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  HOME | Bolivia

The Japanese Island in the Heart of South America

OKINAWA, Bolivia – For those who don’t know Bolivia, it may be hard to picture a small Japanese enclave that has thrived thanks to the resilience of a group of immigrants.

Some 80 kilometers northeast of Santa Cruz lies the colony of Okinawa I, named by its founding fathers after the Japanese island from where they came.

Many of those who settled in Bolivia speak only Japanese or their native Okinawa dialect, including the president of the Bolivian-Japanese Association of Okinawa, Yukifuni Nakamura, with whom EFE was able to speak via the group’s secretary general, Satoshi Higa.

91 JAPANESE PEOPLE, THE FIRST TO ARRIVE

The first Japanese immigrants arrived in Bolivia 120 years ago, an event being marked by a visit to the country by Japan’s Princess Mako of Akishino from July 15.

Ninety-one Japanese people were the first to try their luck on the sugar plantations in Peru before they moved onto Bolivia to work in rubber extraction in the north of La Paz region.

The conditions were not the best, so many returned to Peru or traveled onto other areas in northern Bolivia.

The period during World War II was not easy for them as relations between Japan and Bolivia broke down in 1942, with the Japanese embassy closing in 1955.

After the war, a new wave of immigration came, this time to Santa Cruz in the east, which is nowadays the country’s most prosperous region.

A decree signed in June 1953 by the then-President Victor Paz Estenssoro opened the door to Japanese immigrants, an action remembered with a commemorative plaque and monument to the politician in Okinawa’s main square.

No migration is easy, and for the Japanese emigrating to Bolivia it was no exception. Their journey began at Naha Port, where the Okinawans got onto boats that navigated around Asia and Africa before crossing the Atlantic to eventually reach the Brazil’s port of Santos. From there, they set off for Bolivia by train, according to a map in the Okinawa Bolivia Historic Museum.

Those who arrived first as part of the second wave of Japanese migration settled in a place called Uruma, some 40 km to the east of today’s colony. But tragedy struck two months after their arrival in the form of an unknown fever, which decimated the population.

For the first two years, they moved around, until they managed to put roots down in their current home.

COMPLICATED SUBSISTENCE

Nakamura arrived on Bolivian soil in 1963 at the age of 22.

“Because I was poor I stayed here,” he says, recalling his tough beginnings. Today, he is happy to live in a place that “is like a paradise,” and it was here he got married and had his six children.

“If I’d had a means to get tickets to go to Brazil or return to Japan, I would have probably left,” he adds.

When Nakamura arrived there were no roads, they had to dig them out.

Every now and then, he had to travel to Santa Cruz, which “wasn’t as developed as it is now,” which made it difficult to get his hands on rice, wheat flour and butter, he recalls.

The pioneers knew they would dedicate themselves to agriculture, starting off with corn, rice and cotton before they settled on soybeans and wheat – their star product to this day, which has afforded them the title of “wheat capital” of Bolivia.

Among the colony’s most imposing structures are the silos and a factory that makes “Okinawa” noodles from wheat flour.

As the lack of water and flooding have always caused problems for local farmers, in 1998 they began the construction of defense structures in the river Grande.

These measures have protected soybean, wheat and livestock production, leading the settlers to consider Okinawa I to be “a pilot model of agricultural production in Bolivia.”

REMNANTS OF THE SUFFERING

Satoshi Higa, a Nikkei born in Bolivia to Japanese parents, showed EFE around the local museum, a slice of history compiled by the immigrants.

When the colony turned 50, “our pioneers, our parents, saw the need to leave something to mark the history here of our immigration,” Higa says.

Neighbors donated their own photos, artifacts and memories.

“It’s striking because we have photographs where we can see the suffering from the early days up until 20 years of this colony, you can see the roadways were not roads, they were a swamp,” he says.

The museum houses mills, farming apparatus, household goods, carpenter tools, old money, clothes, suitcases, writing machines and household electronics brought over from Japan.

A bell given to the first settlers by Paz Estenssoro that was initially used to announce fiestas or meetings, but later became an ominous sound to signal the deaths caused by the epidemic, is also afforded a prominent position in the museum.

FOOD, MUSIC AND GAMES LIKE IN JAPAN

The town is still lacking sufficient road infrastructure to facilitate agriculture, but life it not so tough in Okinawa I.

Now the Japanese settlers live with and are outnumbered by people from Santa Cruz and other regions around Bolivia. But the Japanese and their descendants strive to preserve their culture and traditions.

There are a few houses with an Asian influence and some signs in Spanish and Japanese.

School classes are conducted in Spanish and on the afternoons pupils take part in Japanese cultural activities, says Higa.

The youngest children learn Japanese at home and at school, and play sports like baseball, which is popular in Japan, and soccer.

One of the most important cultural events is the Good Harvest Festival, held annually in August and in which the young people perform traditional Japanese dances, such as the Eisa, a folk dance accompanied by drums that originates from the Okinawa islands.

According to Nakamura, the community retains many Japanese customs in daily life, particularly when it comes to eating at home. Bolivian cuisine dominates the town.

The elders, who are respected among members of the community, remain active and occupy themselves with activities like gateball, a popular sport similar to croquet that is popular in Japan.

Sakae Atta, 71, is part of a group that meets without fail every afternoon to play the gateball.

“Here when they’re old, they come out to play to have this meeting between friends. Most of them are over 60 years old,” Atta tells EFE in perfect Spanish.

“It’s as if I’m Bolivian because I was little, I almost don’t remember Japan, the island of Okinawa and we’ve been here forever,” he says. Atta was seven when he came to Bolivia.

According to Nakamura, the pioneers feel as if their time is over and hope their descendants pick up new projects that improve the community.

“My hope is that they consolidate a peaceful, harmonious community and that we can have one of the best communities here in Bolivia.”

Some younger generations born to Japanese parents have had the opportunity to visit Japan, like Higa, who traveled to the Asian country to study after school, and three of Nakamura’s children moved there.

The legacy of the pioneers in this Amazonian region of Bolivia reaches the sixth generation today, while in colonies like San Juan they continued to arrive until 1992, according to figures from the Japanese embassy in La Paz.

Currently there are over 10,000 descendants, while there are some 700 Japanese people living in each of the colonies of Okinawa and San Juan.

Princess Mako will visit them from July 15-20.

 

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