It was 1958 when a 14-year-old Isao Taoka headed for Paraguay from Yokohama port with his parents and siblings as part of a government-backed emigration project.
After 46 years, Taoka is back in Japan as Paraguay’s ambassador to Tokyo, hoping to “repay the kindness” of economic assistance Japan provided him and his fellow immigrant farmers to confront the hardships of their new land.
Taoka, who recently dropped his Japanese citizenship, which he held along with Paraguayan nationality, is the first Japan-born Paraguayan to be named his adopted nation’s ambassador to Japan.
“It was a jungle,” Taoka, 61, said Monday of the land his family settled. “It took five to 10 years to clear the land and earn an income from the oranges and tea we planted.”
Taoka originally hailed from Tokushima Prefecture.
Although the immigrants lacked initial infrastructure, Japan eventually provided financial assistance via the government-affiliated Japan International Cooperation Agency to build roads and schools, he said.
“Paraguay received a great amount of aid from Japan in building its nation,” said Taoka, who took his new post last week.
As he worked his land, Taoka gradually became a core member of the immigrant community based in Fram in southern Paraguay.
When Fram turned into the city of La Paz in 1986, Taoka became the mayor and served for 10 years. He was elected again in 2002 as mayor of the city of 3,500, of which 750 are Japanese immigrants and their descendents.
Taoka’s background won him the ambassadorship, but he admitted there were those back home who questioned the wisdom of assigning a Japanese immigrant to the mission.
“I am proud to be a Japanese,” Taoka said. “But I will do my utmost to carry out the important duty of serving as Paraguayan ambassador.”
A priority item on his agenda is to solicit aid.
“One of my main tasks will be to ask the Japanese government to increase official development assistance to Paraguay,” he said.
In 2000, Japan stopped providing grant aid to Paraguay after its average annual income increased to around $1,900, topping Japan’s aid threshold.
However, since then the figure has fallen to less than $1,000.
Taoka also hopes that more Paraguayan products, mainly sesame, soybeans and “matsutake” mushrooms, will be imported to Japan — crops that were planted with technical assistance from this country.
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