The Odyssey of Japanese Colonists in the Dominican Republic [*]

By Horst, Oscar H.; Asagiri, Katsuhiro | The Geographical Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

The Odyssey of Japanese Colonists in the Dominican Republic [*]


Horst, Oscar H., Asagiri, Katsuhiro, The Geographical Review


ABSTRACT. In an agreement formalized with the Japanese government in 1956, Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina of the Dominican Republic extended an offer of refuge for Japanese immigrants seeking to improve their fortunes in the late 19505 by taking up residence in Trujillo's vaunted "Paradise of the Caribbean." The provision of sites ultimately unfavorable for colonization, lack of infrastructure, failure of the Japanese government to address the complaints of the colonists, and political instability within the Dominican Republic led to the abandonment of five of the eight colonies. By 1962 only 276 of the 1,319 original colonists remained; the rest had either returned to Japan or sought refuge in South America. Although the fortunes of these Japanese families fell far short of their expectations, Trujillo could hardly have envisioned the contributions to Dominican society to be made by their descendants. The experiences of this relatively small number of migrants reflect the difficulties encounte red when racial and geopolitical concerns take precedence over judicious plans for colonization. Keywords: colonization, Dominican Republic, Japanese emigrants, Rafael Trujillo.

Between 1930 and 1961 every phase of life in the Dominican Republic was dominated by the looming presence of Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. The island republic made significant economic gains during his thirty-plus years of rule, albeit achieved at considerable loss of personal liberty Trujillo was capable of governing with wisdom and benevolence, but these attributes were often countered by the actions of a tyrant bent upon retaining the Dominican Republic as his personal fiefdom.

Among the projects Trujilo undertook to achieve his vision of a greater Caribbean nation was an idiosyncratic promotion of selective immigration into the Dominican Republic. Initially this involved Europeans and later, Japanese. The majority of the European arrivals, however, regarded the Dominican Republic as a temporary stopover at best. This attitude was not novel: The historian C. Harvey Gardiner noted that, for five centuries, the Dominican Republic had served as a trampoline. Beginning with the arrival of Spaniards on Hispaniola in 1492, individuals continued to land on Dominican soil with the express intent of seeking their fortunes elsewhere (1979 42).

For the Japanese, however, all was to be different. They arrived fully committed to making the Dominican Republic their permanent homeland (Figure 1). Unfortunately, and for different reasons, they too would ultimately find themselves seeking refuge elsewhere. For those who remained, it was especially through the labors and successes of the second-generation Japanese Dominicans, the nisei of familiar Japanese parlance, that contributions to Dominican society were made, and, at that, in ways Rafael Trujillo never envisioned.

The decision by the Dominican government to house immigrants in colonies along its western frontier evolved out of long-standing fears of Haitian incursions into their territory. These dated from 1800, when revolts by slaves led to the murder and flight of 40,000 mulattos and French colonists and to Haiti's declaration of independence from France in 1804 (Galindez 1976, 5). Thereafter, Haitian forces repeatedly invaded Spanish Hispaniola with the objective of bringing the entire island under Haitian rule (Pena Battle 1946, 113-114). Outnumbered on the order of four to one, Dominicans were understandably fearful of Haitian designs on their territory (Hazard 1873, 152, 484-485; Wells 1928, 1, 7; Leyburn 1966, 18).

Dominicans declared independence from Spain in 1821, only to be invaded by Haitian forces the following year. This led to an occupation that endured for twenty two years. Consolidating their hold with an attempt at cultural dominance, Haitians undertook a thoroughgoing "Africanization" of their newly acquired domain (Wells 1928, 51-53). …

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