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October 16, 1999 atimes.com
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Japan

'Home' is where the heartbreak is for Japanese-Peruvians
By Abraham Lama

LIMA - This year marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival in Peru of the first Japanese immigrants. These days, the migration flow has reversed, with thousands of Japanese-Peruvians now seeking a better life in the land of their ancestors.

They seldom find that better life, however. While the original Japanese immigrants and their descendants carved out a prosperous and prestigious niche for themselves in Peru, those who return to Japan remain the targets of social discrimination and labor exploitation.

Japanese immigration to Peru began in 1899, when the ship Sakura Maru landed at the port of Callao carrying 790 people, although there are also references in history books to the arrival of three Japanese people in 1612 and four shipwrecked Japanese sailors in 1844.

Four other ships packed with migrants followed the Sakura Maru between 1899 and 1907 and the flow continued until 1958. Currently, Japanese immigrants and their descendants number some 80,000, or 0.3 percent of Peru's population.

Despite their minority status, Japanese-Peruvians have been heavily involved in politics, business and culture, far surpassing any other immigrant group in influence.

The migratory flow reversed in 1990 when Japan modified its immigration laws, easing the way for foreigners of Japanese descent to enter Japan and obtain work that did not require any special technical skills. The government of Peru's current president, Alberto Fujimori, rose to power that same year, making him the first Japanese politician elected to lead a country other than Japan.

The year 1990 also saw Fujimori's structural adjustment program trigger a severe economic recession here, forcing more than one million Peruvians to seek work abroad - including some 50,000 who relocated to Japan.

Most foreigners living in Japan hold jobs known as ''kiken'', ''kitanai'', and ''kitsui'': three Japanese words which in Spanish have come to mean ''dangerous'', ''dirty'' and ''hard'' work.

The majority of Peruvian emigrants in Japan are ''niseis'' (sons) or ''nikeis'' (grandsons) of Japanese and, save for their accents and imperfect mastery of the language, physically are indistinguishable from the native residents of the country. However, their ancestry means little there, and they are victims of the same profound discrimination suffered by other outsiders in Japanese society.

The Japanese government not only refuses to normalize the residency status of Peruvians of Japanese origin, but recently cancelled arrangements that allowed them to send back part of their salaries to Peru. It is estimated that the 50,000 Peruvians living in Japan send home a total of $500 million a year, painfully amassed yen by yen in a country where saving money is very hard for unskilled workers.

The Japanese banking authorities who halted the activities of the private company that processed and sent money orders for immigrants explained that the move was a way of combating ''money laundering''.

''That excuse is absurd. Everyone who sends money through that office is registered and remits small amounts, generally less than $1,000 a month, which represents on average a third of their salaries,'' said Isabel Huehara, whose son Daniel has been living in Japan for three years.

''My son works in a car factory. He was lucky, since the smaller businesses are more exploitative as they hire foreign workers through yakuza who abuse them if they complain,'' Huehara added.

The yakuza operate like the mafia, with gangs preying on immigrants who lack work permits, often stripping them of their identity papers and controlling them with the threat of turning them in to the police, or of physical harm.

Very few Japanese-Peruvian immigrants living in Japan wish to remain there. They have found they are less Japanese than they originally thought - even though they come from families who attempted to preserve the language, customs and even the food of their ancestors.

''Everyone thinks about going home . . . the Japanese don't want us to stay and we have no desire to assimilate,'' said Pedro Sato, an automobile mechanic who returned home to Lima last year. ''The salaries seem high compared to Peru, but living expenses are even higher,'' he added.

Despite the bleak reports, an estimated 6,000 Peruvians will migrate to Japan this year, motivated by high unemployment rates at home and drawn by the fantasy of earning salaries in yen.

(Inter Press Service)



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