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COLUMN ONE

Japan and Peru: a Test of Ties That Bind

The hostage crisis threatens Tokyo's long-standing sentimental and financial relationship with Lima--and with President Alberto Fujimori.

January 24, 1997|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LIMA, Peru — In 1992, when an attempted military coup caused President Alberto Fujimori to flee the presidential palace, he reportedly took refuge at the Japanese ambassador's residence.

The coup failed, but Fujimori's choice of sanctuary--reported back then by the respected magazine Caretas--reflected the special bond between Peru and Japan.

Four years later, the guerrillas of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement took aim at that relationship, choosing a target likely to cause maximum political and personal damage to the president. They stormed a building that has come to symbolize the Japanese-Peruvian connection: the same ambassador's residence. More than a month later, the rebels still hold 73 hostages in a siege that has riveted international television cameras to the mansion.

"The Tupac Amaru struck at his roots," said Carlos Alberto Irigoyen, a former top Peruvian diplomat in Japan who was a hostage for five days. "This was something they could not have done with any other embassy. It was the ideal place."

In the revolutionary rhetoric of the Tupac Amaru, Japan has unseated the United States as the chief imperialist villain. The ill-fated Dec. 17 reception honoring the Japanese emperor's birthday was the most tempting target for the rebels because it drew the most important people in the country. The annual occasion rivals the U.S. ambassador's Fourth of July bash as Lima's most high-powered diplomatic event.

Japan's prominence in Peru grows out of the presence of the second-largest Japanese immigrant community in Latin America and the fame of Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants. Since the president's election seven years ago, the Japanese government has poured loans and technical assistance into Peru's economic resurgence, becoming a top source of foreign aid.

That makes Japan guilty, say the guerrillas, of meddling in Peruvian affairs and promoting unjust economic policies.

As the standoff drags into its second month, the Japanese and Peruvian governments continue to express mutual trust and admiration. The crisis "will not hurt the relationship," Fujimori told The Times in a recent interview. "On the contrary, it will strengthen the relationship. But the impact undoubtedly is greater because the Japanese Embassy is involved."

And the relationship is more delicate than appearances suggest. The flood of Japanese private investment that many Peruvians expected has failed to materialize. Japanese corporations are wary about Peru and, indeed, all of Latin America.

So the stakes are high. The crisis, especially if there is bloodshed, could hurt the relationship at a crucial moment.

"Until now the bond has been very sentimental, based on the ethnic connection," said a Japanese journalist who has spent years in Latin America. "If the resolution is not peaceful, the relationship could become colder, more logical. And in any case, no matter how it ends, I think Japan will reexamine the relationship."

It is a relationship that, formally, goes back to 1873, when diplomatic ties between Peru and Japan were first established. But the transpacific empathy between these two cultures reaches back further and has an almost-mythic aspect. Although the scientific evidence is skimpy, a theory flourished early in this century that Peru's Inca empire was founded by a wayward Japanese fisherman--one version of the theory that the indigenous peoples of the Americas have Asian roots.

In 1899, immigrants here established Latin America's first Japanese community, which today numbers about 80,000 and is second only to Brazil in size. Fujimori's father, a tailor, arrived in 1927 and followed the immigrant's traditional hard-working path. Fujimori, an agronomist and university president, catapulted out of obscurity into presidential politics in 1990 with a campaign crafted around the industrious and efficient image of Japanese Peruvians.

In his upset victory against writer Mario Vargas Llosa, Fujimori also skillfully took advantage of Peru's profound class and race divisions. He appealed to the poor, indigenous and mixed-race majority as a nonwhite, a fellow outsider to the aloof Lima elite incarnated by the globe-trotting writer.

Back in the homeland of Fujimori's ancestors, the election of the first president of Japanese descent outside Japan stirred interest and pride. The new president's triumphant return to his family's native town on the island of Kyushu initiated years of intense coverage in Japan's media. Fujimori cultivated economic ties to Japan and other Asian nations, espousing a vision of Peru as a bridge between Asia and Latin America.

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