The 21-sq.-km island of Mikura has a distinctive history remembered and shared well by villagers.
While some archeological evidence shows that the island was inhabited as far back as 6,000 years ago, modern-day villagers say the oldest written records that link them to their ancestors are those from the Edo Period (1603-1867), during which the island was under the direct control of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
“The Izu Islands were designated as places of exile during the Edo Period,” explains Setsuyoshi Hirose, a 54-year-old Mikura native who now works at the local tourist information center. “In any of the Izu Islands, about 10 percent of the population are said to be descendants of those who were exiled from Edo (present-day Tokyo) -(mostly for political reasons). Because of limited food and other resources, it was a huge burden for the islanders to accept exiles.”
But some exiles were well-off folks who brought farewell gifts — and political influence — with them. One such esteemed and welcome deportee was Okuyama Kochikuin, a medical doctor who had worked in Ooku, the quarters of the shogun’s consort and servants in Edo. He arrived on Mikura Island in 1714.
At that time, Mikura people logged tsuge (Japanese box) trees, which were valued in Edo because their wood made top-quality combs. They then shipped the tsuge lumber to Edo, and on their return brought back with them food such as miso (fermented soy beans), rice and soy sauce for villagers to share equally, as was their custom, Hirose said. But then the island was faced with a major problem.
As access to and from Mikura was often hampered by rough seas, officials there entrusted their counterparts on the larger neighboring Miyake Island to keep Mikura’s official seal, without which no transactions could take place. In an event that still leaves Mikura residents feeling bitter and betrayed, Miyake officials soon began exploiting their possession of the seal to skim off Mikura’s profits from the tsuge trade. And without those, the livelihood of the people of Mikura was seriously in danger.
The exiled Okuyama, however, used his Edo connections to get Mikura’s seal back in 1729 — a seal they never again parted with. To this day, Okuyama and his former colleague in Edo — a doctor named Katsuragawa Hochiku — are immortalized at Mikura’s Sanpo Shrine.
The little village also had an interesting experience hosting shipwrecked Chinese and American sailors just as the rule of the shogunate was set to end. “In 1863, due to the heavy fog and warm currents, a ship carrying 460 Chinese laborers and 23 American sailors (bound for the United States) ran aground off Mikura,” Hirose said. “Mikura was a village of 200 people then, and most of them had not even met people from Edo. And then one day, they were faced with a group of foreigners twice the size of their entire population. Naturally, the villagers panicked.”
At that time, after the 1853 arrival of a U.S. Navy expedition headed by Matthew Perry, and amid increasing demands by foreign countries for Japan to open up to trade, local officials, including those in Mikura, had been ordered by the shogunate to take a hardline stance with any non-Japanese. But Mikura official Kurimoto Ichirozaemon appealed to villagers that they must help the foreigners.
“He believed that, as people who live by the sea, Mikura residents had the obligation to save whomever arrived on the island,” Hirose said.
Kurimoto communicated with the sailors using sign language, and the villagers offered them temporary housing. The crew then expressed their appreciation by holding a dance party for the villagers, recounted Hirose, adding that Kurimoto even created a handwritten book of the English vocabulary that he learned through his dealings with them.
“It’s amazing that, in the Edo Period, an English vocabulary book was created in such an isolated island in Japan,” he said.