Japanese settlements in Bolivia

Bolivia, a multi-ethnic country also has presence of Asian heritage. But did you also know that there are Japanese settlements close to the city of Santa Cruz (in the Eastern lowlands of Bolivia) called San Juan de Yapacani, Pueblo Nissei and Okinawa I, II and III (in homage to their ancestors’ homeland)?

During the 20th century, tens of thousand of people left the Japanese Okinawa province and migrated to other places in search for a better life. Okinawa was one of the poorest regions in Japan and one of its hardest hit areas during the 2nd World War II. Due to the bad economical situation in Japan, many migrants left the Okinawa islands for South America during the 1950s and 1960s (although the first Japanese immigrants in the region already go back 120 years ago). The Bolivian and the US government offered >124 acres of land per family in Bolivia. The US was involved in this ‘project’ as they constructed a military base on Japan’s Okinawa Island. In part as compensation for land confiscated to build the base, the U.S. offered some families attractive parcels in Bolivia.

Upon arriving in Bolivia, the Okinawa migrants battled the jungle, mysterious illnesses and floods. There were no roads and there was no potable water. The mayority of the approx 3.400 migrants that arrived to Bolivia moved on to neighboring countries or returned to Japan.

The ones who stayed prospered, aided by donations from the governments of Japan and Okinawa province. 50-100 KM away from the city of the Santa Cruz they founded the settlements Okinawa I, II and III. Dan Masterson, a historian on Japanese immigration to Latin America, believes a key reason for the Okinawa’s success (the Japanese settlements in Bolivia) is that the settlers remained in rural areas. “The demise of Japanese culture in countries like Peru and Brazil happened because the vast majority left the countryside for the cities,” he said. Nowadays Bolivia has about 14.000 citizens of Japanese descent. These Bolivians of Japanese ancestry have greatly contributed to the growth of the country’s economy. They remain proud of their Japanese culture and traditions, as an example, they celebrate the Bon festival to honor their ancestors every year. This Buddhist festival has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon Odori, this typical dance involves people lining up in a circle around a high wooden tower made especially for the festival called yagura.

Okinawa girls. Image by Jeniffer Wai Ting Tan.