East to the Americas

When they sailed across the world in 1897, Asahiro Yamamoto andSaburo Kiyono were in their early 20s. In May of that year, theyand their fellow sailors landed in a place of searing sun and junglefever. They walked for more than a week into the interior, settling in Acacoyagua,Chiapas. Their dream of growing coffee there failed. Only one member ofthe group returned to Japan. The rest, including Yamamoto and Kiyono, stayed.As many as 20,000 more Japanesefollowed Ashahiro and Saburo to Mexicoin the ensuing decades. They overcamecultural and language divides, unforgivingliving conditions and, in somecases, roaming bands of armedguerrillas. They set down rootsand prospered. Along the way, theybecame increasingly Mexicanized,marrying into Mexican families and givingtheir children Spanish names.

Image:Luz Montero

Francisca Ono , 80, is the child of Japanese emigrants to Mexico. She lives near Tapachula, Chiapas, close to where the first Japanese colony settled.

Asahiro Yamamoto had been dead foryears by the time the youngest of his eightchildren, Francisco Rokuro Yamamoto Cruz,married Kiyono’s granddaughter, MarthaKiyono Sanchez, in 1956. The newlywedsspoke little Japanese and settled in MexicoCity to raise four children. Today, their 16-year-old granddaughter, Harumi QuezadaYamamoto, proudly calls herself bothMexican and Nikkei -- descended fromJapanese. She studies the Japanese language.She loves mole and sushi.

These family histories encapsulatethe little-known story of the Japanesemigration to Mexico that began 110 yearsago. Over the past century, the Japanesemigrants and their offspring have seen their culture ebband flow in their adopted patria. For decadesthey were largely forgotten as they dispersedand assimilated into Mexican society. DuringWorld War II many hid their Japaneseheritage or, at the behest of the United Statesgovernment, were transplanted by Mexicanauthorities from rural homes to metropolitancenters. Now, many of the descendants arelooking back and celebrating their Japaneseancestry.

“My upbringing at home inculcated Japanesevalues, like discipline, honor and loyalty,”says Harumi. “But you must adapt to the countrywhere you live and take the best from eachculture. Mexican people are hard-working,warm, spontaneous. One can share these differentapproaches to life.”