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Top>Opinion>How I became a researcher of Latin American Politics


Ritsuko Funaki

Ritsuko Funaki【profile

How I became a researcher of Latin American Politics

Ritsuko Funaki
Associate Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Comparative Politics, Latin American Studies

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I am a lecturer of the Spanish language in the Faculty of Commerce. My area of specialization is political science, with a focus on the Latin American region. Here, I will share my experiences as a university student that led me to become a researcher of Latin American Politics, and will also touch on a variety of topics related to Latin America

Sharp increase in immigrants of Japanese descent

I am originally from the city of Seto in Aichi Prefecture. When I was studying for university entrance exams, I had only a vague notion about being able to work in some kind of international field. I took several entrance exams for the foreign languages faculties at several universities that I could commute from home, and although I failed my first choice, which was a department that trained Japanese language teachers, I passed the exams for the Spanish and French language departments. I ended up applying for the Spanish language department, whose tuition fees were lower. Given how haphazard that decision was, it was only when I started university that I learned the vast and diverse world of the Spanish, as well as the large Latin American population working in my local area.

In the latter half of the 1990s, which was when I became a university student, more than 270,000 people of Japanese descent migrated to Japan from Latin America. This was because an amendment of the Immigration Control Act in 1990 had made it possible for first, second and third-generation Japanese descendents and their spouses to obtain a long-term resident status in Japan. When the law first changed, Japan was nearing the end of its bubble economy period, and one aim of the amendment was to supplement the labor shortages in Japan. On the Latin American side as well, in the 1980s, many countries had experienced a time of unprecedented economic crisis that became known as “the lost decade,” and the unemployment situation in those countries had become worse as they underwent structural adjustments. The kind of situation that Greece has been in recently was happening in Latin America overall, in many countries in the region. The governments of those countries, in the face of fierce resistance from their citizens, chose to comply with the directions of the international financial institutions. As a result, many people in those Latin American countries gave up on leading a life in their own countries and emigrated in large numbers not only to Japan but also to the United States and Spain.

In circumstances where both the ones sending these people out and the ones taking them in had strong reasons for doing so, Japan’s legislation was amended and the number of Japanese descended migrants more than tripled. They primarily worked in the manufacturing industry, such as the automobile industry, electrical and electronic components assembly, and on construction sites. For this reason, they were concentrated on cities such as Toyota and Toyohashi in Aichi Prefecture and Hamamatsu in Shizuoka, but even so, they became a presence that supported Japan’s economic growth. At the time, while the companies wanting to take advantage of this foreign labor were successful in employing these migrants efficiently through placement agencies, the local governments and communities had not yet put in place the systems needed to take in the families of these workers. I once watched an anonymous interview that NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, conducted of one of those placement agents. The gist of this agent’s comments was that it was important for the employers to use them as a convenient source of labor, so it was crucial to have foreign workers and Japanese workers work on different shifts, to ensure that foreign workers did not obtain information about their working conditions. He also said that the agents that could be flexible in adjusting headcount at the companies’ request would be the ones that would survive. In many cases, the parents in these migrant families were placed in the position of working day and night with unstable working conditions, and the children, unable to fit in at the local public schools, found themselves with nowhere to go. It was around this time that a fourteen-year-old boy from Brazil was ganged up on and killed by a group of Japanese youths in the city of Komaki in Aichi.

My first amigos, Peruvians

So, around this time, I entered the Hispanic Studies department of my university on little more than a whim, and the first thing I had to do was to learn the Spanish language. In the process, little by little, the words being spoken by the foreigners I would sometimes see at the local railway station and other places started to sound familiar. On one occasion, I plucked up the courage to speak to some of them, and they were immediately welcoming and even invited me to their home. They were so open with me that I was even a little worried that I might be taken away somewhere, even though it was me who had approached them. Nevertheless, I had my ulterior motive of wanting to try out my newly acquired Spanish language skills, so I accepted their invitation and turned up at their house. My new amigos were a family from Peru. In terms of external appearance, they did not look Japanese, more like full Peruvians, and I believe they only spoke introductory Japanese. At their home, they showed me a video of an over-the-top comedy program that was like a Spanish version of Japan’s Yoshimoto Shinkigeki comedy troupe. One of the characters was meant to be Peru’s President Fujimori, dressed in a kimono with a katana sword hanging on his belt, comically playing a very uptight, samurai-type character. While all the Peruvians are having a boisterous good time, this character would suddenly appear, waving his sword around and generally being a wet blanket. At the time, Alberto Fujimori, a second-generation Japanese, was President of Peru. In December 1996, there was a hostage incident at the Japanese Embassy in Peru, which was covered very sensationally in the Japanese media as well, and I am sure many people remember it. After winning the presidential election in 1990, he reinforced his presidential powers through an auto-coup in 1992, and held a firm hold on the regime for ten years until 2000, when he suddenly declared that he was defecting while visiting Japan. The Peruvians’ style seemed to be to use humor to criticize the increasingly iron-fisted way the Fujimori regime forced through its economic reforms, anti-terrorist measures and other policies.

Trips to Spain and Mexico

One of the privileges that university students enjoy is their long holidays. During semester, I saved money by working part-time jobs, and I looked forward greatly to going overseas during my long breaks. China was actually my first overseas trip as a university student, but after that, I also traveled to Spain and Mexico. In Spain, I saw the Sagrada Família and the Park Güell in Barcelona, and the Festival of Fire in Valencia. I traveled around the Andalucia region, visiting white-walled villages, sherry-producing regions, and the Calat Alhamra palace complex. In Spain, there waere always good, inexpensive local wines to drink and many types of Spanish ham and olives to eat, and I was also able to enjoy the unique cuisines of the different regions of Spain. It was a short trip but it was full of enjoyable memories.

In Mexico, as well as touring all of the major tourist spots in the capital, Mexico City, I also went to the lovely, quiet, eternally-spring town of nearby Cuernavaca, and Taxco, a once booming silver-mining town. I was able to view the historical sites of the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations that existed before the country was colonized by the Spanish, as well as the many historical buildings erected in colonial times. In terms of the food, while the authentic tacos were certainly delicious, I do remember being a little more careful about what I chose to eat than I did in Spain. However, what left a bigger impression on me when I was a university student was the many children and elderly people begging whom I saw at tourist spots. Many of them were indigenous people. I was struck by the sight of these poverty-stricken children, the descendants of those once-proud civilizations, with their hands out begging for money from foreign tourists, outside these buildings where the heritage left by their ancestors was being so carefully preserved and displayed.

Based on my trips to Spain and Mexico, when it came to deciding on my undergraduate seminar subject, I chose to join a seminar involved with the social circumstances of Latin America. While I do sometimes think wistfully about the wonderful culinary culture I could have enjoyed on field trips if I had chosen Spain, at the time, my pure desire to develop a deeper understanding of the current situation in Mexico won out in the end.

Study abroad in Mexico

In my fourth year of undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Mexico for a year. At my host university, I joined the department that trained social workers, and studied together with Mexican students. What I learned there was that, although in no way sufficient, there was already a diverse range of support for the vulnerable members of Mexican society, and that there were people in both the public and private sectors who were working very hard to help them. Despite the existence of these programs, however, finding solutions to these social issues was made more difficult by the fact that such assistance programs, particularly the public-sector ones, were being distorted for political purposes. For example, the arbitrary implementation of these programs was rampant, such as the question of whether or not a region voted for the ruling party being used as an informal criterion for whether or not aid would be extended to that region. Beyond that, however, was the simple, fundamental problem of the excessively disproportionate distribution of wealth. A political scientist named David Easton defined politics as “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” I came to believe, through my time living in Mexico, that the failure of politics to function properly in this regard for so very long is the very reason that the kind of inequalities in society we see now have become so entrenched.

Mexico gained its independence from Spain at the end of the 19th century, and after a period of dictatorships, it experienced a nationalistic reform movement known as the Mexican Revolution. At that time, a state-centered development regime was established, and various factions and interest groups, including the urban middle class, working class and the peasant class, were organized from the top down and incorporated into the Institutional Revolutionary Party [Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI] (originally the National Revolutionary Party [Partido Nacional Revolucionario, NRP]), which had led the revolution. This political party subsequently became the single dominant party in Mexico and held the reins of government for 71 years until the year 2000. Under the PRI regime, a mechanism of coordinating interests known as corporatism, which was typical of Latin American politics of the time, essentially stultified Mexico’s system of representative democracy. However, this regime would eventually collapse with the economic crisis of the 1980s and the subsequent structural adjustments that took place. In the 2000s, the center-right party that had been the largest opposition party until then succeeded in taking over the government, and in many other countries in the region, left-wing governments were born. This could be described as a movement to overhaul the traditional political parties, which embraced a distorted structure of benefit adjustment, and to correct the course of excessive neoliberal economic reforms.

Decision making for graduate school

When I returned to Japan from my study abroad in Mexico, Japan was in the midst of “structural reforms without taboos,” and it was also considered to be an “Ice Age” for university students trying to find employment after graduation. Although I had improved slightly from my vague ambitions as a high school student of “working in an international field,” I still did not possess a clear enough vision to give me the courage to plunge into such a harsh employment environment. I also had so many memories of Mexico in my heart and, believing that I could use them to lead me to my future career, I decided to continue on to post-graduate studies. As I write this, I am deeply impressed at the students I meet today, whose thoughts and intentions towards job searching are so much more realistic and grounded than mine were back then.

Ritsuko Funaki
Associate Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Comparative Politics, Latin American Studies
Associate Professor Ritsuko Funaki was born in Aichi Prefecture in 1978 and graduated from the School of Foreign Studies at Aichi Prefectural University in 2002. In 2004, she completed the first half of the Doctoral Program in the International Cooperation Policy Studies Department of Kobe University’s Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies. From 2004 to 2006, she participated in the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers program, working in a city office in Bolivia in the area of rural community development. She later returned to the Doctoral Program at Kobe University and completed the second half of the program in 2010, obtaining a Doctorate in Political Science from Kobe University. After a period as Research Associate in the Faculty of Commerce at Chuo University, she began her current position in 2012. Associate Professor Funaki’s current research themes include the dynamics (metamorphosis of the political party system, process of institutionalization of indigenous autonomy) of Bolivian politics under the Morales government, which has South America’s first indigenous president, and the process of political decentralization in Chile, South America’s most politically centralized state.

Major articles include “The Choice of Indigenous Peoples in the Institutionalization of Indigenous Autonomy – An Analysis Based on Mixed Methods Research of the Aymara Autonomous Bodies in Bolivia [Senjumin Jichi no Seidoka ni okeru Senjumin no Sentaku – Kongo Chosa Ho ni yoru Boribia Aimara-kei Jichitai no Bunseki]” (Asian Economies [Ajia Keizai], Vol. 54, No. 2, 2013), and “Bolivia’s “Bottom-up” National Referendum – Determining Factors of the 2006 Regional Autonomy Referendum [Boribia ni okeru ‘Shita kara’ no Kokumin Tohyo – 2006-Nen Ken Jichi Kokumin Tohyo no Kitei Yoin]” (Political Participation in Post-Neoliberalist Latin America “Posuto Shin Jiyushugi-ki” Raten Amerika ni okeru Seiji Sanka] IDE-JETRO Institute of Developing Economies, 2014).