Imagine the Little Tokyo Budokan. Now imagine that with a school, four restaurants, and many more sports courts. I spoke with the president of one of the most well-known Japanese Stadiums in Peru to learn about its history and the strength of the Nikkei Community in Peru.
I grew up visiting Peru frequently and spent a lot of time at a local Japanese stadium called Asociacion Estado La Union (AELU). The first time I went when I was 10, my mom was excitedly explaining how fun it would be. When we arrived, I remember my jaw dropping and my brother and I looking around in awe. Once we walked through the gates, it was like another world — a world filled with volleyball courts, track and field courses, and even an entire school, complete with an awesome ropes course that I injured myself on.
Everywhere we went, my parents knew someone. When I was younger I thought this was annoying because I just wanted to play, or get some of that tasty manju. As I grew older and learned more about the community, I realized the immense community my parents had in Lima. The stadium is a place where people can spend the entire day. You could go to school in the morning, sports training in the afternoon, and end the day having dinner with friends.
Once we walked through the gates, it was like another world — a world filled with volleyball courts, track and field courses, and even an entire school, complete with an awesome ropes course that I injured myself on.
This past October, my parents and I wanted to share our culture and history with my husband. I explained AELU him several times and even showed him pictures of Chelo's, a restaurant that makes the best mimpao, or chashu bao. Like me, it wasn’t until he stepped foot in the stadium that he realized what a huge deal it was. He loved eating at Chelo's, walking around the grand complex, and cheering on my nephew at his Undokai races.
After seeing this reaction from my husband, I wanted to dig a little deeper into the story of AELU. I'm proud to share just a bit of the history of AELU and the tenacity and strength of the nikkei and Japanese community in Lima. I spoke with the President of AELU, Jimmy Shimabukuro, to learn more.
*Note: Nikkei is used here to describe people of Japanese ancestry that left Japan and no longer identify as Japanese. Japanese is used to describe people from Japan or the Issei (first generation) in Peru.
1. Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
My name is Jimmy Shimabukuro, and I am the President of the Asociacion Estadio La Union (AELU). My story with AELU begins almost 45 years ago, when I was 10 years old. I went to AELU to play soccer. Since then, I have been involved with the AELU my whole life. I have been president since 2014. Before then I was in various leadership positions in AELU. Like myself, my wife has been involved since she was young, and my children have been involved, too.
2. What is the AELU and how did it begin? Why did the community create AELU?
AELU was founded in 1953. 1953 was a few years after the end of World War II. The Nikkei and Japanese community suffered a lot during World War II. Because Peru was an ally of the United States, in 1942, Peru broke all diplomatic relations with Japan. This action created a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment in Peru. The Nikkei and Japanese communities faced a lot of hostility. Meeting together, organizing together, these were all prohibited. The government prohibited any associations, kenjinkais, or clubs to assemble or organize. Schools were also shut down. It was a difficult time for these communities. A group of leaders in the community came together to create a club, Pacifico. These leaders envisioned creating a place where Japanese folks and their descendants could come together. This would help not only the community’s morale, but also economically. They wanted to search for a physical space for their collective to enjoy. Through much effort, AELU was created in 1953.
From then, AELU has been an important space for the Nikkei community to come together. AELU is also the space where big festivals and cultural events take place. Matsuri AELU is a large event for the community [think summer festivals in LA but much, much bigger]. We also have annual Undokais (this is also much, much bigger with around 15,000 participants). These are all activities that allow our community to come together. For example, the Matsuri has around 25,000 attendees. Outside of these cultural activities, AELU is known in Peru as being an institution for athletes. We have about 25 types of sports, and many nationally selected athletes from Peru. So we are well known for our athletics, but we also have social events, cultural events, and activities for young people.
3. What was the vision for the founders?
After World War II, there were basically no Japanese or Nikkei institutions, because they were all prohibited. The main organization most Japanese or Nikkei knew was the Sociedad Japonesa Central de Perú (Central Japanese Society of Peru). After the war, it could no longer function. Even the embassy of Japan in Peru was shut down. So, there was no institution that the Nikkei or Japanese could attend. The vision was to create a space where the community could once again come together.
4. How has it changed over the years?
A lot! When it was first founded in 1953, it initially had three sports: soccer, tennis, and volleyball. But throughout the years, more and more sports are available at AELU. Additionally more cultural and social events have developed, too.
It’s a large organization, and all of this growth is thanks to the leadership and hard working staff. The continued vibrance of AELU is thanks to the staff and volunteers that have a connection to the history of AELU. There are currently 1,400 families as members, or 2,000 individuals. Not all of our membership is Japanese or Nikkei. We also have many Peruvian members, too. This is important and a positive thing, because it allows us to integrate better with our Peruvian community. Now it is clear, we are definitely Peruvians.
5. What is your favorite memory about AELU?
Without a doubt, any memory of my childhood! I could easily go there and play. But at this time, my favorite memory is one that I don’t have yet. I hope my favorite memory will be that we created a better tomorrow for our members — this is why we work hard for our community.
6. What does AELU mean to the community now?
AELU is like a house for all Nikkei in Peru. It is the place where anyone can find friends, families, and come together to play sports, or simply to socialize. There is a lot of pride for folks that are members at AELU, because apart from the history, it is well known in Peru for its sports and development of great athletes.
7. What have you been doing to adapt to the COVID-19 Pandemic?
In Lima, it is still prohibited to gather in large groups, and AELU is not open right now. But we have been active online with classes and events. What we are trying to share with our community is the important message of responsibility, solidarity, and cooperation with everything. We have been in contact with all our members during this time on social media, and continue to share events for them to enjoy — even daily zumba classes.
8. An ending message to our readers?
Thank you for your interest. I invite everyone to come visit us at AELU! We have our doors open to the Nikkei and Japanese folks of the world. AELU has always promoted the integration of Nikkei communities at the Pan-American level via athletic competences and singing festivals, where not only other South American Nikkei communities participate, but also representatives from USA, Mexico, and Canada had participated. We had been founder members of the Asociación Panamericana Nikkei, and currently we participate in PANA USA.
Special thanks to Felipe Agena (AELU General Manager) and Jimmy Shimabukuro (AELU President).
To read the Spanish version please click HERE (apologies for butchering Jimmy’s words!)
With hopes set high, individuals and families of Japanese origin have settled across the globe. Over the past century, this global diaspora has had the unique experience of adopting new behavioral and social norms, all while preserving our Japanese heritage.
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