Japanese migrants create new home in jungle

Japanese migrants create new home in jungle

More than five decades ago, Shiko Asato fled his war-destroyed home on the remote Japanese island of Okinawa looking for a new life.

That search sent him and nearly 300 other Okinawan migrants across two oceans, through the jungles and plains of South America to a hot, humid stretch of eastern Bolivia where disease, flooding and drought awaited.

Yet Asato and his fellow refugees did what millions of migrants around the world have done: They persisted and built a new home for themselves.

Today, the three settlements that make up Okinawa, Bolivia, are testaments to the years of toil Asato and other migrants spent carving out lives from the then-wild Bolivian countryside.

Now a wizened 78-year-old who can't walk on his own, Asato remembered how he and other settlement founders had to clear whole forests to build Okinawa's roads and farms.

"It was a jungle, and we had to cut everything down with our own hands," Asato said in a mix of Japanese and poor Spanish. "We cried because it was so dark at night."

But all the struggle and homesickness was worth it, he said. His family now farms nearly 2,000 acres of their own land and lives in one of the many Japanese, tile-roof mansions that dot Okinawa.

"We live like they do in the United States," he said.

Hidden in the Bolivian countryside, by poor roads about 50 miles from the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Okinawa is a bubble of Japanese culture amid the peasants and small farms of the region.

The 900 Asian residents of Okinawa are also a major economic engine, controlling 125,000 acres of land and selling the soy, rice, wheat and other crops they grow there throughout South America.

That they built their town out of the jungle over just a few decades is an inspiration to local Bolivians such as Alfredo Martinez, who works on an Okinawan farm.

"It's something that gives us an example," Martinez said. "These people earn and they strengthen themselves."

In their homes and community centers, the Asian residents of Okinawa have held onto whatever they can of the lifestyles and customs of their native land.

Many speak Japanese and local Okinawan languages to each other rather than Spanish, with some old timers speaking practically no Spanish. Using the rice and soy they grow, they make noodles and tofu. They watch Japanese television beamed via satellite.

In the afternoons, when the rains and heat subside, elderly Okinawans emerge from their air-conditioned mansions to play gate ball, a Japanese version of croquet, on well-manicured courts.

In an enormous community center, they practice taiko drumming and other Japanese arts. On a recent week, posters advertising a performance by Japanese folk singer Tazuko Miyara titled "Breezes from the Native Land" were all over town.

"I have always lived in the colony, and there are always Japanese people around, so there's no need for me to speak Spanish," said Yukifumi Nakamura, who migrated from the Okinawan islands in 1963, married a local Japanese woman and now owns more than 1,200 acres of land.

During the 20th century, tens of thousand of people left Okinawa province, a cluster of islands off the southern tip of Japan, and migrated to spots around the Pacific Ocean and the Americas.

Long one of Japan's poorest regions and once a separate kingdom, Okinawa also was one of its hardest hit areas during World War II and became the site of major U.S. military bases after the war.

With Okinawa's economy devastated, 19 boatloads of migrants left the islands for Bolivia from 1954 through the 1960s, drawn by Bolivian government offers of 124 acres of land per family.

Upon arriving, migrants discovered that land was in forested terrain plagued by boa constrictors and devastating floods. Shortly after settling on the banks of the Rio Grande, 15 migrants died from a mysterious disease.

Of the 3,376 migrants who came, about two-thirds moved on to neighboring countries such as Brazil and Peru or returned to Japan.

The ones who stayed prospered, aided in no small part by donations from the governments of Japan and Okinawa province.

Seven bridges around the settlement, the community center and a historical museum documenting the community's founding were built with that aid.

The governor of Okinawa, Japan, accompanied by then-Bolivian President Carlos Mesa, visited the settlement in 2004 to commemorate the town's 50th anniversary.

Last year, the settlement made its mark on Bolivia's political scene when presidential candidate Michiaki Nagatani Morishita, born near Okinawa to Japanese immigrant parents, came in fourth place among eight candidates.

Despite the success, the future of Okinawa as it has been for the past five decades is uncertain.

About half of its young people have moved to Japan, and most of its founders are dead. Thousands of Bolivians work on the settlement's farms.

The main road of Okinawa 1, the first and largest settlement, reveals little evidence of a Japanese presence, with Bolivian mestizos of European and indigenous heritage running its shops and walking its streets. The houses of the Asian community are sprinkled amid the vast stretches of farmland.

One of the few remaining second-generation Okinawans with a college degree, 25-year-old Makoto Shimabukuro heads the community's farm cooperative. Despite his responsibilities, which include processing and selling the settlement's crops, Shimabukuro said Okinawa's hold on him is weakening. He plans to joins dozens of his friends in Japan in a year or two.

"My best friend is there, and she says there are opportunities there," he said. "I don't know what will happen to this place, but I can't stay here forever."

Updated : 2021-03-08 15:04 GMT+08:00