Japanese migration to Colombia

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Japanese Colombians
Japonés Colombiano
Total population
1,238 Japanese nationals (2017); c. 2,000 Colombians of Japanese descent[1][2]
Regions with significant populations
Bogotá, Barranquilla, Santiago de Cali
Spanish, Japanese
Buddhism,[3] Roman Catholicism, Shintoism and Tenrikyo
Related ethnic groups
Japanese diaspora, Japanese Americans, Japanese Canadians, Japanese Paraguayans, Japanese Peruvians, Japanese Brazilians


First Encounters (1903 – 1910)[edit]

According to Toraji Irie’s work on Japanese immigration overseas: In 1903, Colombia lost control of the Isthmus of Panama, creating a sense of worry in the country of eminent American threat. With the need to protect the country from American intervention,[4] Colombia began soliciting the help of a number of different countries, Japan included. Unfortunately, Irie does not provide sources for his comments, but it is inferred that they came from correspondence with a reporter at the time.[5] Subsequent to respected visits to diplomatic missions and corresponding governments, Antonio Izquierdo took a trip to Japan in 1908. It is presumed that the idea, according to Irie, of soliciting agricultural help from Japan, enabled the migration of at least 100,000 workers.[6]

During his visit to Japan, Izquierdo reported that referendum contracts were signed, in which it was expected that only two Japanese commissioners would be sent to study the living and work situation in Colombia, with the objective of promoting the immigration of their natives to said country.

Izquierdo does not mention any possible number of emigrants; he goes on to only mention a single gardener. This gardener, Tomohiro Kawaguchi, is the first Japanese emigrant to Colombia whose name and trade is known. It is also known that he worked on the embellishment of the San Diego Forest, property owned by Antonio Izquierdo, where the Industrial Exhibition of 1910 took place. At the end of the exhibition, the property became known as Independence Park.[7]

Once the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation between the two nations was ratified, on December 10, 1908, the Japanese Government complied with Izquierdo's request to send a representative to investigate the conditions of the country with a view to future emigration. A newspaper in Tokyo had published a note in which it mentioned that despite having passed a year since the signing of the treaty and not having yet begun commercial and diplomatic relations, it was expected the future development of emigration would be a success.[8]

Ryôji Noda, who was secretary consulate in both Peru and Brazil, as well as an expert adviser to the Japanese Government on matters of immigration to South America, was entrusted with the mission to survey Colombia. On his return to Japan he presented a report of his tour of Colombia to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of his government. Noda refrained from recommending emigration to Colombia for several reasons, among others: the lack of a direct navigation route, which would make the trip very long and expensive; the poor internal communication conditions in Colombia, which would make it difficult to enter and leave the country; the enormous expanse occupied by rugged mountains; the lack of variety of agricultural products, and the periodic floods in the fertile zones of the Magdalena and Cauca rivers. Noda predicted, however, that if emigration to Colombia were to be achieved in the future, he would see the south of the Cauca Valley, especially the part between Santander de Quilichao to the south and Cartago to the north, as a promising region.[9]

This geographical area of Colombia would be the one that precisely twenty years later, would be occupied by Japanese farmers. The negative report of Noda coincidentally added to the political crisis that the country was suffering, as the abandonment of power of General Reyes, under whose presidency the treaty had been signed between the two countries, came to light.

Immigration to Colombia (1929 - 1960)[edit]

The issue of looking for workers in Japan resumed in 1920, when President Reyes of Colombia offered to travel and make contracts himself. This was due to the proposal that the Farmers Society of Colombia sent to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Agriculture and Trade, drawing the Government's attention to the lack of agricultural workers due to the increase in workers in the railroads.[10]

The Society proposed to the Government to go  to Japan to negotiate this matter, given that "Japanese immigration seems to be the most appropriate for Colombia".[11] The mission never happened and the matter was closed. In 1926.[12] The Overseas Emigration Company, from Fukuoka; commissioned two of their employees, Yûzô Takeshima and Tokuhisa Makijima, to make an exploratory trip through Colombia in search of an appropriate place to establish an agricultural colony. Takahiko Wakabayashi, the Japanese consul in Panama, accompanied them on the tour they made, among other places, through Bogotá, Medellín and Barranquilla, the Sabana de Bogotá, the valleys of Cauca and Magdalena.[13]

Their visit to Colombia was made in private, without having any contact with the Ministry of Industries that had the faculty to approve projects for future immigrants, nor did they request vacant lots for future immigrants as they had previously done. Upon his return to Tokyo, the emigration company submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the reports of the first and a second trip to Colombia to obtain the approval of the emigration project; Once this was obtained, the company, with the advice it received from Japanese emigrants based in Cali and Palmira, bought land in the department of Cauca to establish the agricultural program with the first ten families of emigrants.

It was not easy for the emigration company to find families willing to emigrate. This was understandable, since Colombia was then a totally unknown country in Fukuoka and up to then, there had been no one who had returned to tell their experiences,[14] nor were there letters from previous emigrants. "Immigrants who had succeeded usually encouraged their relatives, neighbors and friends to share their good fortune," Staniford rightly says in his study of a Japanese colony in Brazil.

Brazil and Peru were the two best-known countries in Japan to emigrate to. Two of the families who emigrated to Colombia had previously lived in Peru, and two of the emigrants said that they had originally wanted to go to Brazil. One changed its mind after seeing the report about Colombia in the emigration magazine, and once the first five families were ready to emigrate, the emigration company approached the Colombian consulate in Yokohama to request a visa for the emigrants. The Consul requested authorization from the Ministry of Industries of Bogotá, which denied its request. The company was alarmed and sought the help of the former secretary of the Legation in Peru, Jôji Amari, who was back in Japan.

Those who went to the Valle del Cauca region made work contracts, without any interference from the emigration company. These contracts ended in 1935 when the commitment of the twenty Japanese families were fulfilled in the agricultural colony.[15]

The air attack on Pearl Harbor shortly followed, and then the Pacific War, which affected Japanese people who were living in foreign countries. Colombia broke diplomatic relations with Japan a day after the air attack in Hawaii. The community meetings of those in Barranquilla were suspended, as it was forbidden for more than 3 Japanese people to be gathered at a time. Those living in Valle del Cauca lost their right to roam freely, and could only be out under police supervision. Colombia allowed the reinstatement of all officials of the Japanese Legation and of other residents throughout the United States. Thirteen Latin American countries, including Colombia, cooperated with the United States in the capture and deportation of citizens of the Axis countries. Some of the immigrants from the El Jagual neighborhood and a few others from Barranquilla were arrested and taken to the Sabaneta Hotel in Fusagasugá. The hotel was converted into an internment camp for Japanese, Italian and German citizens until the war in Europe and Asia ended.

The last to leave detention centers were the Japanese people. On September 6, 1945, four days after General MacArthur accepted the formal declaration of Japan's defeat, they were released. In short, for the Japanese residents of Colombia, the war did not mean anything other than suffering, separation of families and economic difficulties. The closing of the credit and banking transactions, the freezing of their assets and the inclusion of their names in the so-called blacklist, meant losses of what they had achieved with so much effort and sacrifice with their work. In some places people refused to shop at Japanese-owned businesses, and on the streets they were met with offensive language. In conclusion, it was a very hard time that made them realize that they were a vulnerable ethnic minority, that they were seen as strange and undesirable, and that they were exposed to mistreatment by the government and the Colombian people at any time.[16] Their reaction, especially in the Valle del Cauca region, was one of union and mutual aid. They began to create associations in which they felt comfortable, safe and united, and remembered their own cultural roots, worthy of pride.

After World War II[edit]

In 1960, a group of 17 Japanese men were hired for the banana zone of Tumaco, but the project did not have the success they expected. When the project failed, 14 of them stayed in Colombia. They established ties of work and family union with the former farmers of Corinto, who by then had dispersed in some areas of the Valle del Cauca, thus expanding the number of Japanese farmers in southern Colombia. Becoming a barber was the most popular trade among the Japanese people who lived on the Atlantic Coast. Other activities such as the cultivation of vegetables, street sale of ice scrapes, administration of grocery stores and bars owned with billiard games, completed the activities that assured them an income. Exercising the job of a barber, which was quite popular among the Japanese who lived in Panama, had the advantage of being able to learn and work as an assistant with another Japanese to gain experience. It did not require much initial capital and you could work in company or independently. Simple equipment and furniture was enough. What the trade did require was cleanliness and manual dexterity. The Japanese barbers in Barranquilla acquired a reputation for being clean, careful and gentle. Their fame earned them the nickname of silk hands.

While immigrants on the North Coast excelled in the barbershop trade, those who migrated to the interior of the country excelled in gardening and agriculture.

Returning to Japan[edit]

At first, those of Japanese descent living in South America who went back to Japan in search of work, did so through intermediaries. In 1991, in Colombia, a subcontractor who was taking a tour through South American cities looking for working of Japanese descent, made the initial contact through Colombian-Japanese associations in Cali and Barranquilla. In their first year of recruitment, 40 people signed up to work in Japan, with a larger number of men than women. Initially, these workers traveled alone, and then eventually brought their families that had been left in Colombia, to Japan.

For migrants who did not know the Japanese language or customs, contact with contractor firms was advantageous. Through them they got loans to finance the trip, they received help in processing their official papers with immigration, they found employment easily and lodging near work. After the initial years of adjusting to the work, and thanks to having already established their own contacts and expanded their personal and work relationships, the Japanese-Colombian immigrants who traveled back to Japan, also known as Nikkei, have become more independent. They do not need to resort to contractor firms to get a new job; rather, they used their family and friend collections.[17]

Nikkei workers continue to play an important role in Japanese society as they help in areas of work where labor is scarce, the privileged visa that has been granted to them, allows them to be employed in any type of work.[18] Most Japanese descendants are working in the manufacturing and construction industry or in fish processing. They usually work for a limited time contract and receive their salary according to the hours worked. Some of the Colombian Nikkei, who started like the rest of their colleagues, in hard and heavy jobs of the factories, enjoy positions that are consistent with their professional training.Although more than a decade has passed since the immigration law reform, and the resulting influx of Nikkei workers rose, the basic concerns of immigrants have not changed. They continue to concern the education of children, the lack social security that would insure them in case of illness or accident, and their inability to earn a pension in the future when they stop working.

Colombian Nikkei in Japanese Society[edit]

In terms of education, perhaps the most serious problem arises when children do not have enough knowledge of the Japanese language and their parents can not help them with homework, due to their own ability to communicate in Japanese.As a result of this, many Japanese Colombians drop out during elementary school. Many children of immigrants do not receive adequate education in Japan or in the country of origin, with few completing higher education studies.

The lack of social security and retirement distresses aging population of Colombian Nikkei. This is partly due to companies trying to avoid the obligatory payment for their employees, offering them short-term or hourly contracts. Immigrants themselves, who feel uncertain about when they will return to their country, do not want to contribute with the social security quota.[19]

To date, an association has been formed for the Nikkei of Brazil and Peru.[20] Colombian Nikkei, which are relatively few, live in areas quite separated from each other, which makes it very difficult to meet. All these communities live very busy lives, given their line of work. Thus, socializing with strangers, even when they come from the same country, is a luxury they can not always afford. Social life outside the family circle is shared with other immigrants of Japanese origin who live nearby or work in the same place. In several places you can find shops and restaurants for meals from Brazil and Peru, something that until now is becoming popular, thanks to the sudden rise of Japanese culture in the world.

Japanese-Colombian Demographic[edit]

Since the revision of the immigration law in 1989, the flow of people from Latin American countries increased very rapidly in a short time. While in 1984 the population of Latin Americans living in Japan reached only 4,260 people, in 1990 it increased to 72,673 and in 1995 it had tripled to 223,812. Colombians, who in 1984 were 232, in 1990 they added 425 and in 1995 the number reached 1,367 people.

These figures do not discriminate against the Nikkei population of those who do not have Japanese ancestry. It is estimated that the Nikolai Latin American population is at 240,000 people living in Japan. In the case of Colombia, the number is approximately 300 people. It is estimated that the Colombian Nikkei have an estimated population of 1,700 inhabitants.[21]



There are films that portray the romantic aspect of Japanese immigration in Colombia, such as the film "El Sueño del Paraíso", shot in 2006 and shown in 2007, where the director Carlos Palau recreated the history of that community and his approach to the country through a novel "María" written by Jorge Isaacs.

It portrays the difficult transition, which takes place during the period of the war in the Pacific, and after which Colombia, as an ally government of the United States, decides to separate Italian, German and Japanese people from society, apart from making them outcasts.


In 1971 with the arrival of Shihan Hiroshi Taninokuchi to Colombia, the Colombian Association of Karate (ASCOK) was founded with the introduction of the Shotokan style. The objective was to organize and promote the practice of Karate-Do at a national level and to gather participants from all over the country.


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