Carving out a career in Japan with Peruvian pride in mind

Carlos Uemura
His parents divorced when he was 9 years old, and he lived with his mother in Lima, Peru, but for financial reasons and anxiety about the future, he came to Japan when he was in the second year of junior high school. He graduated from high school in Japan while living with his father.

After graduating from high school, he worked in a factory and as a waiter in a hotel before joining a travel agency specializing in Latin America. While working as a Peruvian living in Japan, he has also appeared on TV programs and is expanding his activities. How did Carlos discover his own value and connect it to his career? We talked to him about the ideas that formed the basis of his career and his future activities.

About his junior high and high school years when he could not rely on the people around him

— When you came to Japan as a second-year junior high school student, you were planning to stay for three months on a tourist visa. Why did you decide to extend your stay and attend school in Japan?
The main reason is financial. My parents had divorced and I was living in Peru with my mother, but my father in Japan did not usually send money or child support. So, rather than going back to Peru to live again, I thought it would be better to stay with my father as it was so that my mother would not be burdened.

— Did you have any resistance to moving in with your father after being away from him for so long?
I was okay with that because my goal was to have my father pay for me to go to college, and other than that, I didn’t want anything from him.

— What kind of work did your father do in Japan?
My father worked at an automobile-related factory in Chiba Prefecture. He was not familiar with the Japanese language or Japanese systems and customs, so I did not rely on him at all for anything other than money.

— Entering a Japanese junior high school at the age of 13, the language barrier must have been a challenge for you, but were there any other difficulties you faced?
I was tormented by the fact that I was a foreigner. Especially since there were not many foreigners in the area, people would come to look at me or to chill out, and I felt that I would stand out so much. I was in my adolescence, so I had a lot of anxiety about standing out.

— Were you the first one to accept children with foreign roots at that school?
Yes, I was. When I decided to go to high school, I didn’t know anything about the system and just followed what the teacher told me to do, so in hindsight, I think I could have researched the system in more detail and considered other school options. My poor grades were due to my inability to understand Japanese, not my inability to study. However, at that time, there was no system for children whose mother tongue was not Japanese.

— As your Japanese language skills improved, did your school performance improve as well?
In the third year of junior high school, I relied on math and English. I didn’t understand the meaning of anything else, and on exams, I would answer questions like, “This is a question with this atmosphere, so I guess the answer is this.” I was just answering questions like that. I have always liked to study, so my reading and writing skills improved rapidly after I entered high school.

— Did you not even go to any kind of support group at that time?
I didn’t even know that there was a support group. The only class I attended was a free Japanese class held at a civic center, but the people who came there were foreign workers who worked in factories and were learning basic Japanese such as hiragana and katakana.

I was a bit higher level, so I needed to learn the language to use for school tests, but the older volunteers didn’t teach me. However, I was introduced to a university student there, and he taught me Japanese privately.

Hoping the Japanese society to see people with immigrant background roots in Japan as an asset

— You are currently working for a travel agency. Did you have an image of your future career from when you were a student?
Ever since I was in elementary school, I had a dream of becoming a lawyer. I also wanted to study foreign languages and become a diplomat. In order to become a diplomat, you need to have some kind of qualification, and I thought it would be nice to be able to do that after studying international law as a lawyer.

When I was in elementary school, the Secretary General of the United Nations was a Peruvian named Mr. Javier Felipe Ricardo Pérez de Cuéllar de la Guerra. I was so proud of Peru as I watched him, a Peruvian, come out during important international news such as the Gulf War and work for world peace. I admired him.

— Your life has changed a lot since you came to Japan, but do you still have such dreams?
I’m not working on anything concrete, but I haven’t given up yet. I hope to become one someday.

— In any case, you were interested in the field of international exchange and communication, weren’t you?
When I was a child, I simply wanted to be active in the world. But after I came to Japan, I realized that I wanted to do things that I could not do in Peru or as a Japanese person, as a Peruvian living in Japan. As a foreigner living in Japan, I became interested in working as a bridge between Japan and Peru.

I would like to be in a position where I am not just a “baggage foreigner” or a “foreigner in need,” but a foreigner who has come to benefit Japan, or a Peruvian living abroad who is working for his or her home country.

— Was this influenced by your experience as a student that there was no organization to support you or no one around you to talk to?
That’s right. In Japan, people tend to think of people with immigrant background as objects to be helped, but I want people to see the fact that there are people with immigrant background in Japan as an asset. I want the whole society to feel that they are necessary for the evolution of Japan.

Wishing to have a greater impact on support efforts

— How did you become involved in glolab activities?
I used to go to exchange meetings and seminars held by JICA and other organizations from time to time, but about 10 years ago, I volunteered at an organization that supports children with foreign roots through a connection with a social entrepreneurship university I attended. When I came into contact with children who were in the same situation as me, I thought, “It’s really tough,” and at the same time, I wondered if I could do something more impactful.

Of course, doing something is better than doing nothing. But to be honest, I felt that teaching children one-on-one for two hours was not enough to save many children. There are only a limited number of people who are willing to volunteer, and I felt that there is a limit to how much we can do if we don’t work with society as a whole. Through these activities, I got to know the people at glolab and started to participate.

— I heard that you are planning to release a video as well. Is this also a motivation to develop activities that will have more impact on society?
I went to the University of Social Entrepreneurship because I wanted to learn about social business to improve society in the first place. I received guidance there and started my own NPO about five years ago.

However, I was busy with my own work, my wife’s pregnancy, my mother in my home country, and many other things, so I was not doing anything to help others. I began to think that it would be better to join the activities that people were working on, rather than to just sit around and do nothing. Eventually, when my children grow up, I would like to do something that will benefit them as well.

What we need now is not money, but rather impact. It is important to see how many people will be saved by our activities and how many people will be able to play an active role in Japanese society.

— The purpose of supporting children with foreign roots is, of course, to make their existence and environment more widely known, but are you also thinking of becoming an advisor to them?
That’s right. It is important to find ways to make children with foreign roots think that they can be active in Japan. I feel that many of them do not believe that they can achieve their dreams in Japan. There are some young people around me who talk about their dreams, but I have heard many stories of people who have not been able to make their dreams come true and continue to work, moving from one place to another, seemingly left behind by society.

— From your point of view, Carlos, are there many cases where children with foreign roots are not aware of their potential?
Yes, I think there is a sense of inferiority. It depends on the environment where the foreign-rooted children live, but in many cases, the adults around them are also foreign workers living in difficult circumstances, so I think it is hard for them to imagine that they can speak various languages and work in a global company. However, I have heard many stories of people who have been able to go to good schools and find good jobs, so I feel that there is a lot of potential.

In addition to myself, I know many people with immigrant background who speak two or three languages and are active globally. I would like to see more people who have made diverse career choices come out and share their experiences with children.

— Speaking of public appearances, Carlos, you also appear on TV. Do you plan to be active in such activities?
I’ll do anything if I get an offer. However, the purpose of appearing on TV is to talk about Peru, so I don’t do much other than that.

Proud to be a Peruvian in Japan

— What was the best thing about coming to Japan?
I was grateful to be Peruvian.

— Is it because you have become a rare and valuable resource?
At first, I didn’t want to stand out, but there are things that I can utilize in Japanese society because I am a Peruvian. If I were in Peru, I would just be a Peruvian, but being in Japan, there are many things that I can change into something positive. I am happy and proud of that. I think my identity as a Peruvian has become stronger than before.

— I’m sure there are many differences between Japan and Peru, but are there any differences that you find difficult to coexist with?
I think it’s about appropriateness and roughness. The NPO I created is called Amigo Project. The literal translation of the word “amigo” is “friend,” but instead of dividing it into classmates from school, colleagues from work, and mere acquaintances as we do in Japan, it includes all of them. For example, in Peru, you can talk to a person who happens to be standing in line for a train or bus by saying, “Amigo, what time is it?” But in Japan, it’s hard to do that, and it’s hard to get along with people in an appropriate manner. I think the big difference is that people are very serious about their relationships.

— How did you catch up with your studies during that time?
I also caught up in the 5th and 6th grades. When I was in the 3rd and 4th grade, I didn’t know if I had a test, so when I was done, my friends came and read aloud to understand.

— If Japan were to adopt more Peruvian elements, maybe children with foreign roots would feel a little more at ease.
In Japan, you have to be careful about every word you say to others. So you have to be careful about what you say. I still feel stressed because I tend to say some strange things. My children are in elementary school, and they are sometimes confused by the difference between what their teachers say and what I say. For children with foreign roots, there is also the issue of cultural differences between home and school.

— Lastly, do you have a message for children with foreign roots?
There is an atmosphere in society, not just in Japan, that says you must achieve your goals. It doesn’t matter if it’s 10, 20, or 30 years from now, I want you to follow your heart and have a goal.

And it’s okay to change your goals from time to time. When I graduated from junior high school, I thought that I would enter a Peruvian high school or university, and even if my Japanese was half-hearted, I would be able to enter a Japanese company. But in the end, I entered a Japanese high school and became more proficient in Japanese, and now I work as a planning coordinator for a travel agency. I didn’t have a specific goal in mind, but I am changing my goals for the next two to three years. This can be said for studying as well, and I hope that while having a firm goal, you will be able to move forward with a relaxed mind.


Interviewing and writing: Hiroshi Yoshida