- 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.
The Japanese knew the Bonins existed, but they had been turning their backs on the Pacific for centuries. They used their own closest southern outliers, the Izus, as a dumping ground for political criminals and other undesirables; the Bonins, only a few hundred miles farther out to sea, might just as well have been on the other side of the earth. From time to time junks in distress fetched up there, and their crews hurried to build new boats and go home. Occasionally a well-equipped expedition would be proposed, and one or two actually sailed, but the only result was the naming of the islands. A Japanese named Shimaya Jchixaemon spent several months ashore in 1675, and perhaps to compensate for the fact that he found no one living there, he turned the main islands themselves into a family. The northern cluster he named Bridegroom Island (Muko Jima), Bride, and Matchmaker. The central cluster’s biggest island became Father Island (Chichi Jima), and three smaller ones, Elder Brother, Younger Brother, and Grandson. The southern cluster he called Mother Island (Haha Jima), Elder Sister, Younger Sister, and Niece. On his return to Japan. Shimaya confirmed earlier reports that the islands were mun-in or bun-in , empty of men. The group became known in the western world by a corruption of the latter term, Bonin.
In the eighteen twenties whaleships began to comb the Western Pacific north of the Equator, and in 1824 and iSs$ an American, James Coffin of Nantucket, visited the southern, central, and northern clusters of the Bonins in the British whaler Transit . In 1826, another British whaler, the William , ran on the rocks and sank in the harbor at Chichi Jima. Most of her crew left aboard another ship, but two sailors named Wittrein and Peterson stayed behind to salvage the William ’s cargo, a job made easier for them by a huge tidal wave that washed parts of the wreck a good way inland.
Wittrein and Peterson set themselves up in plank houses built from the debris of their ship, and they were eating well olf hog meat and vegetables from (heir garden by the time the next visitors appeared, in June, 1827. H.M.S. Blossom , commanded by Frederick William Beechey, was the first man-of-war to anchor at Chichi Jima. Without making too much of it, Beechey claimed the Bonins for Great Britain. “Taking possession of uninhabited islands,” he wrote, “is now a mere matter of form; still I could not allow so fair an opportunity to escape, and declared them to be the property of the British government.”
Beechey named the central cluster alter himself, its principal island—Chichi Jima—Peel Island, and the harbor there Port Lloyd. He offered Wittrein and Peterson passage home, but they chose to stay awhile. Wittrein even toyed with the idea of living permanently on Peel Island. He had a house with a sign that read “Charles Wittrein’s premises,” a gun, a Bible, and a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and he was thinking of getting a wife from Hawaii. For some reason he gave up this scheme and left with Peterson in 1828 on the next ship that came, the Russian man-of-war Seniavin .
At the end of the eighteen twenties, then, the Bonins had been sighted and visited by ships of several nations, and they belonged to Great Britain, but only as a “matter of form.” In 1830 a small colonizing expedition was put together at Honolulu. The British consul there gave the settlers a Union Jack and his vague blessing. Beyond that he did nothing to help them, and he did not bother to report the venture to his home government. In his only letter on the subject of the Bonins, written eighteen months after the expedition set out, he merely mentioned that the islands might be useful “if colonized.”
The leader of the settlers was Matteo Mozarro, an Italian who claimed to be a British subject. Mozarro was something of a flag waver for his adopted country, but he did not, or could not, recruit only Britishers. His four fellow settlers were an Englishman, Richard Millinchamp; a Dane named Richard Johnson; and two Americans from Massachusetts, Aldin Chapin and Nathaniel Savory. All were sailors tired of the sea, deck hands who from now on wanted to look at the ocean across a wide beach rather than over the side of a ship. The ports of the Pacific were full of such men, and only accident brought these five together at Honolulu. Savory had left his ship after losing part of one hand in an accident with a saluting cannon in Honolulu harbor. Mozarro, whose checkered career included shipwreck on an uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean, arrived rather mysteriously at Honolulu in 1830 with a boatload of girls from the Marquesas Islands. The others were men of obscure past, and not much future as long as they continued to go to sea. They had nothing to lose and perhaps something to gain by settling a new island.
A British schooner dropped Mozarro and his company at Peel Island in June, 1830. The first year was very hard, but after a season or two it became clear that they could grow almost anything they wanted in the fertile soil around Port Lloyd—corn, sweet potatoes, yams, melons, beans, onions, taro, sugar cane, coconuts, bananas, even tobacco. They turned their hogs and goats loose in the hills and then hunted them with dogs. In the harbor at Port Lloyd lazed hundreds of gigantic turtles, so many that in season the shallow water was thick with them. The meat was delicious, either fresh or cured. (There were almost as many sharks as turtles in the harbor, and one astonishecl visitor mentioned seeing intrepid dogs run into the shallows and drag small sharks out by the fins.)
Mozarro and the others had brought with them fifteen Hawaiians, five men and ten women, to work their farms on a sharecropping basis. The scheme failed. In a very short time each settler withdrew to his own hut and truck garden with his one or two native “wives.” Many of the Hawaiians left as soon as they could and had to be replaced by “Kanakas,” lazy, indigent drifters from Hawaii and other Pacific islands. The women were disinclined to raise children, and some followed the old Hawaiian customs of abortion and infanticide. Shipwrecked sailors, deserters, mutineers, and sick and disabled seamen came ashore—more than sixty in the first seven years—but only a handful stayed, and very few of those were interested in hard work.
Life could be comfortable all the same. Aldin Ghapin was well set up by 1836, so a visitor reported. In his square, one-room house stood “a table, covered with newspapers and writing materials, and over it, upon the wall, hung a spy glass, and a thin manuscript, headed ‘Laws of the Bonin Isles.’ A sea chest stood on each side of the room, and a bed, with calico curtains, filled each corner. A few French prints, and a shelf of fifty or sixty miscellaneous volumes, occupied rather than adorned the walls. A chair of home manufacture and a three legged stool completed the furniture.”
Chapin was the most literate man at Port Lloyd, a natural keeper of the “laws.” The settlers’ code was simple enough, suitable to a colony where only three men (including Savory and Chapin but not Mozarro) could write their names. All disputes were supposed to be settled by majority vote. No one was to help sailors desert from ships, and no one was to “maltreat the slaves or servants of another, or endeavour to seduce any woman from her lord.” Those who made their marks at the foot of this document in 18^6 did so grudgingly, at the urging of a visiting American naval commander. A few years later another commander, this time a Britisher, called a meeting to discuss law and order, but his spokesman, the English settler Richard Millinchamp, “was assailed with the most violent oaths and the greatest abuse, which were accompanied with the threat of his life.” No piece of paper would protect such men from each other or from themselves. Every so often Mozarro hoisted his Union Jack, and once he made a trip to Honolulu, returning with written confirmation of his leadership supplied by the acting British consul, but these were the emptiest of gestures.
Port Lloyd really had no law to stand between grievance and vengeance, and Mozarro was as ready as the next man to look for direct redress. Over the years he found Savory and Chapin on the opposite side in arguments far too often. He decided the colony would be better oft without the disputatious Americans. His plan to rid himself of them backfired, and in 1838 Savory and Chapin got from one Francis Silver a remarkable document: “I … do make oath of die following: That Mr. Matthew Mozarro told me some time since that if he could get Chapin and Savory out of the way he would give everything he possessed in the world. … He said for me to … wait for Savory … and for me to go close alongside of him for to make friends with Savory and when he turns his head … to heat his Brains out with a club, and if that did not kill him to stab him with a knife until dead and throw him into the sea. I then answered that I would not do it. A few days after he told me he would give me some Laudanum and for me to give it to Savory’s girl and for her to put it in Savory’s tea and poison him.”
Quite apart from the murderous fantasies of Moxarro, Savory and the other islanders had to contend with rioting seamen who came ashore from passing whalers. At Port Lloyd during the busy “Japan season” the settlers were powerless, forced to retreat to the hills while the whalemen cut a careless swath through the village, drinking, firing their guns, and pursuing the Kanaka women.
Yet Savory had something to gain from the whalers. An industrious New Englander, with commercial contacts at Honolulu and other ports in the Pacific, he had built up a fortune of a few thousand dollars selling rum and supplies on Peel Island. Ky the end of the eighteen forties he was easily the richest man at Port Llo)d. This meant that he also had a lot to lose. In iS^y a merchant captain named Barker put in for supplies and repairs, and stayed to loot the settlement. Savory and the others Med to the highlands. In the midst of Barker’s attack, a French whaler arrived. Nine of her men jumped ship and joined the wreckers, and when their captain tried to get them back, Barker gave them weapons. Savory lost about two thousand dollars in cash and several thousand dollars’ worth of provisions; the rioters emptied his house down to his diary. When Barker sailed in January, iH^o, lie took with him the French deserters and also two Kanakas, one of them Savory’s girl, who apparently had led the sailors to her “lord’s” cache of money.
Savory was almost back where he started. A less stubborn man might have quit the island, but Savory stayed. Within a few years he was the only one of the original white settlers left. Millinchamp and Johnson drifted away, and Chapin died. Savory’s old enemy Moxarro had died in 1847, and in 1850 Savory married his widow, Maria, a handsome young woman from Guam. Showing more respect for form than was usual at Port Lloyd, he took Maria out beyond the three-mile limit in a Yankee whaler called No Duty On Tea and had the captain legally marry them. During the next few years lie and Iiis wife began to pick up the threads of a settled life again.
On the other side of the world, late in 1852, Commodore Perry’s expedition was heading eastward. All the way across the Atlantic, Perry gave thought to the problem of combining his long-term plans for the Konins and his immediate task of negotiating a treaty with the unapproachable government of Japan. “As a preliminary step, and one of easy accomplishment,” he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, “the squadron should establish places of rendezvous at one or two of the islands south of Japan, having a good harbor, and possessing facilities for obtaining water and supplies.” Perry the great stage manager wanted, in fact, some sort of prepared base to which he could withdraw after making a first dazzling impression on the Japanese, and from which he would return in due. course to consummate his treaty.
Two places came to mind—the town of Nalia on the island of Okinawa in the Ryukyus, vaguely a dependency of Japan, and Port Lloyd on Peel Island, the only safe harbor in the Kon ins. Perry decided to visit Okinawa first. With luck, he could learn something there about eastern diplomacy before the time came to commit himself in Japan, and in turn the Okinawans might send advance notice to the Japanese that Perry’s black warships came in peace. It was one of those good ideas that did not work at all. For two weeks Perry and the governors of Okinawa indulged in a wary and absurd “ritual dance of protocol, and then, with very little accomplished, Perry broke off negotiations and sailed for the Bonins.
The Susquehanna and the Saragota were welcomed heartily at Port Lloyd when they arrived on June 14, 1853, and the squadron’s surveyors, scientists, artists, and writers were able to go about their business on Peel Island free from the government surveillance that had plagued them at Okinawa. Perry himself found it unnecessary to stay aboard his flagship rejecting inept overtures from unsuitable envoys, as he had done at Naha. Hc went ashore, met Savory, and bought from him for fifty dollars a stretch of land one thousand yards by five hundred, close to Ten Fathom Hole, the anchorage at the north end of the harbor. This was the first piece of territory in the Far East to come under American control; Perry intended it to be used as a coaling station for American ships. In one day at the Bonins he had accomplished more than he had in two weeks at Okinawa. The reason was simple: here there was no government with which he had to negotiate; Savory was selling part of his private property, and Perry spoke to him as one Ne.w Englander to another.
Savory had now been on the beach for twenty-three years, but he still carried his American seaman’s papers. Perry attached him to the squadron as a temporary crew member, appointed him resident U.S. agent at Port Lloyd, and left a seaman to help look after the purchase at Ten Fathom Hole. As some of his predecessors had done, Perry tried his hand at making a constitution for Port Lloyd. With his encouragement a document entitled “Articles of Agreement of the Settlers of Peel Island” was drawn up, and Savory was elected chief magistrate.
Perry stayed only four days at the Bonins, but this was long enough to convince him that his interest was well founded. Later in 1853 one of his ships claimed the uninhabited southern cluster for the United States, and just before he left on his voyage home, Perry sent the settlers at Peel Island an American flag. “It is to be hoped,” he wrote to Savory, “that steps may ere long be taken to give greater importance to Port Lloyd.”
While he was in the Far East, Perry exchanged some sharp letters with J. G. Bonham, British superintendent for trade at Hong Kong, over the sovereignty of the Bonins. The correspondence ended on a note of compromise, with Perry saying that he would be quite happy to see a free port at Peel Island if the two home governments would agree to such a solution.
But they did nothing. When next a sovereign nation took an interest in the Bonins it was Japan. In 1859 the islands were scouted for the Japanese whaling industry by that remarkable man Nakahama Manjiro, who knew more at first hand about the English-speaking world than any other Japanese (see “The Man Who Discovered America” in the December, 1956, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Nakahama had already been of great service to his country during Perry’s visit, and in 1860-61 he was a member of the first Japanese embassy to the United States. He and the other envoys carried home with them several copies of the published reports of Perry’s expedition, and the Commodore’s ambitious plans for the Bonins were immediately noted. It was enough to convince the Japanese government that action was needed.
The strategy developed by the shogunale was Perry’s own, reflected in a mirror of Japanese design. The instrument of annexation must be an imposing naval expedition backed by armed force. The infant Japanese Navy had nothing to match Perry’s black ships, but eventually the Kanrin Maru , built to Japanese orders by the Dutch in 1856 and fresh from an overhaul after taking the embassy to America in 1860, was readied for die task. The Kanrin Maru anchored at Port Lloyd on January 17, 1862; a shore party planted the Japanese flag on a thousand-foot hill behind the harbor and named the peak Asahi Yama, “Mountain of the Rising Sun.”
The first government official to land asked the settlers, “Have you people come here by command of some sovereign?” The answer of course was No, and this was the cue for the senior negotiator to make his appearance. Mizuno Chikugo no Kami Tadanori came ashore, arrayed in ceremonial robes of office and wearing the double swords of the samurai. Mizuno’s translator was Nakahama Manjiro.
Mizuno did Savory the courtesy of interviewing him in a purple tent, the color of high rank, and addressing him as a person of samurai status, but he was politely contemptuous of all Western claims to the islands, saying that a famous Japanese of the sixteenth century, Ogasawara Sadayori, had discovered and explored the chain, and that consequently priority rights belonged to Japan. The story of Ogasawara was a complete fiction, but it had enjoyed a long and sturdy life in Japan, and Mizuno and his fellow officials knew from its inclusion in Perry’s reports that it was given some credence in the West.
With a minimum of disturbance, Mizuno persuaded Savory and the other islanders to acknowledge Japan’s control. The names given to the islands in 1675 were resurrected; Peel Island became Chichi Jima once more, and Port Lloyd was given the name of Futami-Ko. New harbor regulations were drawn up, the settlers’ lands were surveyed and their titles confirmed, the island’s currency was stabilized (in Mexican dollars, which were common in the Pacific), and hunting and wood cutting in the hills were controlled. On Mizuno’s return to Tokyo, his government, overriding all foreign diplomatic objections, announced that the Bonins were indisputably Japanese.
The first shipload of Japanese colonists, recruited in the Izus, arrived at Futami-Ko in September, 1862. For them, good land was hard to find. Savory and the others had long since staked out the best plots, and the newcomers under Governor Obana Sakunosuke had to work hard to set their village, which was named Omura, on the way to self-sufficiency. The white settlers, their Hawaiian wives, and their mixed offspring lived mostly around Ten Fathom Hole. The two groups did not see much of each other; whenever business had to be transacted, Savory and Obana acted as go-betweens.
Before the Japanese colonists were fairly on their feet they were hit by a political upheaval in Japan that reversed the national policy of expansion, bringing back the introversion of earlier days. In June, 1863, a Japanese ship appeared carrying orders for Obana: the colony was to be dismantled and the colonists sent home. In less than a week they were gone. Obana left Savory in charge of the property that remained, with the express warning that this abrupt departure did not mean that Japan was surrendering her sovereignty.
By the end of the eighteen sixties Savory was seventy-five years old, but he was still not old enough to sit quietly and watch an aggressive interloper take over the Bonins. The Japanese government was one thing; Captain Benjamin Pease was quite another. Pease, in the words of an indignant man who knew him well, was a “villian of the first water.” He claimed to be an American and was a trafficker in the dubious labor trade of the Pacific, picking up and delivering shiploads of willing or unwilling Kanakas to plantation owners. He took up residence at Port Lloyd in 1871 and went into business as a planter and trader.
Soon he was calling himself “Governor” Pease. In 1873 he visited the United States minister at Tokyo to ask what protection Americans in business at the Bonins might expect from their home government. Given sufficient inducement, Pease explained, he might be persuaded to remain at the islands and accept a United States consulship. The minister made inquiries and received a less than enthusiastic letter from Washington on the general subject of Americans in far places, and the matter of “Consul” Pease ended there. But his fame spread across the Pacific to San Francisco, where it was reported that he had taken full possession of Peel Island, was flying the Stars and Stripes, and was ready to sell to the United States.
At Port Lloyd, Pease crossed swords with Nathaniel Savory and his grown sons. They argued about the ownership of a consignment of whale oil and about the death of some sheep, and then they argued about their arguments. It had all the makings of a feud, with Pease announcing at last that Savory had issued an “open Chalange which I readily accept and let the bitter end come as soon as it likes.” One of Savory’s friends heard Pease say “that if you [Savory] did not let him alone and quit talking about him he was going to the cove and hang you to your door post.”
Savory died in April, 1874—a natural death. Pease was murdered about six months later. His wife (a part-white girl named Susan Robinson, survivor of an earlier mass murder on Haha Jima, in the southern cluster) had caught the eye of a Negro named Spenser, who worked for Pease. One day in October, 1874, Pease took a canoe round the coast, and soon afterward it was found bottom up and stove in on the shore. There was no sign of Pease. Spenser lived just long enough for Susan Pease to bear him a child. Then he too went out in a canoe and never came back. The canoe was found, and in it was Spenser’s coat, torn by a turtle hook and soaked in blood.
The United States minister at Tokyo interested himself for a short time in these disappearances, but they were never fully explained. The minister did find that Pease’s citizenship, like everything else about him, was dubious. He might have been an American, but then again he might not. In any case he was gone. Since 1830 eleven people (counting Pease and Spenser) had been murdered at the Bonins, quite a high figure for a settlement that never numbered more than a few score adults. There was no law at Port Lloyd, no religion, only a pretense at marriage between white men and native women, and no education for the children. One or two men like Nathaniel Savory and Thomas Webb had tried to keep self-respect alive, but a good many others who found their way to the islands were not much better than animals. After four and a half decades of occupation by Europeans, the Bonins fitted all too well Perry’s disdainful description of a primitive Pacific island—unproductive, mismanaged by savages, doomed to be swallowed up by a more efficient race.
In 1875 the Japanese returned. The shogunate had been overthrown and the imperial government restored in 1868, and a climate favorable to expansion had again developed. By the mid-1870’s the government was ready to act. Foreign Minister Terashima Munenori stated his country’s new policy on the Bonins: they were of historic interest, they had been colonized in the eighteen sixties, and besides, in the “golden words of an ancient sage,” to “abandon islands in neighboring waters is bad for a country.”
The official party that came to Port Lloyd aboard the Meiji Maru in November, 1875, found the Stars and Stripes flying there. It had been Nathaniel Savory’s dying wish that the American flag should be shown whenever a ship came into the harbor, and his widow faithfully carried out his request. His son, Horace Perry Savory, whose middle name was a reminder of the Great Commodore’s visit, led the settlers in signing away their independence, this time permanently. In 1876 the Bonins, renamed Ogasawara Gunto after the legendary discoverer, became the responsibility of the Japanese Ministry of Home Affairs.
Japan was on the brink of several decades of expansion in the Pacific. She took the Kuriles as well as the Bonins in 1875, the Ryukyus in 1879, Formosa and the Pescadores in 1895, southern Sakhalin in 1905, and was given mandates over the Marianas, the Carolines, and the Marshalls after World War I. In the Western Pacific, Perry’s “more efficient race” was clearly the Japanese.
New colonists, most of them from the Izus, came to the Bonins in increasing numbers, to settle on Chichi Jima and Haha Jima. The seat of government at Futami-Ko, the old Port Lloyd, acquired a police station, a courthouse, a school, a post office, a Shinto shrine, and a monument to Ogasawara, whose mythical exploits were remembered by an annual holiday.
For a time it appeared as if the little group of Bonin islanders living around Ten Fathom Hole (in a village with the new name of Okumura) would simply be swallowed up. In 1876 only one of them was literate—the Englishman, Webb—and they had few institutions to hold them together. One by one they swore allegiance to Japan, and by 1882 all were naturalized citizens.
In Nathaniel Savory’s time the settlers had never farmed more than a hundred and fifty acres around Port Lloyd. The Japanese attacked the land enthusiastically, clearing hundreds of acres more. They experimented with many crops, including coffee and rubber, and finally determined that the sugar cane, vegetables, and tropical fruits raised there could be sold profitably in the home islands of Japan.
The Japanese whaling and fishing fleets used Futami-Ko in season. Late in the nineteenth century they were joined by American sealers, who pursued the migrating herds along the Japan Current and slaughtered seals by thousands with shotguns.
Aboard a typical sealer named the Sophie Sutherland an untypical seventeen-year-old named Jack London came to Futami-Ko in 1893. He was just discovering in himself an ambition to be a writer, and when he went back to San Francisco after a season among the seal herds, he put his experiences on paper. All day long at Futami-Ko, he recalled, the crack-shot seal hunters stalked boars and steers in the hills; then they gathered at the harbor to drink the night away. London was not yet an accomplished drinker. He was tipsy enough early one evening to engage a Japanese orchestra at a “house of entertainment”; later he fell asleep in the doorway of the port pilot’s home, waking up to find his watch, money, coat, belt, and shoes gone. The stronger heads drank on.
As well as picking up supplies and letting off steam at Futami-Ko, the Americans recruited seal hunters, finding the best of these among the descendants of the old settlers living around Nathaniel Savory’s land at the village of Okumura, or Yankeetown, as its residents persisted in calling it. In the veins of the Savorys, Webbs, Gilleys, Washingtons, Robinsons, and Gonzaleses flowed the mingled blood of Americans, Englishmen, Germans, West Indian Negroes, Hawaiians, Guamanians, and other Pacific islanders. They all shared a taste for the sea. They could handle small craft expertly, and in time they developed modified outrigger canoes and whaleboats that amazed the Japanese with their speed and seaworthiness. Most men of Yankeetown could not see the point of grubbing around in the earth for food when there were fish to be caught and seals to be shot.
Surrounded by farmers from Japan, the seagoing descendants of the old settlers cultivated their sense of separateness. A good many of them became members of an Anglican missionary church where English was spoken, and were married there to mates chosen from within their own group. Some of the younger generation, however, married Japanese, and by the igao’s the Yankeetown people were less than a hundred in a population of several thousand. But nothing could persuade them to surrender their identity. They looked different, they thought differently, they were different, no matter what their citizenship papers said.
By the 1920’s the Pacific, that “immense ocean” of which Commodore Perry spoke, had become crowded. Japan’s successes on the Asian continent and in the islands during World War I led her to think in terms of an Asian Monroe Doctrine. After the war a conference was held at Washington to encourage interested parties to reconcile their oceanic ambitions. One of the main issues dividing the United States and Japan was the question of naval bases in the Pacific islands. The Japanese delegates made a strong bid to have the Bonins recognized as an integral part of Japan, because this would allow them to fortify the harbor at Futami-Ko without restriction. Anticipating heavy opposition, the Japanese armed forces had done considerable work in the Bonins before the conference opened. After some hard bargaining, Japan lost the decision: Article XIX of the Five Power Treaty stipulated that the military status quo should be preserved in several groups of islands, including the Bonins. Japan chose not to obey the prohibition. Only a few years later the emperor visited Chichi Jima to watch his Navy carry out war games there, and by that time the Bonins were under martial law. Foreigners found it more and more difficult to gain access to the islands, and at last, in 1935, even the Anglican missionary bishop whose flock included the tiny congregation at Yankeetown was barred.
When war came in 1941, Chichi Jima was one of a string of island fortresses stretching south from the Izus through the Bonins to the Volcanoes (where Iwo Jima was the strategic center) and on to Saipan and Tinian in the Japanese-mandated Marianas. At Futami-Ko the anchorage had been dredged to accommodate everything from seaplanes and submarines to battleships, and the hills behind the harbor had been blasted and drilled to make air-conditioned, copper-lined, bomb-proof caves for storing ammunition.
In the first years of the war, Chichi Jima’s role was simply to supply Japan’s forward bases to the south. Not until the tide turned in favor of the Allies in the Pacific did the island come under attack by bombers on their way to and from the Japanese home islands. Late in 1943 the strategic thinking of the Allies became organized around the idea of a Pacific triangle, with Tokyo at the apex. As the leapfrogging island war went on, the sides of the triangle were shortened, and advanced bomber bases were planned—Okinawa in the west, and the most suitable island along “the ladder of the Bonins” in the east. But Iwo Jima in the Volcanoes was chosen over Chichi Jima, first because its terrain was less rugged and bomber airstrips could be built there more easily, and second because intelligence reports showed that the fortress of Chichi Jima would be even more difficult to take than Iwo Jima.
Once American planes were able to use the airstrips on Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, only a hundred and fifty miles to the north, was bombed every day for weeks. All civilians had been evacuated in the summer of 1944, including the people of Yankeetown, who were assigned Japanese names and sent to Tokyo and Yokohama. The garrison at Futami-Ko spent most of its time in the caves behind the harbor. There were no Japanese war heroes in the Bonins. During the last months of the war the Allies bypassed Chichi Jima, and in September, 1945, Lieutenant General Yosio Tachibana surrendered to Commodore John H. Magruder, Jr., aboard the destroyer Dunlap off Futami-Ko.
American troops under Marine Colonel Presley M. Rixey arrived in October to begin the repatriation of Japanese soldiers, and in the tedious days that followed, victors and vanquished played baseball on the scarred small-plane airstrip. With Rixey came Fred Savory, great grandson of Nathaniel, to work as an interpreter. One of Rixey’s tasks was to find out what had happened to several American flyers shot down over the Bonins. Savory and other islanders had heard gruesome rumors in Japan during the last months of the war. General Tachibana insisted that some of the prisoners had been sent to Japan and that the others had lost their lives during American air raids, but Rixey, prompted by Savory, investigated further. His findings were that Tachibana and some of his subordinates had ordered the pilots executed by bayonetting and decapitation; that two of the bodies had been dismembered, and that Major Matoba Sueo served human flesh in his officers’ mess. Nothing in modern international law prescribed a penalty for ritual cannibalism, but the penalty for murder was death. Tachibana, Matoba, and three other officers were hanged in 1947 after a war-crimes trial on Guam.
Under the terms of the Allies’ Cairo Declaration of 1943, Japan, once defeated, was to be stripped of all Pacific islands seized or occupied by her since World War I. The Potsdam Declaration of 1945 limited Japanese sovereignty to the home islands, leaving the fate of the outliers to be determined later. After the war the United States Navy was given the responsibility of administering the Bonins and the Volcanoes, as well as the islands of the former Japanese mandate in Micronesia.
The Navy simply designated the Bonins a closed area. No plans were made to bring back the seven thousand Japanese civilians who had lived on Chichi Jima and Haha Jima before the war. But what would happen to the islanders from Yankeetown? Fred Savory drafted a petition to the Stäte-War-Navy Coordinating Committee in Washington, asking that they be allowed to go home. The Navy approved, arguing that the islanders had been at Chichi Jima for generations, whereas most of the Japanese civilians were recent immigrants, supported only by military expenditure. The Yankeetown settlers deserved special consideration. Their western blood had left them open to persecution in Japan during the war, and several of them had been useful to the Allies after the war, helping to convict Japanese war criminals. They were an easily identifiable special group, and their numbers did not pose serious problems. In October, 1946, about one hundred and thirty islanders returned to Chichi Jima, and Colonel Rixey flew the Stars and Stripes to welcome them.
The islanders were given Navy quonset huts to live in, and under the friendly eye of the Americans, the Savorys and their companions took up their interrupted life where they had left off in 1944. They regarded the islands and the coastal waters as theirs once more. Japanese boats venturing inside the three mile limit were likely to be fired at, and once the islanders shot and killed a poaching fisherman.
Soon after the end of the war the Japanese government began agitating for the return of their civilians to the Bonins. The Japanese-American treaty on 1952 allowed Japan “residual sovereignty” in all the southern islands, but left them under American administration. On Okinawa, the presence of a large American force did not entail the permanent exclusion of Japanese civilians, but in the Navy’s view American strategy in the Far East would be best served if the Bonins were empty of Japanese. Some men in the American State Department looked forward to the return of civilians to the Bonins, however, and when Robert Murphy was appointed United States Ambasador to Japan he intended to see that this was done “without delay.” But Admiral W. Eadford, miind by taking him on a cruiser tour of the Bonins and explaining their strategic importance.
At the beginning of the 1950’s the Navy was represented at the Bonins by a lone chief petty officer, who was assigned to help the Yankeetown fishermen put their port backin some kind of working condition. Year by year, however, the Navy incresed its strenght, creating by the end of the decade a top-secret base of unknown but obviously formidable capacity.
The Japanese government and the active League of Bonin Evacuees Hastening Repatriation looked uneasily at this development. They argued along two lines: complete sovereignty over the Bonins should be returned to Japan, and expatriated civilians should be allowed to go back to the Bonins. Most of the League’s members suffered economic hardship by being separated from their lands, and in October, 1955, they sent a delegation to Washington to press their case. They were countered a month later by four men from Yankeetown (two of them named Savory), who were flown by the Navy plane to the American capital: they petitioned, unsuccessfully, for the annexation of the Bonins by the united States and the grant of American citizenship to the islanders. In their minds the worst possible thing that could happen would be a new wave of Japanese immigration. As old Wilson Savory put it later, the islanders would be forced onto the beach “to eat coral dust.”
The Japanese, temporarily setting aside the idea of civilian repatriation, turned to that of compensation. If dispossessed farmers could not go back to their lands in the Bonins, then at least they should be paid for the losses they had incurred. Twelve million dollars seemed to them a fair figure. In 1960 the United States Congress authorized the distribution of six and a half million dollars, and this somewhat mollified Japanese complaints about the American occupation.
In the early 1960’s the Navy continued to regard the base at Chichi Jima as essential to American strategy in the Far East. By then the establishment in the Bonins included Navy men’s wives and families, and American children on Chichi Jima were attending the Admiral Arthur Radford School. In the generation since the war, the islanders of Yankeetown had increased in number by about a hundred, and their children too went to Radford School. The islanders were still Japanese nationals, and most young men looked for brides in Japan. But their children were learning English, not Japanese; they saluted the American flag and recited the Pledge of Allegiance at school; and most of their parents hoped that American citizenship ultimately could be arranged for them.
But it seems more and more likely, as time passes, that the Bonins are going back to the Japanese government and to their thousands of displaced settlers. In mid-November, 1967, Premier Eisaku Sato came to Washington to see President Johnson—looking, he said, for something to put in the ten-gallon hat the President had given him on an earlier visit. One thing he got was an agreement that “the mutual security interests of Japan and the United States could be accommodated within arrangements for the return of administration of these islands [the Bonins] to Japan.” Consultations to arrange the return are currently in progress.
Meanwhile, a few Japanese civilians have periodically been allowed to come to Chichi Jima to visit the graves of their war dead. The “American” islanders have taken no part in the observances, but have watched with mixed feelings as the visitors quietly repaired broken tombstones, said their prayers for the dead, and then departed, taking home to Japan handfuls of the rich soil that Commodore Perry had praised and Nathaniel Savory had plowed.