A student of Japanese origin asks the Government for an official apology for the humiliating treatment her ancestors received in the country during World War II
Once upon a time some samurai on their way to Rome stopped in Cuernavaca and took the opportunity to get baptized. Perhaps it was the first time that the Japanese crossed the Pacific to enter Mexico, but not the last. Afterward, several waves were counted and the Pacific was always the protagonist of this story in which xenophobia and geopolitics are mixed, whose most traumatic moment, centuries later, was the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Things had not been easy for Japanese migrants in the United States, but from “that date that will live in infamy,” as Roosevelt described it, everything became complicated, also for those who lived in Mexico. Some of the descendants of those unfortunate people who suffered displacement, persecution, and jail are now asking the Mexican Government for reparation.
We ask for an apology, they cry out; “It’s only a few minutes,” they say; but they run into administrative silence.
Jumko Ogata Aguilar has a green-eyed grandfather and ancestors on several continents. She declares herself to be from Veracruz, Afro-descendant, Nikkei (like the stock index) and Chicana, because she is one of those Mexicans who grew up in California, perfectly bilingual, neither from here nor from there, on both shores. She, a student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), is the one who heads this request for a public apology for a community “that suffered tremendous civil rights violations”, something that a good part of Mexicans still do not know, even those with Japanese surname. “They were forcibly displaced, dispossessed of their businesses, immobilized their bank accounts, jailed, and they were Mexican citizens,” she says. Why?
What is not yet explained in schools, Sergio Hernández, a researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), tells in detail, as a result of years of study, and the story bears such parallelism with the present day that it recalls how cyclical it is the world. And their atrocities. “Three or four decades before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were already in California, and in those early twentieth-century laws were passed that prohibited them from buying land or taking their children to public schools. There was strong anti-Japanese sentiment, because Japan was a thriving empire, the Americans feared the dominance of the Pacific. When World War II was declared, The United States asked Mexico to move them away from the northern border, [they were settled in Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua], and to take them to the center of the country to keep them under surveillance. Mexico obeyed. But what to do with the 120,000 Japanese, many of them naturalized citizens, who lived in Roosevelt’s California. They did not know how to get those “potential spies or spy links” away from the Pacific. The FBI had its plans, devastating, but finally, the Army imposed its own, which were not much better: “California was declared a military area and they suffered confinement. 10 concentration camps were created where Americans of Japanese origin and their children survived for years ”, says Hernández.
The United States requested the Latin American countries to send to those internment camps their Japanese, but there Mexico refused (not Peru, which transferred 2,000, for example) and placed them on farms so that they could work and live badly or well. “But they were not strictly prisoners, they could move, with prior permission, from the countryside to the city, if they found work there,” Hernández continues. In any case, “it was a social and economic drama,” he says. Those who were able to sell some property in the North, or transfer a business, arrived in Mexico City with a backing, the rest had nothing. “In Guadalajara and in the capital,” mutual aid committees “were organized, that is, Japanese Those who already lived there forged networks of solidarity with their compatriots, who little by little took their heads. Today there are Japanese surnames in any social sphere and many have succeeded in their areas of business, culture, or art.
Mr. Ogata gives for a novel that his great-granddaughter, Jumko, is now rehearsing for a final degree thesis. “He came in 1907 as a slave, they called him Coolie. He entered the coal mines of Coahuila but managed to escape to Veracruz ”, beginning a family saga that today demands forgiveness. “He was imprisoned in World War II, a conflict that he did not even know was raging. And he was also lost there with the Army of Pancho Villa ” , Jumko recalls with a telephone smile. “In the fort of Perote, in Veracruz, there were many incarcerated.” Then they were all suspected of being spies or collaborators in a war that was far away. Or just scapegoats for rampant xenophobia. Wars open the way to all miseries.
The persecution of those Mexicans who had slit eyes was so traumatic that the families spread a blanket of silence for decades about what happened, without the children and grandchildren knowing today, for sure, what happened. Shinji Hirai has been able to verify this in a course given to the descendants “so that they investigate, know, preserve and transmit” the true story. Many, almost all, lost their Japanese language and culture. They converted to Catholicism and stopped celebrating the emperor’s birthdays, which decades ago have recorded old photographs of the Japanese colony in Monterrey, Hirai explains. Schools and associations are over. Mexican wives, mothers, and grandmothers, separated their offspring from what could harm them, so many then, not even now, did not know what was involved in that silence and they grew up as pure Mexicans, oblivious to their origins. “In the course, some have told me how they saw their grandparents cry when they put on a Japanese music record,” says Hirai, an anthropologist who has been in Mexico for 20 years.
Is it necessary to apologize for all that? In light of his experience, Hirai considers that there is a lack of knowledge among the Japanese community in Mexico for an initiative like that, which may be uncomfortable or cause them surprise. “In any case, those who were born in the generation of the forties or fifties should speak, and dialogue with their children and grandchildren. But first, you have to be aware of what happened, which is not widespread. There was a long silence. Japanese gatherings were forbidden, culture silenced, ”he says.
Tomás Hirata’s brothers learned Japanese “as a personal challenge,” because the children of this computer science graduate “are more Mexican than mole,” he laughs. This Veracruz man with an unequivocal surname believes that a request for forgiveness from the State would help the affected families “to reconcile emotions, something that is not perceived in all its dimensions at present,” he says. He has recently learned about everything that happened in that war in which Mexico moved to the sound of the allies.
But, unlike the claim for forgiveness that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador requests from Spain for the conquest in 1521, in this case there are living people who suffered that. “That they saw how the honor of that town was lost,” says Hirata, the grandson of a Japanese immigrant who entered Chiapas and grew coffee and rice before setting up a grocery store or opening a gas station. “They poorly lived on those benefits [of rice and coffee] until they fell into illnesses.”
Can an official pardon close wounds or open them in a scattered community like the Japanese in Mexico? “That it is not talked about is still an open wound, they are collective traumas and we have to remove those feelings, take them out, make a collective catharsis. It was, more than anything else, a racist issue, ”says Jumko Ogata. “You have to build other stories that revalue that past, so that it helps not to repeat it.”
Although the peaceful coexistence and the current indissoluble mix between the two peoples do not seem to cry out for reparation. Perhaps it is the ignorance that arose from the silence.
Alejandro Hirashi’s grandfather entered Mexico through the Pacific, precisely fleeing from World War II, and not as a spy, of which they were accused to imprison them or watch their steps. “He arrived in Oaxaca with other men, alone, who soon married Mexican women.” None of his descendants learned Japanese. “The contexts determine the historical relations of the countries and outside of them, everything seems alien to the current reality. [Asking for an apology] escapes a certain logic and gives relevance to aspects that have nothing to do with a political or cultural program ”, says this researcher from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana. “It is better to explain what happened, to investigate, to support the humanistic and literary research that arose from those relationships. They have to do with the formation of both peoples.
Sergio Hernández, who has exhaustively studied what happened in those years of ignominy, speaks in favor of an apology. “Three decades after that happened in the United States, the Japanese movement not only obtained an apology, but also compensation. An apology has been asked in some way in Peru, in the time of Alan García. In Brazil, the initiative did not prosper. I believe that Mexico owes them an apology, but they have to decide and raise that for themselves. The Mexican people, in any case, must know this story. “
The almost unknown persecution of the Japanese in Mexico during World War II
Around 1940 there was a small community of immigrants and citizens of Japanese origin in Mexico who had a very bad time during the Second World War in this country .
Their hardships began after the Japanese attack on the island of Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war by the United States in December 1941.
From that moment, then-president Manuel Ávila Camacho broke relations with Japan, suspended commercial ties and ordered a series of restrictions on the small Japanese community in Mexico , which numbered around 6,000 inhabitants.
Scandalously, in reality, he ordered that everyone, scattered in different states of the country, should concentrate in the cities of Mexico, Guadalajara, Cuernavaca and Puebla .
There were also those who were subjected to espionage or imprisoned on the grounds that they represented a danger to the country .
The Japanese published in Mexico a newspaper for their community.
A rarefied anti-fascist climate – as well as anti-communist – weighed on their fate, which worsened when German submarines sank the Potrero del Llano oil tanker, in the Gulf of Mexico, in May 1942.
Mexico then declared war on the Axis countries that formed Germany, Italy and Japan , and commanded the 201st Squadron of the Air Force to combat.
The reflectors of history, of course, directed their light towards the heroic scenes of Mexico in combat and in the gloom remained the “shameful” treatment of Mexico towards the Japanese , some of them already born in Mexico or nationalized (it is calculated that were 1,500 Mexicans of Japanese descent).
This chapter in Mexican history is reported by the extensive academic research and published books of Dr. María Elena Ota Mishima, the academic Francis Peddie and Dr. Sergio Hernández Galindo.
Pressure from the United States
Until the start of the war, relations between Mexico and Japan had been cordial if superficial , according to Peddie. It was a young relationship that went back just four decades.
The Japanese began arriving in Mexico in the late 19th century.
Their migration at some stage was even encouraged by the Mexican government, according to the work Seven Japanese migrations in Mexico, 1890-1978, by Ota Mishima, a researcher at El Colegio de México, who died in 2000.
She identified that from 1890 on, Japanese immigration to Mexico began, which settled mainly in Chiapas. Over the years, between 1900 and 1940 Japanese workers arrived “by request”, known as “yobiyose” (or called workers, in Japanese).
Until then, the Japanese had found a climate of acceptance in Mexico, unlike what happened with the Chinese, who suffered xenophobic treatment, were expelled and even massacred in a city in Coahuila.
The Japanese, on the other hand, had settled in Mexico quietly and discreetly in Chiapas and northern states like Baja California.
Until 1941, when the war aroused mistrust towards them, further fueled by propaganda and pressure from the United States, which imposed the diplomatic pace in the region.
When the bombs went off at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Mexican government did not wait long to order restrictive measures against the Japanese in Mexico.
The following day, President Ávila Camacho suspended relations with Japan, the police began to monitor his legation in Mexico City, confiscated his credentials, and restricted his movements.
The newspapers of the time fed the psychosis against the care of the Axis countries.
At the end of that month, the then Secretary of the Interior, Miguel Alemán, announced the “strict control of the foreign population residing in the country”, and a series of measures such as the freezing of bank deposits (they could only withdraw 500 pesos per month for their survival), the closure of meeting centers in Mexico City and the cancellation of naturalization letters prior to 1939 for all migrants from the Axis countries.
The government also ordered the transfer of the Japanese to the cities of Mexico, Guadalajara, Cuernavaca and Puebla, although there were also “concentration camps” – as Peddie calls them – in Celaya and Querétaro .
The Japanese had a period of 8 days to leave their homes in different parts of the country. Among them Baja California, Sonora, Veracruz, Sinaloa, Coahuila and Tamaulipas.
Regardless of their age or sex, or whether they were already Mexican citizens, the decision made by the government of President Manuel Ávila Camacho was due to the demand of the US government to closely monitor the entire (Japanese) community in the face of an alleged invasion planned by the Army of that country, explains Hernández Galido, researcher at INAH and author of the book The War against the Japanese in Mexico (2011).
Pearl Harbor had awakened a psychosis in the Mexican press, which presumed a possible Japanese attack on Mexican territory .
Demonstrations in Mexico against the Axis countries.
The Americans took second place and their government prevented the Mexican authorities from the operation of Japanese spies and actions of sabotage by Japanese agents residing in the country. He even drew up a blacklist of Japanese people to be monitored by the Mexican authorities.
As a consequence, there were expulsions, detentions without charges, and the obligation to register at the immigration offices for all citizens of the Axis countries.
In just three weeks in December 1941, life for the Japanese in Mexico had turned upside down: they were under surveillance, with little money to survive, and forced to leave their homes.
The pending repair
The stories of that exodus make the history of Mexico blush. The Japanese traveled for days or long hours, had to pay “bribes” to immigration officials to accept their residency papers, and did not have enough food or clothing to endure the winter.
A baby and two elderly people died on their journeys, according to Peddie. And when they reached their destinations they had no work, money or food. “They had been robbed of the life they had known,” says the researcher from Nagoya University.
Faced with the emergency, and before the Mexican government expelled all the diplomats, the Japanese legation in Mexico City organized a Mutual Aid Committee with prominent members of the colony and the permission of the Ministry of the Interior.
Although small, the Japanese community had achieved well-being in Mexico.
At the head of this group, which became the most important foothold for the Japanese in Mexico, were three businessmen: Sanshiro Matsumoto, founder of the Flor Matsumoto chain; Heiji Kato, general manager of the commercial house El Nuevo Japan, and Kisou Tsuru, who had founded the La Veracruzana oil company and after 1938 expropriation diversified into raw materials for the industry.
They were left in charge of the legation funds to help their community and cover the costs of the legal defense of those who were apprehended. They also rented a building in the Santa María la Ribera neighborhood to receive the displaced.
The hardships of the Japanese in Mexico, however, were far from the conditions they faced in concentration camps that did exist, for example, in Peru, according to research.
But the comparison does not do much to justify the treatment that the Mexican government imposed on the Japanese and for which it never apologized or made reparation for the damage at the end of the war in 1945.