Washington State Magazine

Looking Like the Enemy: Japanese Mexicans, the Mexican State, and US Hegemony, 1897-1945

by Jerry García ’99 PhD :: The University of Arizona Press :: Reviewed by Larry Clark ’94

Looking Like the Enemy cover

Eizi Matuda and his wife Miduho Kaneko de Matuda were Japanese immigrants who had become Mexican citizens and had lived there for 20 years when agents of the Mexican government came to their home to relocate them. However, unlike thousands of Japanese Americans and some Japanese Mexicans who were relocated during World War II, the Matudas were not forced to move. Instead, local Chiapas leaders vouched for their loyalty to Mexico and protected them from anti-Japanese sentiment. 

The treatment of Japanese in North America both before and during the war varied considerably. García, an associate professor of history and Chicano studies at Eastern Washington University, explores the complex relationships between the Japanese who immigrated to Mexico and the Mexican government, as well as their counterparts in the United States, in his book, the first full-length English-language study of Japanese immigrants in Mexico.

In the late nineteenth century, Mexico sought to increase industrialization by inviting entrepreneurs and immigrant workers. Mexican elites and technocrats encouraged European migration to Mexico, but Japanese immigrants started coming in 1897 when Mexico allowed private companies to establish immigrant colonies. One of these, the Enomoto Colony in Chiapas, spurred the earliest immigration of Japanese. Japan had signed a reciprocal migration treaty with Mexico in 1888, its first with a Western country. By 1910, nearly 10,000 Japanese people had settled in Mexico. As they sought opportunities and land, many ended up settling along the border with the United States.

The large numbers of Japanese and Chinese immigrants challenged the notion of what it meant to be Mexican. Unlike the Chinese immigrants, who came to Mexico mostly unheralded and faced more discrimination, the Japanese maintained an identity and ethnicity within Mexican society thanks to the increasing global prominence of Japan. Many Mexicans viewed the Japanese as hardworking and family-oriented, writes García. Nonetheless they did endure some racial discrimination.

Immigration declined considerably during Mexico’s revolution from 1910 to 1920. All the while, the United States was growing concerned about the increasing dominance of the Japanese empire and imagined infiltration by Japanese agents.

After the revolution, many regions in Mexico enjoyed substantial autonomy, allowing Japanese in some areas to negotiate with local leaders and avoid repressive measures in the 1930s, at least until World War II. Japanese continued to migrate into Mexico during this period, while the United States and many other countries in the Americas had adopted exclusionary policies.

However, in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Mexican government collaborated with the U.S. government in demonizing and incarcerating people of Japanese descent. Like the United States, Mexico ramped up propaganda efforts against Japan, which encouraged suspicion of Japanese citizens and immigrants, and led to some internment in camps, particularly at the urging of the U.S. government.

The Japanese experience during World War II in Mexico did differ from that in the United States, and treatment of Japanese Mexicans also differed from one part of Mexico to another. The book examines the role of the Comité Japonés Ayuda de Mutua, a semiautonomous association that assisted Japanese who relocated to Mexico City and Guadalajara during the war. Eyed with suspicion by the United States, the association eased some of the economic distress of the displaced Japanese Mexicans and helped them settle in haciendas. 

Overall, compared with the United States and other countries at the time, Mexico showed more empathy toward its Japanese population. The paranoia and anti-Japanese sentiment in Mexico never reached the intensity of the United States, and many Japanese Mexicans were briefly detained but then released.

García’s Looking Like the Enemy is an important discussion of not only the Japanese diaspora in the Western hemisphere, but also the role of Japanese Mexicans in the complicated relationship between Mexico, Japan, and the United States during the first half of the twentieth century.

Categories: History | Tags: Mexico, Immigration, Internment camps