Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Haha-jima, the Galapagos of the East [*]

[*] Please see [SIDEBAR] at the end of this post for a discussion of the geographical (in)accuracy and inherent ambiguity of this title.
The location of the Ogasawara Archipelago in the Philippine Sea. 

Regular viewers of my blog postings will have noticed my strange fascination (obsession, almost!) with the locations of my blog readers.  I suppose this is not so strange, considering I am a geographer!  I do track where viewers are pinging in from, quite religiously.  I find it very calming and therapeutic, somehow!  I take great delight when someone enters my blog from a far-off, remote, or inaccessible place, and when that happens, I zoom into the map to see what the place looks like, as far as can be gleaned from road maps and satellite images on google maps.  Some of my favorite viewers so far, in terms of the remote-and-inaccessible factor, have been from Tromso, Norway; Tsetserleg, Mongolia; Manicore, Brazil (accessible only by a tributary river, deep in Amazonia); Arviat up on Hudson Bay in Nunavut Territory, Canada (there are local roads but they don't connect up with anything; access is by plane to tiny airstrip, seasonal shipping, or maybe overland by dogsled!); Estancia Harberton, Argentina (just about the end of the road in Tierra del Fuego!); Tiferte Ait-Hamza, high up in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco (pretty much goat trails to get there); and Sipisipi in the heart of the rain forest in Papua New Guinea (no roads AT ALL visible on the satellite image!).  Ain’t the World Wide Web a wonderful thing!  It's pretty much world wide, at any rate.  The most recent of these far, far away places is Haha-jima. And "remote" doesn't even begin to cover it! 
Recently, for some odd reason, my blog has been getting a lot of traffic from viewers in Japan.  One day, I had over 400 page views from Japan alone!  And yesterday, I noticed a push-pin marker in a location seemingly out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (well, the Philippine Sea, to be exact), and I figured it was one of those lonely islands in Micronesia, or the North Mariana Islands, or somewhere else equally as far-flung from the mainland continents.  Or maybe it was Dan, my former student who is doing field work in Palau! 
Imagine my surprise when I clicked on the icon and it said “Japan, Tokyo prefecture.”  At first, naturally enough, I figured “Ah HA! This stats tracking program has totally wigged out now!  It has made a BIG mistake!”  It looked like it was about 1,000 km from the city of Tokyo, or anywhere, for that matter.  As an isolated island in the middle of the largest geographic feature on earth (the Pacific Ocean) it certainly did look like it was in the middle of nowhere. Definitely NOT Tokyo.  But the more and more I zoomed in, the more I saw it was an island in a small archipelago called the Ogasawara Group, (formerly the Bonin Islands) and the particular island my viewer came from was Haha-jima (“Mother Island”).  I googled Haha-jima, and found out that indeed, it was part of the Tokyo prefecture, technically one of the eight villages of Tokyo, even though it is over 1,000 km from Tokyo.  There is a supply boat that goes to the main island of Chichi-jima ("Father Island") a few times a month from Tokyo, and the crossing is rough and takes about 26 hours (in good weather!).  From Chichi-jima, there is a ferry crossing of another 2 hours to get to Haha-jima.  There is no airport on either of the two inhabited islands in the Ogasawara Group.  So to say that it is hard to get to is putting it mildly. 

The Ogasawara Island Group is sometimes likened to the Galapagos Islands, because there are a number of striking similarities.  Both sets of islands are volcanic, were never part of any continent, house many species of endemic flora and fauna, and went through a unique evolutionary process.  Like the Galapagos, each island in the group has its own related but separate species.  Rather than the well-known and varied tortoise species of the Galapagos, the Ogasawara Islands are famous for their many endemic species of land snails.  As much as the Galapagos tortoises are huge, the Haha-jima land snails are tiny.  In fact, most of them are so small that they can be digested by birds and still come out of things alive, if you catch my drift.  There are about 90 species of endemic land-snails in the archipelago, most on a remote peninsula of Haha-jima.  And, as in the Galapagos, the endemic species are threatened by invasive species brought in by the human settlers. 

Crab-crossing sign in Hahah-jima, from:

A Haha-jima snail, which can apparently survive after having been digested by birds. From  “Biogeography of wingless terrestrial invertebrates, in particular snails, is often faced with mysterious long distance dispersal patterns that can only be explained by hand waving arguments involving birds' feet or guts or cyclones. This is the first study showing that birds can indeed transport a substantial [number of] micro land snails in their gut alive.”

For most of their history, the Ogasawara Islands were uninhabited (also like the Galapagos, where people have lived permanently only the past couple of hundred years, although both sets of islands served as seasonal whaling stations before permanent settlements were established).  Both sets of islands are about the same distance from the mainland and the countries that own them.  Both have been designated by UNESCO as World Heritage sites (the Ogasawara Islands gaining that distinction just recently in June, 2011).  But while Ecuador has, over the past three decades or so, aggressively promoted organized tourism in the Galapagos, with tourist ships becoming so frequent as to almost inundate and overwhelm the delicate ecology of the central islands, the Ogasawara Group is still relatively untouched by tourism, and what tourism there is seems very small-scale, probably due to the length of time it takes to get there and the arduous nature of the journey.  Only 2,400 people live there, most of them on the main island of Chichi-jima, and only about 450 on Haha-jima.  Although the archipelago consists of more than 30 islands, and even more islets, only those two are inhabited. 

The archipelago’s original name, the Bonin Islands, is a corruption of Bunin-jima, or “uninhabited islands.”  Stone-age tools found on the islands seem to indicate that the islands were inhabited in ancient times but when the islands were discovered by a Spanish explorer in 1543, and by the Japanese in 1670, they were uninhabited.  Some Americans, Hawaiians, and Europeans formed the first permanent settlement here in the 1830’s.  The islands have at various times been under the jurisdiction of the Japanese, the British Empire, and the United States.  Because the islands’ original settlers were mainly Americans and British, a pidgin or creole language developed on the islands, still spoken today, that is a combination of English and Japanese, called Bonin Islands language.  The U.S. operated a naval facility on the islands until 1968, when the islands reverted to Japan. 
Another island in the Ogasawara Archipelago is Iwo-jima, which was an infamous battleground during WWII, and much memorialized in the U.S. by the iconic photograph of five American Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the American flag.  The island, only 8 square miles, saw 20,000 of the 21,000 Japanese Imperial troops stationed there killed (or dead from ritual suicide) within the 36 days of the battle, and 6,800 Americans dead.  I can't imagine that level of carnage in such a small space.  The Americans captured the island, including the three airports.  Although the chief of Naval Operations expressed doubts on the wisdom of such ferocious fighting to take Iwo-jima, saying “the expenditure of manpower to acquire a small, God-forsaken island, useless to the Army as a staging base and useless to the Navy as a fleet base ... [one] wonders if the same sort of airbase could not have been reached by acquiring other strategic localities at lower cost,” his statements were meant to obscure the real need for the island by the U.S. – to serve as a staging area and emergency landing site for the atomic bombs intended to be dropped on the main Japanese islands shortly thereafter.  Now the island is uninhabited except for a Japanese military base, and civilian access is restricted to those veterans and their families from both sides attending memorial services to honor the war dead. 

The "Fake Map" Part of the Story

One of the “fake” maps based on that by Shimaya Ichizaemon (Tanaka Archives).
 And, of course, there is a map story that figures into the history of the Ogasawara Islands.  Even more interestingly, it is a “fake” map story.  The Japanese did not “discover” the Ogasawaras until 1670, when a merchant ship was blown off-course and drifted there.  Five years later the islands were officially explored and declared as a Japanese territory, although they were more or less abandoned by the Japanese for the next 180 years.  In 1727, a masterless samurai named Ogasawara Kunai Sadatou made a petition to the feudal government for passage to the islands on the claim that he had an ancestor called Ogasawara Sadayori, who supposedly had discovered the deserted islands in 1593.  Sadatou recorded some baseless fantasies in his Tatsumi Bunin Tou Sojou narabi ni Koujou Tomegaki (“Dictated Petition for the Deserted Islands to the Southeast”), which he submitted to the magistrate’s office, in addition to some fake maps and other falsified documents.  His description of the islands’ dimensions is particularly fanciful, making it appear as though Chichi-jima was as large as Taiwan.  The island’s shapes were also drawn wrong, and he located them incorrectly, placing the position of Chichi Jima “at a point where the North Star is somewhat greater than 32 and one half degrees up from the ground,” which is the wrong latitude altogether.  Additionally, he claimed there was gold dust for the taking, and fur seals swimming in the warm seas around the islands, neither of which is true. 
Judging from the numerous popular articles about the Bonin Islands which appeared after Sadatou’s claim and which apparently draw from a common source, it seems that the “Dictated Petition for the Deserted Islands to the Southeast” and the other falsified documents that Sadatou left behind were later copied and widely circulated.  His petition for passage was initially granted, but eight years later the whole thing was exposed as a lie, and Sadatou was put into exile (although it's hard to imagine a better exile place in those times than the Ogasawara Islands themselves!). 

Mori  Kinsai (1752)  Map of the Ogasawara Islands, alias the Bonin Islands.  (Japanese National Library of Public Documents).  On this map, there is a rather extensive explanation of the history of the islands and the products found there, including the presence of fur seals, which would be unusual if not impossible on a tropical island, but the information closely follows the falsified documents that the masterless samurai Sadatou trumped up 25 years earlier.

The 2 main industries on the islands are fishing and rum production (sugar cane).  Here is a fisherman in an outrigger canoe showing his lure for catching wahoo.  From:

Gastrocopta chichijimana – Chichijima Whorl Snail, now extinct.  Depiction from: ‘G. W. Tryon; H. A. Pilsbry: Manual of Conchology. Second series: Pulmonata, Vol. 24, 1918-1920′

Gastrocopta chichijimana – Chichijima Whorl Snail
“The reasons for the extinction of the Chichijima Whorl Snail and many other native snail species of the island of Chichijima, are quite easy to find.  At about the middle of the 19th century Japanese settlers begun to cultivate the Ogasawara Islands, which were at that time only sparsely populated, mostly by whalers.  During that period, large areas of native vegetation were destroyed and many animal and plant species, both domestic and wild ones, were imported. Later, in the beginning of the 20th century, when the islands where something like Japans biggest agricultural region, Giant East African Snails (Achatina fulica) were introduced as a food resource.  These snails soon were established and – as in all other places, where they have been introduced, became a pest for agriculture. To stop the uncontrolled spreading of the Giant East African Snails, Rosy Wolf Snails (Euglandina rosea) were introduced to the Ogasawara Islands (to Chichijima in the year 1965), a snail species that has adapted to stalk and kill other snail species.
The worst snail killer, the Snail-eating Land Planarian (Platydemus monokwari), however, was introduced to Chichijima in the 1990s. This creature indeed preys on the Giant East African Snails, on young as well as on adult ones, and it even preys on the Rosy Wolf Snails too. But unfortunately the planarian doesn’t make a difference between introduced, invasive species and such that are native or endemic and rare.
This – the destruction of large parts of the native vegetation plus the persecution by introduced predators – are the reasons for the loss of about 70 % of the native or endemic snail species on the island of Chichijima.”

- Takashi Ohbayashi; Isamu Okochi; Hiroki Sato; Tsuyoshi Ono: Food habit of Platydemus manokwari De Beauchamp, 1962 (Tricladida: Terricola: Rhynchodemidae), known as a predatory flatworm of land snails in the Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands, Japan. Entomology and Zoology 40: 609-614. 2005
- Takashi Ohbayashi, Isamu Okochi, Hiroki Sato; Tsuyoshi Ono; Satoshi Chiba: Rapid decline of endemic snails in the Ogasawara Islands, Western Pacific Ocean. Restoring the Oceanic Island Ecosystem, Part 2: 27-33. 2010

Some interesting historical publications about the Ogasawara Islands:

By the Rev. A. F. KING.
This one was written in 1898, about a nurse who came to the Ogasawara Islands from the Caroline Islands, and eventually died in Chichi-jima at 112 years of age. 

This one was written in 1854 about Commodore Perry’s visit to the island, whereby an American colony was established on the island, and Perry himself purchased some land.  

The Bonin Islands
By Russell Robertson, Esq.
Read before the Asiatic Society of Japan on the 15th March, 1876.

For a more contemporary look at Haha-jima, see this blog about a recent trip to the islands. Ringed by coral reefs, it is a scuba-diver's paradise. From:


When I was deciding upon a title for this post, I wanted to convey the geographic, ecological, and evolutionary similarities between the Ogasawara Islands and the Galapagos.  Reference material I had read seemed all to refer to them as the “Galapagos of the Orient,” an appellation I was reluctant to use since “the Orient” as a descriptor has fallen into disrepute as a non-PC term and somewhat pejorative and Euro-centric (and not in a good way!).  Never mind that fact that “Orient” really just means “east” and “to orient oneself” meant to find east and then you would know where you were.  Somehow over the recent years it had taken on unfortunate racial undertones, and calling people “Orientals” was frowned upon as an old-fashioned and insensitive term. 
Then I thought, hmmm, the “Galapagos of Asia”? but that didn’t really capture it either, since by all standards, even though the islands are part of an Asian country, they are really culturally, geographically, geologically, and ecologically part of Oceania.  But the “Galapagos of Oceania” just didn’t have that certain ring to it, besides being of potentially dubious accuracy.  
So I settled on the “Galapagos of the East,” but this brings up another vexing conundrum that has plagued me since graduate school when there was much talk in my theoretical and critical geography classes about “the [global] South,” “the North,” “the East,” and “the West,” none of which was used in the geographically accurate sense, but merely to denote some index of economic development and worldview.  Australia, for instance, was in the global north, Mexico was in “the South,” despite being on the North American continent, and Japan, being a highly developed country, was often considered to be “Western.”  I never understood why we had to use misleading geographical descriptors when we really weren’t talking about geography at all but measurements of economic or technological development, or affluence, or demographic phase, or political influence. And, of course, speaking even strictly geographically, "east" and "west" are relative terms, depending upon your own position. Asia is only "the east" because it is east of the Europeans who coined the term.  

The major island groups of the Pacific Ocean, showing the Galapagos in the eastern portion of the Pacific, and the Ogasawara Archipelago in the western Pacific, just northwest of where the Northern Mariana Islands are indicated on this map.  
     But the real problem for me, vis-á-vis this post title, started when I looked at the geography of the two sets of islands from the perspective of the Pacific Ocean.  The Galapagos, not the Ogasawara Islands, were in the east!  And the Ogasawaras were decidedly in the western part of the ocean.  But “the Galapagos of the Western Pacific” seemed too confusing (and uninteresting), so I stuck with “the Galapagos of the East.”  Please excuse the geographical inaccuracy of the post title. I guess we can think of it as the geographical equivalent of poetic license.
    Oh, and as a coda to my interest in where my blog viewers hail from, today I "captured" viewers from THREE new countries!  This is rare, to get three new countries in one day, especially since there are only a handful of countries remaining "uncaptured." (c'mon, Vatican City, Antarctica, Chad, Tajikistan, and East Timor!)  Three new viewers have appeared, one from Barrigada, GUAM; one from Longdenville, ST. VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES; and one from Ouagadougou, BURKINA FASO.  Wonderful! Have to update my map now!


  1. funny how the island names are grouped by sex. chichi-jima (father island) is with ani-jima (older brother island) and ototo-jima (younger brother island). meanwhile, haha-jima (mother island) is with ane-jima (older sister island) and imoto-jima (younger sister island). i'm looking at some pictures, and this place is incredibly beautiful. group trip!!

  2. Yes, I noticed that division of the sexes, too! Very interesting! I like your idea of the group trip. But only if we could go by private helicopter from Tokyo or someplace even closer. (if there IS any place closer?) I hear the max range on those helicopters is about 600 miles, which would just about get us there without running out of fuel and plunging into the Pacific (we hope!) I'm not so crazy about the idea of 26 hours on a freighter in open ocean. In my last over-nighter on a freighter, we ran into the worst storm (the locals told us) since 1952, and I would never want to relive THAT experience! I never knew a ship could roll and toss in so many disparate directions at once! And the noises! It sounded like the ship was going to break in two! Oh, no, I'll take the air over the seas ANY DAY!

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