Okinawan Emigration Destinations

From Liminality of the Japanese Empire: Border Crossings from Okinawa to Colonial Taiwan, by Hiroko Matsuda (U. Hawaii Press, 2018), Kindle loc. ~840:

Before migration to the US mainland became popular in Okinawa, anti-Japanese sentiment spread across the West Coast, where the Japanese population had increased rapidly at the turn of the twentieth century. After the enactment of the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1908, Okinawans were unable to enter the United States as migrant laborers. Thus, very few Okinawans followed the thousands of Japanese who had migrated to the US mainland. The few who did so during this period were youths pursuing higher education. Some went to the US mainland via Hawai‘i, Canada, and Mexico; a few traveled directly from Okinawa. As the Gentlemen’s Agreement allowed only families of migrants to enter for the purpose of reuniting with husbands and fathers, some female Okinawans arranged to immigrate and join their grooms in the United States as picture brides.

Elderly Okinawans have a saying that best sums up these migration trends: “The richest people were able to immigrate to South America; people with some money migrated to the Philippines; and the poorest worked on mainland Japan.” Indeed, when it proved too difficult to enter the United States as migrant workers, the Japanese turned to South America—especially Brazil—and the Philippines as alternative destinations. Later, the South Sea Islands [Micronesia] became popular as the South Seas Development Company (Nan’yō Kōhatsu) targeted and recruited Okinawan laborers for its sugar industry. While Brazil, the Philippines, and the South Sea Islands were under different governments and Okinawan immigrants there worked in different industries, there are some commonalities among them. First, the initial immigrants in these countries worked in manufacturing and commercial crop industries such as coffee (Brazil), abaca [aka “manila hemp”]  (the Philippines), and sugarcane (the South Sea Islands). Second, Okinawan immigrants accounted for the majority of Japanese immigrant communities in these countries despite their treatment as “second-class Japanese” and “the other Japanese.”

Japan sent the first indentured migrant farmworkers to Brazil in 1908. Okinawans accounted for more than 40 percent, 325 of the 781 immigrants, of that inaugural group of economic immigrants to Brazil. In fact, many of the first Okinawan immigrants left the plantations to which they were allocated shortly after their arrival. This gave a negative impression to both the Japanese and Brazilian governments. In 1913, the Japanese government refused to accept Okinawans wishing to travel to Brazil as indentured laborers, citing their propensity to leave the plantations and their cultural difference from Japanese workers from the other prefectures, but when migration agencies were unable to recruit enough laborers from the other prefectures, Okinawans were once again permitted to go to Brazil as indentured migrant workers. However, as was the case in the United States, Okinawan migration to Brazil was prohibited in 1919, and only immigrants who were currently in Brazil were allowed to send for their families.

In addition to Brazil, Okinawa sent a significant number of immigrants to other Latin American countries. For instance, Peru quickly became one of the most popular destinations for Okinawan migrant workers after the first group of Okinawan immigrants arrived there in 1899. Between 1899 and 1941, Okinawa sent 11,461 immigrants to Peru, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the total number of Japanese immigrants. Although the immigrants were initially employed on plantation farms, many later moved to urban areas, where they became grocery store or restaurant owners.

Similarly, most Japanese immigrants to Argentina were Okinawans. This is despite the fact that Japanese immigrants had been arriving in Argentina since 1910. There were 1,831 Okinawans in Argentina in 1940, accounting for approximately 45 percent of the Japanese population in the country. Not all Okinawans in Argentina had migrated directly from Okinawa; in actuality, many ended up in Argentina after traveling to Brazil and Peru. In Argentina, many Okinawans initially found work as factory laborers or porters. A sizeable number eventually set up small businesses such as coffee shops and laundries.

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Filed under Argentina, Brazil, Canada, economics, Hawai'i, industry, Japan, labor, Mexico, Micronesia, migration, nationalism, Peru, Philippines, U.S.

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