Sunday, December 5, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Japanese Farms Feed Dominican Republic


CONSTANZA, Dominican Republic - Sinchi Ariyama looks out over the Constanza Valley verdant with spinach, lettuce, strawberries, carrots, apple orchards and potato fields.

It's the garden spot of the Dominican Republic now. Not all that long ago it was just swamps.

That was in 1956, when Ariyama was 4 and his family emigrated from Kagoshima, Japan.

"After the war, Japan was in ruins. The Japanese government looked for ways to get people out," says Ariyama, his face reddened by windburn and the cold at the 3,600-foot elevation of Constanza, a farming community 80 miles northwest of Santo Domingo, the capital city.

At the time, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo - like other members of the nation's lighter-skinned elite - wanted to bring more whites into the country and welcomed some 200 Japanese families.

"They didn't have many vegetables," says Ariyama. "I remember these lands when we first got here - they were swamps. My father and uncle drained the land."

Today, the area produces 90 percent of the nation's vegetables.

One warm Sunday, church bells ring and Spanish-speaking radio evangelists are heard on the radio. But some of Constanza's inhabitants don't speak Spanish.You're more likely to hear Japanese in a suburb called Colonia Japonesa.

Still, only seven of the original 47 Japanese families that settled in Constanza remain.

Those who remain have been successful, and say they are happy.

Though his mother is a Buddhist, Ariyama has adopted Roman Catholicism, the majority religion, and his children went to Catholic schools.

"I feel like a Dominican. The only thing I haven't done is sworn allegiance," he says.

His mother, Mutsuko Ariyama, remembers leaving Yokohama harbor on Dec. 30, 1956 with her husband and two young sons.

"When I first got here, I didn't like it. I cried a lot. I cared for the household. I fixed the meals and took them out to the men in the fields. Sometimes I stayed and helped."

Yoko Kato, 56, came with her mother, Sonoko, and married a Dominican with whom she has six children. Three live in Japan and three in the Dominican Republic.

"When we first got here, we talked through interpreters or by sign language. It was a culture shock. I have adapted. I still feel Japanese; I have my passport," she says.

Yet when she visits the land of her birth, she feels that "Japan is expensive and full of people."

Sonoko Kato, 76, to Japan.

She left Japan with her husband, and daughter. At first they settled near the Dominican border with Haiti. After her husband died, she moved to Constanza.

She has been back to Japan four times. "The culture has changed. People were more serious; now they are charlatans. And it's too crowded," says Kato. Japanese diplomat Teruyuki Ishikawa says the Dominican Republic is the biggest recipient of his country's foreign development aid, mainly because of the Japanese immigrants and their descendants.

"They have made their impact on Dominican agriculture, producing vegetables and rice, improving irrigation and introducing Bokasi, an organic fertilizer."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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