Jerry García. Looking Like the Enemy: Japanese Mexicans, the Mexican State, and US
Hegemony, 1897-1945. Tucson: University of Arizona Press: 2014. History: Reviews of
New Books 44:1, (Feb. 2014): 25-26.
University of California, Merced
For a copy of the published review, click here
Jerry García. Looking Like the Enemy: Japanese Mexicans, the Mexican State, and US Hegemony, 1897-1945. Tucson: University of Arizona Press: 2014. 249 pages. ISBN 978-0-8165-3025-0
Evelyn Hu-DeHart's pioneering work on the Chinese in Mexico was followed by the recent publications of Robert Chao Romero's The Chinese in Mexico 1882-1940, Grace Peña Delgado's Making the Chinese Mexican and María Schiavone Camacho's Chinese Mexicans. These three hemispheric approaches revise the social history of Chinese community in Mexico, covering a lacuna in the history of Mexico and the Mexico-U.S. borderlands. Proving the vitality of the relatively new subfield of the history of Asians in the Americas, Jerry García, an expert of the Chicano and Mexican experience in the United States, like Robert Chao Romero, expands the reach of his research in his outstanding study Looking Like the Enemy: Japanese Mexicans, the Mexican State, and US Hegemony, 1897-1945.
This eye-opening book, the first English-language history of the Japanese experience in Mexico, reveals the very different experience that the Nikkei community has had in Mexico, in comparison with the Chinese community in Mexico and the Nikkei communities in other countries of the Americas. It also offers new information on the modus operandi of the Mexican government, in particular in relations with its trilateral relations with the United States and Japan: “Although Mexico denied any alliance with the Japanese empire, it nevertheless used the deteriorating Japanese-US relations as leverage to antagonize the United States as an early form of diplomatic weapons of the weak” (187). According to García, among the reasons for the more positive experience of the Nikkei community in Mexico are the high level of social integration and intermarriage between Japanese men and Mexican women; the friendly relations between the Mexican and Japanese governments; the relatively small community that was not seen as an economic threat (unlike the Chinese community); and the general acceptance of the Japanese by the Mexican population. Yet, like other Nikkei communities in the Americas, it also suffered discrimination, racism and displacement.
Generally following a chronological order, García explains that, although the small presence of Japanese nationals in Mexico goes back to the colonial era, the massive arrival of Japanese immigrants as unskilled labor began in the late nineteenth century, with the Enomoto Colony in Chiapas. In fact, it took place earlier than in any other Latin American country. In the following decades, the Japanese settled in the northern states, looking for jobs in agriculture, mining and mercantile businesses, but also attracted by the proximity to the United States, were many eventually moved without authorization. The military rise of the Japanese Empire had negative consequences for them, as they began to be seen with suspicion as a fifth column, “yellow peril,” and unfit for citizenship, particularly after the intense political propaganda and the “impact of hemispheric Orientalism” (11) promoted by the United States. On the other hand, many Mexicans admired Japan’s economic and political challenge to the West, and believed that this military prowess was innate to all Japanese: “most of the revolutionary factions welcomed with open arms any Japanese male who wanted to fight within their ranks based on the belief that all Japanese had been trained as imperial soldiers” (187). This, according to García, “imbued them with elements of whiteness, due to a perception that Japan not only reached parity with Western military powers but also defeated them, thus placing them on par with the West” (186).
García also studies the participation of Japanese Mexicans during the Mexican Revolution as combatants, mercenaries, spies, and casualties. Among the mercenaries were two Japanese nationals who reportedly were hired by the U.S. to assassinate Pancho Villa and who actually tried to poison him. But perhaps the most fascinating episode of the Japanese diaspora in Mexico is their forced removal from coastal and northern areas, relocating thousands of them in haciendas, which functioned as quasi-internment camps (with no barbwire or soldiers aiming at them) in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Since the Mexican government ordered the removal but provided no economic or logistical support, the Nikkei had to fund their own exile (“self-exile” is the term used by García) and organize themselves under the guidance of the Comité Japonés de Ayuda Mutua, which provided valuable resistance against the Mexican and U.S. governments. Many, however, resisted this removal. That is the case of the Nikkei in Chiapas who, taking advantage of the decentered political apparatus, convinced the state government to protect them. Eventually, in García’s view, this relocation ended up reinforcing Japanese ethnic identity. However, some Japanese were detained, interrogated, and sent to internment camps in the United States and Mexico.
While this is a commendable study, I would like to point out a few problematic areas. For example, the author seems to purposely avoid the terms such as “Issei” or “Nikkei” and, at time, it becomes unclear whether the “Japanese Mexicans” he mentions, are first, second, or third generation. A case in point is the following confusing phrase: “since the majority of the Japanese in Mexico were loyal Mexicans” (140). This use of terminology also creates difficulties in understanding the numbers used to represent the Japanese community. Thus, while in one chapter we learn that by the end of the 1930s there were only 7,785 of Japanese in Mexico (it is unclear whether the author is referring to Japanese nationals, without including their descendants), later we are told that in 1940 there were 18,197 Nikkei. To continue with the use of terms, the explanation about the different uses of “concentration camp” or “internment camp” should have been provided earlier in the book, rather than in the conclusion. Likewise, the victimization of Japanese who were confused with Chinese nationals during the massacre of Torreón, only mentioned in passing in the conclusion, should have been analyzed in the chapter devoted to the Mexican Revolution. In other cases, the author mentions historical events, such as the Plan the San Diego, seemingly assuming that his readers are familiar with them.
On the other hand, in Chapter 3, García claims that “Mexico became the first nation to sign a treaty with Japan based on equal treatment, not once, but twice” (81). Yet, he does not provide a date for this treaty. It is important to note here that the Peruvian government established formal commercial ties with Japan as early as 1873, which granted most favored nation status to Peru; this was, however, an "unequal" treaty in favor of Peru. And finally, besides a tendency toward repetition throughout the text, and a few minor errors (the Spanish Civil War did not begin in 1935, pg. 134), there are some unfortunate word choices, such as the title of the section “Kiso Tsuru: The Enigmatic Japanese Mexican,” if we consider that the word “enigmatic” is a stereotypical epithet that has been used to essentialize Asians over the years.
In any case, overall, this is a highly recommended book for scholars interested in the Asian diaspora in the Americas as well as in the workings of the Mexican state. One of its many virtues is the use of a hemispheric approach, which compares the Japanese experience in Mexico with those of the Japanese in the United States, Brazil and Peru. It is very well written and it provides a wealth of information on a virtually unknown aspect of Mexican history and of the history of the Japanese diaspora in the Americas.
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