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Features Ogasawara Islands: 50 Years After Reversion
Reflections on Ogasawara: Remote Islands with American and Japanese Identities

Ludy Sforza [Profile]

[2018.06.25]

The Ogasawara Islands offer a human history as unique as the flora and fauna that inhabit their rustic landscape. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the return of the islands to Japan by the United States following their occupation after World War II. Two Ogasawara islanders, a mother and son descended from early Western settlers, reflect on life on the culturally eclectic main island of Chichijima.

One History, Two Names

Japan’s remote Ogasawara Islands have enjoyed an uptick in tourism since being registered as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in 2011. Visitors from Japan and abroad now regularly venture to the volcanic chain, floating in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo, to admire the uniquely evolved plants and wildlife and to view the dolphins and whales that approach its rustic shores.

Dig a little deeper into the history of the human settlements on these distant islands, though, and one finds that despite being Japanese territory, they have deep Western roots.

Originally called the Bonin Islands, a name thought to derive from the Japanese terms muninshima or buninshima, meaning “uninhabited islands,” the picturesque archipelago was first settled in 1830 by a motley band of Americans, Europeans, and Pacific Islanders. The group under the leadership of Nathaniel Savory, a native of Massachusetts in the United States, built an early settlement on the island of Chichijima into an important stopover for merchant and whaling vessels plying the Pacific, placing the previously unclaimed island and its associated chain on the map.

Successive generations of inhabitants built a unique culture infused with Western, Pacific Island, and Japanese customs and linguistic influences. Despite the remote location of the Ogasawaras, the islands over their nearly 200 years of inhabitation have endured a surprisingly tumultuous history.

The early settlers were largely independent, but in 1876 Japan gained possession of the Bonins. Tokyo subsequently renamed the chain the Ogasawara Islands and forced non-Japanese inhabitants to take Japanese citizenship. During World War II, descendants of the original settlers, known locally as Ōbeikei (Westerners), were evacuated along with other islanders to the Japanese mainland. The US Navy took control of the islands at the end of the war, when Ōbeikei residents, but not their fellow Japanese islanders, were allowed to return in 1946. A little more than two decades later, in June 1968, the Bonin Islands again reverted to Japanese control.

Since then the Ōbeikei community has continued to dwindle due to a variety of demographic factors, leaving only a handful of residents to share the islands’ rich culture and history. Two islanders descended from the first Western settlers who are keeping the old memories alive are the mother-son pair of Ōhira Kyōko and Rance Ōhira.

In Calm and Storm

Kyōko was born in 1921 on the main island of Chichijima. Growing up she enjoyed a peaceful childhood before living through the war years, when the islands’ residents were evacuated to the mainland. She started life as Edith Washington, but like other islanders of Western descent she was required to take a Japanese name.

Ōhira Kyōko, who also goes by the English name Edith Washington, is an Ōbeikei resident of Chichijima.

“I was staying for a stint on the mainland when I received a telegram from Chichijima ordering me to change my name,” she recalls. “I remember being given several choices and told to select a simple family name to make filing paperwork easier, so I decided on Ōhira.” Asked which name she feels suits her best, she chuckles that “I’ve been called both for so long that I hardly notice which one people are using.”

When growing up, Kyōko says that life in the Ōbeikei community on Chichijima was dominated by Japanese culture. ”We spoke in Japanese,” she explains, “and the adults would even go out after work dressed in casual yukata.” The local school had a teacher, sent specially from Tokyo, who taught how to sew Western-style clothing and Japanese attire like hakama trousers and instructed students in making Japanese handicrafts and doing housekeeping. “I enjoyed learning these skills,” Kyōko declares. “I even studied how to put together a futon. It was a good time to live on the island.”

However, the start of World War II brought an end to the carefree life she enjoyed. As the conflict progressed the authorities evacuated islanders to the mainland, turning the Ogasawaras into a military outpost. Kyōko and others from the community were put to work at a munitions factory in Tokyo, where they labored for nearly a year. Although separated from her home, Kyōko says she found solace in companionship. “Those of us from the islands lived together in company housing, so I wasn’t lonely. But life was hard. I can’t say how overjoyed I was when the war ended and we were allowed to go home.”

Kyōko returned to Chichijima in 1946, while it was under control of the US Navy. Although the war had left much of her old neighborhood in ruins, including her family’s home, she quickly set to work rebuilding her life. “Things had changed a lot,” she recalls, “but with the help of the American servicemen we were able to get by well enough. They even rebuilt the school, which was a blessing.”

Kyōko looks through an old photo album from the prewar and wartime years.

A Long-Awaited Return

Life on the island during the occupation was strongly influenced by restrictions imposed by the US military. Only Ōbeikei residents had been allowed to return, and entrance to the island was limited to navy personnel. “It was tough being apart from friends I had grown up with,” Kyōko laments. Having lost contact in the postwar confusion, she did not even have addresses where she could send letters.

In the late 1960s, though, the radio brought the news that the island chain would be returned to Japan. This meant that after more than two decades, the islanders of Japanese descent could come home at last. “I had longed to see my friends for so many years,” Kyōko recalls. Overwhelmed with joy at the announcement, she let her feelings flow. She jotted her thoughts about friendship and the island’s past on a stray piece of stationery, which she carried in her pocket for comfort until the handover. The contents of the note would later be set to music and titled “Reversion Song.”

Kyōko, a talented singer of ballads from the islands, says that the joy she felt on that day comes rushing back when she performs the song. “Being reunited with my friends on the island was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

Although she has been forced at times to choose between her American and Japanese identity, Kyōko never doubted her Ogasawara roots, asserting firmly that “I am an islander.”

Children on Chichijima display Japanese flags to celebrate the reversion of the Ogasawara Islands on June 26, 1968. (© Jiji)

  • [2018.06.25]

Born in Tokyo in 1981 to an Italian father and Japanese mother. Graduated from high school in Switzerland and attended university in Tokyo. After following life’s twists and turns he eventually moved to the Ogasawara Islands in 2012. Currently lives on Chichijima, where he does translation and teaches English. In 2016 launched Orb, a free magazine covering the people, culture, and history of the island.

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