“Yoshimi Kokubun was eight years old when war came to the Philippines. It was sudden and final, his father rousing him and his eight siblings in the night to hide in the jungle-covered hills beyond their plantation just before the bombs began to fall. They joined other families under the protection of Imperial soldiers. For weeks they hid, sleeping by day and moving by night, pushed forward by barked military orders to yet another new place, a safer place, just beyond the blasts that spit dragon’s fire into the heavens. It seemed like forever to Yoshimi—barely eating, barely drinking—only the mosquitos thriving. The year was 1945. Yoshimi had never heard of the Second World War, and Japan was just a distant idea, like the moon that lit their escape path. Until then, he’d never been afraid.” -Matt Ellis, project in progress.
The fall of the Japanese Empire in 1945 created an economic and population disaster like none Japan had ever experienced. Over three years of war, the Japanese endured two atomic bombs and twenty months of US aerial attacks that dropped 157,000 tons of napalm-filled firebombs on major industrial and population centers. This destruction of infrastructure left the Japanese ill-equipped to cope with a growth of over eleven million repatriated citizens following the nearly four decades of Japanese imperialism throughout Asia. Japanese leaders appealed to other nations to accept eager immigrants, but a world weary of war and still hardened against the Axis powers largely ignored their pleas. Among the few sympathetic to the call was Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the Dominican Republic’s tyrannical dictator. Trujillo saw an opportunity to create an ethnic early warning buffer along the border with Haiti—an arid, rocky-filled territory no Dominican had been able to farm. The immigrants faced starvation and threats of violence while working to assimilate into a culture nearly the polar opposite of their own—the only thing they had in common with the Dominicans was a shared love of baseball.
In an era when immigration stories fuel political fervor more than human empathy, my photographic and video documentary Chino-Japonés will explore the positive economic and social impact of the post-World War II mass migration of Japanese farmers to the Dominican Republic. I will highlight the struggles and perseverance of these early immigrants by photographing the three generations that followed and interviewing them about the obstacles they faced, including the dismal treatment they received when they tried to return to their homeland, despite promises that would be welcomed as heroes.