From Hola to Konnichiwa: The Spanish Speakers of Japan
It’s a little-known chapter from the annals of world migration. Throughout the 20th century, and especially after World War II, waves of Japanese emigres settled in Latin America. In the early 1990s, Japan offered work visas to their descendants. Japan needed factory workers at the time, and some 80,000 Spanish speakers of Japanese heritage accepted the invitation.
A new book by Professor Araceli Tinajero (The Graduate Center, City College) tells their story. The book is called Historia cultural de los hispanohablantes en Japon (A Cultural History of the Spanish Speaking People in Japan).
Tinajero’s book documents the subculture that emerged from this unique transcontinental community, including literature, music, festivals, organizations, and media — newspapers, radio, magazines, blogs — all produced in Spanish, in Japan.
To tell the story, Tinajero did archival research as well as interviews and field work. She found that the Spanish-speaking Japanese immigrants’ experience varied widely. Many carved out decent lives as workers in car factories, living on the edge of industrial cities like Nagoya. Another 30 percent or so moved up into a successful professional class, with a cohort from Spain at its core. But 10 percent couldn’t adjust to life in Japan and eventually left.
“They grew up in Latin America thinking they would be welcomed in Japan, but when they arrived, they were marginalized.” she said. “They may look like they are Japanese, but their Japanese may be horrible.” Wages were high in Japan compared to Latin America, but the Japanese language is hard to master, and the school system is difficult as well: “It’s very easy to fall behind,” Tinajero said.
Tinajero is not herself Japanese — she was born and raised in Mexico — but she moved to Japan as an adventurous young woman, lived there for three years, and became fluent in the language. She tells her own story in an earlier book that’s been translated into English by Daniel Shapiro as Kokoro: A Mexican Woman in Japan. Kokoro means “the spirit of Japan, the heart, the essence of Japan,” she said.
Tinajero’s sojourn in Japan predated the mass migration of the Spanish-speaking Japanese culture featured in her book by about 10 years. “I was not part of this culture,” she said, “but I understand it very well.”