Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Searching for the Latin American community in Tokyo

by Deborah Ariel Pantaleon

Contributing Writer

When most people think of Latin Americans in Japan, their thoughts turn to Brazil. It’s a fair response, Brazilians make up one of the largest groups of ethnic minorities in the country, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. As a non-Brazilian Latin American living in Japan, though, I used to wonder, what about the rest of us?

Here’s a little background on me: I was born in the Dominican Republic and lived there for 11 years before my family moved to New York. I was no stranger to the stress of moving to a new city, but thanks to the huge population of Latinx immigrants there, I never truly felt like an outsider.

I came to Japan around nine months ago with absolutely no idea of what I was in for. I knew I wanted to learn the language, I knew I wanted to do well in my studies and, above all, I knew I wanted to immerse myself in the culture. The one thing I didn’t know, however, was the impact my Latin American origin would have on my experience here. Although extremely nervous, I packed one too many bottles of curly-hair shampoo and hopped on the plane anyway.

The minute I stepped outside of Narita airport, I became painfully aware of my own presence. The general self-awareness eventually subsided (though I’ve learned that constant stares and awkward eye contact are a big part of almost every “foreigner-in-Japan” experience), but the feeling of being a “Latin American” in Japan only intensified. I knew coming here would be difficult, but I didn’t realize that speaking Spanish and having caramel-colored skin would exacerbate my situation.

Refusing to acknowledge my difference was useless so, about two months after my arrival, I employed a counter-strategy: I became as involved as one could in Tokyo’s Latin American communities. I joined a salsa club at school (though my Dominican body constantly reverts to the bachata), Casa Tequila became my favorite Mexican restaurant in Shinjuku (though I rarely eat Mexican food) and El Cafe Latino has become my go-to spot for socializing (despite the fact I rarely go out). I did these things because I knew that among these communities, I would find at least one more person who shared a similar story to mine. And it has worked.

Tokyo can be a cold place. While convenient, the technological advancements of the city can make human interaction feel somewhat obsolete. As a Dominican who grew up in-between loud family gatherings and the warmth of the Caribbean sun, I’ve found myself desperately trying to connect to the few others who understand what it means to be a Latin American on this side of the world.

Word of advice for those who come next? Reach out to other Latin Americans around you. Although hard at times, events such as this weekend’s Latin Caribbean Festival in Yoyogi Park make the task a little less challenging and isolating. Wherever you’re from in Latin America, once you hear Spanish or Portuguese leaving someone else’s lips you’ll feel a little more at home.