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Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2006

Paraguay envoy looks back on emigration plan that worked


Staff writer

Paraguayan Ambassador to Japan Isao Taoka still remembers the first things he saw when he arrived in the South American country in April 1958.

News photo
Isao Taoka, Paraguay's ambassador to Japan, looks back on the 70-year history of Japanese emigrants in the South American country during a recent interview at his embassy in Tokyo. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

"When I first got there, I was surprised by all the nature." Fish were swarming in the rivers, and puma, parrots and monkeys thrived in the jungle near the Japanese emigrant settlement.

"Trees grew so thick that it was dark even during the day," the 63-year-old said. "I sometimes wonder if we could have saved some of that nature."

But Taoka, a first-generation Japanese emigrant, knew that turning the area into farmland was essential for his family and colleagues to survive in the new world.

Japanese emigration to Paraguay began in 1936, with 123 families relocating in the first five years.

Suffering amid a long-term postwar economic slump, Taoka's family, hailing from Tokushima Prefecture, joined the government-backed emigration project in 1958 when he was 14.

"Our ship left Yokohama on Feb. 5 that year, after the travelers from the Tohoku region got on board. We made stops at San Francisco, went through the Panama Canal and reached Brazil, before arriving in Paraguay," he said.

As soon as they landed, his family began growing oranges and tea.

The early days were full of hardship and the emigrants feared starvation as they struggled to clear the land to plant rice and vegetables from seedlings brought from Japan.

"There were times when the sky turned yellow because the emigrants constantly burned and cleared areas for farmland," Taoka said. Some gave up hope and committed suicide; others migrated to neighboring countries.

Taoka explained that unlike the Dominican Republic, which Japan promised emigrants was a "Caribbean paradise" full of fertile farmland but turned out to have harsh conditions, emigrants to Paraguay "received support from both the Japanese and Paraguayan governments upon their settlement."

The broken promises to the emigrants to the Dominican Republic were only partially rectified by an apology and settlement offer last month.

The Federation of Japan Overseas Associations (Kaikyoren), now the Japan International Cooperation Agency, played a key role in assisting the emigrants to Paraguay and improving their lives, providing them with agricultural knowhow.

Hospitals and schools were built with aid from Japan, while JICA experts collaborated to improve soybean strains and advised farmers to experiment in no-tillage cultivation.

Efficiency and productivity of soybean production made rapid progress, and life became less demanding.

Taoka eventually became a central figure in the Japanese-Paraguayan community as head of the local agricultural co-op association, and later was elected mayor of La Paz. He was assigned as ambassador to Japan in 2004.

In 2002, Paraguay exported 2.34 million tons of soybeans, ranking as the fourth-biggest exporter of the commodity after the U.S., Brazil and Argentina.

The Japanese emigrants played a key role in developing Paraguay's soybean industry, Taoka said.

"Forty percent of the soybeans exported from Paraguay were made by Japanese emigrants until at least a decade ago," he said, adding that what started with the first generation of Japanese-Paraguayans planting soybeans to make miso and soy sauce has grown into the backbone of the country's economy.

Many emigrants succeeded in other agricultural markets, including Hiromichi Maehara from Hiroshima, who grew wealthy through poultry farming and whose business now accounts for more than 60 percent of the eggs sold in Paraguay, Taoka said.

In 2003, the emigrants in the settlements built by the Japanese government averaged more than $40,000 in annual income, compared with the Paraguayan average of $935.

Through their achievements, Japanese emigrants have also gained a reputation in Paraguay as hardworking and sincere.

"The taxi drivers always ask me if I am from Japan -- and when I tell them yes, they treat me very well," Taoka said.

Regarding future Japan-Paraguay relations, Taoka senses a new era beginning.

"We strongly feel the need to return the favor to Japan, because Paraguay received huge help from the Japanese government. We are considering what we can do in return to show our gratitude."

With the substantial contributions of the Japanese-Paraguayans to the country's economy, there will be a celebration to mark the 70th year anniversary of emigration on Sept. 8 in Paraguay.

"The first generation of emigrants still remembers the pain and the difficulties of the early years, but they are now able to smile and say, 'it was the right choice to move to Paraguay.' That is what the 70-year anniversary will be about," he said.



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