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The Colombian Nikkei and the Narration of Selves - Part 4 of 4

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4.5 Non-Nikkei

In the 1980s the Japan economy underwent a significant growth that allowed many Japanese to become world travelers and adventurers. Most Japanese travelers to Colombia in the 1990s were not forced to do so. Moreover, they had spouses or children in Japan and planned to return. Interviewees 10 and 11 are JICA (Japanese Internation Cooperation Agency) volunteers who went to Colombia to work on programs of cooperation. The JICA donates machinery to an institution of instruction in technology called SENA (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje, ‘National Service of Learning’). Interviewee 11 worked during more than two years in the SENA to provide assistance to professors and students for the use and maintenance of this machinery. JICA volunteers learned Spanish in a three-month intensive course, before coming to Colombia. By contrast, interviewee 9 was a JICA volunteer in the SENA, with an early interest in the Latin American culture that arose during his university years. He visited Latin America for the first time in 1982, after many years of dedicated language study.

Interviewees 1 and 3 are scientists who work in biology and agriculture for the CIAT (Corporación Internacional de Agricultura Tropical, ‘International Corporation of Tropical Agriculture). 1 studied Spanish under my instruction in 2009, but we only had a couple of classes. During my interview with her, I noticed that her Spanish had advanced greatly, even though she feels she has a low command of it. She has learned naturally through the interaction with her Colombian workmates. In contrast, 3 has studied Spanish for many years, and her command of Spanish is almost native.

Interviewee 18 is a secretary in the Association, and her husband, 19, performs acupressure, which is a type of Japanese massage that works on certain points of the body that have connections with the source of pain or disease. Interviewees 27 and 28 are pastors of a Christian church, and came to Colombia to proselytize. Both of them are intense self-taught learners, with access to the Spanish translations of the Bible. 

Advanced speakers have achieved a near-native command of article usage, yet beginners show a rate of omissions similar to the Japanese community. I showed quantitative results in Díaz Collazos (2011), for which I got help from my colleague Carlos Enrique Ibarra. 

Regarding the indefinite articles, advanced speakers produce more indefinite articles after verbs such as hay (‘there is’) or es (‘s/he is’). Beginners show a great attention to the fact that the article is feminine and the noun is feminine too, but they sometimes produce it correctly and sometimes not. Example (6) illustrates usage by an advanced speaker of Spanish:

yo   pienso  que   el     español   es   una   lengua      muy
I      think    that    the   Spanish   is    a       language  very

importante,  este  no  sé,        comercialmente,  pero  de     parte
important,    this   no   I.know   commercially,      but    from  part

de  la     literatura,   de  la    cultura. 
of   the   literature,   of   the  culture.

‘I think that Spanish is a very important language. It may not be so important for commercial purposes, but with respect to the literature and the culture it definitely is’

Example (6) was produced by interviewee 9 who traveled to Latin America in 1982. He uses the definite article to accompany the word “español” (‘Spanish’) because it is the name of a language and it is the subject of the sentence. However, he uses the indefinite article after the verb “es” (‘is’). He implies that I may not be aware of how important the Spanish language is, and he is teaching me that it is very important. 

5. Conclusions

The non-Japanese may believe that all Japanese people are the Japanese community, just as some Spanish speakers wrongly call all oval-eyed people “Chinese.” In fact, the administrator of the Association expressed this concern. She told me that a person asked her whether they were teaching classes of Feng-Shui, the Chinese art of conveying universal energies to properly locate furniture in home. She was very disappointed that people confused them with Chinese. It is unfortunate that these types of generalizations or stereotypes are so widespread that even some researchers tend to assume them. For example, are all Mexicans in the United States part of the Mexican community? Are all Cubans in Miami part of the Cuban community? They are not, certainly. Foreigners have complex patterns of socialization that we need to understand. 

The case of the Japanese community shows an example of how we need to refrain from making easy generalizations about foreigners. My classification may require further categories, but at least it goes beyond the concept that all Japanese in Colombia are the same. In general, the Japanese people could be divided into these classes:

1) Nikkei: Individuals and their families who stayed permanently in Colombia.

1.1) The first group of Issei: the people who arrived between 1929 and 1935 to establish a Nikkei community. The Nikkei recognize the people according to three waves: from 1929, 1930, and 1935. There should be differences between those who arrived as children and those who arrived as adults, but I only had access to those who arrived as children.

1.2) The Nisei of early immigrants: the Colombian children who were born from the first group of Issei. I only interviewed one person from this category.

1.3) The second group of Issei: the people who integrated themselves into the Nikkei community and arrived mainly between 1952 and 1980.

1.4) The Nisei from the second group of Issei: the children who were born in Colombia around the 1960’s, from the second group of Issei.

2) Non-Nikkei: The temporary visitors.

In Group 2, advanced speakers use articles in a Spanish native-like fashion, while beginners tend to omit them, but all of them pay more attention to grammar in order to decide whether to use an article or not. Groups 1.1 and 1.2 show sporadic Japanized features in their Spanish such as omissions of articles even though they learned Spanish in their childhood. Group 1.3 are fluent in Spanish, while showing stronger Japanized features in their Spanish, such as a very high rate of omissions and of indefinite articles. This group pays less attention to grammar, and more attention to what they think about the listener in order to use indefinite articles. People in the group 1.4 speak Spanish as any other Colombian.

All in all, how does language relate to social identity? It may be controversial to state that such an abstract particle as the or a is related to something as concrete as identity, but I would like to keep the question open.



Asociación Colombo-Japonesa. (1979). Los pasos de 70 años. Historia de la Inmigración Japonesa a Colombia. Cali: Asociación Colombo-Japonesa. 

Díaz Collazos, Ana María. (2011). An Interdisciplinary Approach to Studying Japanese Immigrants in Colombia: Community, Identity, and L2 Spanish Variation of Articles. Divergencias. Revista de Estudios Lingüísticos y Literarios University of Arizona. 9.1:76-89.

© 2012 Ana María Díaz Collazos

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