The Bonin Islanders: Ethnogenesis and Exodus

A lot of people have heard of Iwo Jima, the subject of a recent bestseller by James Bradley about one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific War. But far fewer people know much about the Bonin (or Ogasawara) Islands, the next cluster to the north in the chain of volcanic islands that comprise Japan’s Nampo (‘southward, austral’) Islands, which stretches between Tokyo and Tinian. (See map). However, Bradley wrote an earlier book, Flyboys, about the air war over Chichi Jima [‘Father Island’], the main island in the Bonins. According to the Book of the Month Club blurb:

As the U.S. prepared for the final assault on Japan one key to success was knocking out the heavily fortified monitoring station on Chichi Jima, an island about the size of Central Park. But in the course of their daring mission, eight flyboys were shot down. Only one pilot could be rescued–his name was George H. W. Bush. His fellow fliers were not as lucky. They were captured and subjected to a fate so horrible that the records had been sealed until now.

Another recent book, Sorties into Hell: The Hidden War on Chichi Jima, is rather more explicit about that horrible fate.

In October 1946, Colonel Presley Rixey arrived by destroyer at Chichi Jima to repatriate 22,000 Japanese who had been bypassed during the war in the Pacific. He discovered that the downed flyers had been captured, executed, and eaten by certain senior Japanese officers. This is the story of the investigation, the cover-up, and the last hours of those Americans who disappeared into war’s wilderness and whose remains were distributed to the cooking galleys of Chichi Jima.

There also appears to have been a long-running cover-up involving U.S. nuclear weapons on Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima during the 1950s and 1960s. But I’d like to focus on the what happened to the first permanent settlers in the Bonins. (The Sino-Japanese characters for Bonin–actually Bunin, now usually pronounced Mujin–mean ‘absence [of] people’.) Here’s one rough summary that bobbles a few details.

The Bonin Islands might have been an American possession if President Franklin Pierce’s administration had backed up Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry. Chichi Jima was first settled from Honolulu in 1830 by two New Englanders — Aldin B. Chapin and Nathaniel Savory — a Genoese [Matteo Mazarro], and 25 Hawaiians [more accurately, Pacific Islanders mostly unnamed on the ship manifest], who made a living raising provisions for sale to passing whalers. Commodore Perry called at Port Lloyd on 14 June 1853, next day purchased for fifty dollars a plot of land on the harbor, stocked it with cattle brought over in U.S.S. Susquehanna, set up a local government under Savory, promulgated a code of laws, and took possession for the United States. He intended to make Chichi Jima a provisioning stations for the United States Navy and American mail steamers. But this action was repudiated by the Pierce administration in Washington. Thus, in 1861 Japan was able to annex the Bonin Islands without opposition. The government did not disturb the American colony, and serious colonization of the group by Japanese did not start until the arrival of Japanese fisherman and sulfur miners in 1887. Kazan Retto was formally annexed by Japan in 1891 and administered as part of the Tokyo prefecture….

Following the loss of the Marianas (Guam, Saipan, Tinian, etc.) in June 1944, Iwo Jima was heavily fortified as part of Japan’s inner ring of defenses. The Peace Treaty of 1951 recognized Japan’s “residual sovereignty”, but the United States maintained its occupation and control from 1945 to 1961 [actually 1968] when the island were formally returned to Japanese control.

The lengthiest, but still sketchy, account of the earliest years is by the Rev. Lionel Berners Cholmondeley, an Anglican prelate whose book bears the quaint, 19th-century title, The History of the Bonin Islands from the year 1827 to the year 1876 and of Nathaniel Savory, one of the original settlers, to which is added a short supplement dealing with the islands after their occupation by the Japanese (London: Constable, 1915). (Kudos to Tom Tyler at the University of Denver for mounting complete Project Gutenberg editions of this and many other early 19th-century nautical works, including Melville’s Moby Dick and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.)

In June 2003, an Asian studies conference in Japan devoted a panel to Exploring the Rich History and Culture of the Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands. A sampling of the abstracts follows.

Daniel Long (Tokyo Metropolitan University), The Unknown Linguistic Heritage of the Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands – The Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands are unique throughout not only Japan (of which they are part) but indeed throughout the world. They were settled in the early 19th century by a mixed band of settlers speaking European, Polynesia and Micronesian languages (among others). The descendents of these settlers remain on the islands today and speak English (ranging from Standard English to a more local variety) and Japanese as well as a Japanese-English Mixed Language. These linguistic abilities play a large role in the formation of the Bonin Islander identity, and in turn this sense of a unique identity reinforces language usage.

Robert Eldridge (Osaka University), The U.S. Naval Administration of Ogasawara Islands, 1945-1968 – The United States occupied and administered the Ogasawara, or Bonin, Islands from 1945 until 1968, when the islands were returned to Japan…. While the occupation was undertaken for strategic reasons, much like that over Okinawa, there were several differences in the way that the administration was organized. Firstly, the actual direct administration did not begin until 1951. Secondly, the Navy was in charge. Thirdly, only islanders of Western descent were allowed to return to the islands and former residents of Japanese descent were denied permission to return throughout the period. Fourthly, education and local government was undertaken in English (and not Japanese as was the case in Okinawa). Finally, there was a strong effort by some U.S. Naval officials to encourage the permanent separation of the islands from Japan and the adoption of U.S. citizenship by the islanders.

Junko Konishi (Shizuoka University), The Adoption of Micronesian Song and Dance by Ogasawara Islanders – It was the Oubeikei [‘Euro-American heritage’] Islanders of Ogasawara who brought the Micronesian-Japanese songs and the Nanyou odori [‘South Seas dance’] to Ogasawara. The original forms of these songs and dance were the product of a cultural syncretism between Japanese and Micronesian cultures under the Japanese administration (1914-1945). Oubeikei-Ogasawarans adopted these cultural forms, which reflected the ambiguous identity of the Japanese-educated Micronesians. Soon after it was introduced into Ogasawara in the 1930s, the Nanyou odori spread among Japanese-Ogasawarans as well, and was transformed into its Japanese form with respect to melodic movements, the pronunciation of the lyrics, and body movements. The Micronesian-Japanese songs, on the other hand, were sung mostly in private by some Oubeikei-Ogasawarans until 1988 when a cassette tape of island songs (including these) was released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Ogasawara’s return to Japan. Songs on the tape, distributed among the villagers, maintained their distinct forms, especially in melodic movements.

If I had presented a paper there, my imaginary abstract would read something like this:

The Bonin Islanders: Ethnogenesis and Exodus – Before the Japanese administration took over the Bonins in 1875, the 70-odd residents there were a motley crew of diverse heritage tracing back to Europe, North America, Africa, and various Pacific Islands ranging from Hawai‘i and Tahiti to Guam and Pohnpei. But, vis-à-vis the Japanese, they abruptly became Bonin Islanders, an ethnic minority subject to the Emperor, like the Ainu in Hokkaido. It was a classic case of ethnogenesis. Until 1945, it behooved the Islanders to identify themselves as Japanese, to intermarry with Japanese settlers, to move to the main islands to pursue educational or business opportunities, even to serve in the military. But when the Americans took over after the war, residual English language skills and non-Japanese heritage conferred more advantage. When the Americans offered them the opportunity to choose U.S. citizenship when the Bonins reverted to Japan, more than a few grabbed the chance and joined the exodus to Guam, Hawai‘i, or California, where they dissolved into the larger population, as did those who remained behind as Japanese. Only subtle traces now remain of their unique, but ephemeral, common heritage.

UPDATE: Prof. Daniel Long of Tokyo Metropolitan University, perhaps the world’s foremost Boninologist, was kind enough to suggest a few corrections and elaborations, which have been incorporated into the text above. He assures me that the farflung former Bonin Islanders hold worldwide reunions every year or two.

I should also have mentioned that Tom Tyler credits Danny Long for his electronic text and reproductions of photographs from Cholmondeley’s work. Prof. Long has also compiled a website on Bonin language and culture that includes a very extensive bibliography of sources (at least when the TMU server is working, which seems to be every other week).

Amritas notes an earlier novel by Hank Searls (author of Overboard) inspired by Bonin history, Kataki: A Novel (McGraw-Hill, 1987), sort of a “Chichi Jima Candidate” tale:

The descendants of 19th century American settlers on one of Japan’s Bonin Islands are caught up in WW II. Though loyal to the emperor, they are suspect. When 12-year-old Matt Bancroft’s mother is killed by a strafing American plane, he vows kataki (revenge). In the confusion of Japan’s collapse, Matt assumes the identity of a dead son of missionaries and is “repatriated” to America. Forty years later, he is manipulated by a rabid Japanese secret society into thinking that Vice-President Bush was the “murdering” pilot.

Gotta watch out for those missionary kids.



Filed under Hawai'i, Japan, migration, U.S.

12 responses to “The Bonin Islanders: Ethnogenesis and Exodus

  1. I am a great great grandaughter of Nathaniel and Maria Savory. Helen Jane one of their daughters was my great grandmother, she married David Webb.
    My grandmother was their daughter Alice Leonora, she married Vincente P. Herrero of Agana, Guam. Am searching for information regarding the life of Maria and Nathaniel Savory.
    I have a very old edition of Cholmondelay’s “The History of the Bonin Islands from the year 1827 to 1876.
    Would like to be in touch with anyone who has knowledge of these people.
    Thank you,
    Marjorie Hersom

    • Marjorie, hello. This is Mario Reyes Borja. I am with the Sons & Daughters of Guam Club. We met about 12-15 years ago at the clubhouse in San Diego. How are you? I would like to touch base again to see how you are doing etc etc. Please call. 619-888-4407. JoJo and I remember you well.

      I saw your entry here. I was revisiting the Bonin Islands since I knew you told me of your family ties to those islands. Please call.


    • Rosemary Robbins

      Marjorie, Thank you for sharing your family history here. I am a grand daughter of Vincente Herrero and his second wife Carmen Ojeda of Agana Heights Guam. I did not know my grandfather since he died before I was born. I spent significant time with my grandmother and developed a pride in our heritage.
      I do not know if this post will find it’s way to you. But in any case thank you for the information you entered here at this blog. It has helped to fill in some blanks . If readers are interested the brief work I have done is public at ‘My Chamorro Roots’
      Rosemary Robbins.

    • Erin Leith

      Hello Marjorie,
      I only recently came across information on Nathaniel and Maria Savory and believe that I may be a direct descendent. My grandmother was Agnes Dorothy Savory, she was born in 1894 in Japan and I believe on Chichi Jima and moved to Kitagatamachi in Yokohama. She met and married my grandfather, James Leith Leith, in Yokohama and they had two children there (James Muir Leith and Dorothy Agnes Leith) before moving to Scotland where they had two more children, and then on to Toronto, Canada where they had five more children.
      I found information about an Agnes Savory nursing Jane Savory through an illness and that Jane then nursed Agnes who died of the illness in her early 20’s, Jane was only 14 at the time. I think Jane would have been your great grandmother. Agnes had two children, one of whom was very young when she died. Were Jane and Agnes sisters? I would assume my grandmother was named after the deceased Agnes but I cannot find any information on her mother and father and was wondering if you could possibly help me.
      Hoping to hear from you or anyone else that might have information.
      Best regards,

      • I may be able to help you sort this out, Erin, but will need a bit more information. If you would, please contact me at or connect via Facebook?

      • Nan Agnes Lowe

        Erin, I just came across this posting, I am your cousin. I am Hilda (Leith) Dance’s daughter. Agnes Dorothy (Savory) Leith was my Grandmother. I have recently discovered that her Father was Benjamin Nathaniel Savory, son of Nathaniel Savory one of the first colonists of the Bonin Islands and her mother was Susanna Webb.

    • Rlene Santos Steffy

      Its five years since this post was entered, but I would like to get in touch with you as soon as possible. I sent a message to an obviously old hotmail account of yours that I got from Beret Strong. Please email me at I would love to speak to you right away.

      • Erin Leith

        Hi Nan, its so nice to hear from you. I have found quite a bit of information on the Bonin Islands and our ancestors and would be glad to share anything with you. If you have any information to share about our Grandmother and family I would be very interested. You can contact me through email at Where do you live?

      • Nan Agnes Lowe

        Hi Erin good to hear from you – I have been doing a lot of digging and have a fair bit of family info. I will e-mail you

  2. Marjorie,
    If you can track down the linguist Daniel Long, author of English on the Bonin (Ogasawara) Islands (Duke U. Press, 2007; Publication of the American Dialect Society, no. 91; Supplement to American Speech, vol. 81), he seems to be in touch with Savory descendants. I’ve blogged several passages from his book. The one you might be most interested in is on multilingual name changes. You might also try the somewhat outdated Bonin Islands Language and Culture Site.

  3. If anyone is interested, I am working on a history and genealogy manuscript on the descendants of Nathaniel Savory and Maria de los Santos y Castro (hopefully with her ancestry too) for the Chamorro Roots Genealogy Project ( I would like to incorporate family memoirs/essays into the manuscript. Contact me at the Chamorro Roots Genealogy Project website if you are interested in collaborating on this particular project. ~Bernard

  4. To all interest party re: Savory roots. There are Bonin islanders living on
    Guam today. If you are on Guam, check the phone book for Miles
    Washington or Cheiko Foley. I know the two well but haven’t seen them for several years, especially Mrs. Foley. I left Guam in 1968. I am a Bonin Islander who choose to leave and become an American soldier in 1968.

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