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Masaki Gaja, the sansei of balance

Masaki Gaja spent part of his childhood in Japan and was a dekasegi during his youth. (Photos: personal archive)

The case of graphic designer Masaki Gaja is unusual. He has lived the experience of Japan in two stages: the first, as a child and son of a dekasegi, and the second, as a young dekasegi.

It has been, in total, nine years in Japan. The first time, at six years old, it was not a chosen destiny. The second, at 20, he was, although forced by a painful circumstance.


1990 was one of the years of the kasegi boom in Peru. Masaki was six years old, in first grade, and traveled with his mother to Japan, where a year before his father had migrated to work.

Masaki had to study first grade again in an adverse context, in a language he did not know and a society with other customs and cultural codes. He immediately knew what ijime was. Nobody explained it to him, he lived it firsthand. To defend himself, he sometimes had to fight.

The family moved when the father got a new job. What did that mean to Masaki? Another school. And more ijime .

In both schools he was the first foreigner, so they were not used to dealing with foreigners. That included some teachers, whom Masaki remembers as racist people who called him a “rebel” for defending himself against bullying.

However, in the second school he managed to defeat the ijime thanks to an unexpected ally.

His dad tried to drive him to baseball practice, but he didn't like it. Masaki tried soccer and did so well that it became his vehicle for entry into school.

“Football was my link with the Japanese so I could integrate,” he says.

From then on, everything was for the better. He learned Japanese and put down roots in his community. “I felt foreign, but integrated,” he says.


At age 12, Masaki returned to Peru with his parents and his Japanese-born sister. A job opportunity in Lima for his father mobilized the entire Gaja family again.

Masaki was enrolled in the La Unión Nikkei school and the experience in Japan was repeated in Peru.

At school, I was the “Japanese”, the “imported”. The newcomers from Japan were seen as “nerds, half-witted; “That's how ponjas are, that is, half-hearted,” he remembers.

In contrast to them, the “innocent” Ponjas, the Peruvians were the “living ones.” “I also fought, you had to be respected,” says the sansei.

As in Japan, football came to their aid. They saw him play during school breaks and because he did well, they called him to join the La Unión Stadium Association (AELU) team.

In addition to contributing to his reintegration in Peru, playing soccer gave him a certain status that earned him the respect of others.

“Football saved me,” he emphasizes. “I am always loyal to football. Connect with people, it is a group sport, you need to communicate with others,” he adds.

The bullying didn't stop completely, but at least it subsided. “I was able to calm the waters of the ijime ,” he remembers. However, he says that just as he was a victim of bullying, he also inflicted it on others. “I also did ijime , I admit it was wrong,” he confesses.

Bullying was not the only big obstacle he had to overcome. The language was different.

Masaki understood Spanish, but he had to learn to write it practically from scratch. “It was totally a shock,” he says. It took him about a year to acclimatize to Spanish.


At the age of 20, Masaki Gaja's life took a new turn. His father, who was in Japan (where he had returned after his job in Peru failed), became seriously ill.

Masaki, who was studying graphic design, traveled to Japan to take care of his father and take care of all the paperwork related to his repatriation.

That was the first part of his task in Japan; the second, to relieve his father in the maintenance of the family.

Suddenly, Masaki, the son who lived off his father's remittances, effectively became the head of the family.

During his dekasegi stage he discovered how important his educational process from the ages of six to twelve in Japan had been, especially in learning Japanese.

"Things happen for a reason. Life prepares you,” he says.

Working opened his eyes to a new reality. Masaki realized that “money is not easy.” “It made me mature quite a bit,” he says.

The then young twenty-something resisted the temptations of his environment and his age: new cars, parties, living life as if there was no future beyond the weekend.

It didn't cloister itself, but it didn't derail either. He knew how to save. In addition to sending money to his family in Peru, he raised money for his studies in Lima. (temporarily paralyzed: he had studied two years of college and had another two to go).

Masaki was related to both Japanese and Peruvian environments. Curiously, despite having suffered ijime in both countries, he managed to feel comfortable with both.

He stayed in Japan for three years.


Masaki clearly differentiates his two stages in Japan.

In the first, as a child, the Japanese system formed him with discipline, order and cleanliness, among other values. It is what he calls “base.” Japan gave it foundations.

In the second, he learned “the value of work.” If he maintained his determination to save to complete his graphic design studies (instead of wasting money), it was thanks to the discipline instilled in him as a child in Japan.

Work with which he participated in the Nikkei Young Art Salon. (Photos: personal archive)

For this reason, he thanks again and again for the training that Japan provided him, and which he applies to this day in his personal life and work. Of course, with balance, a word that he mentions several times throughout the interview. It is key in your life. For him it means not going to any extreme and trying to embrace the best of both cultures.

Balance means, for example, being punctual and orderly, like the Japanese, but not getting bogged down in the hierarchical rigidity that characterizes them, but rather managing with flexibility like the Peruvians.

Now, despite everything that Japan has given him, Masaki is clear that he feels “purely Peruvian.”

Japan, he says, is the father of genes, of roots, the upright progenitor, while Peru is the father of affections, of flourishing as a human being.

In Peru he enjoys an “affective connection” absent in Japan.

“There they hug you with the right ones. On the other hand, here it is a hug, a kiss. I learned to open myself to those behaviors that I like. I like to be affectionate. Finally, that is human beings, we are not as robots as there. There (they are) very robotic, very distant. That's why I have that balance.”

© 2023 Enrique Higa

dekasegi foreign workers generations identity Japan Masaki Gaja migration Nikkei in Japan Peru Sansei soccer sports
About the Author

Enrique Higa is a Peruvian Sansei (third generation, or grandchild of Japanese immigrants), journalist and Lima-based correspondent for the International Press, a Spanish-language weekly published in Japan.

Updated August 2009

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