Island paradise, Japanese style Tropics: On a remote Pacific archipelago, Japan is spending heavily to tame nature and create a resort.

Sun Journal

November 20, 1998|By Hilary Hinds Kitasei | Hilary Hinds Kitasei,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

OGASAWARA, Japan -- So remote is this Pacific archipelago that for hundreds of years its only visitors were blown here off course.

No great maritime power of the last century deemed the islands, also known as the Bonins, consequential enough to be worth the burden of sovereignty for long.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur skipped them as he leapfrogged across the Pacific Ocean, and the United States had second thoughts about keeping them after World War II.

They are inconvenient to Japanese mapmakers, too. In order to include Ogasawara with the rest of Japan, 600 miles to the west, they have to show Japan almost horizontal, or zoom out so far that half of China squeezes into the picture.

In short, Ogasawara is just the kind of place that would lure someone hoping to get away from it all.

Which is why 1,000 people have lined up at the Port of Tokyo on a Tuesday morning to board the one ferry that makes the trip each week.

This is typhoon season, so there's a chance the passengers may returned early, possibly turning back even before they lay eyes on their destination.

Jun Mori takes his numbered ticket and goes in search of his assignment down in the hold. He finds it among a sea of blankets placed elbow-to-elbow and head-to-toe, each with a brick pillow and a tin bowl to retch into.

C-287 is where he will spend most of the next 28 hours alternately sitting in a zen position and curled in fetal position.

There are only eight chairs to rearrange up on deck.

"We could have flown to Hawaii for less," Mori reminds his female companion, who like many is loaded with diving gear.

But to the Japanese, Ogasawara is nearly as exotic. Long before they were permitted by their government to go there, it had been settled by Westerners as a way station for whaling ships en route to China.

After 1868, the new Meiji government, eager to acquire the status of empire, claimed the islands. The United States didn't hesitate to hand them over.

The indigenous Caucasian population became Japanese citizens.

During World War II they were evacuated, along with the ethnic Japanese residents, to Tokyo for safety.

The United States had no intention of returning Ogasawara to Japan after the war, according to declassified Occupation documents. It permitted only the minority of former islanders who could prove Caucasian descent to return to their homes.

The plan was for Ogasawara to become a United Nations trusteeship under American control.

By the time the United States was ready to sign a peace treaty with Japan in 1951, however, it was looking for ways to contain rising Japanese nationalism and a nascent leftist movement.

It agreed to return Ogasawara to Japan at some future time when the islands no longer served a security purpose. That point came in 1968.

But looking for gaijin ("round eyes") in Ogasawara today is like looking for New York's Little Italy, all but overwhelmed by Chinatown.

Japan's centralized education has no provision for bilingualism. Within a generation English disappeared. And, thanks to the magic of bleach, young Japanese today are more likely to be blond than the Caucasians.

On the ferry trip over, after seeing nothing but water the first day of the voyage, expectant passengers stumble up to the deck the next morning only to see more of it. It is 6 1/2 miles down to the floor of the Japan Trench.

But sometime in the night, the jetsam has disappeared and the purple-gray color has changed to shimmering aquamarine. The sky is Windows '95-perfect.

Under the scorching noon sunshine, the boat pulls into Futami Harbor and disgorges its thousand passengers among the native population of 2,000.

Ogasawara shares many of the characteristics of subtropical island paradises -- coral reefs, swaying palms, cavorting dolphins and even enough sea turtles to be featured on local menus.

It has shipwrecks -- Japanese battleships torpedoed by Allied subs. And it has catacombs dug out by Japanese to hide from such Americans as future President George Bush (it was artillerymen on Ogasawara who forced down his plane).

But islands are also colored by their colonizers.

As Macau, Hong Kong and Hawaii each reflect paradise as imagined by 17th-century Portugal, Victorian England and postwar America, Ogasawara is paradise centrally planned and engineered as only Japan can do it.

Japan likes to spend money on public works. Nearly every river has been dammed and covered over, every swamp drained, every roadside mountain banked by retaining walls.

For a government running out of projects, Ogasawara was the answer to a prayer.

Hoping to help kick-start the mainland Japanese economy, the government will spend $540 million to build an airport on Ogasawara. The project involves blowing off the top of a volcanic peak to make a mile-long runway to accommodate small jets.

Pedestrian tunnels have been blasted through volcanic rock. A juncture of two of the few roads on the island boasts an intersection large enough for a tractor-trailer to make a full circle.

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