Since Bolivia has no coast, the first Japanese settlers came from neighboring Peru where their contracts ended prior to the 1950s. Most Japanese settlers had origins from Okinawa, while the rest from Gifu, Hiroshima, Kanagawa, and Osaka prefectures. In 1899, Mapiri River Region in La Paz experienced the first entrance of 91 Japanese workers assigned for rubber plantations. Since then, Andes Mountains continued to attract few more hundreds of Japanese laborers, who luckily caught work in mining and railroad construction. The inland Amazon River region appeared as the second main destination for the workers, who also came through Peru to work on rubber plantations in northwestern Bolivia. The end of World War I and Great Depression shifted Japanese workers in the rubber and mining industries respectively. The only places in Bolivia that survived changes were the town of Riberalta and La Paz, which served as the Japanese commercial activities. In the 1930s, most Japanese remained as settlers and many brought wives from their home country while most married local women; these made difference that divided the community.
When World War II began, only 29 Japanese Bolivians were deported to United States. But because more than that, the war had not much effect on the lives of residents of Japanese descent in Bolivia, since the local government did not make anti-Japanese measures. Since the end of the war, the government warmly permitted Japanese refugees. Treaties after 1954 guided in a new chapter of Japanese Bolivian history and the massive influx of agricultural settlers from U.S.-controlled Okinawa and mainland Japan. The need of relocating surplus populations from war-torn Japan met the Bolivian government's wish to develop the eastern lower lands in Santa Cruz Department. With the financial help of the Japanese government, Colonia Okinawa and Colonia San Juan de Yapacaní were established; the two settlements formed the distinctive communities with separate identities—one Okinawan and the other mainland Japanese—that are also currently in transition from the immigrant to the Bolivian-born generation. While Colonia Okinawa grows soy and wheat, San Juan de Yapacaní has specialized in rice and egg production. Nowadays, many descendants have moved to the nearby city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
First-generation Japanese settlers generally use Japanese in their daily discourse, and cannot speak Spanish fluently. Subsequent generations had a decreased fluency in the Japanese language, which was attributed to the absence of Japanese-language schools in communes, and speak Spanish more fluently than the first-generation settlers. Many first-generation settlers in Colonia Okinawa are still able to speak Uchināguchi.
A study done by an Christopher Reichl and Thompson in the 1960s among the Japanese settlers at San Juan de Yapacaní noted that 32% of the Japanese were Buddhist, with an equal number being Roman Catholics. A minority identified themselves as members of Soka Gakkai or Shinto. The majority of the Japanese Catholics converted to the faith after reaching Bolivia. Conversion to Catholicism among the Japanese community increased during the 20th century, which Thompson noted was due to the absence of strong Shinto or Buddhist religious institutions which the settlers could emphasise their faith. Among the non-Japanese Christians, some first and second-generation settlers maintained household Shinto shrines, although the sizeable majority became agnostic in religious outlook.
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