Skip to content


27 October 2009


Japanese immigration to Mexico officially began in 1897, when peasants were recruited to work on coffee plantations in Chiapas, but there were probably a few Japanese immigrants — accidental or intentional before then.  Given Mexico’s trade with the Philippines, there was some immigration as early as the 16th century.  Mexican missionaries, carried Catholicism to successfully to the Philipines, and with less success to Japan:  Saint Philip of Jesus — who left the Franciscan Order to enter the Manila trade, re-entered the order in 1590 to work as a missionary to the Japanese… who crucified him in Nagasaki in 1597.  Japanese Franciscan monks supposedly painted some of the frescos in the Cuernavaca Cathedral.

Hasekura Tsunenaga

Samurai and diplomat, Hasekura  Tsunenaga, arrived in Acapulco in 1613 and crossed Mexico to Veracruz (stopping to call on the Viceroy in Mexico City) on the start of diplomatic mission to the Vatican, returning across Mexico in 1617.  Less august — or divinely inspired  — Japanese also came to  Mexico, and may have settled in the country over the centuries before and after Hasekura’s sojourns.

There is evidence that Japanese had been crossing the Pacific  to Alaska and British Colombia for centuries, and some may have come further south.   In 1815,  a U.S. Naval Frigate picked up the survivors of a shipwrecked fishing junk that had washed up on the Mexican Pacific coast two years earlier,  taking them to China (and a little closer to home); in the 1840s, the crew of another Japanese shipwreck spent several months in Mazatlan as guests of the Filipino-born Juan Machado … and later wrote a book about their experiences.


Maria and Uriel Nonaka of Tijuana, 1930s (San Diego Union-Tribune)

After Japan was open to foreign trade in 1853, there was increased cross Pacific traffic, with regular commercial shipping calling at Mexican ports. While the main body of Japanese immigrants settled in Oaxaca and Chiapas, small communities were found throughout the north, especially in the Baja Peninsula by 1910.  Unlike the Chinese, who were often viewed as agents of foreign business interests, the Japanese were viewed as fellow campesinos and workers, making them less likely to suffer the pograms Villa would launch against the Chinese and the harassment Mexican-Chinese often faced in northern Mexico throughout the 1920s and 30s.

With Japan’s emergence, especially after the 1905 Russo-Japanese War as a naval power in the Pacific, in Mexico there was a new respect for the Japanese as soldiers and military men.  And, in the United States there were genuine fears that Mexico would allow the Japanese Navy to build a base in Baja California.  In 1917, fear of the “yellow peril”  combined with William Randolf Hearst’s campaign to villify Pancho Villa led the media mogul to finance Patria, a film in which Pancho Villa making common cause with the Japanese Army to invade southern California.  Wallace Beery, who played Villa in this film was later a much more sympathetic and likable Villa (after the real Villa was safely dead) in the 1933 Viva Villa!.  In Patria, the Japanese villain is played by Swedish actor Warner Oland, who later portrayed the Chinese hero, Charlie Chan in several 1930s films.

The Pancho Villa-Japanese connection was not completely fictious, although the Japanese in Villa’s Army were mostly immigrant fishermen and workers living in northern Mexico.

Like these guys… pictured on a postcard, undated but from the Mexican Revolution,  and identified only as “Japanese with Insurrectos”


These gentlemen are fighting on one or another of the sides in the Mexican Revolution… probably — but by no means certainly — for Pancho Villa, whose army included not all sorts of people, including a would-be Japanese hitman.   As I wrote in Gods, Gachupines and Gringos:

Only declasssified in the 1970s were the details of a Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation) plot, which [General John] Pershing approved, to suborn Japanese volunteers in Villa’s army.  Most were machine gunners, but one, Gemichi Tatemastu, usually made breakfast for Villa.  Tatematsu was supposed to poison Villa’s morning coffee, but for some reason, Persing’s nemesis was late for an appointment that day and only had time for one cup.

Good thing for Pancho he had the unMexican habit of showing up on time for meetings.

John Hardman — an Ohio postcard collector — has a website,  Soldiers of Fortune Postcards, including not just the anonymous Japanese Insurrectionists, but a whole series of foreigners… rouges, dreamers, schemers, mercenaries:  ” menagerie of international warriors” who found themselves on one side or another (or several different sides) during the Mexican Revolution.

(By the way,  ビバメキシコ!is Japanese for  ¡Viva Mexico!)

One Comment leave one →
  1. 31 October 2009 7:36 pm

    thanks for sharing, nice article. check out philippines travel destinations

Leave a reply, but please stick to the topic

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: