A Life-Changing Experience as a Latina in Japan

November 26, 2019

In a new book, Professor Araceli Tinajero tells the story of a unique and hidden subculture: Latin Americans of Japanese descent who returned to the land of their ancestors.

Professor Araceli Tinajero (Credit: Mario Vega)
Professor Araceli Tinajero (Credit: Mario Vega)

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

Professor Araceli Tinajero (GC/CCNY, Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures) has built her career around the study of Latin American literature, particularly Caribbean and Mexican literature. In addition to her faculty appointment, she’s the co-founder of the Mexico Study Group at The Graduate Center’s Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies. She’s also a founder of City College Libraries’ Mexican Collection.

But it was a formative experience as a young Latina in Japan that paved the way for her academic career.

Tinajero was born and raised in Mexico City. In the early 1980s as an adventurous 18-year-old, she saved up some money and went to Japan. She ended up staying for several years, working as a waitress and learning the language. “That opened the door for the rest of my life,” she said.

She didn’t start college until age 26. She majored in Japanese at Rutgers University, but had a change of heart in her final semester, deciding to concentrate on Spanish literature instead. She went on to get a Ph.D. in that field, writing her thesis on representations of the Far East in Latin American literature.

Tinajero hoped to get a job teaching Spanish in the United Kingdom, where she’d moved while finishing her dissertation. When the University of Wales asked if she could speak any other European languages, she said, “I only know Japanese.” Turned out they needed a Japanese teacher. She later taught Spanish and literature at Yale for five years. “They thought it was very cool that I knew Japanese,” she said.

Tinajero wrote a memoir about her experience as a Latina in Japan called Kokoro, which means “the spirit of Japan, the heart, the essence of Japan.” Her newest book, published this fall, tells the hidden story of Japan’s Spanish-speaking community. This unique transnational subculture emerged in the early 1990s. Japan needed factory workers at the time, so the country began issuing work visas to the children and grandchildren of Japanese emigres who’d settled in Latin America throughout the 20th century.

“All of a sudden, you have 80,000 people moving to Japan to work,” Tinajero said. “They’ve been establishing newspapers. They have magazines. They have blogs. They have radio programs. I was not part of this culture but I understand it very well. So I decided to write this book.”

The book is called Historia cultural de los hispanohablantes en Japon (A Cultural History of the Spanish Speaking People in Japan). To tell the story, Tinajero did archival research, field research, and interviews. She found that the experience of these Spanish-speaking Japanese immigrants varied widely. Many made a decent living working in car factories, living on the edge of industrial cities like Nagoya. A successful professional class emerged as well, some of whom had come to Japan from Spain in addition to other Latin American countries. But others couldn’t adjust to life in Japan and left.

“They grew up in Latin America thinking they would be welcomed in Japan, but when they arrived, they were marginalized,” she said. Wages were high in Japan compared to Latin America, but the Japanese school system is difficult, and “it’s easy to fall behind.” Many immigrants also had a hard time learning the language. Mastering Japanese writing is especially difficult.

So does Tinajero speak Japanese with a Spanish accent? “Spanish is very close to Japanese in terms of the vowels, so pronunciation is not an issue,” she said, adding with a laugh: “It’s easy to talk. Writing is another story.”

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.