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Okinawa, Bolivia

Japanese migrants have made a new home in rural Bolivia.

OKINAWA, Bolivia — Fifty-five years ago, 272 Japanese from Okinawa Island arrived in a remote corner of Bolivia's Amazon rainforest in hopes of finding a better life.

The resettlement was part of a United States-sponsored emigration plan, patterned in part after a controversial Japan-sponsored program that between the 1920s and the 1960s prompted more than 300,000 Japanese citizens to move to Latin America — the second-largest destination for worldwide Japanese emigration over the past century, after the United States.

These Bolivian settlers battled the unforgiving perils of the jungle, including mysterious illnesses, to lay down the foundation of a "new Okinawa." On a visit to the town in June to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Japanese immigration to Bolivia, Japan’s Prince Masahito Hitachi lauded their achievement: "To observe this land that breathes the air of prosperity, and to think of the difficulties and suffering of the immigrants that built this, I want to express my respect."

Bolivia’s unique Japanese colonies, located four hours outside the city of Santa Cruz, are rare success stories for Japanese immigrants in Latin America. While the Japanese who settled in Bolivia had their hardships, many of those who stayed did well financially and maintained ties to Japan.

Today, an estimated 1.5 million people of Japanese descent live in the region, the vast majority of them in Brazil, with significant populations also in Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia and Paraguay. Japan actively promoted and financed emigration to the region up until the 1960s, a controversial experiment aimed at relieving a job shortage at home and improving economic and diplomatic relations abroad.

But in contrast to the Japanese colonies in Bolivia, Japanese immigrants elsewhere in the region have mostly assimilated with the culture of their adopted countries. And while in Okinawa decades of official Japanese assistance with agriculture, health and education eventually proved successful, in the rest of the hemisphere Japan’s results have been mixed or downright failures.

In fact, some Japanese immigrants in Latin America returned to Japan to sue their government for making false promises about conditions abroad.

In one telling case, in June 2006, 170 former Japanese immigrants in the Dominican Republic won a historic lawsuit in a Tokyo court. They had moved to the island in the 1950s expecting to live in a Caribbean paradise filled with fertile farmland. Instead, the 1,300 Japanese who settled in the Dominican Republic found unproductive land, and often, starvation. Some resorted to suicide.

In 2006, Japan's then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi agreed to pay each of the plaintiffs between 500,000 to 2 million yen and provide new financial support for the Japanese still living on the island. Koizumi also issued an official apology: "The government honestly regrets and apologizes for the enormous hardships the immigrants experienced due to the government's mismanagement at that time.”