in Lima. The tumult continued for days. Despite massive violence and unrest, police took no action to quell the tension; ten were dead, damages totaling $6 million were reported, affecting in total 620 households, and 316 individuals repatriated to Japan as a result (Riger Tsurumi 20; Higashide 110). Given the timeline, this is perhaps not entirely surprising; as a result Japanese aggression in the Asia-Pacific War, as well as rising tensions during World War II broadly, anti-Japanese sentiment was smoldering all over the Americas and beyond. Here in Lima, in the fall of 1937, La Prensa published a series of editorials and op-ed pieces regarding the Japanese community, appearing on average nearly every other day—generally under three recurring titles: “La infiltración japonesa,” “La penetración japonesa en Perú,” and “El Mejoramiento de la Raza y la Inmigración Asiática”—columns which were proceeded almost every time by front-page stories of the Japanese army’s maneuvers in China, China’s attempted defenses, and the international community’s reproach of Japanese actions.
If these riots themselves were not altogether surprising, the direct antecedent was more so. Not encroachment on allied territory abroad, nor confirmed fifth-column activities at home, but rather, a dispute among competing barbers. Julio Furuya, a naturalized Peruvian citizen of Japanese descent, found himself engaged in a legal battle with a Japanese business association, and the Japanese consulate had gotten involved. The consul allegedly ordered Furuya sent back to Japan, however, he was unwilling to return. Two men were sent to detain him and forcibly board him onto a ship bound for Yokohama. In the chaos, Furuya was seriously injured, as was his employee, a young Peruvian woman named Maria Acosta, who would die months later from her injuries. When Peruvian authorities got word of Furuya’s kidnapping, the ship was ordered back into harbor, and Furuya would remain in Peru.
The story was covered extensively by early tabloid La Crónica, which had heretofore largely ignored the domestic Japanese community, even as immigration debates raged across other venues. Testimonio writer Seiichi Higashide claims Acosta was somehow related to an editor of La Crónica, which contributed to the paper’s interest. Nonetheless, the story was perfect for the tabloids, with the slowly-unfolding narrative, part traditional whodunnit, part international espionage thriller. As the developments in story slowed, the paper published wild speculation, “eye-witness” testimony, indignant editorials, and plentiful photographs, replete with photoshopping-before-photoshop, all to keep it alive for longer. The tabloid suggested Japanese residents were hiding weapons, waiting to fight on behalf of the emperor on Latin American soil. As the days pressed on, the question of national sovereignty increasingly was brought to the fore (the title of this blog post comes from one such column on 1 May 1940), stoking popular animosity to a fever pitch. Seeking to capitalize on the antipathy, representatives from APRA are said to have distributed anti-Japanese literature around the city at the same time, until on that fateful Monday, the riots were sparked by a group of middle school students staging an anti-Japanese march through the city.