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Ogasawara Islands: Remote witnesses on the front lines of Japanese history

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

The Ogasawara Islands, also known as the Bonin Islands, have faced a number of unique — if not bizarre — developments over the course of history.

Clustered in three groups, the volcanic, tropical chain of more than 30 islets about 1,000 km south of Tokyo looks hopelessly isolated on a map, and the only way to get to the main island is still by ferry, a 24-hour journey from Tokyo.

But the chain, now inhabited by about 2,600 people, was a key junction during the wave of globalization from the 17th century to the late 19th century.

The islands were witness to dramatic events that greatly affected the course of modern Japanese history, including the arrival of American Commodore Matthew Perry whose “black ships” eventually forced Japan to end its 214-year-old closed-door policy and embark on a course of modernization and Westernization.

Given their strategic location, one of the islands, Iwo Jima — now officially called Iwoto — became a bloody battlefield in the closing days of World War II.

“They were considered strategically important in World War II as sites for naval and airplane bases,” reads a passage in “Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia,” published in English by Kodansha Ltd. in 1993.

Archaeological studies of ancient relics suggest some of the islands — including Kita-Iwoto, about 70 km north of Iwoto — were inhabited by humans around 2,000 years ago. But later, the islands were empty for hundreds of years.

Who re-discovered them is not clear, but they were probably spotted by Westerners who were exploring the Pacific Ocean in the 16th and 17th centuries, aspiring to discover lands blessed with gold, silver or spices that would bring them riches.

A Japanese legend says the islands were first discovered by samurai lord Sadayoshi Ogasawara in 1593, although historians say this is likely a fabricated story, given the errors and contradictions in materials left by those who claimed in the 18th century to be his descendants.

In 1675, a 43-meter official exploration ship from the Tokugawa shogunate traveled to Chichijima and Hahajima. The crew drew up the first detailed maps of the islands and built a monument declaring that they belonged to Japan. But the shogunate didn’t effectively control the islands thereafter.

In 1830, a group of five Westerners and 20 Hawaiians settled on Chichijima and Hahajima, including American citizen Nathaniel Savory of Massachusetts. Many of their descendants still live there.

Commodore Perry visited the islands in 1853 while on his way to Tokyo, then known as Edo, with a mission to end Japan’s isolation.

“The Commodore, having been satisfied of the importance of these islands to commerce, was induced to visit them, chiefly by a desire of examining them himself and recommending (Chichijima) as a stopping place for the line of streamers which, soon or later, must be established between California and China,” reads the official record of Perry’s journey to Japan, published in 1856.

Perry also purchased a plot of land on Chichijima from Savory to store coal.

Alarmed by the frequent visits by Western ships and the purpose of Perry’s journey, Japan declared the Ogasawara Islands part of its territory in 1876. This was endorsed by Western powers.

Since that time, many Japanese have settled on the islands, building port towns based on agriculture, fishing and whaling. Many farmers grew wealthy because the tropical climate allowed them to grow vegetables unavailable on the mainland during winter. The combined population of the Ogasawara chain peaked in 1944 at 7,711.

When the Pacific War began in 1941, the islands became part of the front line in the defense of mainland Japan. Many residents whose ancestors were Westerners faced discrimination and were often suspected of being spies.

In 1944, the Imperial Japanese Army forced 6,886 residents to evacuate. On Jan. 29, 1945, U.S. forces started attacking Iwo Jima, leading to what became one of the fiercest ground battles of World War II. In October 1946, only the descendants of Western immigrants and their spouses were allowed to return. The total number of returnees was 135.

Although the Allied Occupation officially ended in 1952, when the Treaty of San Francisco took effect, the Ogasawara Islands were held by the U.S. until 1968. Though thousands of residents were eager to go back after the war, their petitions were all rejected during the Occupation, and they were unable to step foot on their home islands until the 1968 handover to Japan.