JPRI Working Paper No. 90, November 2002
Reinventing Population Problems in Okinawa: Emigration as a Tool of American Occupation
by Kozy Amemiya

“Since Communists appeal to the youth of a nation, and with apparent success in many areas of the Communist-dominated world, the youth of Okinawa represent a potentially vulnerable element of the population. The prospects of obtaining large tracts of free land in a distant community as afforded by an emigration program will give fresh hope to the youth and in this way serve to cope with their discontent and susceptibility to the Communists’ false promises of reward.”1 James Tigner

On June 19, 1954, two hundred sixty-nine Okinawans departed from Naha Port, Okinawa, with a big fanfare to emigrate to Bolivia. Three babies were born on the ship en route to the destination. A month later, another group of a hundred twenty-eight followed the first group. Two months after their respective departures, both groups arrived at the settlement site, Uruma Colony, in the eastern lowland of Bolivia in the Department of Santa Cruz. The Uruma Colony was 2,500 hectares of land purchased by the Uruma Society, a group of prewar Okinawan immigrants who had hoped to help their compatriots in their war-ravaged motherland. The site, chosen by the Uruma Society, had been enthusiastically endorsed by an American researcher named James Tigner from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Tigner had repeatedly stressed the advantages of Okinawan emigration overseas as a solution to Okinawa’s overpopulation and land shortage problems. His words were accepted by American occupiers of Okinawa (the United States Civil Administration in the Ryukyus [USCAR]) at face value without any serious scrutiny. His recommendation was accepted without follow-up studies, and he also persuaded the Uruma Society in Bolivia to accept a much larger immigration project than they had envisioned. Thus began the first U.S. government-sponsored emigration project with a goal of sending 12,000 Okinawans to Bolivia in ten years. With a promise of a free fifty hectares of land per household, the project attracted nearly four thousand applicants, out of whom 397 were initially selected. When the first two groups of emigrants set out for their destination, Inamine Ichiro, the key Okinawan promoter of emigration, rejoiced, “The door to emigration has at last come to be opened which we Ryukyuans have long desired.”

Soon, however, the new immigrants faced a series of grave problems. The most devastating was an epidemic of a strange disease that took seventeen lives in six months and put the majority in sick beds. The remaining postwar immigrants therefore decided to relocate themselves to another, healthier site. They ended up moving twice and finally settled in the present site, west of the Rio Grande, northeast of Santa Cruz. As the health situation stabilized, the emigration out of Okinawa to Bolivia resumed, not on the scale of 12,000 in ten years as originally planned, but eventually totaling 3,200. The exit of such a small number of people of course hardly made a dent in the “overpopulation” of Okinawa. Already in 1950, some people in the U.S. State Department were objective enough to conclude that even an exit of 30,000 people “would in any case not be a major contribution to” Okinawa’s population problem.2

What, then, was the talk of “population pressure” all about? Was the Bolivian emigration project really intended to help ease Okinawa’s population pressure? I have searched for answers to these questions in the declassified documents at the United States National Archives regarding Okinawa’s population and emigration matters and also in a three-volume journal penned by a prewar Okinawan immigrant in Bolivia named Gushi Kancho found at the office of the Okinawan Association in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

The Rhetoric of Okinawa’s Population Problems

In occupied Okinawa in the 1950s, “overpopulation” and emigration were uttered in one breath as if they would always go hand in hand (that the former would always lead to the latter or that the latter is always a solution of the former). Postwar Okinawa, occupied by U.S. military forces, faced the same population problems as mainland Japan—i.e., a big surge in population size due to repatriation from former colonies, territories and occupied lands, and also the postwar baby-boom—yet, the occupation forces dealt with these problems very differently. The United States, concerned that population pressure could give Japan an excuse for another overseas expansion due to lack of land to feed a huge population, sent first-rate demographers and population specialists to Japan to tackle the population issues, among them Irene Taeuber and Frank W. Notestein. They concluded that overseas emigration would not be effective in easing Japan’s population pressure and recommended lowering the birthrate as a long-term solution. Their recommendations encouraged Japanese birth control activists, who had dedicated themselves to the dissemination of birth control since the prewar era, to push for the liberalization of abortion and to launch a birth control movement. The Eugenic Protection Law of 1948 replaced the National Eugenics Law in order to pave the way for legal abortion. With the 1949 and 1952 revisions, abortion became practically legal and easily obtainable in Japan. The crude birthrates were halved in ten years, from 34 in 1947 to 17 in 1957.3 The U.S. occupation forces in Japan, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), adopted a “hands-off” policy on the surface toward population issues for domestic political reasons, but behind the scene SCAP sanctioned both the liberalization of abortion and a birth control campaign. Although the Japanese government implemented several emigration programs, emigration was never considered a major means to ease Japan’s population pressure.

In Okinawa, the situation was even more serious and more pressing. Okinawa, the poorest prefecture in Japan, has had an extremely high population density since the prewar era, which resulted in the domestic migration of labor and the highest overseas emigration rate. Postwar Okinawa was also saddled with a U.S. military occupation that made the population problem even more desperate. The large-scale expropriation of cultivated land by the United States military exacerbated Okinawa’s population pressure, literally driving a large number of Okinawans out of their own homes and farmlands, taking away their livelihood, and causing intense discontent. Moreover, the U.S. military bases were concentrated in the most fertile central part of Okinawa Island. By 1950, the U.S. Military by its own calculation had taken over “21,500 acres of arable land for the military installations of the occupation. This represents a loss of 10 percent of the farm lands formerly under cultivation.”

The expansion of the U.S. military bases accelerated during the early 1950s. By 1955 the U.S. military had expropriated a total of 42,000 acres, or 12.34 percent of all the cultivated land in Okinawa, displacing 50,000 households and affecting 230,000 people. Furthermore, there were plans to construct permanent military bases in Okinawa, and the Army was requesting funds to lease another 52,000 acres of land. The U.S. occupiers saw the problems caused by this political and military policy as part of Okinawa’s “population problems.” And yet, American population experts were never called to study Okinawa's situation to explore solutions. Instead, the U.S. government mobilized anthropologists and historians to study Okinawan society and culture to facilitate American occupation of the islands. The Government of the Ryukyu Islands made references to family planning as a long-term solution to population problems, and yet unlike mainland Japan, it made or was allowed to make no effort and took no measures to put the idea into practice. Abortion remained on the books as a criminal offense, keeping women who sought abortions in the back alleys, whereas it was virtually legalized in Japan.

Around 1950, after the U.S. began expropriating cultivated land for military use, some people in the U.S. government began to be concerned about the political danger of Okinawa’s population problem. A February, 1950, internal memo at USCAR documents its acknowledgment that land expropriation worsened Okinawa’s population pressure and caused serious political tension between the Okinawan people and the American occupiers. The memo concluded that emigration “of Ryukyuans to other areas of the world” was considered “advantageous” and the “most practical means” to solve such seriousproblems. But how many people should get out of Okinawa? That question was never seriously pursued.

The question instead focused on where to send a vaguely conceived large number of people. If the American occupiers were genuinely serious about solving Okinawa’s “population problems” by emigration, it should have accepted entries of Okinawans into their own country, i.e., the United States. In fact, there were a few who suggested this. In 1950, a Major Cullen raised the question of whether the U.S. should not itself make a contribution to the solution by accepting Ryukyuans into the U.S., especially Hawaii. The United States government, however, did not want Okinawan immigrants to their own soil. Instead, it sought, as early as 1950, to send Okinawans to South America. Meanwhile, in Okinawa, the leadership of USCAR was reluctant to push costly overseas emigration projects and instead promoted internal migration to the southernmost islands of Yaeyama, which (thanks to the known prevalence of malaria there) was not a popular destination with Okinawans.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Science Board of the National Research Council launched a number of studies designed to facilitate the U.S. occupation of Okinawa. Its Executive Secretary, Dr. Harold J. Coolidge, “approved a survey of Ryukyuan immigration to South American countries” in search of a solution to Okinawa’s population pressure.4 The Pacific Science Board assigned James Tigner to this mission. Tigner was a Ph. D. candidate in Latin American history at Stanford University and also a friend of an officer at USCAR, John Swezey, the Customs and Immigration Secretary, who was the most enthusiastic supporter of Okinawan emigration among the USCAR officers.5 In 1951, prior to his survey in Latin America, Tigner went to Tokyo, Okinawa, and Honolulu to assess the situation and to make contacts with emigration advocates.

According to his own account, Tigner’s 1952 tour of Latin America included Okinawan communities in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico, each of which he assessed as a possible destination for postwar Okinawan emigrants. It was in Bolivia, Tigner claims, that he encountered conditions he deemed ideal. There he met a group of prewar Okinawan immigrants who, because of their desire to help their war-ravaged compatriots, had formed an association (the Uruma Society) with the intention of bringing more Okinawan farmers to Bolivia. Their plan was modest in scale, but they had successfully negotiated with the Bolivian government to grant them a block of land in the eastern lowlands for colonization. Their goal was to build an “Okinawan Village” with prewar and postwar Okinawan immigrants working together. Thus, the groundwork had already been done. As the Uruma Society needed funds to carry out its plan, it was not difficult for Tigner to persuade the members to reshape their plan according to the American government design in exchange for a promise of financial aid.

The Gushi Journal

It was indeed a group of Okinawans already in Bolivia who initiated the idea of bringing immigrants from the war-torn Okinawan islands to join them. The Okinawan Association in Santa Cruz has kept a three-volume handwritten journal by a prewar Okinawan immigrant named Gushi Kancho.6 In Gushi’s journal he records the shaping of the postwar immigration project from its beginnings to the official decision by Tigner. His account gives minute details of how the Bolivian-Okinawans laid the groundwork for the immigration project and how their plan was hijacked by the Americans and the new Okinawan elite. It also provides a view of the role of each actor from the viewpoint of the Bolivian-Okinawans.

According to Gushi, the prewar Okinawan immigrants in Bolivia set up organizations in La Paz and Riberalta in 1948 to send material aid to Okinawa through LARA (Licensed Agencies for Relief in Asia) in North America. As an outgrowth of this effort, Gushi Kancho, the leader of the Relief Group in Riberalta, began in 1949 to consider the possibility of bringing Okinawans to Bolivia. Encouraged by positive responses from his fellow Okinawan immigrants, Gushi wrote about his plan to a prominent Okinawan in Santa Cruz, José Kame Akamine, who wholeheartedly agreed with the idea. On December 25, 1949, Gushi proposed the construction of an Okinawan settlement at the annual meeting of Okinawan Society in Riberalta.

The following year, two delegates from Riberalta went to Santa Cruz, and along with Akamine looked for available land suitable for a new immigrants’ colony. They found some privately owned land east of the Rio Grande, next to which was a vast tract owned by the central government. Hoping to get a land grant from the government, the delegates bought 2,500 hectares of the privately owned land with their own money. The Okinawan Society in Riberalta set up an organization called the Uruma Agricultural and Industrial Society in preparation for applying for the land grant from the government. The idea of the Uruma Society was to bring about fifty families from Okinawa to the settlement site they had purchased and named the Uruma Colony and start a pilot program under the leadership and guidance of prewar immigrants.

In 1951, two Okinawan farmers from Riberalta went to the Uruma Colony. They were to become the leaders and advisers for the new immigrants from Okinawa. In September, 1951, the Uruma Society became a legitimate organization qualified to apply for a land grant. Meanwhile, José Akamine kept in contact with the Okinawan government and the Okinawa Overseas Association, asking for their organizational and financial assistance. (The Okinawa Overseas Association was originally created in 1924 under the auspices of the Okinawa Prefectural Government. In 1948 it was reestablished as an independent organization and began promoting overseas emigration in cooperation with the Okinawan government. In May 1953 it underwent a reorganization and was renamed the Ryukyu Overseas Association, and under the leadership of Inamine Ichiro it began actively to promote the emigration project to Bolivia.)

On May 12, 1952, James Tigner arrived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. He had been informed of the Uruma Society and its activities. The immigrants in Bolivia were excited by Tigner’s visit, and he is always referred to in Gushi’s journal as Professor Tigner of Stanford University. Tigner had the U.S. government’s support. For the Uruma Society that was tantamount to getting their plan recognized by the American government in the form of a visit by a high official. The immigrants saw Tigner as the quintessential well-intentioned American—eager, sympathetic, and likable. He is described in Gushi’s journal as being full of humanistic love. He in turn liked what the immigrants had to offer—their enthusiasm for the plan to bring more Okinawans to Bolivia and the fact that they had already purchased some land for that specific purpose. In fact, he had liked the idea of sending Okinawan emigrants to the Santa Cruz region even before he set foot there. As soon as he arrived, he spoke passionately to the members of Uruma Society that he was convinced there was no other place more suitable than Santa Cruz to receive the new Okinawan immigrants.

The Uruma Society had hoped to bring Okinawans to Bolivia but had yet to develop a concrete plan. There was a vague idea of bringing fifty families to start. Not only did Tigner like the idea; he thought it was not ambitious enough. Instead of bringing 50 families, he exhorted, they should plan to bring 2,500 families, or 12,000 persons in ten years. The old immigrants were stunned. Tigner had not even surveyed the site, yet he was trying to impose upon them a large-scale program. (From reading between the lines of Gushi’s journal, it appears that Tigner had not included in his itinerary a tour to the Uruma settlement site and visited it only after the members of the Uruma Society requested he do so.) The old settlers hesitated because they knew they would be unable to carry out even their modest project by themselves. Tigner promised that he would persuade the Okinawan government and the U.S. authorities to finance the program. If both the U.S. and Ryukyu governments were to provide the financial and technical support, it could be done, reasoned the old immigrants. So they conditionally agreed to Tigner’s proposal, provided they received governmental funding. Thus Tigner prevailed over the skeptical immigrants and promised that he would do all he could to make the immigration plan come true. Then he duly went to visit the settlement site as the Uruma Society requested.

The fact that Tigner insisted on an ambitious emigration plan way beyond what the Uruma Society had envisioned, and even before he set foot on the settlement site, indicates that this large-scale emigration plan had been conceived well before Tigner set forth on his tour of Latin America. It is implausible that Tigner, a young field researcher, devised such a grand-scale plan without the approval of his superiors. I speculate that the ambitious plan was made somewhere higher up and that Tigner wascommissioned to take it with him while “searching” for a suitable site to implement it. As he traveled in Latin America, however, he garnered a confidence and a stature that went beyond the mere messenger he was. In any case, he must have been really excited about Bolivia, because he could not wait until he returned home to publicly announce “his choice.” So he did it in Peru, his next stop after Bolivia. This was hardly a selection of the emigration site by thorough investigation and careful survey, as Tigner’s work was described at the time of launching the emigration program.

Creating a “Dream Ticket”

Upon returning from his Latin American tour, Tigner vigorously recommended Bolivia to the U.S. government as the destination for the Okinawan emigrants while at the same time advocating emigration as the solution to Okinawa’s “population problems.” It was as if he had discovered Okinawa’s population problems after he had decided Bolivia was the best place to send Okinawan emigrants. He made one more trip to Okinawa, from August 27 through September 28, 1952. During his stay in Okinawa, he wrote a memorandum reiterating his argument (see footnote 1). He noted with a tone of authority Okinawa’s population pressure, although there is no evidence that he had ever studied population theories or had done any empirical research on Okinawa’s or any other population. In the field of population he was as much an amateur as anyone else. Nonetheless, Tigner’s argument about Okinawa’s population pressure and his proposal for its solution were accepted at face value with no examination or analysis.

However, in a memorandum to Harold Coolidge, Executive Secretary of the Pacific Science Board, NRC, Tigner was more candid about the underlying motive of the Americans in encouraging Okinawan emigration overseas—namely, the increasing political and economic costs for the United States in maintaining the military occupation of Okinawa. Tigner argued that the U.S. government had “no means of effectively resolving these problems other than by assisting the Ryukyuan people to emigrate to other areas of the world which offer them a respectable livelihood and a future for their children.” Dumping the excess population of Okinawa in faraway places would lighten the economic “burden” on the United States, by which he also meant that there would be remittances home by the Okinawan emigrants. Moreover, Tigner pointed his finger at something the U.S. was much preoccupied with at the time—the spread of communism. He referred to “the ominous and real danger of their [Ryukyuans’] vulnerability to communism” due to “the fundamental absence of natural resources” and “circumstances of the occupation.” Anticipating widespread unemployment by the end of 1955 as a result of the completion of the military construction programs, Tigner advocates “a long-range program of organized emigration.”7

The memoranda and reports in which Tigner reiterated the themes of Okinawa’s population pressure and a need for emigration were circulated among the officers in USCAR. Many freely quoted him without citing him directly. Thus, Tigner became a guru on Okinawa’s population problems. No one challenged his survey or his recommendation of Bolivia as the best site for Okinawan emigrants. By the latter part of 1953, these were accepted as established facts. Tigner’s academic credentials were overblown in both Okinawa and Bolivia. Although he was then a field associate historian and Ph. D. candidate, he came to be referred to as a Professor from Stanford University or as Dr. Tigner (Tigner Hakushi), adding more authority to his status.

In August, 1954, Tigner finished his report entitled “The Okinawans in Latin America (Investigation of Okinawan Communities in Latin America with Exploration of Settlement Possibilities),” which became the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation, entitled “The Okinawans in Latin America” (1956, Dept. of History, Stanford University). While Tigner’s research in various Latin American countries was comprehensive, his argument for emigration as a solution to Okinawa’s population and social problems was more ideological than academic. In spite of that, or rather because of it, Tigner’s “analysis” and recommendations met little challenge and were welcomed as the voice of authority among American and Okinawan emigration supporters. In 1957 and 1959, Tigner’s report was translated into Japanese in two parts as “Tigner Report” [Tigner hokokusho] under the auspices of the Okinawan government in order to encourage the idea of overseas emigration. Oshiro Shinjun, who was hired to translate the “Tigner Report,” says that the Okinawan government was desperate and at a loss as to what to do about the population problem at the time and that they thought overseas emigration was probably the only way to deal with it.8

Selling the “Dream Ticket”

The new domestic leadership of Okinawa wholeheartedly embraced the emigration-to-Bolivia project. Both it and the Ryukyu Overseas Association were well informed of the Uruma Society’s activities and Tigner’s investigation. They lobbied and pleaded with the United States for financial and technical assistance to bring about Okinawan emigration overseas, especially to Latin America, where prewar Okinawan immigrants had established their communities. In order to ensure emigration to Bolivia as a public project, the Okinawan government sent two delegates to Bolivia in February, 1954, as an Okinawan Emigration Mission. One of the delegates was Inamine Ichiro (father of the current governor of Okinawa Prefecture) from the Ryukyu Overseas Association and the other was Senaga Hiroshi, of Okinawa’s Department of Economic Planning. Inamine, who established the Ryukyu Overseas Association in 1953 and served as its chairman, made contact with Walter Judd, Congressman from Minnesota and Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Far East and the Pacific, House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Judd took a strong interest in Okinawa because of his concern about the spread of communism in Asia and worked to secure funds to support Okinawan emigration. Inamine, who had worked for the Manchurian Railway and had been engaged in intelligence work in Southeast Asia during the war, was also concerned about the influence of communists and he thus shared a common interest with Judd.

Once the Uruma Society’s idea of bringing Okinawans to Bolivia was taken over by Tigner and began its transformation into a grand-scale emigration project, the old immigrants of the Uruma Society rapidly lost control over any segment of their plan. The visit of the Emigration Mission from Okinawa hastened and completed this process. The Emigration Mission surveyed the settlement site, in which they spent only a little more time than Tigner had. They and the old immigrants discussed the details of the settlement plans. Senaga showed a great deal of concern about the site and the hardships the immigrants would likely face. Inamine, on the other hand, was more powerful and aggressive, casting an intimidating shadow over the Okinawans in Bolivia and intervening in the selection of the members of the Receiving Committee. He forced onto the committee an old acquaintance from school, thereby replacing a prewar immigrant in La Paz who had dedicated himself to the plan. That was a clear sign that the Uruma Society was losing control of the immigration project even at the receiving end.

When Inamine and Senaga returned to Okinawa, the emigration program was launched as transformed by Tigner and Inamine. The Okinawan government announced the project and some 4,000 applications poured in. Things moved with amazing speed. Within a month, 397 individuals had been selected. Not all of them were farmers and their offspring, as the Uruma Society had insisted. In Bolivia, too, everything was so rushed that much lagged behind schedule. When the two groups arrived in Uruma Colony in July and August of 1954, not only was their housing still incomplete and wells not dug, but the entire situation was far from what they had been led to expect. The site was deep in the jungle, far from the main road to the nearest town of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and cut off by a major river, the Rio Grande. Although the Okinawans had expected much hardship, they had also expected some semblance of civilization. Yet, even the most basic necessities were lacking. Every single immigrant remembers the hardest problem they faced was drinking water. Water from the shallow wells was too saline to drink. It was clearly a result of rushed and therefore insufficient preparations.

The Reasons for the Rush

After the outbreak of a mysterious disease that took seventeen lives in six months and put more than half of the immigrants into sick beds, the American view of the Bolivian emigration project changed 180 degrees. An official survey of the Uruma Colony by American and Bolivian experts concluded that the site should never have been chosen because (1) soil was not good enough, (2) potable water was not easily available and (3) there was no access to the main road let alone to markets or towns. An American expert maintained that this fiasco could have been avoided “[h]ad these points been known before the plans were finalized for this location.”9 But all these points had been known to the project planners from the very beginning and considered manageable or brushed aside as trade-offs for other advantageous factors. The physical fact of the site and the knowledge of it had not changed.

What had changed was the perception and attitude of the American officials. Some officials even tried to shift the blame onto the Uruma Society and accused them of having selected the site as a good investment opportunity for resale! The Okinawan press, which was under the scrutiny and control of USCAR, criticized both the Okinawan government and the Overseas Association for having “been carried away by the thought of sending off the emigrants as soon as possible.” At the same time, it also blamed the emigrants as having been “too eager to think matters over carefully” and having “set out on their way with a light heart.” But the same newspapers had also hailed the emigration project, before the tragic outbreak of disease, as “a Godsend to the Ryukyus.”

If the colonization site in Bolivia was indeed so disastrously and obviously unsuitable, why did the American occupiers and Okinawan leaders rush the emigration plan forward with such enthusiasm? The reasons are twofold. First, political and social tensions were rapidly mounting in Okinawa against the U.S. military occupation and especially against the expropriation of land for military installations. The U.S. government was concerned this would lead to the spread of communist influence in the islands, making it difficult for the United States to maintain its military bases. Second, the Japanese government was itself exploring emigration plans to Bolivia and other Latin American countries, which the U.S. government felt compelled to compete with and beat.

For the first few years after Japan’s surrender and the subsequent U.S. occupation, Okinawans took Americans to their hearts and welcomed them as liberators. However, as the U.S. began seizing land for military installations and neglecting the welfare of the residents of Okinawa, anger against U.S. occupation spread among Okinawans and protests against land seizure grew. In June, 1954, an American Christian missionary observed this change and wrote, “In 1947 everywhere the Okinawans told me that they were not Japanese, but wished to join with America. When there again in February 1953, practically everyone told me that they now preferred to belong to Japan.” He observed the U.S. occupation critically, “Russia can rightly criticize for what they [American military] are doing in Okinawa—putting up permanent military installations and American residences, etc., and not giving the natives a chance as to what they want.” He pondered the reasons for the Okinawans’ “anti-American” attitude and noted the travel restriction between Okinawa and Japan. More than anything else, however, he put his finger on the American military occupation of Okinawa:

Perhaps the main difficulty is that America is spending so much money there on military operations and housing, etc., for personnel and, at the same time doing so little for the Okinawans—not even paying a proper price for the land they take—that they have disrupted the local economy and caused much suffering.10

Such concerns were little heeded by the occupiers. Instead, they turned to the idea of emigration as a safety valve.

Tigner also stressed “the ominous and real danger of [Ryukyuans’] vulnerability to communism” due to “the fundamental absence of natural resources” and “circumstances of the occupation.” To underline his point, he took note of “the outcome of recent elections in the Ryukyus in which the one communist member of the Legislature received more of the popular vote than any other single candidate.”11 It was this fear of the spread of communism that prompted the United States to seek a means to pacify the growing discontent among Okinawans.

Another reason for launching the emigration to Bolivia program in haste was that the Japanese government was also searching for sites for sending its emigrants. In the post-WWII era, such places were in short supply. While Tigner was exploring the site for Okinawan emigration, he also kept a watchful eye on the Japanese government’s plans. On his second trip to Okinawa after his tour in Latin America, Tigner stopped in Tokyo and called on the Emigration Section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Japanese government to find out about their South American emigration program. He was concerned that “the progress of the Japanese Government in developing South American colonization will thwart USCAR’s efforts to introduce Ryukyuans in this area unless similar steps are taken by our Government.” In order to win this competition with the Japanese government for sites and land in Latin America, the Okinawan emigration program had to be launched as quickly as possible.

The U.S. was also vigilant about Okinawans falling under the protection of the Japanese government. An USCAR report reveals the U.S. government’s suspicion of the Japanese government and emphasizes the State Department’s “responsibility of providing protection for the emigres. . . . Failure to do this,” it warned, “will undoubtedly result in assumption of responsibility by a Japanese Mission. There have been rumors that this is now being contemplated.” Back in Okinawa, the U.S. sought to keep the Okinawans away from Japan and the Japanese government in order to keep them under the control of the U.S. military operation in Okinawa. After all, it was U.S. occupation policy to treat Okinawans as a separate people from Japanese, thus insisting on referring to them as Ryukyuans. That policy was extended to Okinawan immigrants in Bolivia. Okinawans remained pawns of the U.S. occupation of Okinawa, even when they went to such a faraway place as Bolivia.

I should add here that the Japanese government’s interest in Okinawan immigrants in Bolivia was self-serving rather than being prompted by genuine concern for their welfare. According to the Okinawan press, the Japanese government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had received a report from the Japanese Consulate in Peru and had also learned from Japanese immigrants in Bolivia that

[T]he Uruma settlement area in Santa Cruz seems to be located at a considerable distance from town, and the roads leading to the town are bad, with the result that transportation is inconvenient for transporting agricultural products, and even digging of a well is said to require considerable amount of money. Consequently there are many difficulties in operating a farm. As a result, chances are that there may emerge those who will escape to town, or to adjoining countries such as Brazil, Argentina and others.12

Indeed, that was exactly what happened. However, in worrying about the terrible conditions at the Uruma site the Japanese government was less concerned about the fate of the Okinawan immigrants than about the “reputation of the entire Japanese emigrants in Bolivia.” Thus, in a way, Okinawans were also pawns of the Japanese government.

Not everyone was concerned solely about the politics of Okinawan emigration. In 1956, some officials at the U.S. State Department discussed the possibility of bringing Okinawans to the U.S. The discussion was a response to “the vigorous activities of certain officers in the Pentagon who are seeking to develop a program to bring Ryukyuan farmers to California under a program similar to that developed for the Japanese.” Those who made the above proposal argued that the United States government’s “official responsibility for Ryukyuans” was greater than for Japanese. Their argument made sense morally and politically, since in 1956 the U.S. was still occupying Okinawa while Japan had regained its independence. And yet, their proposal was vetoed for domestic political considerations. After that, no one in the United States government seemed any longer to be interested in Okinawa’s population problems.

The Human Cost of the Rhetoric of Emigration

The United States used the rhetoric of “population pressure” as a pretext for overseas emigration during the period of 1950 to 1955 against the backdrop of massive land expropriation by the U.S. military and the consequent growing discontent and anger among Okinawans. It then took control of the modest emigration plan initiated by the prewar immigrants in Bolivia and tailored it to suit its political design. The Bolivia emigration program was to serve as a safety valve to contain the influence of communism. The American occupiers used the rhetoric of population pressure to obfuscate the causes of unemployment and shortages of food, land and housing in Okinawa, and presented an emigration program as a solution. However, the primary concern of the United States government—both USCAR and the State Department in Washington—was not Okinawa’s population problems, but securing the military bases there.

Since the U.S. government’s concern about Okinawa’s population problems was rhetorical and emigration as a solution was political, there was no comprehensive analysis of the relationship between population and emigration. At one point, the exit of 30,000 Okinawans to former island colonies was dismissed as having no effect on easing Okinawa’s population pressure. At another time, the plan to send 12,000 emigrants in the span of ten years was hailed as “a Godsend to the Ryukyus” and was actively promoted. If the emigration of 30,000 was expected to have no effect on easing Okinawa’s population pressure, the exit of 12,000 people in ten years would have had even less impact. Numbers were manipulated to raise the morale of the people in occupied Okinawa or to pacify their discontent.

Numbers were also manipulated to create an appearance of fairness and rational planning. Take, for example, the number of the first emigrants. Three hundred and ninety-seven Okinawans left for Bolivia in 1954, among whom three women were pregnant and gave birth en route to the destination. Therefore, the groups arrived in Bolivia with a total of 400 individuals, exactly as planned. In this magically neat figure, there was a hidden human cost, some of which turned into tragedy. Each family in the emigration plan was set as four members. In practice that turned out to mean numerous families torn apart and some hastily assembled ones. One of the most tragic cases is one of the three women who gave birth on board ship to Bolivia. As soon as she arrived at the Uruma Colony she lost her husband to the epidemic, thus ending her hope of sending for her eldest son, whom she had left behind in Okinawa. She finally saw him again after twenty-six years when she made a homecoming trip to Okinawa, by which time she and her son were practically strangers to each other.

For the majority of Okinawans who emigrated to Bolivia, the emigration program was a great disappointment at best or a disaster at worst. More than three quarters of the emigrants eventually moved out of the settlement. They either returned to Japan or moved into cities or re-emigrated somewhere else, mostly to Brazil or Argentina. The emigration project was a success only for the one quarter who have remained in Bolivia. They succeeded as new immigrants in Bolivia partly because those who left made available cheap land to those who remained. Many of those who remained are now prosperous farmers or have made inroads into the thin layer of Bolivian middle classes.

Hidden behind the pompous rhetoric and the number games, there are always human lives that are deeply affected by them. The ultimate goal of my study is to dismantle the shield of rhetoric and uncover the scheme of the American occupation that changed the lives of so many Okinawans. This paper is one of the attempts toward that goal.


1. Memorandum by James Tigner coauthored with Paul Skuse, dated September 20, 1952 (National Archives, File: “Ryukyuan Emigration to Bolivia. Dec. 1951-Dec. 1954.” RG/319, DA-CA. E: #60, Box 30). Also included in “The Okinawans in Latin America (Investigation of Okinawan Communities in Latin America with Exploration of Settlement Possibilities)” by James L. Tigner, Pacific Science Board, National Research Council, Washington 25, D.C., August 1954, p. 522.
2. Dept. of State, Memorandum on Conversation about “Emigration of Ryukyuans” on February 28, 1950. (National Archives, RG/59 File: 894C.112/10-853.)
3. See Kozy Amemiya, “The Road to Pro-Choice Ideology in Japan: A Social History of the Contest between the State and Individuals” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, San Diego, 1993), pp. 152-72.
4. Memorandum for Secretary of the Army, Subject: Utilization of the Labor Potential in Surplus Area to Facilitate Operation of Government Interest in Labor Deficit Area (National Archives: RG/319, DA-CA. E: #60. Correspondence of the Public Affairs Division. 1950-1964. Box 30. File: Ryukyuan Emigration to Bolivia).
5. Sekai o butaini: Inamine Ichiro kaikoroku [On the World Stage: Memoir of Inamine Ichiro] (Naha: Okinawa Times, 1988), pp. 362-63.
6. I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Aniya Susumu, President of the Okinawan Association in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, for his generosity in sharing this journal and other materials with me.
7. Memorandum to Coolidge from Tigner, dated November 15, 1952. Subject: Completion of SIRI Study of Ryukyuan Emigration Problem and Latin American Opportunities (National Archives: RG/319, DA-CA. E: #60. Correspondence of the Public Affairs Division, 1950-1964. Box 30. File: Ryukyuan Emigration to Bolivia), p. 5.
8. Interviews with the translator Oshiro Shinjun on June 5 and 6, 1997, in Naha, Okinawa.
9. “Report of Situation of the Okinawan Colony near Santa Cruz, Bolivia as of January 18, 1955,” prepared by Homer J. Henney, Assistant Director Servicio Agricola Interamericano (National Archives, File: “Ryukyuan Emigration to Bolivia.” RG/319, DA-CA, Box 30, E: #60), p. 1.
10. A letter from H.V. Nicholson, Gokasho, Shiga-ken (National Archives, File: “Ryukyuan Emigration of Bolivia. Dec. 1951-Dec. 1954.” RG/319, DA-CA. E: #60, Box 30).
11. See note 7.
12. Extract from Daily Okinawan Press Summary—Okinawa Shimbun, Title: Japanese Government Warns GRI to Use Prudence in Selection of Bolivian Emigrants. (National Archives, RG/319, DA-CA. E: #60, Box 30. [Correspondence of the Public Affairs Division. 1950-1964.] File: “Ryukyuan Emigration to Bolivia. Dec. 1951-Dec. 1954.”)

KOZY AMEMIYA is a sociologist and the author of several JPRI Working Papers about Okinawa and Okinawans in Bolivia. Her work has also been anthologized in Okinawa: Cold War Island, Chalmers Johnson, ed. (JPRI, 1999) and New Worlds, New Lives, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, Akemi Kikumura-Yano, and James A. Hirabayashi, eds. (Stanford University Press, 2002). The current paper will be included in a somewhat different form in a volume to be edited and published by the University of Bonn, Germany.

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