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Are island people an endangered species?

by Amy Chavez

The passing of O-bon (the festival of the dead), seems an appropriate time to reflect on the declining population in Japan. While the population continues to decline, depopulation is also occurring in farming communities and on Japan’s small islands. As an islander myself, I am confronted with the question: Are islanders becoming an endangered species?

When I came to Shiraishi Island 10 years ago, the population was 900. The day I moved here, the number briefly jumped to 901, but this only lasted a few days until someone died. And this pattern of people dying has continued uninterrupted. Is it due to global warming? Loss of habitat? Maybe.

With the island habitat threatened more and more by global warming, which is bringing bigger and more frequent typhoons, the islanders have adapted amazingly well: Sea walls have been erected, and we’ve developed an innate sense of jumping out of bed at high tide to check the water level during a typhoon. So while we have been successful in preserving the species, we remain under threat.

The problem is that the chances of someone being born here are slim, about as slim as someone being born in an old folks’ home. Young people here are very rare, nearing extinction. In addition, young families don’t move here because most people think that a small island in the Inland Sea is an inconvenient place to live. However, absolutely everyone agrees that it’s a great place to die.

Picking up on this idea is a local government program encouraging retired people living in the clogged, smogged cities to spend their Golden Years living in the countryside. By introducing the city species to a healthy, natural habitat, they hope to revive the countryside. And why not live out your retirement years in an idyllic island setting like ours? This place is to die for.

So some city folk are choosing to live out their Golden Years here. As an introduced species, they have no interest in the history of the island or participating in the local culture. They have come here for just one reason. This is unlike those of the indigenous population who, at eightysomething, leave the house at 6 a.m. to go clean the local temple, then work in the vegetable gardens a few hours, come home for lunch, and die in the afternoon — all in a day’s work.

On my planet, the United States, many people spend their last years in an old folks’ home, which really isn’t much of a home at all. It would more properly be called an old people’s gathering place, or an old folks’ frat house. After all, heaven isn’t considered a “home” for dead people.

Yet use these euphemisms for getting old and for dying because, face it, dying has a bad name — as if there’s something wrong with it. Yet it’s a perfectly natural phenomenon. Besides, we actually practice dying every night when we sleep. When you’re asleep, you can’t talk or eat or hold a conversation. Yet we accept the fact that most people are basically dead anyway for one third of every day.

So while we are lying there in our caskets, we are at peace knowing that our sleep apnea and insomnia woes are truly gone forever. Which makes me wonder: Why do they always bury people in suits or nice clothing? In case they come back from the dead for a dinner party? Think about it: When we die, we ought to be buried in our pajamas.

It would be wrong to say Shiraishi Island encourages death, but indeed, death seems to be part of the attraction here. For example, Shrine No. 72 on the Shiraishi Pilgrimage sits right on the road on a blind curve, so you can actually pray to the gods and be run over by a truck at the same time. A bit too convenient, if you ask me.

But I suppose it is good to be able to decide where and when you want to leave this world.

One islander did just that in what must be the most romantic way possible to leave this charming little island. At O-bon, the locals dance the Shiraishi Bon Dance, a dance dedicated to the souls of the Heike warriors who died in the great sea battle that ended the Genpei wars in 1185. This Bon dance has been danced every year to comfort the souls of the dead.

But this year, at the end of the dance, one of the islanders collapsed on the ground. While his body lay there lifeless, his soul continued dancing — up and up to join the souls of the warriors he had dedicated himself to.