Japanese Mexican removal

Official set of policies by the Mexican government directed against Mexican citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry. In the wake of rumors over potential subversion by ethnic Japanese in case of a Japanese military attack on Mexico, beginning in January 1942 Mexico's federal government ordered the entire ethnic Japanese population living on the nation's Pacific Coast to move itself east, without assistance or compensation.


Japanese immigration to Mexico began in the late 19th century, and by 1910, nearly 10,000 Japanese had settled in the country. Most early Japanese were laborers who moved to the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, where they worked in coffee plantations or in mines. In the 1920s, after the end of the Mexican Revolution, vibrant communities of cotton farmers, fishermen, grocers, small merchants, and gamblers established themselves in Mexico's northern regions of Baja California, Sonora and Sinaloa. The border cities of Mexicali and of Tijuana became home to sizable Japanese communities. (As Paul Kochi's memoir Imin no Aiwa (1978) suggests, some Japanese at least may have migrated there in hopes of passing "through the back door" into the United States. [1] ) Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 ethnic Japanese, mainly professionals and traders, took residence in the Mexico City area. Outstanding residents included theater director Seki Sano; university professor Kinta Arai; and his children, lawyer/government official Maria Hisako Arai and architect Alberto Arai.

Many ethnic Japanese in Mexico, especially Nisei, learned Spanish and took Mexican first names, while a significant number of both generations intermarried with native Mexicans. Still, community leaders formed ethnic-specific groups and favored group solidarity, at times in connection with local Japanese consulates. While these leaders were able to rely on contacts with influential locals for protection, Mexico's decentralized power structure and legal system meant that hostile officials could make life for community members precarious at times. Most notably, in 1937, officials in Baja California seized 10,000 acres of land in the Mexicali region and evicted the Japanese cotton farmers who owned or leased it.

After Pearl Harbor

By 1941, an estimated 6,000 Japanese immigrants and 13,000 Mexican-born citizens of Japanese ancestry resided in Mexico. The coming of war between the United States and Japan did not immediately lead Mexico's government to declare war on Tokyo. Nonetheless, under pressure both from the United States government, who feared an Asian invasion, and from nationalists within the country, Mexico's government imposed strong measures against residents of Japanese ancestry. In mid-1941, Mexico banned export of strategic goods to Japan, and after Pearl Harbor Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with Tokyo, froze all bank accounts of Japanese nationals and imposed travel restrictions.

Even as Washington pressed Mexico's government to increase hemispheric security and American official propaganda in Latin America stressed the danger of Japanese subversion in Mexico, West Coast Mexican elites and nationalists became increasingly anxious over the spectre of local Japanese fifth columnists. At the beginning of 1942, for example, the executive committee of the Union of Mexican Railroad Workers in the western part of the country submitted a written report containing purported plans, based on "trustworthy information," for an upcoming Japanese raid against Mexico, to be made in conjunction with action by ethnic Japanese fifth columnists. "The activities of fifth columnists will be to blow up bridges and destroy roads, to prevent help from arriving from the United States," it read in part. The document urged the concentration of all Germans, Italians and Japanese living in the western part of the country into camps to be established in Yucatan or near the American border, where they could be closely watched. [2] Meanwhile, in mid-February Colonel Loaixa, governor of Sinaloa, insisted that Japanese agents, acting in the guise of fisherman, had mined Mexico's territorial waters. Although this was hotly denied by General Garay, the Mexican Army's chief of staff, it contributed to the larger belief that Japan was organizing an invasion of Mexico preparatory to a direct attack on the United States. [3]

Mexico, unlike other Latin American nations, repeatedly refused to surrender any of its Japanese residents for internment in the United States, on grounds that to do so would violate Mexican sovereignty. However, on January 5, 1942—with the approval, if not the direction, of Washington—the government ordered all residents of Japanese ancestry in Baja California to leave the state. Some 2,800 Mexican Japanese were forced to fill out "voluntary relocation applications" and move at least 200 miles from the coastal area and 100 miles from the US border. They were required to move at their own expense, and given only ten days to settle their affairs—only a few of their Mexican wives and mixed-race children were permitted to stay. Their homes and businesses were taken over by local Mexicans. Soon, more immigrants and their children, chased out of Sonora by government authorities, came to join them. (Although two prominent Nisei merchants in the border community of Nogales, Luis Tanamichi and Ignacio Koba, obtained court injunctions preventing their removal, they were forcibly removed as a "protective measure" in November 1942). In early March the area around Manzanillo, in the state of Colima, was emptied of Japanese. In some areas, such Sinaloa and Chiapas, powerful local officials interceded on behalf of ethnic Japanese residents and forestalled their expulsion—there were rumors of bribes placed by local communities for such protection. Tomas Valles, state treasurer of Chihuahua, exiled 57 Japanese residents to his ranch, where they spent several months as forced laborers before being released.

Refugees and Internees

By the end of 1942, some 5,000 ethnic Japanese were forcibly displaced. The large majority of them resettled in Mexico City, or to a lesser extent Guadalajara. Once they left the coast, the refugees formed caravans to make the long journey eastward. Members of the capital district's existing Japanese community, who were less directly affected than others by official actions, transformed the defunct Japanese consulate and Japanese Associations into the "Comité Japonés de Ayuda Mutua" (Bokuto Kyoekai), a mutual aid society that worked to aid the distressed migrants, as well as some locals fired from factory jobs. The community in Guadalajara followed suit on a smaller scale. Some 350 refugees in Mexico City were established on a ranch in Batan donated by a community member. Another 500 people, who had no other means, interned themselves at a ranch in Temixco established by President Miguel Avila Camacho, where they grew crops to feed themselves. [4] Others went to a ranch in Castro Urdiales in Jaliso. Most refugees were ultimately able to find housing and some sort of employment, but they lived in privation, with no government assistance and little aid from the Kyoekai.

In addition to its removal policy, the Mexican government interned a selection of Japanese whom it considered dangerous. In early 1942, raids were carried out on Japanese communities in Mexico City. Numerous Issei were arrested without charge and sent to an internment camp at Peroté. In March 1942, a group of Japanese citizens from Juarez, on the American border, was arrested and interned. Another group of nine Japanese, plus other aliens, were arrested at Nayarit in June 1942 and held for the remainder of the war.

As the war with Japan drew to a close, restrictions on Japanese in Mexico were eased. A prohibition on Japanese schools, enacted at the outset of the war, was abolished in 1944. After the end of the war, the exclusion order was lifted. Only a small minority of Japanese Mexicans returned to their old homes on the Pacific Coast. Many of those who did return found that their farms and businesses had been taken over by non-Japanese, who offered no compensation. Japanese Mexicans remained concentrated in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Although many individuals blended into the larger population, community institutions continued to operate and help Nikkei maintain a unique identity. In 1957, the Mexican government paid 700,000 pesos ($56,000 U.S.) to the Japanese community as reparations for their wartime losses. Together with funds from Japanese business leaders, the reparations payment was used to build a Mexico Japanese Association building in Mexico City, which held commemorations and museum exhibits about the wartime events.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Garcia, Jerry. Looking Like the Enemy: Japanese Mexicans, the Mexican State, and US Hegemony, 1897–1945 . Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014.

Masterson, Daniel, with Sayaka Funada. The Japanese in Latin America . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America . New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.


  1. Paul Kochi (trans. Ben Kobashigawa), Imin no Awai: An Immigrant's Sorrowful Tale (Los Angeles, self-published, 1978).
  2. Cited in "El Japon Prepara un Ataque contra Mexico," La Opinion , February 14, 1942, 1; "Es possible un ataque japones al territorio de Baja California," El Informador (Guadalajara), February 8, 1942, 1.
  3. "Frente Al Peligro," La Opinion , February 26, 1942, 2.
  4. Jesus K. Akachi, Carlos T. Kasuga, Manuel S. Murakami, Maria Elena Ota Mishima, Enrique Shibayama, René Tanaka, "Japanese Mexican Historical Overview," in Encyclopedia of Japanese Descendants in the Americas , edited by Akemi Kikumura-Yano (Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2002), 213-14; Steven R. Niblo, "Allied Policy Toward Axis Interests in Mexico during World War II," Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 17.2 (Summer 2001): 351-73.

Last updated June 12, 2020, 4:50 p.m..