Japanese professor researching Mennonites

Japanese scholar Iyo Kunimoto with Canadian scholar Aileen Friesen on the ferry to Grosse Isle, Quebec. (Photo by John Longhurst)

There are people from across Canada and the U.S. on the first leg of “Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100” from Quebec City to Kitchener, Ontario. But if there was a prize for coming the farthest, Iyo Kunimoto would win.

Kunimoto, 84, is a professor emeritus at Chuo University in Tokyo who specializes in researching Japanese migration to Central and South America. She is considered the top Latin Americanist in Japan.

While researching Japanese migration, she encountered Mennonites.

“I was doing field work in Bolivia when I met them,” she said, noting she also learned about ways the two groups cooperated.

Her discovery of Mennonites prompted her to start researching them, as well.

“Mennonites have migrated to so many countries,” she said, noting she decided to come on the tour to “learn more about Mennonites in general.”

One thing that mystifies her about Mennonites is their strong faith.

“I find it very difficult to understand,” she said, adding that most Japanese people, like herself, are very secular.

Culturally, she’s Buddhist. “But I never go to the temple,” she said.

During the tour—Kunimoto is taking in all three segments, from Quebec City to B.C.—she hopes to learn why “religion is so important” to Mennonites by talking to tour participants and hearing their stories.

“I want to learn how they live in a modern society but still have a deep belief in God,” she said. “I want to understand their hearts.”

Something else she wants to learn more about is why Mennonites have migrated to so many countries.

“Canada is such a rich country,” she said, noting she wants to find out why some left to live in places like Central and South America. “I want to explain that.”

To date she has written twice about Mennonites in South America: “The Mennonites in Argentina: State and Education that Nueva Esperanza Colony Confronted in the Province of La Pampa” and “The Mennonites in Belize: Establishment of New Colonies and their Changes in the Tropical Lowlands.”

Kunimoto’s goal is to write a book about Mennonites for people in Japan. “There are no books about Mennonites in Japanese,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of Japanese don’t know about Mennonites.”

John Longhurst is a freelance writer from Winnipeg who is blogging about the tour.