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Japanese Peanuts, a Legacy of the Nakatani Family

One of the most popular snacks in Mexico is “Japanese peanuts”. This product--which consists of peanuts with a coating made of toasted wheat flour and soy sauce--isn’t originally from Japan. It was actually invented by Yoshigei Nakatani, a Japanese immigrant who arrived in Mexico in 1932.

Yoshigei Nakatani’s immigration certificate (National Archives of Mexico)

After coming to Mexico, Nakatani was looking for work and a way to prosper, just like the hundreds of thousands of other immigrants from that country who crossed the Pacific. When he left Japan, he had told his mother: “My goal is to triumph and come back, otherwise I could never return.” At the age of 22, Yoshigei arrived at the port of Manzanillo under contract with Heijiro Kato, a wealthy businessman who owned one of Mexico’s largest deparment stores: El Nuevo Japón (New Japan). The store competed with prestigious stores such as El Palacio de Hierro and Liverpool. Kato also owned a factory that produced pearl buttons, and Nakatani joined the company along with a sizeable group of immigrants from the city of Osaka.

Emma and Yoshigei Nakatani (Nakatani Family Collection)

Most of the immigrants who worked for Kato lived in the center of Mexico City, in the neighborhood known as La Merced. This was where Nakatani fell in love with a young Mexican woman, Emma Ávila, and they were married in 1935.

Once married, the Nakatanis quickly started a family and gradually began integrating into Mexican society. However, the war that broke out in December 1941 between Japan and the United States brought severe consequences for Japanese immigrants and their families who were living in Mexico. Those who lived in the provinces were forcibly moved to Mexico City and Guadalajara, leaving their work and the towns that had been home to large groups of descendants born in Mexico.

For the immigrants who already lived in the two cities, this uprooting wasn’t so harsh, but many of the businesses where they worked were forced to close. This was the case of Kato's businesses, as he was widely believed to be a spy working for the Japanese empire. In July 1942, the businessman and all of the Japanese diplomats in Mexico were exchanged for North American and Mexican citizens living in Japan.

Now unemployed, Nakatani faced a difficult situation because he needed to support his wife and five small children. In 1943, Yoshigei was forced to draw on what he had learned as an apprentice years before in a candy shop in Sumoto, his hometown in Hyogo Prefecture. He and his wife Emma began making traditional Mexican candies known as “muégano” in a small room in their neighborhood. The candies sold so well that the couple started making a longer version of the fried wheat candy seasoned with salt called “oranda.” It was also a wild success with people in their neighborhood.

Encouraged by this, Yoshigei Nakatani attempted to make a snack with peanuts, rice flour and soy sauce that reminded him of his childhood in Japan. However, because it was difficult to find all of the ingredients in Mexico, he adapted the recipe and began making it with wheat flour. Just like the muégano and the oranda, the peanut snack became very popular among his customers in the snack shops surrounding La Merced market. Soon, orders for the peanuts increased so much that the couple had to boost production using small, homemade machines made by local blacksmiths.

As the Nakatani's children recall, production grew so rapidly that they had to organize it throughout the week to meet demand: they spent one day making muégano, one day making oranda and another making peanuts. Customers lined up in their neighborhood, as did vendors who came to buy the Nakatani family's products and sell them elsewhere. It was the customers themselves who began calling the snack “Japanese peanuts,” as it is known in Mexico.

Wholesale “Japanese peanuts” (Nakatani Family Collection)

The business gradually grew until the couple decided to rent another space in the same neighborhood where they lived, on Carretones street, and use it exclusively for snack production. The entire family was part of the business: Carlos, the oldest sibling, helped his father prepare the dough; Alicia, the second-oldest, took care of household duties by making meals, washing clothes and caring for her younger siblings; Graciela and Elvia, the youngest daughters, helped with minor tasks in the production workshop such as placing the peanuts in small cellophane bags. Yoshigei and Emma were in charge of the more difficult and heavy tasks, including selling their products on nearby streets.

Packages of Nipon Japanese peanuts (Nakatani Family Collection)

In the 1950s, Yoshigei Nakatani gave his small business the name Nipon, in honor of his native country. The income from this family business was enough to begin using cellophane bags printed with the company's name. Nakatani asked his fourth child, Elvia, to draw a small geisha to identify the product. And that drawing became the logo for the company, which went on to become a well-known industry in Mexico City.

Despite the problems faced by the family and the snack business in those early years, Nakatani always recognized the nobility of the product that had helped his family, which eventually included six children, earn a living and prosper. In the early 1960s, the Nakatani family began to enjoy the fruits of those many years of hard work. Nakatani's children overcame his opposition and convinced him to leave the neighborhood around Carretones street and move to an apartment in the same area of La Merced, and years later, to buy a home in a middle-class neighborhood.

Nakatani Family

In 1970, Nipon began a new stage of expansion. One of Nakatani's children had earned a business degree and had the foresight to industrialize the production of muégano and Japanese peanuts. By 1972, the company left La Merced, where it had been founded and grown, and moved to a modern industrial plant, enabling it to introduce a new line of salted and enchilada-flavored peanuts. These became emblematic products for the company for many years. The company also expanded its market reach throughout Mexico City.

In the 1980s the country was affected by a severe economic crisis with direct consequences for its industries, and in addition, Productos Nipon faced unfair competition from new companies, some with multinational funding, that entered the market for Japanese peanuts. However, the company founded by Yoshigei Nakatani, led by his children Armando and Graciela, was able to overcome these challenges by creating new products such as chamoy candies. In 2017 the brand was acquired by food conglomerate La Costeña, which led to the founding of a new family business known as Dulces Komiru.

Yoshigei achieved his dream and returned to his hometown for the first time in 1970. Although he never saw his mother again, he was able to visit her grave having fulfilled his word. Yoshigei Nakatani died on September 9, 1992; Emma died two years later. The invention of Japanese peanuts is undoubtedly the Nakatani's great gift to Mexican popular culture.


© 2018 Sergio Hernández Galindo and Emma Nakatani Sánchez

business food issei Japanese peanuts mexico Nipon Yoshigei Nakatani