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An L.A. Sansei's Misadventures in South America

Km 41 - Part 1

The notation on the margin of the bookmarked page of my father’s world atlas was distinct but baffling: km 41, Colonia Yguazu, Paraguay.

Makoto-san and Katagi-san, my dad in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland

This and a name were the only information my father had as to the whereabouts of a relative who had traveled from Japan to South America. He got this information when Makoto-san stopped in Los Angeles on his one-way journey to Paraguay from Japan. My father met the ship and extended a warm welcome to this relative during his brief stopover. They exchanged information. They took a photo together at Disneyland. The date on the back of the photograph showed the month and year to be May 1968.

In 1994, I am visiting the country of Paraguay on a ministry trip with JEMS (Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society). I happen to travel to the town of Colonia Yguazu to participate in the dedication of a new church building. We turn off the highway at a numbered marker. You guessed it! Km 41.

Across the street from the colony entrance is the local mercado aptly named. It turns out that Km 41 is so named because it represents the distance from the international border separating Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. 41 kilometers from the border town of Presidente Franco.

Market at KM 41

Fast forward to 1997. I am leading a team of young volunteers working with Nikkei churches in South America. I am in the home of a Nikkei family in the Paraguayan city of Pedro Juan Caballero. My work is done for the day when a memory of the atlas page, bookmarked to Paraguay and the visit to Km 41 comes to mind.

“Excuse me,” I ask this family, “I might have a relative here in Paraguay. Would there be some way to find out where he might be?”

“What’s his name?”

“Makoto N-----.”

Ue? Makoto N------san oboeteru! (We know Makoto N-------san!) In fact, we might have his phone number in this listing of Japanese association families in Paraguay.”

A phone call was hurriedly made. The receiver was handed to me as someone answered the phone on the other line.

“Ummm. Ummm.”

The problem was immediately clear as I spoke neither Japanese nor Spanish to speak with the person on the other line. I begged the indulgence of the host family to mediate this conversation for me.

After an exchange of pleasantries in Japanese, my host family was able to make arrangements on my behalf.

So began a journey of discovery.

It was arranged that I, together with my team, would travel to the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este. There we would visit the world famous Yguazu Falls and, perhaps more important to me, meet my Paraguayan Nikkei relative.

We met together that afternoon as he accompanied us to see the waterfalls and after the morning’s excursion, he treated us to lunch at a local churrasco (Brazilian BBQ) restaurant. As we sat together, I was able to relate in broken Portuguese, Spanish, and Japanese, how I had come to look for him.

It was then that he asked a key question: “How exactly are we related?”

It was a good question. I had no idea. I only had that atlas page as a clue. As to asking my father, that wouldn’t be possible as he had passed away the year before. That avenue of information was gone. Even without the satisfaction of an answer, Makoto-san was kind enough to pay for our meal and gave me gifts to take back to the US for my mother.

Makoto-san and John in front of a restaurant in Paraguay

Upon coming home, my mom indicated that she recalled that my father’s mother may have had the same maiden name as N----san. But that was all she knew. The answers would have to come from elsewhere.

Part 2 >>

© 2013 John Katagi

family Paraguay travel Yguazu

Sobre esta série

John Katagi is a former staff member of the Japanese American National Museum. He shares memories from almost two decades of travel to South America. His experiences result from study and observation as part of the directorial staff of JEMS, a cross-cultural agency based in Los Angeles.