JPRI Critique Vol. XI, No. 4 (September 2004)
Celebrating Okinawans in Bolivia
By Kozy Amemiya

On August 15th of this year, the Okinawans in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia celebrated the 50th anniversary of their immigration to that country. More than 2,500 people attended the festivity, including dignitaries representing the Japanese, Bolivian, and U. S. governments as well as Okinawa Prefecture. Fifty years earlier on that very day, 278 immigrants arrived from Okinawa at the proposed colony in the Department of Santa Cruz, followed by a second group of 127 who arrived a month later. On the same date another nine years earlier, Japan had surrendered to the Allied Forces, which put Okinawa directly under a U.S. military occupation that lasted 27 years. The expropriation of farmland by the U.S. military led to a total of 3,200 Okinawans emigrating to Bolivia in the ten years from 1954 to 1964.

In 1954, their destination was a jungle with no access roads to the nearest town or a market for their produce. Soon a mysterious disease struck the new immigrant community and took 15 lives in eight months. This tragedy, plus other hardships such as a lack of potable water, led the new immigrants to move to another locale. Eventually, they settled at the current site of Colonia Okinawa I, 100 km northeast of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the capital of the Department. Even in the new place, the extremely difficult living conditions, floods, droughts, and crop failures kept the immigrants’ lives miserable, and the majority of the settlers eventually left the colony. Many re-migrated to other countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, while others returned to Japan. Today only a quarter of the original settlers and their descendants remain in the colony, which now consists of Colonia Okinawa I, II and III.

Some of those who had re-migrated to other countries or returned to Japan joined their fellow immigrants to celebrate the 50th anniversary. They marched as delegates from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, the United States and Japan at the beginning of the Good Harvest Festival that took place on the evening before the anniversary ceremony. Thus, the 50th anniversary was an occasion not just for reflections on the past and a celebration of hard work and its consequent success but also for a grand reunion of all those who once struggled together in the new colony in Bolivia.

Those Okinawans who had left the colony as well as other visitors were astounded by the degree of success their fellow immigrants had achieved in Bolivia. “Okinawa,” now firmly on the map of Bolivia as an Alcaldia (a formal administrative unit of Bolivian government), is renowned as a major producer of soybeans and wheat. On August 30, 2002, the Bolivian government designated the Colonias Okinawa as the Wheat Capital of Bolivia.

To underscore the success of the Okinawan community in Bolivia, the 50th anniversary celebration was a lavish feast. It had over 2,500 participants, and inaugurated a museum of immigration history, a granite memorial to commemorate the dead, and a statue of Victor Paz Estenssoro, who as then President of Bolivia encouraged the Okinawan and Japanese immigration in the 1950s. The paving of the central park in Colonia Okinawa I was also one of the commemoration projects but the work has yet to be completed. The array of dignitaries that attended the ceremony was impressive: the President of Bolivia (Carlos Diego Mesa Gisbert), the Governor of Okinawa Prefecture (Keiichi Inamine), the Japanese Ambassador to Bolivia (Mitsunori Shirakawa), the US Ambassador to Bolivia (David Greenlee), the Director of the Japan International Cooperation Agency [JICA] (Etsuo Kitahara), the Governor [Prefecto] of Santa Cruz (Carlos Hugo Molina), an Okinawan representative in the Upper House of the Japanese Diet (Junshiro Nishime), and other representatives of various organizations of Okinawa Prefecture.

The Okinawans invited the U.S. Ambassador because the U.S. initially sponsored and financed the project of Okinawan emigration to Bolivia. The Issei felt that it would be proper to express their gratitude to the Americans for their contribution, no matter what American motives for promoting Okinawan emigration might have been at the time. Ambassador Greenlee readily accepted the invitation and delivered a speech in Spanish that was candid and personal rather than political. In his speech he acknowledged the expropriation of farmland by the U.S. military as a factor in Okinawan emigration to Bolivia.

His speech corresponded well with the goodwill Okinawans extended to the United States. In fact, the Okinawans discussed at one of the meetings of the celebration preparation committee whether to display the Stars and Stripes along with the national flags of Bolivia and Japan. The Issei thought it would be appropriate to show their respect and appreciation for the U.S. aid in their immigration. The usually apolitical younger generation, on the other hand, opposed it, not because they had a different view of the U.S. role in the immigration project but because they do not like the current U.S. stance in world affairs. Unable to reach a conclusion on their own, the Okinawans made an inquiry to the Japanese embassy about this matter. It took the embassy two weeks to respond with their opinion -- that it would be inappropriate on this occasion to display the American flag.

In contrast to the U.S. Ambassador who reflected mostly on the past, Bolivian President Mesa delivered a speech that focused on the present and the future. He praised the successes of Okinawan farmers and tried to inspire Bolivians, by declaring that “el modelo cooperativo puede tranquilamente emularse en todo el país para conseguir los mismos resultados” [the model cooperative can be peacefully emulated all over the country to obtain the same results]. In light of the numerous road blockades mounted by disaffected groups and a political peace precariously maintained ever since he took the office, President Mesa’s desire to see Bolivians following the Okinawan farmers’ cooperation and hard work leading to their prosperity is understandable. However, the president of the Chamber of Eastern Agriculture and Live Stock (Cámara Agropecuaria del Oriente: CAO), José Céspedes, is skeptical, pointing out that the Japanese and Okinawan colonies have received aid from both the Japanese and Bolivian governments, which, he claims, is something Bolivian producers have not had.

It is true that the Okinawans have received financial and technical aid from the Japanese government and Okinawa Prefecture, if not the Bolivian government. The 50th anniversary celebration is a case in point. Okinawans might have been able to mount the ceremonies and parties (budgeted at over US$170,000) on their own and with private contributions from inside and outside Bolivia. But they could not have managed the various projects, such as the constructions of the museum, the statue, and the memorial, without the help of Okinawa Prefecture, which provided a large portion of the budget, projected at over US$440,000.

At the same time, it is also true that Okinawans have long used aid from Japan very effectively. Aid money has never disappeared into the pockets of private individuals before it reached the intended projects, a common occurrence in Bolivia and one that Mr. Céspedes must also have noticed.

I will leave for future study and debate whether the Colonias Okinawa could become a model for the rest of Bolivia. There is no question, however, that the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Okinawan immigration to Bolivia demonstrated the Okinawans’ strong unity and network. That hundreds of Okinawans came from various countries in Americas as well as Japan indicates how widely Okinawans are scattered and yet how united they remain. The money that poured into the Colonias Okinawa from those people as well as Okinawa Prefecture is more evidence of Okinawan pride and identity.

It was quite telling that Governor Inamine of Okinawa received more media attention than the Japanese Ambassador, although Mr. Inamine was rather subdued throughout the ceremonies, in spite of the fact that it was his father who had pushed the initial immigration project. Perhaps the crash of a U.S. helicopter back home onto the campus of Okinawa International University weighed heavily on the Governor’s mind. (He left early to deal with both the American military and the growing protest over the incident.)

As far as Bolivians are concerned, Okinawans and Japanese are indistinguishable. However, during the main ceremony it was an Okinawan image (see photo appendix) that was firmly imprinted on the Bolivians as “Japanese.” The dignitaries sat on the stage against the backdrop of a huge screen with an image of a brilliantly red Shuri Castle printed on it. This screen, a donation from a private citizen in Okinawa Prefecture, was specifically made and dyed for the stage of this auditorium at a cost of nearly $10,000. It was wonderfully showy and reminded everyone present of the Okinawans’ ancestral islands under a bright sun. It also perfectly suited the warm, relaxed atmosphere of the lowlands of Bolivia. Instead of sailing into the open sea for trade as their ancestors did, Okinawans in Bolivia have opened up the landscape by clearing the jungle and established their community in wide-open fields. The magnificent screen with Shuri Castle seemed to symbolize the Okinawans’ reestablished self-confidence in a new land, away from the yoke of either Japanese or American rule. Thus, their 50th anniversary celebration was, ultimately, a celebration of Okinawans as a people.

KOZY AMEMIYA is the author of many articles about Okinawans and Japanese in Bolivia, including “The Bolivian Connection: U.S. Bases and Okinawan Emigration,” in Chalmers Johnson, ed., Okinawa: Cold War Island (Cardiff, Calif.: Japan Policy Research Institute, 1999), pp. 53 - 69.

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