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Brazilian exchange student finds home away from home

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-04-05

Emi Obara is a native Brazilian of Japanese ancestry, who has spent the last few years studying Fisheries Resource Management as a graduate student, under a Japanese Monbusho scholarship. She completed most of her studies, after a brief stay in Hokkaido, at Ryukyu University here on Okinawa. Obara's studies included field research at the Genka river, where she observed how the fish "Tilapia" live in their natural habitat. "I studied what they eat, how they reproduce, and how they change their eating habits...etc.," explained Obara.

The Tilapia is actually originally from Africa, but was introduced into Okinawa from Taiwan about ten years after the war. The Okinawans hoped to raise Tilapia in their own rivers as a bait fish, and it soon adapted very fast to its new habitat. The Tilapia, which can survive in very polluted water, can now be found in most of Okinawa's rivers, sometimes reaching up to 30 centimeters in length. The fish has caused biologists to show concern over the affects of the introduced species in Okinawa's ecosystem. "The rivers in Okinawa are very short and fragile. The Tilapia could be invading a lot of the habitat of other species," said Obara. "You never really know what the affect on the natural environment will be."

Much of Obara's time was spent north of Nago at Genka village, where she caught Tilapia the old fashioned way with a net. She learned the difficult skill from Hosaku Afuso, an experienced 89 year old fisherman from Onna-son. By watching and listening to Afuso, she was able to learn how to approach fish and then throw the net. Obara used her acquired Okinawan fisherman skills in the cool waters of the Genka river, catching fish for her research, while surrounded by the sounds of nature.

Obara not only learned about Tilapia at the Genka river, but also got a taste of Okinawan culture. The 29 year old found a small house that she rented and used as a retreat while conducting her research along the river. A lover of nature, the very energetic Obara became very fond of her new home, which she cleaned up and repaired herself. An old wooden Okinawan house with a toilet outside and overgrown with vegetation, soon became a nice cozy place to sit and watch the day go by after a morning out in the river. "I liked it so much there. It's like a small country side village. I learned a lot about Okinawan country life while I was there. People always invited me over to eat, for celebrations, and for local festivals," further explained Obara.

Obara soon found the small village and Okinawa to be a wonderful place to her liking. "I feel at home here. People are so nice and friendly," she said. Obara also was participating in Eisa during her free time and did some scuba diving. "The diving here is fantastic. I've never lived so close to the ocean in all of my life, and it was really nice," she continued saying.

Obara recently graduated from the program at Ryukyu University, and she is currently making plans to return to her hometown of Sao Paulo, where she will continue her studies towards a Ph.D. "I would like to come back to Okinawa again. I really learned a lot here. The facilities that I was able to do my research at were excellent. After another five years I would like to apply for a fellowship to return here if possible," she explained. Obara also hopes to be able to someday work as an eco-tours guide, where she can utilize her language skills in Portuguese, English, and Japanese.

Although Obara and her net will no longer be seen at Genka, the currents of the river will continue to flow, and so will the impressions she made on the people of Genka. "I will miss the people the most," she said about leaving the island.

She also commented that "I wish for people not to throw trash into the rivers or beaches. And, please do not throw fish into the river from your aquarium." Her contributions to marine science and to the Okinawan community will be missed.

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