- Historic Sites
The Bonins—isles Of Contention
Americans settled early on the tiny, strategic Pacific islands, and dominate them again today. But the Japanese want them back
Februrary 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 2
Matthew Calbraith Perry, the Great Commodore, home again in 1855 after his celebrated expedition to the Far East, brought with him not only a treaty of friendship linking the United States and Japan but also a powerful vision of what the future held for the seas between. “It is not to be supposed,” he wrote, “that the numberless islands which lie scattered throughout this immense ocean are always to remain unproductive, and under the mismanagement of savages. The history of the world forbids any such conclusion. How, and in what way, the aborigines will be disposed of—whether by just or unjust means—cannot be known at the present time; but that they are doomed to mingle with, or give way to some other race, is as certain as the fate of our own melancholy red brethren.”
Perry believed as an article of faith that his countrymen should take the lead in shaping the destiny of the Pacific, and he directed their attention to one place in particular among the numberless islands of the ocean—the Bonins. “In no part of the earth,” he wrote, “can be found a more prolific soil than in those parts of the Bonins that have been brought into thorough cultivation.” Perry proposed an American settlement there. A joint stock company could recruit young married couples and take them to their new home in whaling ships which would then cruise the Japan whaling grounds, returning loaded with oil. The Bonins would become a haven for shipping, and in addition they might serve as a base for American missionary work in Japan, Formosa, and other “benighted countries in that quarter of the globe.”
Anyone who took the trouble to find this prospective outpost of America on a map of the Western Pacific might have been pardoned for doubting Perry’s good sense. The Bonin Islands looked like nothing so much as a cartographer’s mistake, part of a tiny ink spatter left by some draftsman who took great pains over the coast of Japan and then absent-mindedly flicked his pen dry in a line running south from Tokyo Bay toward Micronesia, across seas wracked by typhoons and tidal waves. The largest of the Bonins is less than ten square miles in size, and most of the others are just rocks and reefs, stretching away to the Izus in the north and the Volcanoes in the south.
Perry knew all this and discounted it. He had begun thinking seriously about the Bon ins even before his expedition got under way; nothing he saw in the Far East led him to change his mind, and he came home more convinced than ever that he was right. In preparation for his voyage he had read everything lie could find on Japan and the neighboring islands, and he had talked to New Englanders who had been in the Western Pacific. He knew about typhoons and tidal waves, but other considerations seemed to him more important. Between the Bonins and the southeastern coast of Japan Mowed the Kuroshio, or Japan Current, an oceanic stream of warm water five hundred miles wide, sweeping northward at thirty or forty miles a day. Migrating whales and seals followed the Kuroshio, and for the American hunters who followed the herds, the Bonins were a useful place of refreshment. Then, too, the islands lay close to the great circle route from the Hawaiian Islands to the Chinese coastal city of Shanghai. Perry, one of the Navy’s pioneers in the development of steam power, looked forward to the day when steamships would cross the Pacific from the west coast of America to the Orient, stopping for coal at Honolulu and then again at the Bonins. He was careful to see that all these ideas found their way into the published record of his expedition, and in the last years of his life lie developed to the full his propaganda in behalf of American strategic, commercial, and moral influence in the Pacific, making sure that the Bonins were given a prominent place.
As far as Perry could see, no nation had a good claim to sovereignty there, and if that was the case then America should lead the way. While he was in the Far East he had been all for taking possession of the Bonins and holding on to them by the “best means,” whatever these should turn out to be. He was far ahead of his time. When he died in 1858, the United States was scarcely a Pacific power, and it was not until the end of World War II that the Bonins came under official American administration. By that time the strategic: value of the islands went far beyond their use as fuel stations, a fact equally apparent to Japan and the United States, so that the question of the Bonins is still not settled in 1968.
Very few people shared Perry’s enthusiasm for these insignificant islands. Spanish ships in the sixteenth century may have sighted them, and Dutch navigators plotted their location accurately in 1639, but not until the nineteenth century did Europeans go ashore there.