If asked what I know about "Nikkei-jin," I’d confidently say something like, “Nikkei-jin? They’re Japanese who emigrated to Hawaii and Brazil a long time ago. Oh, and their descendants.” I’d then add some commentary: “Some have been very successful, but many have returned to Japan as manual laborers under a special visa agreement,” and that would be the end of my answer.
A visit to the superb Overseas Migration Museum, located in the immaculately maintained waterfront area of Yokohama, a stone’s throw from the famous Akarenga Warehouse, paints visitors a fuller, deeper picture of the Japanese diaspora.
Although people left Japan from as early as the 12th century to start new lives in foreign lands, emigration in large numbers only started around the end of the 19th century.
After passing health checks, Japanese boarded ships from Yokohama and Kobe to make the 50- to 60-day journey to unknown lands. With emotion and fanfare, and streamers dangling over the sides of the ship, family and friends waved farewell as the boat slowly left port. (A little trivia for you: One such emigrant who ran a souvenir shop in San Francisco probably invented these streamers.)
I respect and admire the community spirit and industriousness of the Japanese. On the ship, families originating from the same area grouped together and formed "jichikai" and planned activities like "undoukai," a children’s sports day, and "sekidousai," an event celebrating the crossing of the equator.
Sessions were held to study language and new skills, and people with similar interests banded together and formed clubs. Writers published a daily onboard newspaper. There was a medical study group, a "senryu" poetry circle and classes to teach the three Rs to children. People were not just idling away their time!
Upon arrival, they dispersed by train or boat, and through years of sweat and tears made a life for themselves and their families. The "kizuna," or bonds, between the people who were on the same ship were strong, and to this day, there are get-togethers of the descendants of these first emigrants.
Today there are about 2.5 million Nikkei-jin around the world.
The museum has a permanent exhibition and a seasonal one. Have you ever wondered who these people were and what might have motivated them to leave Japan?
Curious as to what prefectures heralded how many emigrants and where they went and why? Would you like to learn more about Japan as well as world history from a unique vantage point? If so, schedule your visit today.