Peru Entranced by the Fujimori Phenomenon : Elections: The leading presidential candidate has proven to be a master campaigner. He’s seen as an honest, hard-working non-politician.


Alberto Fujimori, agronomy professor and former university president, is an example of how the hard-working children of poor Japanese immigrants have made this impoverished country their land of opportunity.

But Fujimori’s spectacular emergence as the favored candidate for Peru’s presidency goes far beyond the well-known pattern of Nisei success.

Peruvian media are calling it the Fujimori phenomenon.

The popularity bonanza sprang partly from the reputation of Japanese-Peruvians for efficiency and honesty, partly from Fujimori’s own pleasant and low-key personality.


Perhaps most of all, however, the Fujimori phenomenon is based on the novice candidate’s remarkable mastery of campaign strategy.

Fujimori, 51, rose from the back of a nine-candidate field to finish a close second behind famed novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in the first round of voting Sunday. Pollsters and political analysts say Fujimori is the clear favorite for the runoff election tentatively scheduled for June 3.

If he wins, he will be the first president of Japanese descent in the Western Hemisphere.

Capitalizing on public disgust with traditional politics, he has campaigned effectively as an anti-politician.

“We are a new class of politicians, unheard of until now, who aspire to make honesty, work and technology a new language with which all Peruvians can understand each other,” he said last week.

He gently derides the fitness of Peru’s established parties to continue governing, including those that support political newcomer Vargas Llosa.

“They have not even been able to manage the election campaign. I, a novice in politics, have beat them,” he said this week.

Fujimori has stuck to simple messages of confidence and hope that are absorbed readily by Peru’s unsophisticated masses. And he has built an unusual grass-roots coalition of small-business people and Protestant evangelists to spread the word, mostly by “ radio bemba "--word of mouth.


Thousands of volunteers throughout the country have participated.

“You go to a friend’s house and convince him,” said Jorge Figueroa, 30, a member of the Missionary Pentecostal church and a leader in Fujimori’s Change 90 movement. “The friend talks to his family members and convinces them, and then they talk to their friends. It is door to door, person to person.”

Fujimori’s big opportunity came when Vargas Llosa’s campaign faltered early this year. As Vargas Llosa’s slick television spots fell flat, Peru’s slum dwellers, villagers and peasants tuned into Fujimori’s radio bemba.

Peru Shimpo, a newspaper printed in both Japanese and Spanish, estimates that this country’s population of 21 million includes about 50,000 Japanese. It is the third-largest Japanese community in the Americas after those in the United States and Brazil.


A large proportion of Japanese Peruvians are business people, professionals and farm owners.

Javier Kohatsu, an economics student and writer for Peru Shimpo, said the community has a positive public image that has benefited Fujimori.

“Because of our accomplishments, Peruvians see us in a good light,” he said. “Being the son of Japanese has had a lot of influence on the idea that the Peruvian people have formed about him.”

But many Japanese-Peruvians are not celebrating the latest accomplishments of Fujimori.


“Many of them are not in agreement with Mr. Fujimori,” Kohatsu said. “Many of them are identified with sectors of the right wing.”

The two previously most successful Nisei politicians were congressmen with the conservative Christian Popular Party in the early 1980s. That party now supports Vargas Llosa, while Fujimori’s Change 90 movement has positioned itself closer to the center of Peru’s political spectrum.

Kohatsu said some members of the Japanese community fear that Fujimori’s vaguely moderate policies will only make the country’s economic crisis worse. Inflation is running at 2,700% a year, 70% of the work force is said to be underemployed or unemployed and the economy has shrunk by a total of 20% in the last two years.

Juan Sigueru, a Nisei who has driven taxis in Lima for 50 years, said Fujimori’s campaign platform “offers nothing. It doesn’t inspire confidence or give guarantees.”


If Fujimori wins, he predicted, Peruvians will turn against the Japanese community.

“We are going lose the tranquillity we have had here all these years,” Sigueru said. “We are going to return to the war era.”

He was referring to World War II, when Peruvian authorities rounded up many Japanese immigrants and deported some to the United States, confiscating their property.

“They deported my father,” Sigueru said. “After that, I never saw him again.”


The community has roots that go back more than 90 years. The first 790 Japanese immigrants to Peru arrived by ship in 1899. They had four-year contracts as farm laborers. By 1923, 102 similar shiploads had arrived, a total of nearly 18,000 people. All but about 2,000 were men, but many of them later brought wives from Japan to settle here, as Fujimori’s father did.

The father worked as a farm hand, a tailor, a watchman and a shopkeeper. The family’s five children grew up poor--to earn money as a child, Alberto sold flowers grown at home--but all except one went to college. Fujimori earned a degree from the National University of Agronomy, finishing first in his class. He went on to the University of Wisconsin for postgraduate work in mathematics.

Fujimori has spent his career at the University of Agronomy, in the Lima suburb of La Molina. He was president of the university from 1984 to 1989, and he served as chairman of the National Assembly of University Presidents from 1987 to 1989.

His first exposure to the Peruvian public was between 1985 and 1987, when he moderated a talk show on the government television network, then Peru’s only nationwide chain. The focus of the program was nutrition and agricultural development.


“It was important, a program that had viewers,” newspaper publisher Guillermo Thorndike said. Many viewers, especially in the provinces, remembered Fujimori from the program when he began his campaign for the presidency last year, Thorndike said.

Fujimori’s campaign motto, “Work, Honesty and Technology,” projects the values of the Nisei community, and significantly, it also meshes closely with those of Peru’s Protestant evangelicals and the small-business people of the country’s “informal economy.”

As in many Latin American countries, a variety of closely associated evangelical denominations have spread through predominantly Roman Catholic Peru. Estimates of the evangelical strength run as high as 5% of the population.

And as many as half of all Peruvians are believed be part of the informal economy of unlicensed shops, sidewalk sales and cottage industries.


Fujimori has found ways to reap the political potential of these two emerging forces. Through Baptist minister Carlos Garcia Garcia, a leader of the evangelical movement, Fujimori, a Catholic, enlisted the movement’s unofficial support for his campaign. And, through factory owner Maximo San Roman, leader of a national association of small industries, he enlisted an important segment of the informal economy.