The Ogasawara Islands stretch south starting at a point some 1,000 km from Tokyo, far enough that their remoteness has been a source of their identity, and continued abundance of nature, and an identity conflict.
The islands, also known as the Bonin chain, including Iwojima, the scene of a bloody battle between Japanese and U.S. forces in spring 1945, were reportedly discovered by Ogasawara Sadanori, a great-grandson of Ogasawara Nagatoki, lord of Shinshu Fukashi Castle in present-day Nagano Prefecture.
The first settlers to the islands were about 20 Europeans, Americans and Hawaiians, who arrived in 1830. In the latter half of the 19th century, the islands were recognized as Japanese territory, and settlers from Japan started arriving.
Before the war, the islands prospered from fruit and whaling. Today fisheries are a mainstay industry.
As the war progressed, all 6,886 islanders were ordered to evacuate to Japan’s four main islands and soldiers turned the Ogasawaras into defensive positions and communications posts.
Shortly after the war, only 129 islanders of American and European ancestry and their dependents were allowed to return to the islands.
In November 1967, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson agreed to return the islands to Japanese control, and this took place on June 26, 1968.
At a ceremony at the U.S. Navy headquarters on Chichijima on that day to mark the return of the islands to Japan, the Japanese flag was hoisted for the first time in 23 years.
“Now, I can return to the main islands to meet my aunts of Japanese ancestry and friends remaining there,” Kyoko Ohira, 86, recalled saying on that day.
Her ancestor was an American whaler who settled on one of the islands in the mid-19th century. Before the war, her name was Edith Washington and she was taught Japanese manners by her mother, who came from Japan proper.
“That was a happy period in which people of European, American and Japanese ancestry coexisted without prejudice,” she said.
The war drastically changed the islanders’ peaceful life. With mounting Japanese nationalism, non-Japanese islanders were forced to change their names. Edith was renamed Kyoko Ohira. In 1944, she was forced to evacuate to the main islands but was allowed to return after the war.
Despite the various ordeals and hardships she experienced, her love of Japan as her homeland remains unchanged. “I am a genuine Japanese, born and raised on this island,” she said.
Rocky Sebori, 48, was only 8 when the ceremony took place. “I was less than convinced when I was told that the islands were returning to Japan.”
He is a fifth-generation descendant of Nathaniel Savory, an American who was one of the first settlers on Chichijima. During the Allied Occupation, the official language was English, and he believed he was also American.
During an elementary school class immediately after the return of the islands to Japan, a teacher from one of the main islands wrote the English alphabet and hiragana characters on the blackboard, and wiped out the alphabet, saying, “From now on, we use ‘a-i-u-e-o,’ ” — the first five Japanese syllabary characters.
“What am I?” Sebori repeatedly asked himself as he grew up, confused as to his true identity.
After graduating from a university, he did not return to the island and devoted himself to the communications business at a major trading company.
When the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States occurred, he was in Chicago and watched on TV the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings he often frequented. Immediately after that, he quit the company and returned to the island.
“I was prodded by the gene as an islander, neither Japanese nor American,” said Sebori, who is now trying to rebuild the Ogasawara co-op, which supported the lives of islanders since the Occupation.
Iwojima meanwhile remains off-limits to any remaining former islanders or their descendants. Because of volcanic activity, the island is only inhabited by military personnel who operate an airstrip.
Haruka Kawashima, 83, who grew up on Iwojima and whose brother died there, looks forward to living on the island again. “When does our war end?” asked Kawashima, now a resident of Chichijima.
Unlike Hachijo Island farther north, which has an airport served by jetliners from Tokyo, the Ogasawara Islands have no airport, thus the only aircraft that visit are Maritime Self-Defense Force four-engine amphibians that can only land in fair weather.
The islands instead are served by a weekly ferry service, with the one-way trip lasting about 25 1/2 hours.
But many islanders would like to see an airport, if it poses little threat to the pristine environment.
The Ogasawaras are home to more than 400 indigenous species of plants and animals, and are also an important breeding ground for seabirds.
To safeguard the islands’ environment, the government submitted an interim list to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in January 2007 to prepare for the islands’ recognition as a World Natural Heritage site.
Building an airport would not be easy. A plan to build one either on Chichijima Island or Anijima Island was shelved due to the potential environmental impact and the prohibitive construction cost.
In a January questionnaire asking islanders if the airport is needed, about 70 percent replied, “yes” or “yes, but on certain conditions.” The Tokyo Metropolitan Government and local authorities have formed a council to consider the matter.
There are several plans under consideration. One is to build an airport at the former runway of the now defunct Imperial Japanese Army in Susaki on Chichijima.