Yaeyama Trip 2018

On August 28-30 2018, I was lucky enough to visit the islands of Ishigaki and Hateruma in Okinawa. These two islands are part of the southernmost group of islands in the prefecture, collectively known as the Yaeyamas.

Tojin-baka, a memorial to shipwrecked Chinese from Amoy shipwrecked and later slaughtered on Ishigaki in 1852. The memorial was first constructed in 1971 and renewed in 1992.

The trip formed part of a project being conducted by a six-member group led by Professor Koji Furukawa, of Chukyo University, which was looking to undertake “Comparative border research on island countries and regions of the Asia-Pacific: the Yaeyamas and Palau”. This research was funded for the years 2018-2019 by a Ryukyu University Research Institute for Islands and Sustainability (RIIS) Research Grant. Within the project, I was granted responsibility for examining notions of War Memory and Heritage, which allowed for me to examine these areas through the lens provided by the concept of Borders of Memory.

Peace Memorial at Japan’s Southernmost point, on Hateruma Island.

However, my interest in these marginal spaces of the nation is not limited to their material capture in heritage memorials, and also includes how such spaces operate and exist within the national imagination today. This is particularly through examining infrastructure, the various means through which island spaces are tied into the state’s national body, whether through (mothballed) airports or something as banal as manhole covers.

Manhole cover on Hateruma, ‘Japan’s Southernmost point where the Southern Cross glitters’.

The existence of this island of Hateruma as the edge of the nation comes also to be tied into more global questions, as the island hosts a key institution of Japan’s Center for Global Environmental Research, monitoring environmental change, particularly changes in greenhouse gas concentrations, from this remote corner of the nation (see on this
http://db.cger.nies.go.jp/gem/en/warm/Ground/st01.html).

Hateruma Global Environment Monitoring Station

Cross-cutting borders

Particularly interesting is the way in which the spatially- and temporally-distinct ways in which these islands relate to the national and prefectural stories that they reference in their heritage. One aspect of this is the invocation of Hateruma as Japan’s southernmost point, a claim which obviously ignores not only the prefecture’s forceful incorporation in 1879, but the 35 years of American military rule after 1945. The ending of the latter is celebrated in a number of monument’s at the island’s southern point, most notably in the serpentine sculpture that ties stones from all of Japan’s prefectures to Hateruma’s soil.

Reversion Monument, Hateruma

The Yaeyamas are also distinguished by their memory of the War itself. The cataclysmic carnage of Okinawa’s experience is well-known, but the Yaeyama tragedy was distinct, with the forced removal of the island group’s population to malaria-infested areas and subsequent deaths of many of them. This is commemorated in the small Peace Museum in Ishigaki, latterly run as a branch museum of the main institution on Okinawa itself, as well as at a relatively new monument in Banna Park on Ishigaki Island.

Memorial to the Victims of Malaria, Banna Park, Ishigaki Island

Conveniently reflecting the ambiguity of notions of Japan in thinking about the Yaeyamas, a few weeks before our visit had seen an incident of vandalism occur at yet another monument at the southernmost point of Hateruma Island, with the scars still clearly visible on its flag. This conveniently captures the complex and contradictory ways in which the nation, and the island’s place in them, comes to be memorialized in the present.

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