May 2013

Another Okinawa is in Bolivia, far from Japan

The descendants of immigrants from the Okinawa prefecture live in Bolivia with Japanese pride. They identify themselves as Japanese despite being born in Bolivia. We can find how to identify ourselves from their life.

By: Taisuke Azuma
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Kanagawa-ken - Japan

Records which they enjoyed at that time are displayed in the museum.
Photo: Taisuke Azuma

Colonia Okinawa is located one and a half driving hours from Santa Cruz. Nowadays, approximately 900 Japanese live alongside more than 11,000 Bolivians. The immigrants from the Okinawa prefecture came because they wanted new land instead of the island of Okinawa, which was wasted during World War II. In 1954, the first immigrants from the Okinawa prefecture in Japan arrived to Colonia Uruma in Bolivia. However, 15 people died at this location due to the Uruma disease, which is thought as a sort of Hanta virus. That is why they sought new land in Palometillas and Colonia Okinawa. At that time, Colonia Okinawa was virgin jungle where jaguares roamed and on occasion was flooded by the Rio Grande. To be able to live in their land, they cut out forests and cultivated the land, all by hand.

In 1954, the first immigrant from the Okinawa prefecture in Japan arrived at Colonia Uruma in Bolivia.

The main industry in Okinawa has been agriculture since they settled in. Almost all Japanese have large rice, cane, soy bean, and corn farms. They are too large to need more Bolivian labor. In 1971, CAICO (Cooperativa Agropecuaria Integral Colonias Okinawa) was founded to support farmers. It provides plenty of support such as purchasing crops from farmers and selling them in the market, teaching, processing, and so on. It employs Japanese youth graduated from school to have them gain experience, so if youths from Okinawa go to Santa Cruz or another city for their studies, they can return to their lifestyle.

They grow rice in paddy fields as well as the Japanese
Photo: Taisuke Azuma

Though in the western culture they build a church at first, in the Japanese culture they build a school. “Colegio Particular Mixto Centro Boliviano Japones Okinawa #1” ( a Japanese Bolivian school) was founded as a private school in 1987 with the purpose of teaching higher education to the Japanese. Nowadays, a total of 83 students attend the school, which includes a kindergarten. 60 % of the students are Japanese, 30 % are half Japanese, and 10% are Bolivian. In this school, students learn in Spanish in the morning and in Japanese in the afternoon. They can learn languages, mathematics, music, physics, and computer science. However, the most important thing is to learn morals as defined by the Japanese. As taught by the school, Japanese children do not steal but rather help each other. Yet despite the education in Japanese, children speak Spanish when they talk and play with their friends, in particular outside of house such as in school. Emilia Kochi, a second generation (Japanese Bolivian), said that she minds speaking Japanese at home to have their children learn Japanese more.

The Okinawa prefecture has sent teachers to the schools in Colonia Okinawa since 1986. Their first mission is to teach physics and music, which were difficult to teach for the instructors born in Okinawa. However, the more time passed, the more important the cultures of the Okinawa prefecture became. This system will end in March 2013 since the first mission is almost completed. The people living in Okinawa believe that this system means not only teaching these subjects but also sharing their own cultures.

Children study mathematics with their friends.
Photo: Taisuke Azuma

As with education, sports meets and long distance relay races are important in Japanese culture. They have competed with other regions of the Colonia (No. 1, 2, and 3) and from Santa Cruz in sports meets since 1961. Though in Japan a sports meet is a school event, in Okinawa it is a regional one as well. Though this race began with health purposes, it has gradually changed to competition. The Japanese - Bolivian community is not isolated within Bolivia; they also have contact with the Japanese community. The worldwide uchinanchu festival has been held since 1990 every five years to communicate with descendants from Okinawa living throughout the world. With the purpose of protesting their culture, they left their history as a memorial. They built a historical museum to display their history, such as the troubles in 2004 when they celebrated the fiftieth anniversary since their first wave of immigration. In the museum, tools which were used and photographs from that time are displayed; sometimes Japanese students come to study their history. However, JICA volunteer Midori Nakamura said that it is important for Okinawa to have Bolivian people show them, since they do not know the difficulties which the Japanese have experienced and just envy their quality of life. Not knowing each other accelerates the distinction between the Japanese community and Bolivians. Japanese spend much time with other Japanese and have good relations because they can’t completely trust Bolivians. It is easier for them to spend time with Japanese, Emilia explained. Furthermore, Naoya Asato, a third generation Japanese immigrant and the leader of WYUA Bolivia, said that he does not want to communicate with Bolivians because if they do, the Bolivian culture will overtake the Japanese.

Religious gate ‘Torii’ in the plaza.
Photo: Taisuke Azuma

The activity to pass along their culture to the next generation has started between their youth. WYUA (World Youth Uchinanchu Association) was established in 2011 at the Okinawa prefecture to pass along the identity of Okinawa descendants and create the network between their youth throughout the world. They have branches in the continental United States, Hawaii, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Great Britain. They hold the worldwide youth uchinanchu festival every year at different countries. Last year they held this festival at Brazil to communicate with descendants from Okinawa living in different countries and identify their passed cultures and typical language.

Colonia Okinawa still has plenty of Japanese culture since it is younger than those from other countries, such as Brazil. They adopt good practices of Bolivian cultures, such as greeting. When they hold a meeting and if someone is late, they stop the meeting and greet everyone, just as Bolivians do. In the future, there will be a more integrated culture between Bolivians and Japanese.

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