Japanese Families Return to Dominican Republic

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Between Teruki Waki's porch and the Constanza mountains lies the blooming farmland that hundreds of his fellow immigrants thought would never grow.

It is the unlikely triumph over a mistake made 50 years ago — a story of failure and heartbreak only now coming to closure.

Thousands of poor Japanese families came to the Dominican Republic in the postwar 1950s, encouraged by the Tokyo government to take the offer of free land and a new life. But the soil was bad and the Caribbean nation would soon be plunged into political chaos. In less than a decade nearly all the Japanese were gone.

Their story is a striking example of the convulsion that gripped post-World War II Japan. The ripples were still being felt last week, when the emigrants finally won an apology from their prime minister.

Dominican dictator Gen. Rafael Trujillo pushed the free-land program in hopes of creating a vegetable industry and bringing lighter-skinned genes to his country's bloodline. A similar Trujillo plan brought Jewish Holocaust refugees to the country's north coast from Europe to set up a dairy industry.

Postwar Japan liked the idea; it was desperate to house its soldiers and families returning from a collapsed empire. So from 1956 to 1959, some 1,300 Japanese made the 30-day, 8,000 mile voyage across the oceans.

The Nishio family was given arid, salty soil near the Haitian border.

"There was no water. There were so many mosquitoes. It was a disgrace," said Yoko Nishio, who arrived as a teenager and is now a 65-year-old grandmother.

Her family struggled to farm and sell crops to Dominicans unaccustomed to eating vegetables. Four years later, at age 20, her father demanded she find a husband to support her. She married a Japanese soil engineer and moved to the Constanza valley, where the land was more fertile, though overgrown with pine trees.

But in May 1961 Trujillo was assassinated, kicking off four years of violence and political turbulence that would end with a U.S. invasion. Nishio's parents moved to Brazil. She never saw them again.

Most of the other Japanese left too, including nearly all of the 37 families in Constanza. Only some 257 immigrants stayed past the early 1960s, according to the committee organizing the community's 50th anniversary celebration this month.

Ashamed of their failure to farm the difficult land and crushed by the breakup of their families, some committed suicide, said committee spokesman Yoshihiro Iguchi.

In 2000, Nishio and more than 170 other immigrants sued the Japanese government, claiming they were deceived into leaving Japan and taking bad land.

Japan settled the lawsuit this month, promising to pay up to $17,000 to each plaintiff as well as $10,000 to emigrants who did not take part in the suit.

And on Friday, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi issued a formal apology, "for causing immense suffering due to the government's response at the time."

Still, for some who stuck it out, the Dominican Republic is a comfortable home.

"It's good here. The mountain climate is very similar to where we're from," said Waki, a thin, 51-year-old man with skin tanned reddish-brown from five decades in the Caribbean sun.

The half-dozen families who stayed in Constanza blend prewar Japanese culture with their modern Dominican lives.

Even the youngest speak a dated version of the mother tongue. In Japan, a camera is a "kamera," but here it's still a "shashinki."

Koki Sato, a 42-year-old vegetable farmer, swears in Spanish but makes his daughters watch Japanese television via satellite to keep them connected to their ancestral language and culture.

The next generation of Japanese-Dominicans will now inherit the land. Waki's fields of ornamental flowers will pass to his 29-year-old son and Dominican daughter-in-law.

It will complete a journey begun by Waki's mother, Choko, from her childhood in Japanese-occupied China, back to Japan and then to this Caribbean island five decades ago. At 75, she looked across the wide valley where her family once struggled.

"It is paradise for us," she said.