Okinawa, 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.”

Talk to the old-timers in Okinawa, and they also tell a story of hardship.

At the close of World War II, the U.S. Army constructed a military base on Japan’s Okinawa Island. In part as compensation for land confiscated to build the base, the U.S. offered some families attractive 124-acre parcels in Bolivia.

But two-thirds of the 3,315 persons who emigrated to Bolivia ultimately left their new Okinawa. Nearly half of the first group of 272 settlers fell seriously ill from an unknown disease within months of their arrival. Others tired of the isolation they encountered in a jungle landscape with no roads. There was no potable water; the nearest source of fresh water was several miles of walking away.

Those who did stay, however, have few complaints. Through decades of hard work — buttressed by low-interest loans and technical support from Japan — many expanded their holdings into large-scale farms, and are now comparatively among the super-rich in impoverished Bolivia.

Today, the elderly founding fathers of Okinawa, Bolivia, spend their afternoons at a seniors center playing gateball, one of Japan’s favorite pastimes, or watching sumo and other Japanese television offerings beamed to their screen from their very own local Japanese-language television station.

Their offspring manage the Okinawa Colonies Integral Agricultural Cooperative (CAICO), which sells million of dollars worth of goods (including milk, soy, sugar, corn, sunflowers and wheat — it's the largest wheat producer in Bolivia) annually throughout Bolivia. "The Japanese young people here who don't want to work, we send them back to Japan," joked Hugo Oyakawa, 44, production manager of CAICO.

There is a modern hospital and school, both built with the support of Japan. The Japanese-Bolivian Association is housed in a state of the art building and museum. And perhaps most astonishing is what you hear in Okinawa: Listen to some of the 1,000 Bolivians of Japanese descent, and you'll usually hear them speaking nonstop Japanese.

Dan Masterson, a historian on Japanese immigration to Latin America, believes a key reason for Okinawa’s success is that the settlers remained in rural areas. "The demise of Japanese culture in countries like Peru and Brazil happened because the vast majority left the countryside for the cities," he said.

Okinawans also credit their local school for helping maintain their Japanese identity. For decades, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has sent teachers from Japan to teach the mother language and cultural traditions.

Still, Kenchi Nakaza, 45, a farmer who grows wheat, soy and flowers, laughs when asked why the Okinawans so firmly hold on to their Japanese language. Nazaka believes his three young children mainly speak so much Japanese to understand him and his wife: “We only speak Japanese to each other at home,” he said.

Read more on immigration in the Americas:

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