A cup of green tea in the jungle

by Rob Gilhooly

OKINAWA, Bolivia — Shiko Asato is glued to the TV set as NHK news shows the highlights from a recent sumo tournament. His wife Shizuko sets out cups of green tea, a plate of manju bean-paste buns and a couple of cans of nicely chilled Japanese beer. It has, after all, been a scorcher in the jungle.

“Oh, when I think back!” she says with a laugh that belies her 78 years. “When we arrived here we didn’t even have water. We’d collect rainwater from puddles. Every day we’d cook a kind of mountain rat. There was nothing else.”

Recalling the past, the couple breaks into hearty laughter. While Okinawa, Japan, was recovering from its post World War II trauma, the Asatos were barely surviving off rats and ditch water in Okinawa, Bolivia.

They arrived at the settlement in 1954 as part of a U.S.-financed emigration program. With thousands of Okinawans repatriating after the war from lands formerly occupied by Japan, Okinawa, formerly known as the Ryukyu Islands, became severely overpopulated. It also was subjected to a reduction in arable land, large chunks of which had been appropriated by the U.S. to build military bases.

The original plan was to send 12,000 Okinawans to Bolivia over a 10-year period, although only 3,200 actually did so. The Asatos were members of the first group of 269, who applied for the emigration program after losing their farm land to the U.S. military.

The program was promoted by the U.S.-created Ryukyu government, which promised emigrants 50 hectares of land each, housing and, in the future, railroad access to the nearest city of Santa Cruz.

After a three-month journey by ship, the first group arrived at the settlement, a 2,500-hectare area of land 150 km from Santa Cruz. Yet, the land was far from what the emigrants had been told to expect.

“It was pure jungle,” says Eijun Nozato, as he takes a break from a game of gate-ball with a dozen others near the village culture center, which was built with Japanese aid a decade ago. “It was a land inhabited by monkeys, cheetahs and snakes. We felt abandoned and neglected.”

After just a few months, during which they had cut down much of the vegetation that covered the land, disaster struck when the community was hit by a mysterious plague, which took 17 lives and left dozens bedridden.

With no potable water, and only the mountain rats, deer and wild boar to eat, plus infrequent U.S. food aid of canned meat and milk, the emigrants moved to another site 70 km away. They had no transportation and the trip required them to swim across a raging river, their children and luggage strapped to their backs.

This new site, however, was soon hit by a terrible flood, which brought with it hordes of rats and further disease. It turned out that the land was located in the floodplain of the Rio Grande o Guapay, which splits the Santa Cruz department north to south.

“For many, this was the final straw,” says another resident. “Some went back to Okinawa, others moved on to nearby countries such as Peru and Brazil. Just 16 percent remained. We all felt a tremendous responsibility to make this work.”

Those determined to stick it out moved again, and in April, 1956, Colonia Okinawa was born. Although the community’s troubles continued for years to come — floods still remain a serious hazard — today it is a thriving community of 4,000, including many Bolivians and other South American nationals who have moved there.

The community successfully grows soy beans, corn, wheat and maze for “chibi,” a popular alcoholic beverage. Electricity and telephone lines were introduced in the 1980s and a satellite link hooks residents up to NHK. The local store sells sushi and other Japanese products.

According to mayor Katsuyoshi Taira, whose parents arrived at Colonia Okinawa in 1957, kindergarten schoolchildren are taught Japanese, and occasionally sing the “Kimigayo” national anthem. Local residents also perform traditional Okinawan dances during festivals in the region.

“We want to ensure that Okinawan culture lives on and also introduce it to Bolivians as a symbol of our identity,” Taira says.

Most of the original settlers still have ties with their homeland — many of their children have studied or live in Japan. Yet, while they do make occasional pilgrimages back home, few seem to miss it.

“It was hard early on,” says Shiko Asato. “But we made a conscious decision to come and to stay. As they say, ‘There’s no place like home.’ ”