The Ogasawara Islands: A Turbulent History

  • Peter Barakan


    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.

  • Zenpachi Tanaka

    Zenpachi Tanaka was born in Fukuoka, a city in Kyushu, Japan's southwest island. He worked as a chef in various locations across Honshu, Japan’s largest main island. In 1974, Tanaka moved to Chichijima at the invitation of an acquaintance. While living there, he visited Iwo Jima (now called Ioto) to help gather the remains of those killed during World War II. After that experience, Tanaka became involved in both locating the remains of those killed in action across the Ogasawara Islands and former battlefield excavation. Through his work as a battlefield guide, Tanaka helps to preserve the memories of the war.

  • Kyoko Ohira

    Kyoko Ohira is the great-granddaughter of Nathaniel Savory, one of the first people to settle in the Ogasawara Islands. Known as the “Songstress of Ogasawara,” she’s an expert traditional folk music singer. Before World War II, her given name was Edith Washington. During the war and the ensuing American occupation, the islands and their inhabitants went through many difficult times. After the United States returned the Ogasawara Islands to Japan in 1968, Ohira created a song to commemorate the event. Even at 96 years old, the folk songs she performs continue to be loved by the islanders.

  • Rocky Sebori

    Rocky Sebori is a fifth-generation descendant of Nathaniel Savory, one of the first people to settle in the Ogasawara Islands. Born in Chichijima during the American occupation, he directly experienced the changes and struggles that resulted from the islands being returned to Japan. When he was eight years old, the school system suddenly changed. An American-style approach with lessons taught in English was replaced by a Japanese-style approach with all instruction in Japanese. Making use of his bilingualism, Sebori later joined a major trading company and worked all around the world. He returned to Chichijima in 2002 and now contributes to the community by working at the family beekeeping business and the local cooperative supermarket.


July 10, 2018

The Ogasawara Islands: A Turbulent History

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At first glance, life on the Ogasawara Islands may seem akin to living in paradise. Known for their amazing range of biodiversity and beautiful natural scenery, the islands were registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. However, perhaps an even more important, yet much lesser known, part of the islands’ identity is their significance during World War II and the events that transpired on the islands during the post-war occupation.


Although life is peaceful nowadays, ruins such as this destroyed supply ship are a stark reminder of the archipelago’s turbulent past.


Chichijima, the largest of the islands, is currently home to about 2,000 people.

Located 1,000 km south of Tokyo, the Ogasawara Islands were a key location for Allied troops looking to inch closer to the Japanese mainland. During the United States’ island hopping campaign, troops moved gradually across the Pacific by fighting for control of key locations. Captured islands were equipped with airstrips, thus enabling B-29 bombers to get closer to the Japanese forces’ home territory. As we learn on this edition of Japanology Plus, the Ogasawara Islands became Japan’s last line of defense after the fall of Saipan.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and people on all sides were expected to make sacrifices for the sake of the war effort. The 6,800 civilian residents of the islands were forcibly evacuated to the Japanese mainland in April 1944. They did not have an easy transition into their new lives. With relatives hailing from the West, the Pacific Islands, and Japan, the islanders had fairly mixed heritages, which at that time was unusual in a country where the assumed norm is ethnic homogeneity. Those with Western ancestors often had Western names that they were required to change to Japanese ones when they moved to the mainland. Due to their Western features, some experienced discrimination or were considered potential spies, despite being just as Japanese as those born and raised on the mainland.


This Christian church was destroyed during the war and rebuilt by returnees to Chichijima.


Kyoko Ohira, whose English name is Edith Washington, shares some wartime memories with host Peter Barakan.

After Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the US was given control of the main Japanese islands, along with its outlying islands—which included Okinawa and the Ogasawaras. General Douglas MacArthur was put in charge of the US occupation and tasked with rebuilding Japan. In 1946, islanders with Western ancestry were allowed to go home. As a result, 130 people were permitted to move back and start rebuilding their lives.

The American occupation officially lasted from 1945 to 1952, but the Ogasawara Islands weren’t returned to Japanese jurisdiction until 50 years ago, in 1968. Those extra years under US occupation had a profound effect on the islanders, and people who had previously lived on the islands but lacked Western ancestry couldn’t return until Japan regained sovereignty. A common struggle was adapting to the various shifts in power between Japan and the US during the postwar period.

Many islanders took the opportunity to turn adversity into strength, and we hear some touching first-hand accounts on the program. Kyoko Ohira (a descendant of Nathaniel Savory, one of the original settlers) set her feelings of joy regarding the islands’ return to Japan to music, and she’s now a traditional folk singer fondly known as the “Songstress of Ogasawara.” Rocky Sebori, a fifth generation Savory, was born on Chichijima during the US occupation and experienced a sudden switch from American-style education to Japanese-style. Despite numerous challenges, Sebori eventually used his bilingualism to travel outside Japan and work for a global business.


Japanese-American George Yokota (R), a former teacher at the American school on Chichijima, visits the island every few years to check up on past students such as Rocky Sebori (L).


Zenpachi Tanaka leads tours to old military sites as a way to honor his late brother’s memory and preserve valuable wartime memories.

Sharing familial ties and experiencing common struggles caused a tight-knit community to develop in the islands. Mainland Japanese have also started to call the islands home in recent years, too. This group of relative newcomers includes Zenpachi Tanaka, who moved over in 1974 and volunteered to help collect the remains of the war dead from Ioto. The experience of seeing the neglected remains inspired Tanaka to preserve the legacy of the war for future generations.

Ioto, much like the rest of the Ogasawaras, has a complicated history. Unlike the other islands, however, it is more familiar to the world at large as the scene of a fierce battle in World War II. The fighting that took place on this small island—then known as Iwo Jima—has been memorialized in famous photographs and monuments and was the subject of movies. The painful memories associated with Iwo Jima proved hard for Ogasawara residents to move on from, and so in 2007 the Japanese government agreed to change the official name of the island to Ioto. That change was actually a return to the island’s original name. The Japanese characters mean “Sulfur Island,” and the character for island can be read either as “to” or “shima/jima.” The original settlers on the island called it Ioto, but a mistake by a Japanese naval officer saw the name accidentally changed to Iwo Jima during the war.


Residents are dedicated to preserving their beautiful home and sharing their unique way of life with visitors for years to come.

As we see time and time again on this edition, memories—both good and bad—leave an indelible mark on people’s lives. The topic this time was undeniably heavier than some other subjects featured on Japanology Plus, but remembering, preserving, and sharing history, no matter how painful it may be, is an effort worth undertaking by all. The Ogasawara Islands have only been inhabited for about 200 years, which just goes to show that we’re not as far removed from some events as we may like to believe, and there are often parts of history that we may be unaware of. In this day and age, when relationships between both countries and people are being reshaped, it’s more essential than ever to consider the important lessons to be gained from reflecting on the past.

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