Peru's Congress bows to Japanese

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The Independent Online
PERU'S Constituent Congress, which opens tomorrow, will be dominated by two men: Alberto Fujimori and Jaime Yoshiyama. The former is President of the republic, the other is his chosen political representative, the head of the pro-government coalition, New Majority. Both are of Japanese parentage and reflect the remarkable political emergence of their ethnic community.

There are perhaps 100,000 people of Japanese origin (niseis) in Peru's population of some 22 million. The first immigrants began to arrive at the end of the last century, brought in to work as contract labourers on the sugar and cotton plantations. The Japanese did well, many staying on after their contracts ran out. They quickly progressed from labourers and sharecroppers to small landowners and shopkeepers in the coastal valleys, moving later into the capital, Lima, and other cities.

Alberto Fujimori's parents arrived in 1934 and he was born four years later. His father was a small businessman who suffered in the anti-Japanese riots that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942 and the subsequent confiscation of much Japanese-owned property in Peru. But young Alberto did well at school, and after graduating he went on to become a leading university administrator.

Like most other Peruvians of Japanese origin, Mr Fujimori stayed out of party politics. The niseis were prospering, but they kept a low profile. When Mr Fujimori made his belated entry into the 1990 election campaign he built his platform on the Japanese virtues of honesty, hard work and efficiency. He made much of his relatively humble origins and membership of an ethnic community that gave him at least superficial kinship with the traditionally downtrodden Indians who make up half of Peru's population.

He appealed to millions who saw him as their champion against the 'white' minority that had traditionally ruled the country, symbolised by his presidential opponent, the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. The toiling millions swept him into the presidential palace in an electoral run-off.

It did not take long for Mr Fujimori to abandon the populist policies he had espoused during the campaign. His identification with the outsiders proved something of an illusion, but in view of his origins and personal experience this should have been less surprising than it was at the time. He quickly dropped the left-wing academics who had advised him during the campaign and came to rely more on people such as Jaime Yoshiyama, a son of Japanese shopkeepers who followed a similar educational route to himself. Mr Fujimori is even more dependent on members of his own family, particularly his sister, Rosa, and brother, Santiago, who form part of the tight circle around the President.

For all his political inexperience, Mr Fujimori has proved an adept manipulator of public opinion, drawing support both from the business community and from the have-nots who thought he was one of them. He was not, but the provincial middle-class who have attained a share of political power with him have changed the face of Peru, perhaps for ever. Gone is the dominance of the white minority. As one acute observer remarked about the 1990 elections: 'The Marxist left made the mistake of running a candidate called Henry Pease. Nobody with a name like that will ever win an election in Peru again.'