The Ogasawara Islands: A Multicultural Heritage

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Sho Sebori

    Main guest

    Sho Sebori is a sixth-generation descendant of Nathaniel Savory, a member of the first group of people to settle in Chichijima in 1830. Sebori has a diverse lineage, with ancestors hailing from the UK, the US, the Mariana Islands, and Japan. His last name, Sebori, comes from changing “Savory” into a Japanese name. Since 2014 he has been running a hotel in Chichijima together with his family. Additionally, Sebori works as a tour guide for visitors to the island, which allows him to explore the island’s unique nature and history, as well as learn more about his family roots.

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July 3, 2018

The Ogasawara Islands: A Multicultural Heritage

*You will leave the NHK website.

The Ogasawara Islands are an archipelago of more than 30 islands located roughly 1,000 km due south of Tokyo. Despite their remoteness, administratively they are part of Tokyo!

But in contrast to the ultra-modern megacity, the Ogasawaras are a Pacific idyll, cloaked in scenic emerald forests rising from crystal-clear cobalt seas. Geologically, the main group of the Ogasawara Islands are part of the Izu-Bonin-Marianas chain, which runs along a 2,800-km long tectonic plate boundary from Tokyo to Guam.

Having never been connected to any continent, the Ogasawaras are home to many rare plant and animal species that evolved uniquely, and the islands are also known as "the Galapagos of Asia." In recognition of these unspoiled natural treasures, the islands were listed as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site in 2011.

The only civilian-inhabited Ogasawara Islands are Chichijima ("father island" in Japanese) and Hahajima ("mother island"). To the south lies the island of Ioto (better known as Iwo Jima), famous as the site in 1945 of one of the fiercest battles of World War II.

The first Japanese landing on the Ogasawara Islands was in 1670. Then in 1675 the shogun sent a follow-up expedition. The islands were named Bunin, which in old Japanese literally meant "uninhabited." From this derived the name long used for them in English: the Bonin Islands.

As we discover in this edition of Japanology Plus, ships from various countries started to take an interest in the Ogasawaras in the first half of the 19th century. In the Western world at that time, machines were quickly replacing tasks that had previously been done by hand. While at first glance these two statements may seem to be completely unrelated, a resource found in abundance around the Ogasawaras links the machines to the international interest: whales.

These days, December to April is the best time of year to see humpback whales, while from May to November, sperm whales congregate, diving into the depths for food and then resting near the surface. Visitors in the 19th century, however, were not interested in whale watching. In those days, at a time when no one yet knew how to refine crude oil, the newly industrializing world needed whale oil as a machine lubricant, and the Ogasawara whales represented an important "oil field."

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Peter Barakan at a monument to Commodore Matthew Perry's visit, accompanied by Sho Sebori, a descendant of Nathaniel Savory.

In 1830, an American named Nathaniel Savory and two dozen other people from locations such as Hawaii, North America and Europe established the first permanent settlement in Chichijima. Following diplomatic maneuvers in the ensuing decades, the Ogasawara Islands were ultimately recognized as Japanese territory, and this remote settlement became one of the most cosmopolitan parts of Japan.

In the program we meet Sho Sebori, one of Nathaniel Savory's descendants. In countries with ethnically diverse populations, outward appearance reveals nothing about an individual’s citizenship. Because of that, it would be entirely unsurprising for someone to learn that Sho, whose face reflects his rich genetic history, is a citizen of that country. In a nation like Japan, however, where Asiatic features continue to dominate, it’s still tempting (but obviously incorrect) for people to say that Sho does not “look” Japanese. The Ogasawaras offer a vision of a future Japan that retains a unique cultural identity while being open to a world of difference.

Today, island residents who trace their ancestry to European and Pacific Islander settlers are working to preserve their distinctive cultural legacy, even as the community continues to evolve with the arrival of artists and others from the mainland, including young people who come to work in tourism but end up settling down.

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A incomer from mainland Japan (left) visits a glass workshop founded by an artist who also relocated from mainland Japan (right) and an established island resident.

Since neither Chichijima nor Hahajima has an airport, the only way to get back and forth to Japan's main islands is by sea, which takes about 24 hours one way. Rapid access to and from the islands for emergencies and VIPs requires flights by military helicopter or seaplane. However, plans are now being considered to build a runway on Chichijima and establish regular commercial air service.

Plenty of tourists find the long sea voyage to Chichijima well worth it to experience the superb ecotourism opportunities of the Ogasawara Islands, but be forewarned: accommodations and tickets for the voyage may be fully booked in advance at certain times of the year.

In addition to whales, pods of wild dolphins also frequent these waters. You may see the acrobatics of high-leaping spinner dolphins or even find yourself swimming with playful Indo-Pacific bottlenose. In summer and autumn, you can reef dive amid large migrating schools of dogtooth tuna, which grow up to 130 kg in size. And there are colorful coral reefs, where you can spot marine life rarely seen elsewhere in Japan such as Wroughtiron Butterflyfish or green sea turtles. Sea kayaking can carry you out to skim across reefs or navigate to secluded beaches.

One creature of the deep you may want to avoid is the giant squid, which was finally caught on video by NHK in 2012 during a dive off Chichijima. But since this encounter occurred more than 600 m under the sea, you shouldn't feel too concerned.

Without leaving land, you can enjoy hiking, birdwatching, or simply taking in the many breathtaking vistas of sheer, rugged cliffs plunging down the vast, deep blue expanse of the Pacific.

If you want to see Ioto, meanwhile, you'll have to plan well ahead, as the 24-hour boat cruise that stops by operates just once a year. And if a 24-hour voyage is difficult to fit into your plans, you might want to try another island mentioned in the program: Hachijojima can be reached from Tokyo via regular flights that take less than an hour. Although not grouped with the Ogasawaras, Hachijojima is another of Japan's many beautiful and unique remote islands.

The Ogasawara Islands are home to about 500 plant species, of which 43% are endemic. Since most of the forests are protected ecosystems, entry anywhere other than marked routes is prohibited, unless accompanied by a permit-holding local guide, to ensure that unique plant and animal life is protected.

Chichijima and Hahajima have about 60 hotels and accommodations of various types in all, including minshuku (family-run Japanese-style bed and breakfasts) and pensions (guest/boarding houses). A few have English-speaking staff. Chichijima is the hub of life and tourism in the Ogasawaras. The island has population of about 2,000, while 440 live on Hahajima. Omura, the neighborhood of Chichijima adjoining Futami Port, is a lively area of restaurants, markets and souvenir shops.

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Lush forests harbor unique species of flora and fauna.

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Host Peter Barakan enjoys a break in the main commercial area of Chichijima.

*You will leave the NHK website.