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Nikkei Soccer Players; The Stories Behind the Ball - Part 1

The AELU team had several Nikkei players such as goalie Alberto Akatsuka, Tito Takayama, Gabriel Kanashiro, Roberto Yamamoto, Christian Kanashiro and Willy Uehara. Credit: Personal collection of Alberto Akatsuka.

Passion for soccer knows no boundaries and has become widespread among descendants of the Japanese who arrived in Peru more than 90 years ago from a country with little affinity for the sport. What they found in Peru was overwhelming devotion that led them to participate at a professional level starting in the 1950s, with many playing for the national team.

Some names have been lost to poor record-keeping or they simply slipped under the radar in the long list of Peruvian soccer players, in the lower and youth categories, as well as the second division and regional leagues. Others became the stars of various teams from Lima, Huaral, Chiclayo and Talara, and even overseas.

Few know about a renowned family of Peruvian soccer players in the 1950s, whose Japanese surname came from their maternal grandmother. The Ruiz La Rosa brothers, born in Huaral, are the sons of Antonia La Rosa Matsuda. At that time, the Nisei were coming to Peru to work on plantations. There, the eight Ruiz brothers learned about farm work and how to kick the ball like few others could.

The Ruiz brothers

Daniel, Jaime, Eusebio, Manuel, Pedro, Enrique, Víctor Manuel and Claudio all played soccer, achieving different levels of success. Daniel was a forward and the top scorer during three seasons with Universitario de Deportes, one of the most popular and winning clubs in the country. "El Chino", as they called him, scored 105 goals in the first division, also playing for the Mariscal Sucre and Juan Aurich clubs, as well as the Peruvian national team.

Pedro Ruiz La Rosa and his seven brothers, the sons of Antonia La Rosa Matsuda, all played soccer with varying levels of success. Credit: Club Unión Huaral.

His brother Jaime participated in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and also played for Aurich of Chiclayo. Both were members of the championship-winning club in 1959 and the following year they repeated the feat, this time with their brother Manuel on the team. But perhaps the most renowned of the Ruiz brothers is Pedrito1, who made his debut for Óscar Berckemeyer and played for champions Defensor Lima in 1973 and Unión Huaral in 1976, for which he was the top player in its history.

He was also a member of the team that won the Copa America (America Cup) in 1975 (which earned him accolades) before joining Sporting Cristal and winning another championship title in 1983. In 2002, Pedrito became the coach of Unión Huaral, which competed in second division and succeeded in moving up to first division the following year. Now almost 70 years old, he lives in his hometown, where last year he once again coached the team he has followed all his life.

The 1960s

In the 1950s and 60s, other Nikkei players stood out in Peruvian soccer. Tomás and Mario Iwasaki from Talara played for Universitario de Deportes and Atlético Grau. Tomás won the championship with the Ruiz brothers and participated in the 1959 Copa America in Buenos Aires, where Peru faced the powerful Brazilian side with Pelé. He also competed in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, scoring a goal against India in Peru's 3-1 victory.

Antonio Vallejos Hayashida was a top player for Juan Aurich. In the photo, he is pictured next to his friend Héctor Chumpitaz, who coached AELU. Photo: Personal collection of Antonio Vallejos Hayashida.

Others from the same era include Juan Nakajata Ayllón of Canete, a top scorer wtih Sport Boys del Callao and Alianza Lima (he was on that championship team in 1962) and Antonio Vallejos Hayeshida, a top defender Juan Aurich after a time with Defensor Arica. “When I went to the market, they didn't let me pay,” recalls Antonio, adding that at the time, soccer players didn't earn as much as they do today.

So when he had the opportunity to work in Japan in the early 1970s, Antonio didn't think twice and left Peru. As a composer, "Pocho" Vallejos dedicated a song to the Juan Aurich club and returned to Peru 10 years ago, where he occasionally gets together with almost 30 former soccer players he either played with or against, including Héctor Chumpitaz, Julio Meléndez and Ramón Mifflin.

The star of Hirano

More than 10 years passed before another Nikkei became a top player in Peruvian soccer. In the late 1970s, Jorge "Koki" Hirano Matsumoto made his debut for Unión Huaral in his hometown, but it wasn't until he traveled to Bolivia in 1986 that he wrote his name in the history of the club Bolívar de La Paz2, where he was a member of two national champion teams and became one of the club's top scorers (139 goals in eight years).

He scored 11 goals for Peru's national team and played in the Copa América three times (1987, 1989 and 1991). His brother Miguel played for the same team in Bolivia, part of the most successful generation in Bolivian soccer. In 1980, "Koki" also became of the first Peruvians to play professionally, joining Fujita Kougyou. He now lives in Chiba, Japan.

Hirano's speed and skills were on display in Peru until 1994, when he played for Sport Boys, after a time with Deportivo Sipesa. Another Nikkei player at the time was Juan José Sato Tarazona, who made his debut in 1975 with Deportivo Municipal and was a member of the national youth team two years later. In the years that followed, several Nikkei stars played for a club that was part of both second and first divisions: Asociación Estadio La Unión (AELU).

The AELU Years

Founded in 1982, AELU was in the Pueblo Libre district league when it was invited to the second division, and then moved into the first division in 19873. The team was comprised of many Nikkei players. Robert Yamamoto Tsuda was captain of the team that included goalie Alberto Akatsuka Matsuda (Lima, 1966), who joined from Deportivo Municipal (and was also a member of the national youth team), where he became a fan favorite.

Alberto Akatsuka was a goalie for Deportivo Municipal and AELU and also played for the national youth team Credit: Personal collection of Alberto Akatsuka.

“I remember when I was with AELU we played against Municipal and the rival fans chanted my name,” Alberto says from Japan, where he now lives. Robert Yamamoto, who played defense and midfield (and was also a national judo champion), was the main figure on that team, An outstanding talent since playing youth soccer with Nisei Breña (along with other Nikkei such as Aldo Hayashida, Javier Gushiken and Joe Oshiro), he was on the short list for the national team in 1983. He later played for Unión Huaral and Defensor Lima.

Other AELU players during its time in second division were Manuel Miyagusuku, Danny Fukusaki, Juan José Sato, Alex Maruyama, Gabriel Kanashiro, Gabriel Kanashiro, Juan Nakaya and Pedro Tokashiki, coached by Héctor Chumpitaz. In the 1990s there were other notable players such as Christian Kanashiro (who later played for "la U”), Héctor Takayama and brothers William and Edwin ‘Cholito’ Uehara Kaneku, as well as their cousin William Uehara Gibu.

Edwin played for Universitario de Deportes and later in the Japanese league, specifically for Urawa Red Diamonds (1992-95) and Sagan Tosu, in 1996. Although AELU was not a leader in the first division and was relegated to second division in 1992, it was one of the better-known teams in an era in which Peruvian soccer saw little success. A few years later, another crop of players began joining the list of Nikkei soccer stars.

Read Part 2 >>

Notes (Spanish links):

1. Grande Pedrito Ruiz (Great Pedrito Ruiz)
2. Jorge Hirano: Kamikaze en el Altiplano (Jorge Hirano: Kamikaze on the Altiplano)
3. Un verde debut (A green debut)


© 2017 Javier García Wong-Kit

AELU futbol Hirano Iwasaki peru Ruiz soccer sports