JPRI Working Paper No. 75, March 2001
The Importance of Being Japanese in Bolivia
by Kozy Amemiya

"Riberalta?" The young taxi driver raised his eyebrows when he heard our destination. "You can buy Japanese surnames up there!" he exclaimed, adding, "They're even advertised on the street." No, he had never been to Riberalta but was tempted, he admitted while driving my husband and me to Viru Viru Airport in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, one morning in September 1999.

Other disparaging comments about Riberalta came from the young sons of Japanese immigrants in the bustling city of Santa Cruz. They were bewildered as to why on earth we were interested in such a place. We said we were going to take a look at the area where early Japanese immigrants had lived and worked and a large number of their descendants still lived. According to one estimate, approximately 7,000 descendants live in Riberalta and its surrounding area. Another 1,300 descendants live in Trinidad, the capital of the Department of Beni, and another 500 in Guayaramer’n, a town on the border with Brazil. There are also about 1,000 of them in Cobija in the Department of Pando. These are all very remote places, far from Bolivia's economic center of Santa Cruz or the political and cultural center of La Paz.

To the second generation of postwar Japanese immigrants in Santa Cruz, these descendants of earlier immigrants are just "others," not worthy of their attention. The postwar Japanese immigrants and their offspring regard them with disdain as "too Bolivianized" and "no longer Japanese." Why and how much does it matter to them to remain "Japanese?" And how do ordinary Bolivians in Santa Cruz, like our taxi driver, know about Japanese-Bolivians in Riberalta?


Two of the major tributaries of the Amazon, the Rio Madre de Dios and the Rio Beni, merge in Riberalta, in the Department of Beni near the Brazilian border. The area is extremely isolated not only because it is deep in the rain forest but also because the roads are terrible. A bus ride to Riberalta from Trinidad, a distance as the crow flies of less than 300 miles, takes a couple of days under the best conditions. In the rainy season, it can take over thirty days or more. Airplanes cannot land or take off when the red dirt runway becomes a giant bed of mud.

September is still the dry season. We landed at the edge of town. From the airport terminal, which looked and felt like a village railroad station, we traveled into town, each of us on the back seat of a motorcycle that served as a taxi. Motorcycles are everywhere, as both the primary means of transportation and the main source of entertainment. In the evening, in a motorized version of the paseo, the town square becomes a giant merry-go-round of motorcycles full of young single men and women, not so young men with families, and youngish women with children. They roar around the square for hours on end. Even in Trinidad, which has more to offer in the way of entertainment, locals partake of the motorcycle rally every evening. The motorcycles, incidentally, are all manufactured in Japan. I encountered very few Japanese-looking faces in Riberalta, nor any "for sale" signs offering Japanese surnames. But there were dozens of shiny Yamahas proudly displayed in the most brightly-lit store on the main drag.

The first Japanese immigrants to this Amazonian region were lured there in the early decades of the twentieth century by the booming rubber industry. Most of them eventually took Bolivian wives, often late in their lives when they realized they had not made and would never make enough of a fortune to return home with honor. With the end of the rubber boom, some of them and their descendants moved away, to cities such as La Paz and Cochabamba, and joined Bolivia's small middle class. Those who remained in the Beni area became entirely cut off from Japan and the rest of the Japanese-Bolivian community. Most of these descendants did not have a self-identity as Japanese or Japanese-Bolivians. Only a handful of educated, better-off ones in Trinidad have developed such an identity. Until around 1990, most were not even aware of or could care less about their Japanese ancestry. When, in the 1980s, Japan's bubble economy created an acute labor shortage, the opportunity to work in Japan pulled a large number of migrant workers, or dekasegi, from overseas. Japanese immigrants and their offspring in Latin American countries plagued by staggering hyper-inflation joined the dekasegi club. Their earnings in Japan turned up at home in conspicuous displays, spreading the word and inspiring those who hoped to improve their livelihood to travel to Japan and work.

Even those without Japanese nationality were willing to risk deportation. Meanwhile, Japan became so desperate for labor that the government revised its immigration law in 1989 to allow anyone of Japanese ancestry to obtain work permits. Henceforth even those without Japanese nationality could work in Japan so long as they could prove their Japanese ancestry. All of a sudden, any document proving or tracing Japanese ancestry had economic value and inevitably became a commodity. Four dekasegi contractors from Santa Cruz opened for business in Riberalta and recruited about a thousand dekasegi workers in the first half of the 1990s. In two years in Japan a Japanese-Bolivian could earn more money than he would in his entire lifetime in Riberalta. These remittance from Japan, of up to US$1,000 a month per dekasegi, revived Riberalta.

The dekasegi fever has cooled down since the Japanese economy's bubble burst. Nonetheless, Japan is still regarded as a land of high-paying jobs, and jobs considered low-paying by Japanese standards still abound. Labor is now being recruited in places like Sulawesi, Indonesia, also among those of Japanese ancestry-- i.e., descendants of Japanese immigrants or colonizers or soldiers in Southeast Asia. Japanese employers favor such workers because since the 1989 law they hold legitimate visas and are therefore not subject to arrest and deportation as other nationalities often are. Meanwhile to many urban working-class Bolivians with aspirations for a better life, Riberalta must seem like a recipient of collective and individual benefits stemming from being associated with Japan.

Santa Cruz

After Riberalta, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, or simply Santa Cruz, looks enormously rich with high-rise buildings and numerous cars on paved streets instead of motorcycles and dust. It is, after all, Bolivia's most affluent city, the economic capital of Bolivia as well as the capital of the Department of Santa Cruz, the eastern lowland of Bolivia that borders on Brazil and is rich in agricultural production and natural gas. Santa Cruz is full of enthusiasm for more economic growth, attracting foreign investors as well as migrants from other parts of the country where life is harder and prospects are bleaker. Bolivia as a whole is undergoing positive economic and political changes-- liberalization of state-owned industries, greater foreign investment, political reforms that increase popular participation-- and is now part of the international economy. Santa Cruz enjoys the highest standard of living in the country and gives residents further aspiration for an even better life. At the same time, as the Santa Cruz region has become involved in world trade, it has also become susceptible to the ups and downs of the global economy. The decline in the prices of farm products in the last few years has reduced the profits of Bolivian farmers, and stiff competition from the surrounding countries are threatening the survival of some Bolivian farm products.

The Japanese-Bolivian community in the Santa Cruz region shares this mixture of prosperity and problems, confidence and concern, enthusiasm and caution. There are approximately 2,500 Japanese postwar immigrants and their progeny living in the Santa Cruz region at three separate sites -- Canton Okinawa (formerly Colonia Okinawa), Colonia Japonesa San Juan de Yapacan’ (referred to simply as San Juan from now on), and Santa Cruz. Originally, a total of 3,200 men, women and children came from the Ryukyu Islands in the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s under the auspices of the Ryukyu government and the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands. Having been forced to move twice after arrival due to a series of misfortunes, they eventually established their settlement at the current site, northeast of Santa Cruz. Another 1,600 individuals immigrated from all over Japan in the Japanese government's overseas emigration program about the same time and established their settlement northwest of Santa Cruz, about 100 kilometers west of Colonia Okinawa. Over the years, the population of these two settlements has dwindled to about 800 each, resulting from an exodus of settlers due to crop failures and natural disasters as well as in search of better economic opportunities and their children's education. Many have moved to the city of Santa Cruz or reimmigrated to other countries in South America or returned to Japan. Currently, the population of postwar Japanese immigrants and their offspring in Santa Cruz is also about 800. In addition, Santa Cruz is home to about 500 descendants of prewar immigrants who originally settled in the Riberalta region. With Bolivian mothers and Bolivian wives, they have blended into Bolivian society so completely they have nothing in common with the postwar immigrants. Although some of them are listed as members of the Centro Social JaponZ&Mac255;s of Santa Cruz, they neither pay dues nor participate in any of its activities.

Meanwhile, Okinawans in Colonia Okinawa came under The Japanese government's protection in 1967, five years before the 1972 reversion of their homeland Okinawa to Japan. This brought Okinawan immigrants more tangible benefits than merely symbolic recognition. As Japanese nationals overseas, Okinawan immigrants were now eligible for financial and technical aid from the Japanese government through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), without which Colonia Okinawa had lagged behind San Juan in development. It also gave them Japanese passports. Until then, they had only the identity cards and travel permits issued by the Ryukyu government, which most countries did not honor, reducing them to statelessness. After 1967, Okinawan immigrants could not only get Japanese passports for themselves and their children; they could also register the births of their children at the Japanese Consulate in Santa Cruz so that their Bolivian-born children would have dual nationality. They and their children were free to travel to Japan to live and work there, if they so chose. Later in the 1980s, that was translated into economic opportunities when they went to work legally in Japan as dekasegi.

Both Colonia Okinawa and San Juan suffered numerous disasters and setbacks at the outset, but in the last decade of the 20th century they firmly established themselves as successful farming communities, each producing different crops. Colonia (now Canton) Okinawa, where it is drier but the soil is richer, grows soybeans, wheat, sorghum, and sunflowers and raises cattle. It has become famous for its large-scale production of soybeans, which comprise eighty percent of its income. The acreage of cultivation is immense, the equipment gigantic, and the wealth conspicuous. San Juan, where it rains much more on a clay-type soil, raises chickens for eggs, grows rice and citrus as well as soybeans to feed its own chickens, and is experimenting with high-quality papayas and macadamia nuts. Some farmers in San Juan raise cattle, but their acreage is generally much smaller than that of their Okinawan counterparts. San Juan farmers are more successful at labor-intensive operations, such as egg and fruit production, and dominate the national egg market, especially in La Paz. Those who moved to Santa Cruz have made inroads into the middle class as professionals and business owners. Not only are such Japanese-Bolivians' achievements noticeable, but the Japanese government's aid to the Santa Cruz region is also evident in such projects as a hospital, the airport, roads and bridges, and a municipal garbage collection service.

In the eyes of ordinary Bolivians, the Japanese-Bolivian community appears to embody prosperity and also to be a bridge to a place with more opportunities. They have seen that Japan has provided various kinds of aid to Santa Cruz. They are also aware that Japanese immigrants and their offspring have worked in Japan and returned with lots of money. Some Bolivians with strong aspirations for a better life are willing to take a chance and try to get the same benefits as the Japanese-Bolivian dekasegi. The young taxi driver who told us about the sale of Japanese surnames in Riberalta was one such Bolivian. When we returned from Riberalta, we contacted him.

A Dekasegi Wannabe

Jorge Ignacio, the taxi driver, was willing to tell us his story. As I pressed for details and confirmation, his versions changed slightly at some minor points. I did not know whether he was reconstructing his story to make it sound more interesting or whether the details simply did not matter much to him. Nonetheless, the gist of his story remained the same.

Jorge knew several people who had been to Japan and earned a lot of money there. One of his friends, Marco, worked in Japan for almost ten years and brought back at least fifty used but top-quality big motorcycles, each of which was worth from US$5,000 to $12,000. That inspired Jorge to go to Japan to work. He had heard that Japanese surnames used to be sold in Riberalta for US$3,000 each, but no more, as the Japanese government had tightened its scrutiny of one's Japanese ancestry. So, he decided to join a one-week "package tour" to Japan organized by a certain travel agent. Marco had successfully entered Japan three times with a "tour group" organized by the same travel agent and always returned with a lot of expensive motorcycles. Jorge raised US$11,000 by borrowing money from a private lender against his house, of which his father-in-law was a half-owner, and by selling his jeep and two motorcycles. He paid $5,500 for the tour, which included the round-trip airfare from Santa Cruz to Tokyo via Sao Paulo and Los Angeles and 5-nights accommodation at a five-star hotel in Tokyo. It was a worthwhile investment, Jorge thought, considering Marco's success.

He and six other dekasegi wannabes arrived in the Narita Airport one day in March 1999. They were to be met outside the customs area by someone who was supposed to take them to their prospective employers. But they did not even get past customs. They were detained and deported the following day. Upon returning to Santa Cruz, he demanded the travel agent return his money but was told it was his fault that he had gotten caught. He never got his money back. He paid the private lender off with his credit card. He still owed $17,000 on the house and $7,000 to his father-in-law. Undaunted, he still wanted to try again or go to the United States, but he was also exploring through the internet a possibility in Canada and figuring out a way to enter that country. Despite his disaster, the cash-strapped Jorge never asked for money to tell his story. He even took us to Marco's house on a paved street in a lower-middle-class residential section so we could hear and see a "success story." Jorge said his house was located in the same neighborhood.

Because Marco was not home-- he was said to be out partying, even though it was still bright outside-- we talked to his mother, Se–ora Suarez. According to her, Marco had dozens of motorcycles waiting to be collected in Antofagasta, the port on the Chilean coast. Marco had done so well he would not have to work for several years. Se–ora Suarez herself seemed to be doing well by having her children working abroad. Not only had her son worked in Japan and earned a lot of money, her daughter also went to Japan as a "tourist" and worked in a factory and at road construction sites. Then she had met and married a Japanese man almost twenty years her senior. She had invited her parents to Japan for a visit, and Se–ora Suarez showed us a whole album of photos of her trip. Another daughter of hers had married a Canadian and lived in Toronto. Her nephew had married a Nisei woman from San Juan and they went to Japan together. However, they were separated while in Japan. He remained there for six years, but did not earn much money. He was now back in Bolivia and wanted to return to Japan, but he had no legal and financial means to do so. Neither did Jorge. He was already married to a Bolivian woman and had children, so he had no chance of getting a proper visa to Japan as the spouse of a Nisei.

We arranged to have Jorge drive us to the airport when we were leaving Bolivia. On the way, he showed us his video camera and talked about other things he would like to have. He is typical of a dekasegi wannabe in Bolivia: neither destitute nor desperate, not from a slum but from a neighborhood where everyone owned his or her home and the streets were paved and neatly swept. If he could not raise enough money all by himself to go abroad to work, he had a relative who could help him financially. He had the material aspirations of any ordinary middle-class person. And that was what made him a dekasegi wannabe. He was willing to assume a Japanese name if that would give him the economic opportunity he wanted.

Dark Clouds

In the eyes of ordinary Bolivians, the Japanese-Bolivian community may seem invincible. However, the mood was gloomy in Canton Okinawa in 1999, a 180-degree turn from the confidence and optimism I had seen there in 1996. Then the farmers were full of pride in their large-scale operation of growing soybeans and wheat and beaming over their continuing progress. In 1997, the area suffered extensive flooding, but the farmers were still optimistic about their future. But since then the price of soybeans in the global market has fallen sharply, from US$225 per metric ton in 1997 to $180 in 1998 and further down to $135 as of September 1999, due to the bumper crops in the United States and the aggressive expansion of soybean production in Brazil and Paraguay. The Bolivian price of soybeans used to be relatively immune to the fluctuation of world market prices, but now the futures market in Chicago affects the domestic price instantly. In addition to the fall in soybean prices, Canton Okinawa sustained floods of the Rio Grande three years in a row, while the entire Santa Cruz region suffered from a serious drought. To make the matter worse, powerful winds swept through the wheat fields on August 15, 1999, destroying the crop that was ready for harvest.

Such an onslaught of disasters exposed the fragile foundation of some farmers, who had borrowed money at high interest rates. Canton Okinawa was faced with a major crisis endangering its cooperative, CAICO (Cooperativa Agropecuaria Integral Colonias Okinawa) because almost half of its members were unable to repay their huge debts, leaving CAICO with bad loans. The situation in San Juan was not quite so critical, nor was its cooperative, CAISY (Cooperativa Agropecuaria Integral San Juan de Yapacan’) in such serious trouble, although some of the younger San Juan farmers had also expanded their acreage of rice cultivation on borrowed money and were suffering from a bad crop. Even without debt, the farmers cannot relax due to the overall fall in agricultural prices, stiff competition from domestic and other South American producers, and declining productivity caused by the decreasing fertility of the soil.

Under these circumstances, criticisms about the way in which the younger generations practice agriculture surfaced among the Issei (who immigrated to Bolivia as adults). Many Issei regard those junior Issei (who accompanied their parents/or relatives as children) and Nisei (the Bolivian-born second generation) as too daring or even reckless for having expanded their cultivated lands with borrowed money and engaging in large-scale operations. "Young people kept borrowing money without clear plans for repayment and have ruined our good reputation," griped one Issei in San Juan. "Young people don't think twice about borrowing money and spending it on expensive new cars and big tractors. That is the root cause of our current problems," echoed an elder in Canton Okinawa.

For the Issei, debt symbolizes a threat to economic stability. One of the elders quoted above proudly proclaimed, "I've only borrowed money from JICA [the Japan International Cooperation Agency] and never from banks." JICA made loans to Japanese immigrants at much lower interest rates than Bolivian city banks. From the viewpoint of the younger generations, such an attitude toward borrowing was too old-fashioned or too Japanese to be applied in Bolivia. One junior Issei in San Juan complained, "They only criticize us that having debt is dangerous." Another junior Issei, who now owns 3,000 hectares in San Juan, protested, "They criticize us, saying that large-scale farming is stupid. I practically got sneered at by the Issei when I bought a lot of land [for pasture] eight years ago." He pointed out that many of the Issei raise cattle on 50-hectare lots and commented, "You can't make money on cattle with such limited acreage. You need a lot of land for cows."

The Isseis' criticisms are not confined to how to practice agriculture; they are also aimed more generally at how to live. Many of the retirees enjoy gateball (a game like croquet played in Japan by senior citizens), but they did not even think about playing it during their productive years. The younger generations, on the other hand, think they should enjoy life, regardless of their age, so they play golf (in Canton Okinawa) or go fishing (in San Juan).

Underlying the tensions between the generations are different life experiences and worldviews. The Issei brought with them from Japan the old-fashioned ethics of hard work, low risk-taking, and no debt. They toiled hard alongside their Bolivian workers and laborers. Those who have succeeded in farming feel their hard work has been rewarded, thus reinforcing their values, which they regard as one of the Japanese virtues. The junior Issei grew up watching their parents sweat alongside their Bolivian workers in the field. They are convinced, however, that such a mode of farming does not allow one to grow big and prosperous. Instead, they have learned that in Bolivia farmers must behave just like any Bolivian boss. "You must give orders to your workers, or else they will not look upon you as their patron," commented one junior Issei in Canton Okinawa, who changed his father's relationship with his employees when he took over the farm. "The fundamental part of agriculture here is how well you get Bolivian employees to work," said another junior Issei in San Juan. The Nisei do not even make such an argument. They simply take it for granted because, as one Issei declared, they are "born patrons." They cannot even imagine themselves doing the same work as their workers.

However, the older and younger generations are not as different as they appear when it comes to what they want in life. The junior Issei and Nisei who have worked in Japan are explicit about their preference for living in Bolivia because, as they remark, in Japan it is all work and no play. The Issei prefer living in Bolivia, too, for they see their life in Bolivia as more comfortable than that of their counterparts in Japan. But the older Issei have no way to express this view without feeling shame. Their worldview does not provide them with the necessary language.

Although no generation is unified in its views and attitudes, there is a clear distinction between the junior Issei and the Nisei. The junior Issei in San Juan who complained about the Issei's criticisms also reflected, "I'm conscious of myself as different from the Nisei. I do not long for Japan, but I'm sometimes made aware I'm Japanese after all, particularly when I'm with Bolivians." Another junior Issei in Canton Okinawa remarked, regarding the financial crisis of some CAICO members, "We have inherited from the Issei the Japanese way of thinking and try to come up with a solution to help everybody. The Nisei are totally different from us. They are willing to cut off those who are going to fail. That's the big difference between us."

The 1999 crisis in Canton Okinawa was a challenge for the younger generations, inasmuch as the CAICO leadership was already in their hands. The president and general manager are junior Issei, and many on the board of directors are Nisei. As a clear indication that the leadership has shifted to the new generations, all CAICO meetings are conducted in Spanish. CAISY is slower in this change of generations. Both its president and its general manager are Issei, and CAISY meetings are still conducted in Japanese. There is no question that this will change in the near future in the same way it did in CAICO.

Clashes over the Japanese Centennial

The first Japanese who set foot in Bolivia were ninety-one men who crossed the border from Peru in September 1899. They were part of 790 who had originally arrived in Callao, Peru, contracted to work at sugar cane plantations, but they left their workplace after a few months due to harsh labor conditions. To commemorate the centennial of Japanese arrival in Bolivia, a grand ceremony was held on June 3, 1999, in Santa Cruz, to which VIPs from both Bolivia and Japan were invited, including the Bolivian President and Princess Sayako from Japan's Imperial family. Following the ceremony, the princess visited both San Juan and Canton Okinawa, where she attended grand receptions in her honor. The centennial provided Japanese-Bolivians and Japan with an opportunity for good publicity. Bolivian media not only covered the events but ran special reports on the Japanese immigrants' history and their contributions to Bolivian society. The princess was very popular among the Bolivian press and also impressed the Issei with her modest demeanor, elegant intelligence, yet air of accessibility. Consequently, everyone in the Japanese-Bolivian community regarded the celebration, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, as a success. It was an event, however, in which the tensions between competing interests as well as different worldviews also surfaced.

The idea of holding the centennial celebration was adopted in 1996 in La Paz at a meeting of a coalition of Japanese-Bolivian associations. Santa Cruz was chosen as the main venue for the ceremony. In addition, Santa Cruz was also chosen for the headquarters of a newly established Federation of Japanese-Bolivian Associations. The goal of the centennial celebration and the Federation was to galvanize and unify all Japanese-Bolivians. The 80th and the 90th anniversaries had been celebrated in La Paz, where the Japanese-Bolivian community had long been established and functioned as a political bridge between Bolivia and Japan. The shift in venue thus symbolized the growing strength and economic significance of the Japanese-Bolivian population in Santa Cruz. Nonetheless, Santa Cruz was not an ideal choice for the centennial. Most Japanese-Bolivians in the Santa Cruz region are postwar immigrants who have had little contact with the prewar immigrants and their descendants.

The leaders of the descendants of Japanese immigrants in Trinidad thought that the centennial should have been held in the Department of Beni, where the earliest Japanese immigrants arrived and worked and thousands of their descendants now live. They have a point. Yet, these descendants have no political or economic clout. Nor do they have a close association with the more prominent Japanese-Bolivian groups in La Paz or Santa Cruz or with the Japanese government. Thus, their view was ignored. For the Japanese-Bolivian community in the Santa Cruz region the descendants in the Department of Beni are just ordinary Bolivians. For example, among the Japanese descendants in Beni an internationally renowned poet, Pedro Shimose, has emerged. Yet, no one in the Japanese-Bolivian community in the Santa Cruz region has a sense of affinity with him, and no one I interviewed ever mentioned the name of this famous Japanese-Bolivian poet from Riberalta. Instead, they often make references to the groups in the northern Amazon as an example to avoid. "We should not become like them," because they are "the same as uneducated Bolivians." Some in Santa Cruz regard those Japanese who crossed the border from Peru not as bona fide immigrants but as refugees or economic opportunists. In their view, the "true immigrants to Bolivia" arrived for the first time in the 1910s. Thus to them a centennial celebration in 1999 was meaningless.

The prewar immigrants were more appreciated in Canton Okinawa because they instigated the plan of postwar Okinawan immigration to Bolivia, proposed it to the Ryukyu government, and prepared the first Colonia Uruma for the new arrivals. For these reasons, the postwar Okinawan immigrants felt obligated to those early immigrants and made a generous contribution to the preparations for the centennial. The problem of raising funds for the ceremony did not surface in San Juan, either, because the contribution assigned to them by the Centennial Committee was paid by the Associations of Bolivian-Japanese, the main portion of whose budget comes from Japanese governmental aid.

It was an entirely different matter in Santa Cruz, where the association depends totally on individual contributions, although most Japanese-Bolivians in Santa Cruz are originally from Okinawa. Each household was required to contribute US$100, which is by no means a small amount of money in Bolivia. Schoolteachers do not earn much more than that each month and, unable to support their families, often hold two jobs to make ends meet. Yet that much money bought each household only one invitation to the ceremony. An additional sum of money was needed if both husband and wife wanted to attend. The organizers had a variety of constraints: mostly, the limited number of seats and the limited budget, which was a half million U.S. dollars. Still, the high price of participation put off many in Santa Cruz. One of the Issei in charge of collecting the money observed, "I don't know whether people simply could not afford to pay both the required contribution and the voluntary cooperation money or they thought it was unnecessary to do that much. I myself take the latter position. Young people were very explicit about it and would not put up extra money." He thought that part of the problem was that the reason for holding the centennial had never been sufficiently explained. The younger generations criticizing the centennial stressed the same point.

The Niseis' criticism also addressed the issue of how to celebrate the centennial. The ceremony was held at a grand hall in a brand-new hotel in Santa Cruz. That precluded the participation of many, other than the big contributors. One Nisei strongly criticized this aspect:

"It was after all an event only for the haves. To be more precise, it was for the Japanese with money and was carried out primarily only among Japanese. I would have liked a celebration held in a big, open place like a stadium where anybody-- Japanese and Bolivians, rich and poor-- could participate, like they did in Peru."1

In this vision of the centennial celebration, he projected an ethnic Japanese community in Bolivia into the future, inclusive of all Bolivians. Whereas, the Issei and organizers of the centennial were looking back at the Japanese immigrant community in the past and at the same time affirming the current status of their community, which was still a safe enclave for them.

In spite of the disagreements, at the last stage of the preparations, when things were still chaotic and it was feared that much might be left incomplete, many people pitched in. Even the Nisei group, although adamantly opposed to the idea of the centennial and the nature of the ceremony, hosted a welcoming reception on the one evening that had been left open. The chair of the Centennial Committee praised all those who contributed to the success of the centennial and attributed it to the "good Japanese characteristics that came to the surface." In the end, all went well.

As a consequence, everyone thinks in retrospect that the centennial was a good idea. The younger generations take a utilitarian view, that it was good publicity for the Japanese. It helped improve the image of the Japanese and therefore of themselves, in the eyes of Bolivians. One junior Issei put it this way:

"I think it was good that we did it. It taught Bolivians the history of Japanese immigrants. It was also good that the princess came. She became a pipeline connecting Japan and Bolivia. Thanks to all this, the Bolivian President is going to Japan next year. Bolivian TV did reports for about a month before the celebration on Japanese aid. It taught Bolivians about Japanese aid. I have been heckled a couple of times in the past because I was a foreigner. Nobody will do that now."

The Issei, too, acknowledge the practical benefits that the publicity surrounding the centennial brought. One Issei in Santa Cruz admits, "The visit by an Imperial family member helped advertise the centennial of Japanese immigration and the Japanese community." For the Issei, the visit by an Imperial family member bore greater significance than mere practical benefits. To them it meant that their early struggles in Bolivia were at last acknowledged by those at the pinnacle of Japanese society. There was no difference between Canton Okinawa and San Juan in their reactions to the princess's visit. The fact that she talked directly to many of the Issei and praised their hard work enhanced the effect. The Issei women, in particular, who traditionally stay in the background, were most impressed. The youngish president of the Women's Group in San Juan observed, "For them, it meant that the Imperial family acknowledged their [women's] struggles. That's the most important thing for them. It made the Issei women very happy."

The younger generations were more detached. One Nisei in Canton Okinawa professed, "It was okay [to celebrate the centennial], I guess. We weren't particularly interested in a Japanese princess because we are Bolivians. The Issei regarded her like a goddess. But for us, the Bolivian President is more significant." His self-identity as a Bolivian is neither ideological nor political. For him and his generation, it is simply a result of Bolivianization. I saw a good example of Bolivianization at a Santa Cruz sports meet in August 1999. At the opening and closing ceremonies both the Japanese and Bolivian national anthems were played on tape. Children lined up on the field were silent while Kimigayo was being played, but sang the Bolivian national anthem with vigor. Of course, they had been taught the latter in school.

Even some of the Issei were not entirely pleased about the presence of the princess because so much of their effort for the centennial had been taken up by preparations for receiving her. Moreover, those who were involved in the actual preparations were appalled by the tight, rigid security for an Imperial family member. One junior Issei who had worked for the reception in Canton Okinawa candidly reflected, "I'd rather not have anyone from the Imperial family come again." Such a view was also expressed among the Issei in San Juan, and one of the delegates from Trinidad lamented that he had been barred by a security guard from taking a photo of the princess. "It's against the openness of the eastern region," he complained, blaming the people from La Paz for the uptightness.

Such complaints about the tight security and the rigid arrangement surrounding the Imperial family member did not dampen the good feelings aboutthe centennial. But the centennial failed to achieve what the organizers had hoped for: to galvanize Japanese-Bolivians into greater unity. It failed because the decision to celebrate the centennial was made without a consensus on how to define Japanese immigration to Bolivia, where to hold the ceremony and why, and how to hold it. Without a consensus on those fundamental points, the plan for the centennial met with a cool reception everywhere.

When the celebration was over and while everyone deemed it a success, the Centennial Committee could have created a forum to review the issues that had surfaced before and during the celebration and to allow the dissenters to clarify their views and find common ground. Such a forum might have revealed that not only the younger generations but also some Issei were bothered by questions regarding the definition of Japanese immigration to Bolivia. That could have cleared prejudices at least to some degree and clarified misgivings between generations and between various groups within the community. Failing to hold an open exchange of viewpoints, the Federation missed an opportunity to bridge the gulf within the Japanese-Bolivian community and to forge a sense of unity. On the contrary, the gulf deepened.

Becoming More Bolivian than Japanese

Until recent years, the Japanese immigrant community set itself apart as if it were an isolated oasis in the desert, with a special endowment from afar called Japanese governmental aid. As younger generations are moving into leadership roles, the community is slowly turning away from Japan and toward their home, Bolivia. In other words, it is reorienting itself to be an active participant in determining the course of Bolivian society. Japanese-Bolivians are intent on entering Bolivian politics.

No one in the Japanese-Bolivian community thinks that the Bolivian government is good enough. To get what they believed the government should take care of, the Issei in the past have always turned to the Japanese government. The younger generations think they should abandon this reliance on the Japanese government. One Nisei declared, "We should either take care of ourselves or negotiate with the Bolivian government first. It's only logical because we live in Bolivia. Yet, the Issei still rely on the Japanese government for help. It's a disgrace." Not that the younger generations think the Bolivian government is capable of taking care of its citizens. They share the Issei's view that the Bolivian government is corrupt. Unlike most Issei, however, they insist they should participate in changing this by sending their representatives, rather than seeking help from Japan. There are even some Issei who talk with great enthusiasm about supporting these political ambitions as their unfinished work to be done. In 1996, when I first interviewed them, such a thing was unthinkable for most Issei.

This is not merely a result of the transfer of leadership to younger generations. It also reflects, and is encouraged by, major political reforms in Bolivia, which Bolivians are enthusiastically embracing. Reform of the political system went into effect in 1996, initiated by then President Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada and urged on by the IMF and the World Bank. The government began to decentralize and redistribute national revenues according to the population size of local administrative units, thus aiming to eliminate political favoritism. This has stimulated the general populace to participate in politics. The Japanese-Bolivian community is no exception. It is emerging from a total indifference to Bolivian politics and has enthusiastically begun preparations for sending representatives into all levels of government. Getting into the Bolivian mainstream is also dictated by the prospect that aid from Japan will shrink in the future. In fact, this trend has already begun. As a clear indication of this, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs abolished its Bureau of Overseas Emigration in 1999. JICA closed its office for technical aid in San Juan in 1991 when it saw that San Juan was self-supporting.

Several junior Issei in what was then still called Colonia Okinawa took the first concrete step of political participation. In 1993, they succeeded in getting one of the junior Issei, Mr. Katsuyoshi Taira, elected as head of the community, not as a Japanese settlement segregated from the rest of Bolivian society but as an unincorporated section of Warnes Province. This was by no means a small achievement, considering the fact that Bolivians in the area outnumber Okinawans by five to one. Second, in 1998 the junior Issei succeeded in getting Colonia Okinawa formally recognized as a cant—n (an administrative unit separate from the province), which came into effect in 2000. As a cant—n, they can keep the tax revenue collected in their own district. San Juan is following suit along with its neighboring communities, although it has yet to establish its boundaries.

At first, however, the old guard of the Colonia-- the Issei in the Japanese-Bolivian Associations-- felt threatened. These Associations have been the administrative offices in charge of managing the aid money from the Japanese government, collecting dues from residents, running clinics, and even managing a police force. They have been, in effect, a government by the immigrants, for the immigrants, and of the immigrants, excluding native Bolivians and therefore uncontaminated by corrupt Bolivian politicians. In other words, the Japanese-Bolivian Associations have been cultural as well as economic institutions and a safe haven for the Issei.

However, the Issei have come to realize that change is inevitable, with ever increasing numbers of Bolivians working and living among them and with the predicted decrease in aid money from Japan. They have begun to think about how to save the Association and in what form. The president of the Japanese-Bolivian Association in Canton Okinawa was candid about his sense of anxiety:

"Frankly, I'm quite concerned [about the establishment of Canton Okinawa]. But we can't stop it because that's the direction the trend is going. We have held the leadership so far. They [Bolivians] don't have money, but they have numbers. [With so many of them] they can push us away to a corner."

Another Issei in the leadership concurred, "We have reached the age of change. We can't keep the Colonia to ourselves forever. We have to work together with Bolivians from now on in the administration of our community." Such a view is now repeated by most Issei, which is a marked difference from only a few years ago.

Some junior Issei and Nisei in Santa Cruz are thinking still further ahead. They are convinced that the Japanese-Bolivian community has established its economic foundation and now should join forces to reshape Bolivian society by sending their representatives into national politics. It is time, they think, for Japanese-Bolivians to stop being "good immigrants" and to become full-fledged Bolivian citizens. One of the leading junior Issei observed Japanese-Bolivians' good reputation as "sincere, hardworking and honest" in a less than positive light: "We are regarded like dolls, that is, lovable and neat and do-nothing." To contribute more to Bolivia, he argued, Japanese-Bolivians must have their representatives in national politics. "Some of us are worried that if we go into politics, we [as an ethnic community] will be exposed to harsh criticisms. Naturally, we will be, and yet we must. We shouldn't expect forever to be treated politely as guests." Noting the recent economic development of Bolivia, he maintained that the Japanese-Bolivian community would grow along with the progress of Bolivian society.

Some Issei are equally enthusiastic about political participation. One such Issei in Santa Cruz maintained that the Nisei should devote themselves to their community in a different way from their parents, instead of sitting idly on the foundation the Issei had built with their hard work. He claimed that he had learned from observing various ethnic groups in Bolivia that the powerful ones had their own competent, assertive representatives in national politics, where they could protect the interests of their own group. Compared to them, he argued, the Japanese tended to be too inhibited and had no political networks. Consequently, "we will continue to serve the interests of the elite, no matter how large our shares might be in the egg and soybean markets. We can't even control the prices of our own products." Another Issei in Canton Okinawa shared this view, "We have achieved success in agriculture, but that is not enough. We must cultivate our representatives in Bolivian politics, because it is politics that determines everything, including agriculture." The purpose of getting into national politics is, as one junior Issei put it, to establish and implement a policy you believe in.

On what will they concentrate when they succeed in getting into national politics? Some call it education, others the cultivation of character [hitozukuri], but the goal is the same thing: the dissemination and improvement of primary education. One of the most successful junior Issei asserts that improving the educational level of ordinary Bolivians is the key to Bolivia's progress. He notes that thirty percent of Bolivia's population is illiterate and that the whites, who comprise only twenty percent of the population, control all the power. He argues, "Bolivia cannot modernize unless eighty percent of its population can receive a basic education." The dissemination of basic education would help raise the living standard of the majority, which would increase their buying power and help reduce the disparity between the rich and poor, and eventually help the Japanese-Bolivian community. Currently, the number of Japanese-Bolivians actively involved in preparations for sending their representatives into politics is very small. However, they are no longer looked at with suspicion by their fellow Japanese-Bolivians, who as a whole are more conscious than before that they and their progeny are part of Bolivian society.

A shift in emphasis on language education attests to this change. Until a few years ago, Japanese language education was given primary importance in the Colonias. Parents were most concerned about preserving Japanese culture and the connection with Japan. They believed that teaching their children Japanese was a means to these ends. By Japanese culture, they mean such values as honesty, studiousness, being punctual, respect of elders, and so on, all of which are often referred to as the "Japanese spirit" (Nihonjin no kokoro). The connection with Japan included opportunities to study there and dekasegi. Since the late 1980s the latter has provided valuable income for the immigrant families, jobs for second and younger sons, or simply different experiences for the young. In the early 1990s the Japanese-Bolivian community witnessed an exodus of their young people to Japan. Fluency in Japanese was a definite advantage when they went to Japan to work. However, dekasegi fever subsided when the recession hit Japan and its economy failed to recover quickly enough in the late 1990s. One of the practical advantages of knowing Japanese is thus being lost. At the same time, even the Issei have come to realize the importance of fluency in Spanish. One Issei who served in the leadership in Canton Okinawa now thinks, "It is time we selected as head of the Japanese-Bolivian Association someone who is more fluent in Spanish than in Japanese and who can converse with Bolivians without an interpreter." Another Issei emphasized the importance of cultivating a social network with Bolivians, for which, of course, Spanish is essential.

Most rural Issei speak only limited, if any, Spanish and therefore, need translators when they do business with Bolivians and rarely socialize with them. Identifying themselves as Japanese, they have set themselves apart from Bolivians.2 The urban Issei live among Bolivians and therefore speak better Spanish, but few socialize with Bolivians. They look to the Japanese government for aid and to their idealized Japanese characteristics for moral sustenance.

In contrast, most junior Issei speak Spanish and have Bolivian friends, thanks to their education at schools outside the Colonias, from secondary level and beyond. As reform in the political system unfolds, even the Issei realize that their community is deeply entrenched in Bolivian society. Likewise, Japanese teachers as well as parents in the rural areas have come to realize that Spanish education must be given top priority, while maintaining that Japanese education preserves an important cultural asset. In addition, they now recognize that knowledge of the computer is indispensable in any field, for which English is essential. Hence, parents also want their children to learn English, and it is now being incorporated into the curriculum. Although the new emphasis on Spanish and English has not been fully translated into practice, it marks a notable shift in thinking from only a few years back. The change is a significant one because language is a key to acculturation.

The Benefits of Being Japanese

For those Japanese-Bolivians who were intent on mainstreaming through politics, Alberto Fujimori of Peru was their role model, at least at the time of my interviews in September 1999. Although many thought it was not wise for Fujimori to run for a third term as President of Peru, most looked up to him as a symbol of achievement in politics. Fujimori's dual citizenship, which has enabled him to take up residence in Japan without applying for asylum, would not have surprised them because they themselves have both Bolivian and Japanese nationalities.

Among the Japanese-born Issei and junior Issei, only a few have given up their Japanese nationality to become full-fledged Bolivian citizens. Those few did so as a symbolic but valiant gesture to express their efforts to be part of Bolivian society. Most of them, however, are said to have regretted it. Not because they wanted to return to Japan or to renew their identity as Japanese, but because Japanese nationality came to bring numerous benefits. Japanese nationals could receive financial and technical aid from the Japanese government as long as they stayed in the Colonias, and they could freely live and work in Japan. Even those Nisei who strongly insist that Japanese-Bolivians should be Bolivians first not only have Japanese nationality because their parents registered their births at the Japanese Consulate but they intend to keep it. Moreover, they too register their children's births at the Japanese Consulate. "I'm a Bolivian," one Nisei leader declared firmly, "But I also have Japanese nationality. It's better to have two nationalities than just one. Having three is better than two. Four is better than three." He, too, has worked in Japan, as many of his cohorts have. He also wonders why the Japanese government makes it so difficult for other foreigners to acquire Japanese citizenship.

Why does the Japanese government issue residency visas only to those of Japanese ancestry when this has inadvertently encouraged the sale and theft of Japanese identities? An Issei in Santa Cruz reported that certified copies of koseki, or family registries, from the prefectural offices in Japan have disappeared numerous times in recent years even though they were being sent by registered mail. Although Japan's economy has been suffering from a long recession since the bubble burst and the exodus of dekasegi to Japan has slowed, labor shortages remain in the low-paying job market of small businesses. Yet, the Japanese government remains adamant about not opening up its labor market to foreign workers (i.e., non-Japanese nationals). Thus, as long as the income disparity between Japan and Bolivia remains large, Japan continues to be a magnet for dekasegi. For example, a Nisei physician told me that both of his two sons were currently working in Japan in order to earn enough money for their own education at a private university in Santa Cruz. By providing Japanese-Bolivians with benefits in the form of financial and technical aid to the Colonias and by their special treatment in immigration, the Japanese government is creating a special class in Bolivia.

The gulf is evident between the Issei and the younger generations in Santa Cruz right now as the Japanese-Bolivian community transforms itself from an immigrant community into a more integrated part in Bolivia's social fabric. Each generation has different life experiences, thus forging different worldviews. The clash of worldviews between generations is inevitable as the leadership shifts to the next generations. By the third or fourth generation Japanese ancestry may not matter much at all, as all Japanese-Bolivians melt into a giant pot as Bolivians. But being Japanese, or part-Japanese, will remain important in Bolivia so long as the benefits persist-- either in terms of access to Japan or else as a subcultural characteristic within Bolivian society.


1. Mr. Takeda Kenji, chair of the Bolivian Committee, cited the security issue as a reason for the choice of locale of the ceremony. He told me that the Japanese embassy would never have allowed a ceremony involving a member of the Imperial family to be held at a stadium. Peru was allowed to do so, reasoned Mr. Takeda, because the Peruvian police was accustomed to dealing with guerrillas.

2. The Issei eat mostly Japanese food and watch NHK programs on TV. Broadcasting of NHK programs simultaneous with their broadcast in Japan began in Canton Okinawa in 1998 and in San Juan and Santa Cruz in 1999. Okinawans in Bolivia emphasize they are Japanese first, unlike Okinawans in Okinawa prefecture who emphasize being Okinawans first. The Issei, in particular, hold on to their historically-shaped and pre-War-oriented identity and are eager to maintain a close connection with Okinawa prefecture. However, having left Okinawa before its reversion to Japanese sovereignty, and having been transplanted to a country where being Okinawan is synonymous with being Japanese, they maintain that they are Japanese first. They regard Okinawan culture as a subculture within Japan.

KOZY AMEMIYA is a sociologist and member of the Board of Advisers of the Japan Policy Research Institute. She is the author of several articles about Okinawa and Okinawans in Bolivia and Brazil. See her articles in Chalmers Johnson, ed., Okinawa: Cold War Island (1999).

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