It is one of Asia’s earliest and oddest ethnic melting pots, with citizens boasting names like Savory, Webb, Gonzales and Chaplin. The first piece of Far East territory to fall under U.S. control, local landmarks include the Yankeetown, the Charlie Brown and the Church of St. George, and old-timers speak English but the cars carry Shinagawa license plates.
Chichijima in the Ogasawara Islands would make a fine history exam question and a fascinating case study in the Sturm and Drang of colonial power politics. This week it commemorates the 40th anniversary of its reversion to Japanese rule, but islander John Frank Washington won’t be celebrating.
“To be honest with you, there is nothing that I can celebrate. We got the short stick on this whole deal.”
Until 1968, the Stars and Stripes flew on the island, English was widely spoken and schoolchildren recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The U.S. Navy was the dominant local force on the island, which lies about a day’s ferry ride from Tokyo. But in June that year, Chichijima and the rest of the Ogasawara chain (or what the Americans called the Bonin Islands) were handed back to Japan in a deal that took many by surprise.
“The U.S. government didn’t give us time to do anything,” says Washington, who read about the reversion in a newspaper while at high school on Chichijima. “We were studying English, so I wondered what I was going to do — compete with the Japanese? There were programs saying you could migrate to the U.S., but you can’t just get up and migrate to a country you’ve never been to.
“You could plan it if you were given time, but we weren’t.”
Tokyo had for years been demanding the return of the Bonin chain and other territory lost in World War II, including Okinawa (which reverted in 1972). The reversion was a milestone in Japan’s remarkable postwar recovery, a symbol of its growing economic and diplomatic confidence, and another chapter in the long tug of war over ownership of this speck of Pacific real estate.
Commodore Matthew Perry dropped anchor here in 1853 on his way to bullying Japan out of isolation with the aid of gunships. Then called Peel Island, the territory, described as a “paradise,” had been populated by a motley crew of multiethnic adventurists, deserters, shipwrecked sailors and their wives from across Europe, America and the Pacific. An English-based Creole was used to communicate.
In search of coaling stations for whaling ships, Perry had steamed across the Pacific muttering darkly about its “mismanagement by savages.” He gave $50 to settler and fellow New Englander Nathaniel Savory for a piece of land, a down payment that he hoped would be an American claim to the island, which would be a base for American ships, missionaries and whalers. Naturally, Tokyo had other ideas.
Although Japan’s claim to the Ogasawaras dates to the 1670s, they were known as “mujin” — uninhabited — the origin of the Western name Bonin. But in the sharp-elbowed colonial era of the late 19th century, the Meiji government decided to transplant Japanese settlers. “To abandon islands in neighboring waters is bad for a country,” said then Foreign Minister Terashima Munenori.
A ship was dispatched in 1875 carrying the nation’s most famous interpreter, Manjiro “John” Nakahama. He found about 60 islanders, who the Japanese dubbed “eikei,” meaning people of European and American descent. The Hinomaru was planted, Peel Island became Chichijima and Japanese colonialists began arriving, soon outnumbering the original settlers. English was relegated to second place in island life.
Older settlers clung to their separate identity, expressed in speech, customs and church-going, but their way of life was dying. In the militarized 1930s and ’40s, the Western influence was further squeezed: The old settlers of Chichijima and nearby Hahajima were forced, along with 7,000 Japanese civilians, to evacuate and register with Japanese names on the mainland, where they alleged discrimination because of their Western blood.
The settlers’ decline was halted by an unlikely ally: the U.S. Navy. After the war, the Bonin chain passed into the control of the navy, which approved a petition drafted by Fred Savory — grandson of original settler Nathaniel — to be allowed to go back home to the Bonins. In 1946, a year after the U.S. flag was raised on Iwojima’s Mount Suribachi, about 130 returned to Chichijima, replanted the Stars and Stripes and restarted their lives in navy-built huts. English revived as the dominant language. Then came that 1968 reversion, despite two decades of attempts by Savory’s descendents to fight it. A new wave of Japanese immigration has again reduced the original settlers to a dwindling minority.
This week, the 40th anniversary will be commemorated in schools and homes, and in a small parade on Chichijima, but not everybody will be celebrating, according to Yoko Takashi, who moved there 12 years ago.
“There are people who are very sad about the handover,” she says. “They don’t think of themselves as either Japanese or American, and feel that they have been cast aside. I feel sympathy for both sides.”
The reversion was complicated by tensions over land rights. Descendents of the expatriated Japanese were paid $6.5 million in compensation for the loss of their property after the war, but the original settlers say they were ignored. “We never received a penny,” says John Washington. After 1968, says Washington, the expats came back looking for their land.
“The U.S. Navy dictated to my people where they built their houses. Then the Japanese came back and asked for their property back.”
The claims resulted in a series of bitter lawsuits. He admits that “a lot of people” have benefited from the reversion, but says others have never recovered from the shock of the sudden transition.
“One day you’re under the U.S. administration, the next we’re under the Japanese flag. So I can’t say that everyone is happy.”
Today, about 2,000 people live on Chichijima and another 400-500 on Hahajima. The original settlers are still recognizable by their Western features but many have Japanese names, and the language of the old colonizer is again receding into history. Says George Yokota, a Hawaiian who taught on Chichijima for 12 years: “If I speak English to the older students I can get by, but not the youngsters. They can’t express themselves.”
Other pre-1968 customs are also fading, says Kazuharu Kagawa, whose ancestors come from Saipan and who changed his name from Juan Barcinas. Kagawa claims the local government has tried to outlaw the use of local words to describe the island’s three key communities: the “shin-tomin,” or those who have arrived since the handover; “zairai-tomin” postwar settlers; and the “kyu-tomin,” or the first and earliest band of settlers.
“The government says it’s not good to use those words because they’re discriminatory but I’ll use them till I die,” says Kagawa. “But soon young people won’t know about them.”
Over a century of chaotic settlement and seesawing influence appears set to end in the bland homogenization of the modern Japanese state, despite attempts to keep the islands’ multicultural identity alive.
“This ethic mix will die out in about 20 years because most of the kids are educated after the reversion,” says Washington, whose children live in America. “Their looks are different but their mentality is the same as Japanese. There is a long history behind this so it would be good to protect this culture. But the truth is it’s dying.”
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