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).
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.