Kinzo Makino, the first Japanese immigrant in Argentina, arrived in 1886 and got a job with a railroad gang. He remained the lone nikkei in the country for years, until at the end of the 19th century when increasingly dismal conditions in Japan during the Sino-Japanese War forced an exodus from his homeland.
The first wave of immigrants, mostly Okinawans, tried their luck in Brazil or Peru first, but after poor treatment and pitiful pay, many made for Argentina. Wages were up to seven times what they were in Japan, even as domestic servants and shoe-factory workers. A few planted seeds in the fresh-cut flower business, which later blossomed, and many in the following decades opened craft shops and laundries.
In 1908 when the U.S. closed its borders to the Japanese, Argentina did just the opposite. An exclusively Argentine-Japanese shipping line was created, schools were built and cultural centers were formed. Yet despite this, the men often married outside their own, as it was too expensive for them to pay the passage of their brides from Japan. Thus, through the generations, the Japanese have blended into the Argentine community and its neighborhoods, rather than taking one over and making it their own.
Once a year though in Buenos Aires, Nippon tradition takes the stage. Hundreds of locals gather in the Japanese Gardens as the sun goes down, and each is given a small wooden tablet on which to write down things they suffered during the last year. These flammable memories soaked in kerosene are hung on the branches of a metal tree. Lit on fire and set to sail, the past is ceremoniously burned in the midst of the garden lake. The suffering turns to ash, the flames of catharsis shine on the water, and future fills the air.
Breathing rhythm into this ritual of spiritual spring-cleaning is a group of Taiko drummers, all porteños of Japanese descent. In ancient times, the drum drove away harm and protected the crops, while its perfect imitation of the sound of thunder urged the spirits of rain to action. In feudal Japan, the taiko’s function changed to a martial one and different rhythms beckoned training, attention, defense or attack. Today, third and fourth-generation nikkei pound away in synchronized intensity, paying homage to the land of the rising sun.