Amigos Across the Ocean :

Episodes in Japan-Latin America Relations

Christopher Columbus and Xipangu

Ties between Latin America and Japan go back a surprisingly long way. Christopher Columbus's Voyage to the New World some 500 years ago was motivated in part by the desire to find the fabled gold of Xipangu, as Japan was known in the West. (Xipangu and the variant Cipango were derived from the Chinese pronunciation of Nippon). With the help of Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus set sail across the Atlantic in search of a western passage to Asia. When he reached the Bahamas in 1492 he believed, judging from the distance traveled, that he was near Japan and eagerly began exploring. Observing that the indigenous people of the island of Hispaniola wore gold ornaments and hearing of a gold mine at a place called Cipao, he concluded that the latter was a corruption of Cipango and rejoiced at having finally discovered Japan. Returning jubilantly to Spain, he announced that he had found the gold of Xipangu and had fulfilled the dream of a western passage to the Orient.

Hasekura Tsunenaga's journeys to Mexico

In 1973 a bronze statue of Hasekura Tsunenaga was erected in the world-renowned Mexican resort of Acapulco with the cooperation of the northern Japanese city of Sendai. Back in 1613 Date Masamune, lord of a domain centered on Sendai, sent a mission headed by Tsunenaga to Mexico, Spain, and Rome in hopes of forging trade links with the Spanish colony of Nueva Espana, as Mexico was named at the time. After a three-month voyage the huge mission of 140 Japanese and 40 Spaniards arrived in Acapulco to an enthusiastic welcome. Impressed by the magnificent Easter ceremonies they witnessed, some Japanese members of the expedition were baptized then and there. Tsunenaga himself later received baptism in Spain, then traveled to Rome before returning to Japan via Mexico. When he reached home, however, he found that the political climate had changed. Christian missionaries had been expelled and contact with the West was being drastically curtailed, so trade with Mexico did not materialize. Nevertheless Tsunenaga's mission, crossing both the Pacific and the Atlantic twice, was a pioneering effort in Japanese diplomacy with the West and in Japanese crossing of the Pacific, and as such will long be remembered as a major event in the history of Latin American-Japanese exchange.

Mexico, Japan's first equal treaty partner

photo The 1888 Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Mexico

One of the major tasks of Japanese diplomacy in the Meiji era (1868-1912) was negotiating the revision of the so-called unequal treaties under which various Western powers enjoyed the right of extraterritoriality. In 1888 Japan's first equal treaty with a non-Asian country was concluded with Mexico (the Japan-Mexico Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation). This added impetus to Japan's efforts to revise the unequal treaties.

Battleships from Chile

In 1883, following its victory against Bolivia and Peru in the War of the Pacific, Chile sold Japan a battleship, the Arturo Prat. Renamed the Chikushi, it saw action again in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. In 1884 Japan bought another Chilean battleship, the Esmeralda. This vessel, under its new name Izumi, was also active in the Sino-Japanese War and served with great distinction in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.

Argentina's help during the Russo-Japanese War

The Kasuga

When Japan was preparing feverishly for a showdown against the Baltic Fleet in the Russo-Japanese War, Argentina presented Japan with two cruisers Levadavia and Moreno, earning the nation's deep gratitude. These ships, renamed the Nisshin and the Kasuga, played a key role in the decisive May 1905 Battle of Tsushima, which sealed Japan's victory. Domecq Garcia, sent from Argentina as a military observer and later minister of the navy, was a key figure in the long history of Japanese-Argentine friendship.

Hideyo Noguchi and Latin America

The great bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928) went to Guayaquil, Ecuador, to conduct research on yellow fever in July 1918. For his achievements he was named honorary chief military surgeon of Ecuador and received honorary doctorates of medicine from the universities of both Guayaquil and Quito. Ecuador still celebrates Noguchi's memory. His bronze statue stands in Quito, and the capital has a street named after him. Noguchi is also well known for his research in many other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean before his death in Africa, including Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, and Peru. The research center for tropical diseases at Mexico's Autonomous University of Yucatan is named after him as well.

Tango music in Japan

Homenaje a la Familia del Sr. Suzuki

The tango, born toward the end of the nineteenth century in the Boca quarter of Buenos Aires overlooking the harbor, caught on in other countries in the second decade of the twentieth century. Baron Tsunayoshi Megata, known to Parisian high society as a super ballroom dancer, introduced the tango to Japan in 1927. The first tango music was recorded in 1934 by the Tito Monpalace Tango Ensemble, whose vocalist and drummer was Dick Mine. The group's records were wildly popular in Japan. Singers like Noriko Awaya also entertained the populace with "Japanese-style tango" in the late 1930s and early 1940s. After World War II, the popular band "Shinpei Hayakawa and Orquesta Tipica Tokio," and the singer Ranko Fujisawa achieved fame, and a number of performances by famous Argentinian groups such as Orquesta Tipica led by Francisco Canaro ignited a tango boom in Japan.

Prewar emigration

Japan lifted the ban on overseas travel in 1866 after two centuries of government-decreed seclusion. According to extant records, the first Japanese to emigrate to Latin America were Kohei Osu, who went to Guatemala in 1878, and Kinzo Makino, who left for Argentina in 1887. Group emigration is said to have begun in 1897, when 35 people went to Mexico. Prewar emigration is an important chapter in the history of Japanese-Latin American relations.

Postwar aid from Argentina

Times were hard in Japan in the years immediately after World War II. In 1949 Argentine President Juan Peron's wife, Eva, responding to the wishes of Japanese residents, sent the Rio Iguacu to Japan loaded with foodstuffs and other supplies. Once again Argentina earned the gratitude of the Japanese people with timely help.

The San Francisco peace treaty and the restoration and development of diplomatic relations

The San Francisco Peace Conference
in September 1951

In September 1951 a total of 49 countries took part in a peace conference in San Francisco and signed a peace treaty with Japan. The signatories included all 20 Latin American countries represented. Thus were diplomatic relations between Latin America and Japan restored. Moreover, in addressing the conference all the Latin American delegates made it clear that they welcomed the restoration of relations and Japan's return to the international community. Even today many Japanese still keep the memory that in March 1952 Mexico became the second country, after the United Kingdom, to ratify the treaty. Latin American countries subsequently strengthened diplomatic ties with Japan, and maintain close relations with Japan. As of April 1995, 21 Latin American countries had embassies in Japan, and 25 had consulates (including honorary consulates).

Latin American support for Japan's admission to the United Nations

The support of Latin American countries was instrumental in enabling Japan to join the United Nations in 1956. First Peru, then Brazil and 5 other Latin American countries were among the 34 sponsors of the joint resolution for Japan's admission submitted to the eleventh U.N. General Assembly in December that year. Moreover, all 20 Latin American member states voted in favor of the resolution. This was the beginning of the Latin American members' consistently supportive stance toward Japan in U.N. elections and votes on resolutions. It was also the start of the broad-based cooperation between Latin America and Japan in U.N. specialized agencies and other international organizations.

photo The Japanese flag was hoisted in front of the U.N. Headquarters when Japan was admitted (1956)

Latin American soccer players in Japan

c J. League Photo Inc.

The 16 soccer clubs comprising Japan's J League are benefiting from the skills of many Latin American athletes. There are 8 players from Argentina, including David Carols Bisconti of the Yokohama Marinos, 36 from Brazil, including the Kashima Antlers' Jorginho (Jorge De Amorin Campos), and 1 from Paraguay, Richart Martin Baez of the Avispa Fukuoka.

Back to Index