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Nikkei Chronicles #2—Nikkei+: Stories of Mixed Language, Traditions, Generations & Race

A Japanese Chief

Yamato Taba arrived to Peru in 1921 from Okinawa, Japan, to harvest cotton in the Cañete area, 150 km south from Lima, the capital of Peru. At the end of his contract which he completed with great sacrifices, Yamato and his wife rented a little parcel of land where they grew vegetables and had sold their products in the town of Cañete and other locations. In a few years, they had saved enough money to be able to purchase the land that they had been renting before.

However, they knew that in 1912, the Morioka Shokay Migration Company had recruited approximately 300 Japanese with 4 year contracts to work in Peru and be returned to Japan after completion of their contract. But once they completed their contract, the company invited them to renew their contract to colonize an area of the Peruvian Amazon jungle, a valley called Chanchamayo of the Junín Departamento, that was then, a little-known place to local Peruvian farmers. By 1922, the Japanese colonists who were already settled down and totally liberated of contracts, established the Peruvian Agricultural & Forestry Co. which was dedicated exclusively to the cultivation of coffee.

In 1929, with the support of the Japanese Embassy, a small group of investors recruited Japanese immigrants in Lima and Cañete as colonists, not as dekasegi (temporary workers). They organized a cooperative enterprise to purchase 1,000 hectare of land in the Chanchamayo valley. A little before that, the government of President Augusto B. Leguía had decided to unite the Amazon region with the rest of the country by reviving an old railroad project connecting a branch line of the Central Highway to the town of Puerto Inca at the edge of the Pachitea river in the Huanuco Departamento. In anticipation of the completion of the railroad project, Yamato decided to make a radical change of his coastal city plan. He decided to settle down with his wife at Puerto Inca (a jungle region). A little later, Yamato called over his brother Tenho from Okinawa.

The two brothers had foreseen to obtain a place to start to cultivate rice, corn, and other varieties of vegetables that were available in Puerto Inca. They thought this would be a temporary situation. Once the railroad reached the town, it would bring significant commercial activities and they would become leaders in the region. By 1930, however, only 80 kilometers had been constructed on the railroad. In September of that year, Leguía was discharged and the next government abandoned the project completely. At the same time, due to misfortune, Yamato’s wife died from a disease that was not treated properly by the doctors in the community hospital. To ease their sorrow, Yamato Taba decided to send his children and his brother Tenho to Okinawa. So, Yamato was left alone.

One afternoon, the town of Puerto Inca was abuzz with excitement because at the end of the Sungaroyacu river (a part of the Pachitea river), some people from the town found a group of almost naked native people that were force to leave their town. The heavy rains left them hungry without any food supply, so they had to leave their homes in search of food in order to survive. They did not speak Spanish and they only could express themselves with gestures. Yamato Taba was shocked, so he took an initiative by giving them the food that he had purchased. Then he went back to town and bought more food, some clothes, rustic sandals, mirrors and tools that he gave to the natives who were then able to go back to their homes. This incident soon was forgotten and the town of Puerto Inca returned to normal.

Some 5 months passed and the same natives appeared again, but this time they were accompanied by a man who seemed to be the chief of the tribe. He invited Yamaoto to his village in order to thank him for his generosity given to his people. After 3 days of walking, they arrived at their village. Yamato was surprised by the crowd of more than 400 members of this tribe of Cashibo ethnic people, known in this region as being one of the more aggressive and savage natives in the Pachitea valley. A big welcome feast awaited with food, dance, chant, and singing. As a tradition the tribe offered him the company of a young girl for companionship, which was only offered to the great warriors. Since this was a very special occasion, the young girl was the daughter of the chief of the tribe. She was the princess.

On the long walk back to his home through an unexplored area of the jungle, Yamato Taba had noticed the presence of many trees that could be used for lumbering, particularly the mahogany tree which he could get higher prices for in the markets of the east coast of the United States and Europe. This type of wood was passing through Iquitos customs going through the Amazon River. So Yamato made a plan that would enable the natives to get out of poverty. With the appropriate equipment, the men of this tribe could dedicate themselves to felling those trees for lumbering, timbering, and other usages. So with their revenue, they could improve their quality of life. A little more than 10 days after returning to Puerto Inca, while pondering the possibility of the forest exploitation and how to persuade the native Cashibo to participate in the project, the Princess suddenly appeared at his house, urging him to let her live with him in his village, as her father had arranged.

Yamato Taba didn’t know how to speak the dialect of the Cashibo tribe but could communicate by sign and gestures, and through his native woman who always accompanied him. However, he was able to lead them. He taught the tribe the proper use of axes, saws, chains, ropes, and levers, to accelerate logging work and avoid accidents. He personally oversaw the crew of workers, directing them in the selection, cutting, preparation, hauling them to the river, and tying them up into rafts, so they could transport them via the river. There they would be towed to Pucallpa and later transported to Iquitos, a distance of 400 km north.

Soon the village had enough economic resources to improve nourishment, therefore decreasing death and illness due to diseases and starvation. They acquired new agricultural and forestry tools as well as a small engine to equip their boats used to transport people and their products. The success of their work completely changed the lives of these people, which previously had been largely dedicated to hunting, harvesting, and subsistence agriculture. Yamato succeeded in establishing the particular Japanese spirit that was distinctly Japanese, a spirit that was inherited from his distant Okinawa ancestors. Shortly after Yamato Taba became a valued member of the tribe’s war council: A Great Chief.


*This article is an excerpt from Luis Takanobu Shimabukuro’s Descubriendo Amazonia (Discovering the Amazon) which he is currently working on based on his father’s stories Amazon Sanka (1974).


© 2013 Luis Takanobu Shimabukuro

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Each article submitted to this series was eligible for selection as favorites of our readers and the Editorial Committees. Thank you to everyone who voted!

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About this series

Being Nikkei is inherently a state of mixed traditions and cultures. For many Nikkei communities and families around the world, it is common to use both chopsticks and forks; mix Japanese words with Spanish; or celebrate the New Year’s Eve countdown with champagne and Oshogatsu with ozoni and other Japanese traditions.

This series introduces stories explore how Nikkei around the world perceive and experience being multiracial, multinational, multilingual, and multigenerational.

Each piece submitted to the Nikkei+ anthology was eligible for selection as our readers’ favorites. 

Here are their favorite stories in each language.

To learn more about this writing project >>

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