CHICHI JIMA, Japan - This remote scythe-shaped island appears small and insignificant from the deck of a ferry. Visitors stagger down the gangplank after the 25-hour trip from Tokyo to find palm trees and white-sand beaches reminiscent of countless other specks of paradise dotting the Pacific.
A closer look at Chichi Jima's residents, however, reveals something a bit incongruous. Among the local Japanese citizens shopping on the sleepy main street or waiting at one of the two stoplights are many with distinctly European features. They sport Japanese variations of such names as Washington, Gonzalez and Savory and use language laced with the occasional English, Polynesian and Melanesian word.
These foreign-looking citizens, numbering fewer than 200, are descendants of beached sailors, swashbucklers and ne'er-do-wells who settled here decades ahead of the Japanese; their rich legacy befits the island's strategic location on 19th-century whaling routes at Japan's edge.
Along with the beer cans, mail sacks and packaged noodles arriving every few days from Tokyo, however, are powerful currents that in recent years have threatened this unique corner of Japan: the introduction a decade ago of television; growing intermarriage with mainland Japanese; the gradual dying off of the older generation; and the exodus of youngsters for better jobs and brighter lights.
"I'm just trying to teach my children our customs before it's too late," says Abel Savory, 73, the great-grandson of original 1830 settler Nathaniel Savory.
Today the "Westerners" - as descendants of the original settlers call themselves, despite being a mix of European, Polynesian, Melanesian and Azorean stocks - are increasingly integrated into mainstream Japanese society. Where they once lived in distinct neighborhoods, their homes are now sprinkled throughout the island's modest residential district. One of the few visible reminders of the past is the Yankee Town bar near an area that once housed a Westerners neighborhood of the same name.
For decades, the Westerners spoke a mix of English, Japanese and Polynesian. Today, Japanese is the only language used by almost everyone under 40. And while the old-timers converse in the local patois among themselves, they're under strong pressure to speak standard Japanese, particularly when outsiders are nearby.
A few Westerners have managed to keep a link to their seaborne past by, for instance, operating sightseeing boats for tourists. But the outrigger canoes once used extensively by local fishermen have all but disappeared, and the vast majority of residents live off state pensions, government jobs or the tourist trade.
During peak periods, including the New Year's holiday, the island's population of about 2,000 temporarily doubles, with many visitors sleeping on the ships that brought them in hopes of viewing the year's first sunrise. Most of the tourists see few traces of the island's rich history. They view Chichi Jima, the main island in the Ogasawara chain, as little more than a nice place for diving, kayaking and forgetting the stress of Tokyo for a few days.
Over the years, visitors to the Ogasawara Islands, known in the West as the Bonin Islands, have included the famous and infamous. Commodore Matthew Perry and author Jack London spent time on Chichi Jima. In 1944, former President George Bush, then a 20-year-old Navy pilot, was shot down offshore and then rescued by an American submarine.
The island during the past 172 years has also seen feuds, family infighting, murder and wartime casualties disproportionate to its 3-by-5-mile area.
Divisions appeared early as a ragtag group made up of two Americans, three Europeans and about 20 Pacific islanders landed in June 1830 from Honolulu with some vague idea of creating a British outpost.
They found fresh water, decent land and good fishing on the previously deserted island and soon prospered as whaling ships stopped for fresh water and trade. Drifters, mutineers and deserters came and went, revenge and justice were often synonymous, and murder was relatively common.
Without Western women, the men acquired or kidnapped wives from neighboring islands. The 1836 log of a passing ship speaks of white men with "one or two wives," widespread infidelity and infanticide practiced by women uninterested in motherhood.
Undefended Chichi Jima was an easy target for pirates. Commodore Perry, famous for forcing open Japanese trade at the barrel of a gun, arrived in 1853 aboard the Saratoga and bought a plot of land for $50 from Nathaniel Savory, an American. The parcel was the first Far East territory to come under U.S. control. Washington, however, failed to embrace Perry's dream of a coaling station and missionary base at the site.
Inward-looking Japan, meanwhile, roughly 600 miles to the northwest, had known of the islands for centuries. They got their name from rogue samurai Sadato Ogasawara, who in 1727 falsely claimed that his ancestors had discovered them.