Yangyel Lhaden

Agur Camp, Panbang, Zhemgang. Temperature reads 37°C. The whole Zhemgang has congregated here today for their Japan Saab.

Late Dasho Keiji Nishioka, known to most people in rural Bhutan as Japan Saab, lived at Agur Camp, in his simple two-storey house between 1976 and 1980 in Panbang.

Today is the consecration ceremony of this house, which has been renovated after many years of neglect and will now function as an office and museum. The location of Dasho’s house has been the sub-centre office of Agriculture Research and Development Center, Samtenling since 2018. Care has been taken to retain the original architecture. 

Festooned with colourful dhar—blue, white, red, green, and yellow—the little house evokes memories of the years gone by.

The people walk around the camp like they did about 40 years ago to learn modern agriculture practices with their beloved Japan Saab.

“It feels like Japan Saab is still among us,” says a bleary-eyed gentleman, frail, weather-beaten, and shuffling to a side.

Dasho Keiji Nishioka was a Japanese agriculture expert who laid the foundation of modern agriculture in the country from 1964. In 1980, he was awarded the Red Scarf and, in 1992, was awarded the Druk Thuksey (The Heart Son of Bhutan).

From 1976 to 1980, Dasho worked in Zhemgang, which was then the most remote district, with the task to help poor farmers as part of Integrated Development Project.

On the second floor of Dasho’s residence is a gallery that houses Dasho’s work and projects. The pictures take one down the memory lane; how he brought the people of Zhemgang together to work on the land and produce enough for themselves.

There are pictures of clearing land, in black and white, of people crossing the Drangmechhu in pan (temporary boats woven out of cane); Dasho working in the field with villagers, group photo in front of his house; the Nishioka Bridge; and people paying their last respects to Dasho Nishioka near Drangmichhu and throwing his ashes in the river. And more.

Before Dasho Nishioka came to Panbang, the people of Zhemgang practiced shifting cultivation. Crossing the Drangmechhu happened once a year, in winter, with pan and support of ropeway, to buy essential items. Dasho built a suspension bridge across Drangmechhu which is called Nishioka Bridge. It is still there, alongside a new motorable bridge.

On the ground floor of the house, a group of elderlies share stories of Dasho Nishioka. One of them said that this room where they are sitting, was used as a storeroom and had agriculture machinery and equipment. “You name one equipment and you could find it here.”

Rinchen Dolkar, 66, recalls the name of the village she grew up, in the forest, called Phuling which no longer exists. She said, “ Dasho cleared the land for us and gave us home. Had it not been for Japan Saab, we would still been eating off the forest.”

Rinchen used to come daily to the camp to learn agriculture methods from Dasho Nishioka. She had never seen rice cultivated in wetland.  Rinchen said: “Japan Saab taught us starting from basic spacing for seed plantation to making tofu from soyabeans.”

She no longer remembers how to make tofu.

When she first met Dasho Nishioka, Rinchen, along with other villagers planted rice at the camp.  A few months later, Rinchen was shocked to see the seedlings coming out of the field. She had never seen anything like this. “The fibers of rice plant were numerous, silky like end of a horse tail.”

Pema Chojay, 69, remembers it differently. He was an excavator conductor. His task was to clear the forest and prepare fields. When a foreigner made him level the field, he made a short work of it. “I was not sincere and did not make good fields.” The fields are awkward, filled with giant rocks here and there.

The people of Panbang remember Dasho Nishioka with binoculars all day long. He would be watching from someplace afar. If he saw people not working on the fields, he would burst into mad temper. This kept the villagers on their toes—Japan Saab would be coming with stick in his hand.

Nado Tshering, 65, said that Dasho was a humble man who ate and slept among the local people. “He punished people who did not work, but he also rewarded hardworking people.”

Sangay Thinley, 65, said he was one of the 26 people from Zhemgang who went to Bondey, Paro to learn agriculture.“ Dasho was strict, humble, and spoke in impeccable Dzongkha.”

Tshewang, 89, was then head carpenter who built Dasho Nishioka’s house. His pay was Nu 10 per day. Today, his son, Leki Tshethup, is the contractor who renovated Dasho Nishioka’s house. Tshewang said that it gave him happiness that both his son and he were involved in building house of their Japan Saab.

This year marks the 30th death anniversary of Dasho Nishioka.

For the people of Zhemgang, their Japan Saab has never left them.