In Pacific, a fading outpost
Updated: 2012-06-18 15:27
By Martin Fackler (Agencies)
John Washington is one of the less than 200 descendants of Western settlers left on the remote, eight-kilometer-long Pacific island of Chichi Jima. Kosuke Okahara for The New York Times
CHICHI JIMA, Japan - Every morning, as the sun rises over this remote Pacific Island and its tiny port with typically Japanese low-slung concrete buildings, John Washington commits a quiet act of defiance against the famously insular Japan: he hoists an American flag over his inn.
Mr. Washington, 63, whose white skin and blond hair, which is turning white, mark him as something of an outsider, is a great-great-grandson of the island's founding father, an American sailor named Nathaniel Savory who set sail in 1830 with a band of adventurers for this island, which was known as a lawless natural wonder.
Mr. Washington's bid to evoke that history seems increasingly like an act of desperation. His community, descendants of those settlers, is vanishing as young people leave this isolated outpost, a 25-hour ferry ride from Tokyo, or assimilate, dropping the Anglican religion and English language of their forebears.
"I feel it will all die out with my generation," Mr. Washington said. "They don't teach the history of the Bonin Islands to kids, don't teach about Nathaniel Savory. The Japanese hide these things."
What they are hiding, he says, is a tale as colorful and lurid as it is disputed.
Since it was settled by Mr. Savory's American and European followers - fortune seekers, deserters, drunkards - and their Hawaiian wives, the island has been pillaged by pirates, gripped by murder and cannibalism and tugged back and forth between Japan and the United States in their battle for supremacy in the Pacific Ocean.
Even the island's visitor list seems outsized for a spit of land just eight kilometers long. It includes Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who stopped here on the 1853 voyage in which he opened Japanese ports at gunpoint.
Today, the island's rhythms are set by the arrival once every six days of the ferry that makes the 965-kilometer trip from Tok-
yo, which has overseen Chichi Jima as part of the Ogasawara Islands, after the United States returned them to Japan in 1968.
About 2,000 people live here, mostly Japanese from the mainland. Over time, they have overwhelmed the descendants of Western settlers, estimated to number fewer than 200.
Some Japanese residents say the Westerners have made their own problems by being standoffish, using both Western and Japanese names and pining to return to the "Navy time" after World War II, when they had the island virtually to themselves.
"They are not the same as indigenous natives who have been here for hundreds of years," said Kazuhiko Ishida, the island's vice mayor. He said that while no efforts are being made to preserve the Westerners' culture, they are not mistreated, either.
When the island was returned to Japan, the Westerners were given a choice of becoming Japanese or American citizens. Many left for the United States.
Some wish Japan and the United States had let them decide the island's future themselves.
"This island was returned without our control," said Rokki Sebori, 52, who also goes by Rocky Savory and runs the island's cooperative supermarket. "We still feel in our hearts that this is our island."
The New York Times