Nikkei in Other Lands – Hoi An, Vietnam

By Masako & Stan Fukawa

The Japanese covered bridge also known as the Bridge for Passers-by from Afar is one of the most famous Japanese bridges in Southeast Asia. Constructed in the early 1600s it is a symbol of the town which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999.

 

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A pair of monkeys and a pair of dogs guard the entrances to the bridge. Some say the bridge was begun in the year of the monkey and finished in the year of the dog.

We love to travel and like most travelers, have a bucket list of places we want to visit before we die. At the top of our list are the UNESCO world heritage sites which, in 2014, number close to one thousand. Our travels have been greatly enriched by learning about and meeting with Nikkei who left their homeland and dispersed throughout the world. The Association of Nikkei and Japanese Abroad, estimate that there are between 2.5 and 3.0 million Nikkei living in their adopted countries. The largest Nikkei populations are in Brazil (1.5 million), the United States (1.2 million) and Peru (80,000). In Canada we number about 68,000.

The Japanese diaspora or “scattering” is said to have been initiated toward the end of the 16th century with the arrival of the Portuguese. The first to be dispersed were Japanese who were taken and sold as slaves in regions where Portugal held colonial power such as India, Southeast Asia, and southern China. Some Japanese girls were sent as far afield as Portugal for sexual purposes.1

With the opening of Japan to the outside world, trade by sea began to develop, linking Japan to other areas – especially to Southeast Asia. Hoi An in Vietnam became one of the most important trading ports because of its closeness to the South China Sea and was visited by traders not only from Japan, but also from China, the Netherlands, and India.

In all these areas, particularly in the main cities and ports, Japanese began to settle and developed commercial relations. Japanese men who established themselves in these areas ended up marrying locally and created communities to raise their children. Japanese commerce grew in these area until sakoku, the closure of Japan to the outside world, which lasted for 250 years. Japan’s expulsion of foreigners and self-imposed isolation was caused partially by Portugal’s refusal to stop purchasing and selling Japanese men and women into slavery2. The Japanese that remained in Japan were forbidden from leaving; the Japanese that settled overseas found themselves unable to return to Japan, and remained in these areas for the rest of their lives. Without contact with Japan, these communities did not survive more than 50 – 70 years after Japan’s “closure.”

In present day Vietnam, the influence of these early settlers from Japan could be seen in the architecture. According to UNESCO, some of the houses in the historic town of Hoi An are similar to the merchant houses in Kyoto. The most significant structure is the Japanese bridge which linked the Japanese quarter with the Chinese. It is magnificent!


 

1. (Japan Times book review by Michael Hoffman of Portuguese Colonialism and Japanese Slaves by Michio Kitahara, 2013)

2. (*1 bid)