From Samurai to Jacaranda: The Japanese Relationship with Mexico Prior to World War Two

Japanese in Mexico did not face the intense discrimination other Asians did during the first half of the twentieth century. Mexican intellectuals were impressed with Japan in the late nineteenth century and encouraged Mexicans to embrace Japanese immigration. As a result, Mexicans viewed Japanese differently than other Asians. They were treated with respect and, at times, recognized for their contributions to Mexican society. Japanese have been immigrating to Mexico since the late nineteenth century, but Japan's contact with Mexico stretches back even further.

The first embassy from Japan to Spain happened because of a shipwreck. In 1609, Rodrigo de Vivero, the former governor of the Philippines, ran aground off the coast of Japan near Tokyo, due to bad weather. The ex-governor seized the opportunity, met with retired shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and signed a treaty allowing the Spanish to build a factory in eastern Japan with help from experts in New Spain (Mexico). As a result of this treaty, Luis Sotelo, a Franciscan friar in Japan, was able to convince Ieyasu and his son Hidetata to send an embassy to Spain in 1610 to work out the details of a trade treaty. The first two attempts to send an embassy failed and resulted in several shipwrecks. A samurai named Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga led the third embassy sent by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1613. [1]

Tsunenaga sailed the Date Maru, a Japanese ship built to Spanish specifications, from Japan on October 28, 1613, and arrived in Acapulco, New Spain on January 25, 1614. The embassy's stay in Acapulco was not without incident. The Spanish colonial government had to issue orders because of fights between Japanese visitors and Spaniards. They required the Japanese delegation to surrender their weapons, except for Tsunenaga and eight of his entourage, until they left New Spain and notified the locals that fighting with the Japanese would not be tolerated. {2}

The embassy arrived in Mexico City on March 24, 1614. Tsunenaga greeted Don Diego Fernández de Córdoba, the Viceroy of New Spain, in his official capacity. Tsunenaga stayed in Mexico until June 10, 1614, then he traveled to Europe. While there he met many powerful leaders, including Pope Paul V. He came back to Japan in August of 1620. Japan had changed during his journey, and Tokugawa Hidetata, the new shogun, had no interest in trade relations with western powers. Mexico and Japan had little contact for the next two centuries. [3]

All that changed in 1860, when Matías Romero, Mexico's ambassador to Washington, met a Japanese delegation from the Tokugawa Shogunate. Romero was impressed by them. He was not the only Mexican official to develop an admiration for the Japanese. Francisco Díaz Covarrubias traveled to Japan in 1874 to observe the transition of Venus. In his report to the Mexican government, he described the Japanese as a modern and civilized people. Romero and Covarrubias promoted diplomatic engagement with Japan. Partially because of their efforts, Mexico and Japan signed the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation in 1888. Mexico became the first Western nation to sign a treaty that recognized Japan as an equal. Japanese immigrants soon followed. [4]

The first and only Japanese colony in Mexico was Colonia Enomoto Takeaki, founded on May 19, 1897, in Chiapas. It was supposed to grow coffee, but it failed. The governments of Japan and Mexico had other goals in mind for the settlement. Mexico hoped Japanese people would improve the quality of Mexican citizens. Japan hoped settlers would send money back to Japan. In this light, the colony was not a complete failure. Japanese and Mexican companies sought out the colonists for joint ventures in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and textiles. These joint ventures failed too because of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Even so, the people who moved there were well regarded. The colony was unusual compared to other Japanese migrations to Mexico. Many Japanese moved to Mexico from the United States to avoid racist policies there. Some Japanese came to do a job and then left. [5] [6] [7] [8]

Not many Japanese migrated to Mexico when compared to other Asians, but the ones that did contributed to Mexico in many ways. One of the contributions is the beautiful jacaranda trees that line the streets of Mexico City and blossom into brilliant displays of violet and blue. They are a part of the cultural heritage of Mexico City, and a Japanese immigrant named Tatsugoro Matsumoto deserves some of the credit for it.

Matsumoto, who settled in Mexico permanently in 1896, was a ueki-shi (landscape architect). He gained a following among the elites of Mexico during the Porfiriato, based on his garden designs and knowledge of botany. Porfirio Díaz became aware of Matsumoto’s expertise and chose him to design a small lake and garden at the Crystal Palace Exposition of Japanese products in 1910. During the Mexican Revolution, Matsumoto's skill helped him maintain his relationship with the Mexican elite. After it was over, Matsumoto still had the ear of some of the Mexican presidents. The jacaranda trees that line the streets of Mexico City today are a result of his suggestion to President Obregón (1920–1924). Matsumoto had a greenhouse in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood and was familiar with local environmental conditions. He had already successfully grown jacaranda trees there and knew they would do well in Mexico City. A Japanese immigrant was a recognized expert in his field by Mexico. [9]

The hard work of Japanese immigrants in Mexico and the reciprocal relationship between Mexico and Japan seems to have led to an environment of decreased racism for Japanese people when compared to other Asians. Not only that, but the government regarded Japan as a modern country and almost white. This attitude trickled down to the citizenry. Mexico was a better place for Japanese people to live than the United States in the early twentieth century.

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