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COLUMN ONE : New Pride for Nikkei in Peru : The success of President Alberto Fujimori has made Japanese Peruvians feel more accepted by a society that once persecuted them.

April 28, 1995|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The degeneration of political anger into racist manifestations probably was an echo of anti-Japanese sentiment from World War II. But it also reflected traditional racism in Peru's white upper class, which has a long history of discrimination against the country's Indians and mixed Indian-whites.

"I think there is a very strong sentiment against Japanese . . . in certain high strata of the population," said Julio Cotler, a sociologist with the private Institute for Peruvian Studies. But such feelings now conflict with upper-class support for Fujimori's conservative economic policies and his hard-fisted campaign against terrorism, Cotler added. "There is a kind of ambivalence."

He said anti-\o7 nikkei \f7 feelings do not extend to Peru's poorer people, for whom Fujimori is not a foreigner but a Peruvian.

While the \o7 nikkei \f7 are riding high, some say their cultural and racial identity is beginning to blur. Morihisa Aoki, the Japanese ambassador to Peru, said that, in many cases, the process of assimilation leads to intermarriage and a complete loss of Japanese identity.

"Invisible \o7 nikkei\f7 , I call them," Aoki said. "And their kids become, well, just ordinary Peruvians."

Historian Amelia Morimoto estimated that half of Japanese Peruvians are of mixed origin and most do not speak Japanese.

"The language is used less and less," she said. "And just as that happens with the language, it happens with the rest of the culture."

This is part of the process of immigrant assimilation everywhere. Eventually, Morimoto predicted, the \o7 nikkei \f7 in Peru perhaps will be identifiable by their surnames and facial features, and probably proud of their origins, but culturally they will be a product of the country where they were born.

Fujimori, while openly proud of his Japanese heritage, carefully cultivates his contact with common Peruvians. He frequently visits provincial towns and urban slums, mixing easily with the people and donning ponchos and other typical garb.

Said Ambassador Aoki: "Fujimori does understand Japanese quite well but he doesn't speak Japanese. He doesn't want to speak Japanese, and as far as I'm concerned, he is more Peruvian than any Peruvians I have met."

According to a 1989 census study headed by Morimoto, 92% of Japanese Peruvians were Roman Catholic, the nation's dominant religion, and fewer than 3% Buddhist, although 32% said their homes had a Buddhist altar. About 40% of \o7 nikkei \f7 have no contact with Japanese Peruvian social or civic organizations, Morimoto said.

She estimates the \o7 nikkei \f7 population at 51,000; other estimates range to 100,000. Whatever the number, Peru has more \o7 nikkei \f7 than any other Latin American country except Brazil, which has about 1 million.

While there is no "little Tokyo" neighborhood in Lima, the \o7 nikkei \f7 presence is highly visible in the district of Jesus Maria, where the Peruvian Japanese Assn. is building a 10-story addition to its cultural center. The center already has a 1,000-seat auditorium, senior citizens activities area, museum, library, restaurant, karaoke bar, sauna and classrooms for lessons in Japanese language, cooking, origami, painting and other crafts.

Adjacent to the center is the Peruvian Japanese Polyclinic, where 80% of the 105 doctors are \o7 nikkei. \f7 Not far away, in the district of Pueblo Libre, is the 25-acre Estadio La Union, a Japanese Peruvian sports club with an Olympic pool, tennis courts, soccer fields and a baseball diamond. Next to the sports club is La Union school, one of half a dozen predominantly \o7 nikkei \f7 schools in Lima.

The cultural center, the sports club and the schools show that at least part of Peru's \o7 nikkei \f7 community still does stick together. But with each new generation, these institutions seem to serve more as links to a fading cultural past and less as bases for preserving a Japanese way of life.

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Japanese immigration began in 1899, when a ship named Sakura Maru arrived with 790 people contracted to work on a large hacienda. By 1923, when such contracts were stopped, about 18,000 Japanese were in Peru.

Others, mostly relatives of previous immigrants, continued to arrive without work contracts. Fujimori's father came in 1927 and his mother in 1932.

Some of the immigrants who came to work on haciendas ended up owning their own farms, but most migrated to Lima and other cities, where they opened small businesses such as grocery stores and florist shops. Fujimori's father was a tailor, then owned a tire-repair shop.

As Japanese businesses prospered, resentment among their competitors grew. Then came rumors that the increasingly belligerent Japanese Empire planned to conquer Peru. A popular book by a Peruvian journalist, contending that the Inca Empire founder Manco Capac was a Japanese fisherman, fanned speculation that Japan would try to lead Peru's Indian majority in an uprising against the white power structure.

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