Susana Higuchi: Radical First Lady of Peru & Civil Engineer

Japanese Peruvian Susana Higuchi was known for her outspokenness in politics

Alberto Fujimori and Susana Fujimori

Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and first lady Susana Higuchi during the Independence Day celebrations on July 28, 1994 in Lima, Peru. (AP Photo/ Marcelo Salinas)

Celebrated every May, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI) is a time of year to recognize the lives of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans past and present, especially in unexpected ways. The AAPI community has a long and important history in Latin America. As a result, many Latinx people of Asian descent have made important impacts on the region and the rest of the community, and they deserve recognition for all they have done. One such person is Susana Higuchi, a Japanese Peruvian engineer who served as the First Lady of Peru from 1990 to 1994 alongside her then-husband and President Alberto Fujimori. She was known for her outspokenness, activism, and advocacy in politics, even going as far as to openly criticize her husband on the national stage. Following their divorce, she built her own separate political career, serving as a member of the Independent Moralizing Front party and a member of Congress in the 2000s. She paid a high price for speaking up against corruption in her country but her voice has cemented her as a revolutionary figure in Peruvian politics and left behind an extraordinary legacy for future leaders. Read on to learn more about Susana Higuchi, a radical political activist who fearlessly spoke up for what was right.

Early Life

Susana Shizuko Higuchi Miyagawa was born in Lima, Peru in 1950 to Japanese parents. From childhood, she was known as independent and outspoken who did what she felt was right, even if no one else agreed with her. She also was unafraid to defy traditional gender roles, deciding early on to pursue her interests in science and mathematics, industries dominated by men. She was accepted to the Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria, the engineering university in Lima,  with a specialty in hydraulics. Following graduation, she started working for a tire company and was able to move her family to La Victoria District in Lima. Her defiance also led to her relationship with Alberto Fujimori, who was also Japanese Peruvian and whom she dated for four months without the approval of her parents. After their marriage in 1974, she kept on working, opening the construction company Construcciones Fuji. She was well known for wearing traditionally “masculine” clothing on the job, including shirts, jeans, and boots. Meanwhile, her husband worked as a professor and she became the primary breadwinner of the family.

First Lady of Peru

In 1990, Higuchi’s husband Fujimori decided to run for president. Because of her successful business, she was able to finance his campaign, as he was unknown at the time and unable to raise money on his own. With her help, he was able to find support among the country’s people and fellow politicians through his campaign promises. He won the election and was officially sworn into office in July 1990. However, it soon became clear to Higuchi that her husband would not follow through on his promises. In fact, he would become extremely corrupt.

In 1990, for example, Higuchi alleged that Fujimori received a donation of $12.5 million USD from private citizens in Japan, which was meant to be donated to poor Peruvian children. Instead, he reportedly deposited it back into one of his private bank accounts in Japan. Later, not two years into his presidency, she accused his sisters of illegally selling donated clothing from Japan meant for the poor for millions of dollars, effectively marking up the clothes for their own financial gain. Just as the government was about to open up an investigation into the accusations, Fujimori staged a self-coup to shut down Congress and suspend the constitution, receiving international condemnation and effectively cutting off ties with multiple LATAM countries. That same year, she tried to challenge her husband for the presidency but he passed “Susana Law,” which he named after her in order to prevent family members from running for office and succeeding his post.

Despite Higuchi’s public outspokenness and actions, Fujimori was in full control of the Peruvian media at the time and many of her accounts failed to make it into the press. Still, there were many efforts to silence her. In 1994, she told journalists that she’d been mistreated and locked in her room for her defiance against her husband. She also alleged that, on her husband’s orders, she had been tortured hundreds of times by Peruvian intelligence through beatings and electric shocks, leaving permanent scars on her back and neck.

As a final punishment, Higuchi was stripped of her title as First Lady, which her husband then passed on to their oldest daughter Keiko, who became the youngest first lady in the Americas at the age of 19. They divorced soon after in 1995, with Higuchi accusing him of being a tyrant and inflicting domestic violence against her and corruption against their country. She would remain an outspoken critic of his regime until the end of his presidency in 2000. Fujimori would later be convicted of crimes against humanity and human rights abuses, including murder, corruption, embezzlement, forced sterilization, and kidnapping, for which he received 15 years in prison before being released in 2023.

Political Career

Following her divorce from Fujimori, Higuchi established her own political party Harmony 21st Century, colloquially known as the Harmony Party. She planned to run for Congress in 1995, only to find out that her party was ineligible because it didn’t have the required number of constituent signatures to be considered an official political party. In response, she went on a hunger strike for two days and had to be admitted to the hospital for dehydration, asthma, and pneumonia. An outside investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that this rejection was unconstitutional and her rights had been violated.

Nevertheless, she continued to work toward a more equitable and just future for Peru. In 2000 and 2001, she was elected twice to serve as a member of the Independent Moralizing Front, which was a reformist political party under then-president Alejandro Toledo. She was also elected to serve two terms in Congress from 2000 to 2006 as a party of an anti-Fujimori party. After retiring in 2006, she endorsed her daughter Keiko’s presidential runs in 2016 and 2021.

Death and Legacy

Higuchi spent the rest of her life being open about the corruption she witnessed during her husband’s presidency. Two of her four children, Keiko and Kenji, also went into politics. However, she ended up in poor health, being diagnosed with cancer and spending a month in a hospital in Lima to treat respiratory issues. She eventually died after a long battle with cancer in 2021 at the age of 71. She continues to be remembered for her political activism and dedication to exposing corruption in politics in Peru.

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