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The Colombian Nikkei and the Narration of Selves - Part 1 of 4

1. How this research came about

I am a Colombian. Whenever I discover foreigners in my country, especially from far away Japan, I wonder what kind of strange motivation brought them to such a hidden place in the northern corner of South America. A great geographical and cultural distance between Colombia and Japan existed and continues to the present day. Economic reasons could not have prompted the emigration because Colombia, at the peak of the emigration, was not noted for a robust economy. Thus, the emigration is nothing short of astonishing. It was perhaps stimulated by Jorge Isaacs, the author of the romantic novel María. It is about a plantation called The Paradise, located in a beautiful valley in southwest Colombia. The province’s name is Valle del Cauca (‘Cauca Valley’). The novel was translated into Japanese at the beginning of the 20th century. According to legend, it influenced the first Japanese families to migrate to Colombia. They arrived in 1929 and were looking for the paradise about which Isaacs wrote.

I was fascinated by this legend growing up in Cali, Colombia. In 2007, as an adult, I enrolled in a local Japanese language school, which is part of an institution called the Asociación Colombo-Japonesa (‘Colombian-Japanese Association,’ Association, henceforth). The Association is the institution that brings together the Nikkei of Colombia, understanding Nikkei as the Japanese colony, which comprises all the Japanese individuals who move to a foreign country with the purpose of settling the land and building a life for themselves and their families. The children of these immigrants are also Nikkei

I decided to do some research as I started the PhD program at the University of Florida in 2009. I worked between 2009 and 2010 on the writing of a project that I finally called “Social and linguistic approach to Japanese in Colombia.” The main objective of the project was to describe how the Japanese people learned or acquired Spanish, and to show how language usage had a connection with their self-identity. This project obtained funding in 2010 from the National Science Foundation/I Cubed Program at the University of Florida, thanks to the support of Diego Pascual y Cabo, Petta-Gay Hannah, and Jeanne Holcomb, whose valuable feedback improved the original project.

I conducted field work in Colombia from July 17th to August 13th, 2010, for which I obtained the permission from the administration of the Association. I recruited a total of 31 participants, and performed interviews in which I asked them to talk about general aspects of their lives. This field work resulted in 1) a corpus of audio-recorded story lives told by Japanese people, and individuals of Japanese descent; 2) a complete document where I registered my experiences day after day during my interaction with the participants. I took detailed notes on every single thing I observed or any information they would share with me before or after the interviews. In the process, Clara Inés Collazos Sandoval, my mother, supported me through transportation, food, and kind words. My colleague Diego Pascual y Cabo collaborated during my last week of the field work, and we finished the last 9 interviews together. 

The interviews were audio-recorded. Ángela María Collazos Sandoval listened to them carefully, in order to produce a transcription, which I revised in order to format it into a more analyzable version. I analyzed the data by comparing the language used by the participants and their own perceptions of social identity. As a result, I published a paper in 2011, and presented the results in a conference called J-SLA, at Bunkyo University, Japan. In the process of writing, I received a great deal of help from Dr. Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, who introduced me to the International Nikkei Research Project, and recommended to me valuable readings. My colleague, Cindie Moore, has proofread everything I have written in English (I have made all the final mistakes). My husband, David Vásquez Hurtado, has always been a strong emotional support.

This essay is thus the result of two years’ analysis of the stories told by the participants. I believe that all the Japanese and their children have a clear perception of themselves with respect to their identities. The purpose of this essay is to provide an account of the Colombian Nikkei to the general audience, so I will avoid technical language and the burden of references. These ideas are under construction, so I am open to receive feedback and comments from the readers.

I have divided this essay into three sections. In the second section, I provide a classification that shows the categories of identity expressed by the interviewees. In third section, I will generally describe an aspect of the Spanish language that is challenging for Japanese: the articles. I will present an analysis of the social and linguistic aspects defining the Nikkei identity, according to five groups of people that I determined through the analysis. I will show, at the same time, how the learning of Spanish articles is affected by the fact of belonging to each of these groups. 


2. The Japanese people in Colombia

Before starting this project, I believed that all Japanese people in Colombia were part of the Japanese community. I used to observe, when studying the Japanese language since 2007, that newcomers would visit the Association and receive various types of support. For example, they would ask me to help with the newcomers’ language instruction by teaching them Spanish. I assumed that all new arrivals would be classified as Nikkei. During the interviews in 2010, I discovered, to my surprise, the different social categories according to which certain conditions had to be met for a person to show Nikkei identity. Table 1 summarizes the categories I found among the participants in the interviews. I discarded a few participants because they turned out not to fit in any of these categories.

 

<Table 1> Information about participants.


ID1  


Identity


Spanish Proficiency


Age2


Arrival

Gender


Profession

Arrival Year

15

Nikkei/Issei

Advanced

82

7

1935

Female

Farmer

24

Nikkei/Issei

Advanced

79

4

 1935

Female

Farmer

31

Nikkei/Issei

Advanced

62

5

 1953

Female

Farmer

6

Nikkei/Issei

Advanced

68

22

1964

Female

Teacher

7

Nikkei/Issei

Advanced

60

21

1961

Male

Farmer

12

Nikkei/Issei

Advanced

73

20

1957

Female

Teacher

29

Nikkei/Issei

Advanced

67

18

1961

Female

Farmer

31

Nikkei/Issei

Advanced

77

24

1957

Male

Farmer

13

Nikkei/Issei

Beginner

34

31

2007

Female

Nurse

14

Nikkei/Issei

Advanced

57

27

1980

Female

Teacher

1

Non-Nikkei

Beginner

33

31

2008

Female

Biologist

3

Non-Nikkei

Advanced

31

22

2001

Female

Engineer

9

Non-Nikkei

Advanced

58

30

1982

Male

Businessman

10

Non-Nikkei

Beginner

65

63

2008

Male

Engineer

11

Non-Nikkei

Beginner

62

61

2009

Male

Businessman

18

Non-Nikkei

Advanced

23

23

2010

Female

Secretary

19

Non-Nikkei

Intermmediate

24

24

2010

Male

Acupressurist

27

Non-Nikkei

Beginner

52

36

1994

Female

Minister

28

Non-Nikkei

Advanced

50

31

1991

Male

Minister

21

Nikkei/Nisei

Native

79

NA

NA

Female

Housewife

5

Nikkei/Nisei

Native

57

NA

NA

Female

Secretary

16

Nikkei/Nisei

Native

44

NA

NA

Male

Dentist/Professor

17

Nikkei/Nisei

Native

46

NA

NA

Male

Farmer/Engineer

22

Nikkei/Nisei

Native

61

NA

NA

Male

Entrepeneur

23

Nikkei/Nisei

Native

41

NA

NA

Female

Church Administrator

25

Nikkei/Nisei

Native

52

NA

NA

Female

Entrepreneur

1. Interviewee ID
2. Age of participant at the time of the interview 


(Adapted from Díaz Collazos 2011:80).

 

I will explain four social categories found among the Japanese individuals who live in Colombia: existence of Nikkei identity; generation; date of arrival; and age of arrival.

Existence of Nikkei identity:  
There are two groups of people who express a Nikkei identity. The first group is composed of those who arrived between 1929 and 1935, and the second group comprises people arrived between 1952 and 1980, integrating the families of the first group. The descendants of both groups, despite being born in Colombia, are also considered Nikkei. In contrast, most Japanese individuals who arrived after 1980 are not Nikkei because they do not have family ties to the traditional immigrants. They consider themselves as temporary visitors. However, I found is a young woman who arrived in 2008 to marry a Nikkei, following an old practice in which the parents arrange their children’s marriages. Her social identity is tied to the Nikkei. It seems to me that the interviewees use the expression Japanese community as a translation to the concept of Nikkei. Indeed, to be a Nikkei involves both a possibility and an expectation of getting involved into the social life of the traditional immigrants, but I cannot say that they are entirely synonyms.

Generation:  
This category concerns only to those with a Nikkei identity. Among the Nikkei, the people who were born in Japan are Issei, or first generation. The people born in Colombia from Issei are second generation or Nisei. The grandchildren of the Issei are third generation or Sansei. We should be careful with these categories because Nikkei is a term that comprises the whole group of Japanese settlers and their families, whether Japanese or Colombian. In other words, Issei, Nisei, and Sansei are all Nikkei, but the former are Japanese-born and the latter are Colombian-born. The Non-Nikkei, on the other hand, would not consider their Colombian children Nisei. The concept of generation is only relevant for the Nikkei and not for the temporary visitors. If a Japanese individual in the temporary visitor category had a child in Colombia, this child would be considered Japanese. The Nisei category does not have any relevance for this person.

Date of arrival:  
This category is only relevant to the Nikkei who are Issei. The Nikkei recognize status differences according to the date of arrival. High status is accorded to those who arrived between 1929 and 1935. Among them, the highest status is reserved for those who arrived in 1929, called the first wave; the second wave is composed of those who arrived in 1930, and the third wave, of 1935 arrivals. Participants do not use the wave classification if they arrived in 1952 and thereafter. They are classified as Nikkei, however. The Nisei (children of the immigrants) also receive status recognition according to the parents’ dates of arrival and have social and linguistic differences. The Nisei who arrived between 1929 and 1935 are of higher status than those who arrived between 1952 and1980. This higher status is related to the fact that the former are older than the latter, and have an honor membership and special services in the Association, as I registered in my field notes. 

Age of arrival:  
This category is relevant to the Nikkei that are Iseei, too. We can find social and linguistic differences according to the age of arrival. Those who arrived during childhood show a balanced, hybrid identity related to Japanese and Colombian culture and language. Those who arrived as adults, however, preserve a strong cultural and linguistic identity with Japanese culture.

Part 2 >>

© 2012 Ana María Díaz Collazos

columbia identity language