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South American misfits in Japan

Peru's former President Fujimori retreats to his parents' homeland, but not all outsiders feel welcome.

By Ilene R. Prusher Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 15, 2000


When Mario Makuda finished high school 10 years ago, he didn't see many job opportunities in his native Brazil. But Japan, then experiencing an economic boom, was looking for people of Japanese descent to come to work in the land of their ancestors.

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Yet, like the fall weather in this small city north of Tokyo, Mr. Makuda found the reception rather chilly. "Some of the other workers in the factory told me, 'Go home to Brazil.' "

Many Japanese descendants here tell similar tales of the struggle to gain acceptance and equal rights in the homeland their parents and grandparents left behind. But this week's decision by Japan's Justice Ministry to recognize ousted Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori as a Japanese citizen has put a spotlight on the sensitive relationship Japan has with its nisei and sansei - second and third generation of emigres who left Japan, often for South America.

Under fire for his alleged involvement in a bribery scandal, Mr. Fujimori sought refuge in Tokyo last month and faxed his resignation to Lima. Peru's Congress voted to depose him, declaring him unfit to be president.

The question of whether Peruvian-born Fujimori would be granted Japanese citizenship has served as a reminder of the complexities faced by the approximately 270,000 Brazilians and Peruvians working in Japan, as well as many more nikei around the world. About 10 years ago, the government estimated more than a million people had left Japan, mostly for economic reasons.

Fujimori was deemed eligible for citizenship because his birth abroad, Japanese officials say, had been registered with authorities in Kumamoto, his parents' hometown. However, for many whose parents did not register their births, gaining citizenship is a much more difficult prospect. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry says that anyone who has lived in Japan for five years and has one Japanese parent can acquire citizenship. But many are discouraged by a dual-nationality prohibition. Fujimori says he will not give up Peruvian citizenship, potentially flouting the ban in an unusually public way.

For the Japanese government, the Fujimori decision was a political as well as legal one: Japan has no extradition treaty with Peru, and Fujimori says he won't go back to stand trial because his safety there cannot be guaranteed. But for many of those who were lured to Japan by promises of lucrative jobs - the reason their forebears left Japan - the dilemma is primarily a social one.

The town of Oizumimachi is dominated by the factories of Sanyo, Fujitsu, and Subaru, as well as a large Roman Catholic church - an otherwise uncommon presence in Japan. The 15 percent of the population here from Brazil and Peru faces questions as weighty as what to do when their children suffer bullying, and as light as where they can find food to fit Latino taste buds.

That's why, at the Brazilian mall, business is buzzing for Makuda, who now directs sales and marketing for International Press, a successful Portuguese-language newspaper. But outside his own community, he says he still feels the walls go up once the people he's talking to realize that he's not "really" Japanese. "I may have a Japanese face," says Makuda. But "if I go out with friends and salespeople hear us speaking Portuguese, they always follow us through the store."