Asians in South America

ETHNONYMS: Asiáticos, Chinese, Issei, Japanese, Koreans, Nipo-Brasileiros, Nipo-Latinos, Nissei, Orientaes, Orientales, Sansei, Sansei-neto, South Koreans, Taiwanese

Although Asians and those of Asian descent do not constitute a large portion of South America's population, certain countries—notably Brazil, Paraguay, and Peru—do have important communities concentrated in the large cities of Sao Paulo, Asunción, and Lima/Callao. The major groups are Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, but very small numbers of East Asian Indians and Southeast Asians have also made their homes on the continent. Although there are relatively reliable statistics on the numbers of Asian immigrants who entered South America prior to 1950, this is not the case for more recent arrivals because of numerous undocumented entries of Koreans and Chinese. Furthermore, estimates of the number of South Americans of Asian descent vary widely because intermarriage has led to a lack of agreement among census takers as to what "Asian-descended" means.

CHINESE. On the surface, Brazil might be expected to have a large population of Chinese descent, given the country's desire for servile plantation labor through the late nineteenth century. Indeed, as early as the mid-1830s there were attempts to use Chinese laborers to cultivate tea in Rio de Janeiro, and a number of foreign observers actively encouraged the Brazilian government to import Chinese on a large scale, as were the United States, Canada, Cuba, and Peru. Such plans never came to fruition for a number of reasons. Rancorous and public disagreement among Brazil's elites as to the advantages of Chinese workers in the slave economy indicated a widespread racism that was not lost on the Chinese government. This, along with growing pressure from the English on the Chinese and Brazilian governments not to sign bilateral "coolie" contracts, led the Chinese government to refuse to authorize its citizens to accept work in Brazil.

Despite the lack of nineteenth-century Chinese immigration, the Chinese presence in Brazil has been growing since 1950, with the vast majority coming from Taiwan. According to the Consulate of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in Sao Paulo, the Chinese (from both Taiwan and the PRC) population in Brazil in 1993 was 120,000, with upwards of 100,000 in Sao Paulo. The modest membership numbers for the Chinese Social Center of São Paulo (an ardent pro-Taiwan organization) and a 1993 circulation of only 5,000 for Brazil's only Chinese newspaper, Jornal Chines "Americana," suggest that the numbers presented by the PRC representatives are inflated, perhaps greatly.

The majority of Chinese immigrants work in the low-end clothing industry as producers, retailers, or both. Many entered Brazil via Paraguay and frequently move back and forth between the two countries. Many of the nonclothing products sold by Chinese retailers in Brazil (such as inexpensive watches) are produced by extended-family members in Paraguay. There are no official statistics on the Chinese population of Paraguay.

The Peruvian case stands in marked contrast to that of Brazil. Sensing that the lack of available land and low wages made Peru unattractive to European workers, the Peruvian government decided to import Chinese contract labor, beginning in 1848. This, Peru's plantation owners hoped, would help them duplicate the success of the sugarexport trade in the West Indies and Cuba. Between 1848 and 1874 some 91,000 Chinese, almost all of them males, entered Peru with contracts despite an official Peruvian ban on Chinese entry between 1856 and 1860 in reaction to international and local criticism of the use of semiservile labor; another 42,000 arrived in the half-decade after 1870.

Most Chinese immigrants to Peru, as was the case throughout the rest of the Americas, came from Guangdong and Fujian provinces of southern China. Upwards of 80 percent worked on the sugar plantations of the north coast, although several thousand labored, and often perished, in the guano mines. Others worked in urban areas as domestic workers, artisans, or unskilled laborers, and about 6,000 Chinese were employed in the high-risk building of a railroad line through the Andes Mountains.

It took about one generation for most Chinese-Peruvians to begin ascending the economic ladder, and since the mid-twentieth century most have worked in the manufacturing and wholesale/retail areas of the economy. The only exceptions were the Chinese who worked in the Peruvian Amazon and generally settled in the larger towns such as Iquitos and Huánuco. Some had fled oppressive plantation labor and were joined by free immigrants and those who had legally finished their contracts. Even in the late nineteenth century, these Chinese immigrants had become important cogs in the wheel of Amazonian development, manufacturing frequently unavailable consumer items, such as clothing, and growing food for sale. Many Chinese sold their products by peddling and eventually became shop owners, retailing many of the products they themselves produced.

JAPANESE. Although there is a Japanese presence in a number of South American countries, Brazil stands out because it received approximately 260,000 Japanese immigrants between 1908 and 1978. The estimated population of Japanese descent (which includes children of mixed marriages) in Brazil in 1987 stood at some 1.3 million people, with about half that number representing children with two Japanese-Brazilian or Japanese parents. Brazil's community of Japanese descent is thus larger than all the other Japanese-descended communities outside Japan.

In 1908 a series of circumstances redirected large-scale Japanese immigration to Brazil. These included the U.S.Japanese "Gentlemen's Agreement" that restricted Japanese immigration to the United States, similar measures in Canada and Australia, the interdiction by the Italian government of subsidized labor to Brazil and the subsequent desire among Brazil's fazendeiros (large landowners) to find new labor sources, and the continued insistence by the Japanese government that internal population problems could be solved only through emigration.

Partially subsidized Japanese workers began entering the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo via the port of Santos in 1908. Unrealistic Issei (immigrant) hopes of striking it rich came into conflict with the fazendeiro treatment of the Japanese as virtual slave labor and led to a suspension of this subsidized immigration in 1914Even so, free immigration continued on a large scale into the 1930s, until a small but powerful nativist movement was able to force Brazilian legislators to adopt constitutional quotas on immigration in 1934. Growing anti-Japanese racism in Brazil, Japan's participation in World War II as an Axis power, and Brazil's eventual entrance into the war as a member of the Allied forces and consequent anti-Japanese measures (prohibition of Japanese-language schools and newspapers, for example) put a great deal of pressure on the Brazilian-Japanese community. One manifestation of this inflamed situation was a police crackdown in 1945 in Sao Paulo (in which fifteen Japanese and one Brazilian were killed) on the pro-emperor Shindo Remmi movement (the League of the War of the Subjects).

By 1945 Japanese life was well established in Brazil. Many Japanese plantation workers were able to grow cash crops on the side, eventually accumulating the capital to purchase their own small but ever-expanding farms. In 1912 some 91 percent of the Japanese in Brazil worked on someone else's land, yet just thirty years later this figure had dropped to 26.5 percent. Most of the land purchased by Japanese immigrants was in the underpopulated areas of the states of Sao Paulo and Paraná. This geographic isolation and Brazilian immigration laws that demanded entry in families (which were frequently constructed through adoption or marriage at the point of embarkation) served to maintain the ethnic structure of the Japanese community through the Nissei generation (the first generation born in Brazil). Furthermore, ethnic solidarity helped to create a system of rotating credit associations ( tanomoshio ) and cooperatives that aided farmers of Japanese descent in becoming the most productive in Brazil. In 1940, when those of Japanese descent (including immigrants) constituted only 1.8 percent of the population of Sao Paulo State, they accounted for almost 12 percent of its agricultural production. By the early 1980s the Japanese cooperative of Cotia was recognized as one of the most powerful in Brazil. Much of the frozen orange-juice concentrate produced in Brazil (the world's largest exporter of the product) originates in farms owned by people of Japanese descent.

From the 1940s through the 1990s there has been a regular movement of Nissei and Sansei (the third generation—that is, grandchildren of immigrants) to the city. In 1988 a census of the community of Japanese descent showed only about 10 percent remaining in rural areas, with the rest of the community concentrated in urban areas, mainly in the state of Sao Paulo. The same census showed that Brazil's Japanese community was employed in a number of upper-middle-class occupations, including administration (26 percent), commerce (21 percent), and science and technology (12 percent). One consequence of urbanization has been an increased level of intermarriage, which in 1988 reached almost 46 percent, although it is important to note that the areas with the largest concentrations of those of Japanese descent (the states of Sao Paulo and Paraná) had the lowest level of intermarriage. Indeed, the proportion of offspring of mixed Japanese and non-Japanese descent has jumped from about 6 percent in the Nissei generation to over 61 percent in the Sansei-neto (a Japanese-Brazilian term used to signify the great-grandchildren of immigrants) generation. Even so, ethnic ties among members of the community who actively identify themselves as Japanese-descended remain strong. Several newspapers are printed in both Japanese and Portuguese, and about 36 percent of the community speak Japanese and Portuguese equally well. Another 25 percent of the community speak at least some Japanese, and only 33 percent speak Portuguese exclusively.

Since 1985 there has been a growing exodus to Japan of Japanese-Brazilians fleeing Brazil's weak economy for the much stronger Japanese one and remitting millions of dollars' worth of yen back to Brazil. The approximately 170,000 young Brazilian dekasseguis (a term originally used to designate northern Japanese who migrate internally to cities such as Tokyo or Osaka for work in winter but now referring to those of Japanese descent who go to Japan to work) generally are employed in factories or in dangerous and difficult work for which native Japanese labor is unavailable.

Japanese immigrants moved to Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia in small numbers in the 1920s and 1930s, virtually all remigrating from Peru and Brazil. Between 1899 and 1978 Argentina received about 16,000 Japanese, Paraguay about 9,500 (almost all after 1952), and Bolivia about 9,000 (almost all after 1952). Peru, which has the second-largest Japanese community in the hemisphere, received about 36,000 Japanese immigrants between 1899 and 1976, and the Japanese-descended population in 1980 was estimated at about 50,000. Many Japanese were recruited as contract laborers for Peruvian cotton plantations beginning in 1889, but a ban on new Japanese entry (but not on family members) was enacted by the Peruvian government in 1923. The continued reports of poor treatment on the plantations and the consequent rapid exit of many Japanese immigrants to the cities, especially Lima/Callao, in 1935 led both the Japanese and Peruvian governments strongly to discourage such migration. In 1980 about 85 percent of all Peruvians of Japanese descent lived in cities, with the majority (about 80 percent) in Lima/Callao and the rest distributed among the urban centers of Trujillo, Ica, Pisco, Arequipa, and Cuzco. It is worth noting that the image of Japan and the Japanese is strong in Peru. This became most apparent with the 1990 election of Alberto Fujimori, son of Japanese immigrants, to the presidency of Peru. Fujimori's campaign played heavily on his ethnic/national background, and he often dressed as a samurai to suggest he would be successful in combatting the Maoist Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement. Furthermore, Fujimori frequently implied during campaign speeches that, if he were elected, there would be large-scale Japanese investment in Peru, a prediction that has not turned out to be accurate.

KOREANS. Korean immigration to South America began on a small scale in the mid-1950s but was only formalized in 1962, when, to encourage emigration to control population, reduce unemployment, and garner foreign exchange via immigrant remittances, the South Korean government passed its Overseas Emigration Law. In December 1962 the South Korean Ministry of Public Health and Social Affairs, to which the emigration section was attached, sent 92 people (members of seventeen families) to Brazil. Although the South Korean government's desire to direct emigrants to the Southern Hemisphere was based on the size of the Brazilian economy, many Koreans were hindered by the Brazilian government's demand that all visas, including those for tourists, be preapproved. By the mid1970s, then, most Koreans immigrating to South America went to Paraguay, where on-the-spot border visas for foreigners are available. According to official South Korean statistics, Paraguay received about 120,000 Koreans between 1975 and 1990. Since Paraguayan visas do not always distinguish between immigrants, long-term residents, temporary workers, and tourists, however, it is difficult to determine exactly how many Koreans are actually living in Paraguay. Furthermore, the size of Brazil's economy and the technological sophistication of many of its sectors continue to be attractive to Koreans. This has created a large flow of undocumented Korean migrants from Paraguay to Brazil. In 1992 the South Korean embassy in Brazil extrapolated a population of about 40,000, based on families registered at its various consulates in Brazil. This sample underrepresents the numbers significantly, since undocumented immigrants rarely register with South Korea's representatives in Brazil, and many documented immigrants also choose not to register. Unofficial estimates put the Korean population of Brazil at between two and three times that of the embassy. The overwhelming majority (90 percent) of Korean immigrants live in Sao Paulo, where they have created some 2,500 small businesses, most of which produce cloth and clothing and many of which are based in their residences. Some Koreans also work in the field of electronic engineering and in the export-import trade. In Sao Paulo the majority of Koreans live either in Liberdade, the traditional Japanese neighborhood; in Bom Retiro, a tradional immigrant neighborhood most recently populated by East European Jews; or the formerly Italian neighborhood of Bras. In Paraguay the majority of Koreans live in Asunción or in Puerto Stroessner (which is a border town abutting both Brazil and Argentina) and are heavily involved in the sale of imported goods. As with the Chinese, many products sold by Korean retailers in Brazil are produced by extended-family members in Paraguay.

A number of factors make the recent Korean immigration to South America distinct from that of the Chinese and Japanese. Foremost is the large amount of money (around $30,000) that many Koreans immigrating to South America bring with them to invest. Second, virtually all Koreans in Paraguay and Brazil live in urban areas and are employed in nonagricultural sectors of the economy. Furthermore, the Koreans have an extremely solid communal structure. Korean loan societies lend more money at lower rates than commercial banks, thus providing a strong economic basis for initial success as well as communal peer pressure for moving up the economic ladder. At the same time, Korean immigrants appear to hold a globalist view of their own immigration, and it is common to find that immigrants in Paraguay and Brazil have close family members (brothers, sisters, cousins) in other countries, notably the United States and Canada. Indeed, many Koreans are educated in one country and subsequently move to work in a family business in another country. This has created a linguistic advantage for many Koreans, and it is not unusual to find immigrants who speak English, Spanish, and Portuguese in addition to their native language. It also provides a sophisticated means of exit in case of economic or social turmoil.


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Hu-DeHart, Evelyn (1989). "Coolies, Shopkeepers, Pioneers: The Chinese of Mexico and Peru (1849-1930)." Amerasia 15(2): 91-116.

Light, Ivan, and Edna Bonacich (1988). Immigrant Entrepeneurs: Koreans in Los Angeles, 1965-1982. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Maeyama, Takashi (1979). "Ethnicity, Secret Societies, and Associations: The Japanese in Brazil." Comparative Studies in Society and History 21(4): 589-610.

Pesquisa da população de descedentes de japoneses residentes no Brasil, 1987-1988 (1990). São Paulo: Centro de Estudos Nippo-Brasileiros.

Saito, Hiroshi (1973). "A aculturação de japoneses no Brasil e Peru." In Assimilação e integração dos japoneses no Brasil, edited by Hiroshi Saito and Takashi Maeyama, 522 - 530. S ã o Paulo: Vozes.


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Mar 15, 2010 @ 6:18 pm
thanks so much! i got all my info for my history project from this website! you rock! (:
Alex Dotson
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Aug 20, 2010 @ 10:22 pm
Hi Mr. Lesser, your bibliography, and information on Asians in Latin America, particularly the Chinese has truly been helpful in my search for information about the Chinese in Latin America. I am very interested in getting into contact with you to find out more about the Chinese in Latin America, immigration patterns, and assimilation into their distinct locations within Latin America. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Alex Dotson
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Jan 30, 2015 @ 2:02 am
please include Bengali speaking nation under immigration in Brazil.


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