Japan’s Island of Diversity

Times Staff Writer

This remote scythe-shaped island appears small and insignificant from the deck of a ferry. Visitors stagger down the gangplank after the 25-hour trip from Tokyo to find palm trees and white-sand beaches reminiscent of countless other specks of paradise dotting the Pacific.

A closer look at Chichi Jima’s residents, however, reveals something a bit incongruous. Among the local Japanese citizens shopping on the sleepy main street or waiting at one of the two stoplights are many with distinctly European features. They sport Japanese variations of such names as Washington, Gonzalez and Savory and use language laced with the occasional English, Polynesian and Melanesian word.

These foreign-looking citizens, numbering fewer than 200, are descendants of beached sailors, swashbucklers and ne’er-do-wells who settled here decades ahead of the Japanese; their rich legacy befits the island’s strategic location on 19th century whaling routes at Japan’s edge.


Along with the beer cans, mail sacks and packaged noodles arriving every few days from Tokyo, however, are powerful currents that in recent years have threatened this unique corner of Japan: the introduction a decade ago of television; growing intermarriage with mainland Japanese; the gradual dying off of the older generation; and the exodus of youngsters for better jobs and brighter lights.

“I’m just trying to teach my children our customs before it’s too late,” said Abel Savory, 73, the great-grandson of original 1830 settler Nathaniel Savory. “Since we went through so much trouble, I don’t want them to forget.”

Today the “Westerners” -- as descendants of the original settlers call themselves, despite being a mix of European, Polynesian, Melanesian and Azorean stocks -- are increasingly integrated into mainstream Japanese society. Where they once lived in distinct neighborhoods, their homes are now sprinkled throughout the island’s modest residential district. One of the few visible reminders of the past is the Yankee Town bar near an area that once held a Westerners neighborhood of the same name.

For decades, the Westerners spoke a mix of English, Japanese and Polynesian. Today, Japanese is the only language used by almost everyone under 40. And while the old-timers still converse in the local patois among themselves, they’re under strong pressure to speak standard Japanese, particularly when outsiders are within earshot.

The island is also looking more like the rest of rural Japan. Most of the houses and shops are relatively modern, built in the last few decades as part of the nation’s protracted construction boom. On one side of the port, government housing blocks rise like oversized dominoes at an angle to the nearby mountains. On the other, a couple of modest grocery stores offer the same brands of packaged rice, bean paste and fish sauce found throughout Japan.

A few Westerners have managed to keep a link to their seaborne past by, for instance, operating sightseeing boats for tourists. But the outrigger canoes once used extensively by local fishermen have all but disappeared, and the vast majority of residents live off state pensions, government jobs or the tourist trade.


During peak periods, including the New Year’s holiday, the island’s population of about 2,000 temporarily doubles, with many visitors sleeping on the ships that brought them in hopes of viewing the year’s first sunrise.

Most of the tourists see few traces of the island’s rich history. They view Chichi Jima, the main island in the Ogasawara chain, as little more than a nice place for diving, kayaking and forgetting the stress of Tokyo for a few days.

Still, there are hints of the island’s special character. Departing ferries still bring out crowds sending off friends and relatives, complete with a taiko drum salute, in a reminder that mainland Japan is still a faraway place.

Over the years, visitors to the Ogasawara Islands, known in the West as the Bonin Islands, have included the famous and infamous. Commodore Matthew Perry and author Jack London spent time on Chichi Jima. In 1944, former President George H.W. Bush, then a 20-year-old Navy pilot, was shot down offshore and rescued by an American submarine. During World War II, cannibalism also paid a grim visit.

The island over the last 172 years has also seen feuds, family infighting, murder and wartime casualties disproportionate to its 3-by-5-mile area.

Even today, tensions remain between those who favored postwar Japanese rule and those who looked to the United States, between residents supporting an airport and those who oppose development; and between families with different bloodlines. In some cases, neighbors and family members are barely on speaking terms despite their close proximity.

In fact, divisions appeared early as a ragtag group made up of two Americans, three Europeans and about 20 Pacific islanders landed in June 1830 from Honolulu with some vague idea of creating a British outpost.

They found fresh water, decent land and good fishing on the previously deserted island and soon prospered as whaling ships stopped for fresh water and trade. Drifters, mutineers and deserters came and went, revenge and justice were often synonymous, and murder was relatively common.

An 1838 document tells of original settler Mateo Mozarro’s attempt to hire someone to kill American Nathaniel Savory.

“He said for me ... to make friends with Savory and when he turns his head ... to beat his Brains out with a club, and if that did not kill him to stab him with a knife until dead and throw him into the sea,” said would-be hit man Francis Silver.

Without Western women, the men acquired or kidnapped wives from neighboring islands. The 1836 log of a passing ship speaks of white men with “one or two wives,” widespread infidelity, and infanticide practiced by mothers.

Undefended Chichi Jima was an easy target for pirates, including marauders in 1849 who stole Nathaniel Savory’s gold and woman. Then again, historians believe she told the pirates which wall housed his stash.

Commodore Perry, famous for forcing open Japanese trade at the barrel of a gun, arrived in 1853 aboard the Saratoga and bought a plot of land for $50 from Savory. The parcel was the first Far East territory to come under U.S. control. Washington, however, failed to embrace Perry’s dream of a coaling station and eventual missionary base at the site.

In 1893, writer-adventurer Jack London arrived at age 17 aboard a seal-hunting ship, then got dead drunk and lost his wallet, watch, coat, belt and shoes to ruffians.

Inward-looking Japan, meanwhile, roughly 600 miles to the northwest, had known of the islands for centuries. They got their name from rogue samurai Sadato Ogasawara, who in 1727 falsely claimed that his ancestors had discovered them.

“He wasn’t very honorable, but he had a talent to make all this up,” said Hiroyuki Tanaka, a Japanese historian.

Japanese modernization, beginning in the 1860s, sparked greater interest in the islands. Japanese settlers arrived in 1862, built a Shinto shrine and left before returning for good in 1876. They informed the bemused residents that the territory was now Japan but that they were free to stay and become Japanese. In the settlers’ absence, the Westerners had tended their shrine.

The rising Japanese population prompted Westerners -- many based in Yankeetown -- to consider their own identity. They avoided marrying the new arrivals, tried to safeguard their language and culture, and even built a church after shunning religion for decades, said Daniel Long, associate professor of linguistics at Tokyo Metropolitan University and an Ogasawara Islands expert.

Economic lives were intertwined, however. Both groups enjoyed sumo tournaments and festivals. To this day, Westerners are buried in Anglican ceremonies with a follow-up service 49 days later, a Buddhist tradition. And tombs are adorned with sake and rice crackers.

As war clouds spread in advance of World War II, the Ogasawara Islands acquired new strategic importance as a bridge to other Pacific islands. Fortified docks and giant radio towers were rapidly constructed.

The Westerners’ foreign appearance was viewed with growing distrust.

“They were constantly suspicious that we were spies,” said Aisaku Ogasawara, who also goes by Isaac Gonzalez and is minister of the Chapel of Peace church.

English was banned, and Westerners were ordered to change their foreign names. The Gilleys, for instance, became the Nozawas or Minamis.

In 1944, with the war turning against Japan, civilians were evacuated to the mainland. Many faced discrimination, as mainlanders refused to believe they were Japanese or give them food. Abel Savory’s father was stabbed in the stomach with bamboo spears after locals mistook him for a downed American pilot, before police stepped in to rescue him.

The U.S. military considered invading Chichi Jima but opted instead in February 1945 to land on nearby Iwo Jima. Starvation became rampant as Chichi Jima came under nonstop air raids.

“It just rained American bombs,” recalled Jeffrey Gilley, who also goes by Nozawa. He was drafted into the local military and remained on the island.

Like most residents, Gilley had been taught to sacrifice everything for the emperor, although his foreign features remained a divider. One day in 1943, fellow Japanese soldiers had seized him and tied him to a stake for 24 hours in hopes U.S. pilots would consider him American and hold their fire.

“It’s a miracle I’m alive,” he said.

The following year, Japanese soldiers brought out a young American who had been imprisoned for several months in a cave, blindfolded him and tied him up. As a crowd gathered, a Japanese officer beheaded the man, whose face Gilley still recalls. That night, the troops had curry rice with meat for the first time in years.

“It was very special, since we’d lived for years on miso soup and rice,” said Gilley, 78, in his modest Chichi Jima house. “Only later did I learn we’d eaten the soldier.”

Chichi Jima was evacuated after the war. But in 1946, the Americans let 120 Westerners return to the islands, by then a U.S. protectorate. The United States was reportedly swayed by the Westerners’ foreign appearance, as well as by the mistreatment they’d suffered and their ancestors’ role in helping Perry.

It would be 23 years before Japanese residents were allowed to come back.

Life in the interim was relaxed, and English became the predominant language again, although a series of caves near the port remained under constant guard by machine-gun-toting Marines. Westerners would jokingly call mysterious lead-encased containers they saw obake, or ghosts.

“We were all a bit suspicious,” recalled Rance Ohira, or Rance Washington, 52, owner of the Yankee Town bar.

Recently declassified military records show that the island housed nuclear weapons. According to the January 2000 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Pentagon feared that mainland Japan and Okinawa would be knocked out by a Soviet first strike and saw Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima as reloading depots for submarines.

In 1968, the Ogasawara Islands were returned to Japan, sparking the occasional land dispute between Westerners and returning Japanese. The U.S. allowed Westerners for a limited time to choose their nationality. A large number stayed, however, viewing the island as home no matter who controlled it.

“It was a difficult time,” said Francis Gonzalez, or Ichiro Kishi, owner of Chichi Jima’s Cosmo gas station. “We were caught between two worlds.”

Today, most Westerners find themselves in an increasingly Japanese world.

“My generation is now in our 70s, and I don’t know if our lifestyle will survive the next generation,” said Ogasawara, the minister. “Eventually, even our features will be lost as we intermarry with Japanese.”

Minority languages and cultures around the world are under pressure from their mainstream counterparts. “But this is probably the only place where the endangered indigenous language turns out to be English,” said Long, the professor. “The irony is incredible.”

Some Westerners chafe at the island’s isolation, favoring a long-proposed airport. Emergency medical care -- involving several steps that include military aircraft -- is at least 11 hours away, a growing concern for aging residents.

Westerner families differ on how they view the past. Etsuko Savory is teaching her kids to make New England-style dumpling soup, and her son recently traveled to Massachusetts to meet the American Savorys, while Francis Gonzalez is content to see his daughter grow up Japanese.

“You have to make a decision at some point,” he said. “I don’t want her to get caught in the middle like me.”

The older generation that lived through so much, meanwhile, is rapidly disappearing. Abel Savory was recently found to have lung cancer and given less than a year to live, although he continues windsurfing, a sport he learned at 48.

“I’m an old man now. I want to pass on our traditions,” he said as he sat in his yard surrounded by his outrigger canoe, windsurfing gear and rusting three-pronged spear.

“I’m the only one left, for instance, who knows how to make the four-tier funeral wreaths. I joke with youngsters that they better make me a nice one when I go.”


Hisako Ueno in The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.