Technically Kagoshima but Ryukyu in its soul

by Eric Johnston

TOKUNOSHIMA, Kagoshima Pref. — Astute readers will notice this story is datelined “Kagoshima Prefecture.” But given that this island lies just southwest of Amami-Oshima and roughly 100 km from the northern tip of Okinawa, it’s no surprise that Tokunoshima feels more like a part of the Ryukyu Islands than Kyushu.

Famed for its bullfighting, pristine beaches — one of which, Prince Beach, was named after the Emperor, who visited the area when he was the Crown Prince — and an annual triathlon that draws athletes from all over Japan and abroad, including Olympic champion Naoko Takahashi, who got a local road named after her, Tokunoshima is about as far away from Kyushu as you can get and still be in “Kagoshima.”

In a local “izakaya” (pub), the tunes played on the stereo system aren’t the ubiquitous “enka” (folk songs) heard on Japan’s four main islands but lively, upbeat Okinawan folk songs, and “goya,” Okinawa’s famous bitter vegetable, is on the menu. The rugged mountains and foliage on the northern part of the island are reminiscent of Okinawa, especially the area around Nago.

Tokunoshima is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including a rabbit indigenous to the Amami Islands and rare sea turtles.

But guidebooks discourage visitors tempted to explore the island’s natural wonders with warnings about “habu” — the deadly snakes that populate the area and remain a hurdle to the development of environmental tourism.

Another reason, though, is cost. Given the plethora of discount travel deals between Okinawa and Honshu that are often less than the price of a round-trip plane ticket between Kagoshima and Tokunoshima, it’s tough to attract Tokyo and Osaka-based surfers, beach bums and others in search of tropical beaches.

Finally, the presence of sugar cane fields, the island’s main crop, reminds visitors less of Kagoshima, parts of which can be quite cold and even get snow, and more of tropical Okinawa.

Sugar cane was introduced to the island from China about 400 years ago, and sugar cane products ranging from vinegar to “shouchu” (distilled spirits) are available.

But it’s the fighting bulls of Tokunoshima that the island is perhaps best known.

Every January, May and October, residents gather at small bullfighting rings to watch two horned cattle battle it out.

Exactly how bullfighting came to Tokunoshima is unclear, but it’s generally believed to have a 500-year history. Bouts between the bulls last anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes, though fights are rarely to the death.

They draw hundreds of spectators and people often bet some money, although the amounts are almost never the huge sums high rollers in Las Vegas or Monte Carlo might spend. It’s more of a social activity, or a very expensive hobby, especially for the owners of the bulls.

Tokushima also has two solemn reminders of the sacrifices of war, and any attempt to understand the local politics involved in moving Futenma to Tokunoshima must take them into account.

The first is a monument on the south of the island to the 3,721 men who perished on the battleship Yamato. The ship was ordered to attack the U.S. fleet near Okinawa without air cover and was sunk by American dive bombers a few hundred kilometers from Tokunoshima on April 7, 1945.

The other is a simple stone plaque near the airport marking the location of an airfield built in 1944 from which 14 “special attack,” or kamikaze, pilots took off and never returned. The Tokunoshima airfield was a forward staging area for the famous Chiran kamikaze base in southern Kyushu.

Asked about the character of the average Tokunoshima resident, responses differ from those on the island and those who live in the city of Kagoshima.

The islanders say they have a strong communal spirit and that those who are out of work or sick and infirm never have to worry about having a place to live or enough to eat because everybody looks out for everyone else, especially the elderly. About 20 percent of the island’s residents are over 90 years old, and a decade ago one resident lived to 120.

For many in cosmopolitan Kagoshima and its surrounding areas, Tokunoshima is extremely remote, both geographically and mentally. It may technically be part of Kagoshima, they say, but it’s not quite the same as the southern end of Kyushu that is linked physically and culturally to the four main islands of Japan. Both views, it would seem, are accurate descriptions.