Japanese modernization, beginning in the 1860s, sparked greater interest in the islands. Japanese settlers arrived in 1862, built a Shinto shrine and left before returning for good in 1876. They informed the bemused residents that the territory was now Japan but that they were free to stay and become Japanese.
The rising Japanese population prompted Westerners to consider their own identity. They avoided marrying the new arrivals, tried to safeguard their language and culture, and even built a church after shunning religion for decades, says Daniel Long, associate professor of linguistics at Tokyo Metropolitan University.
Chichi Jima was evacuated after World War II. But in 1946, the Americans let 120 Westerners return to the islands, by then a U.S. protectorate. The United States was reportedly swayed by the Westerners' foreign appearance, as well as by the mistreatment they had suffered. It would be 23 years before Japanese residents were allowed back.
Life in the interim was relaxed, and English became the predominant language again, although a series of caves near the port remained under constant guard by machine-gun-toting Marines. Westerners would jokingly call mysterious lead-encased containers they saw obake, or ghosts.
"We were all a bit suspicious," recalled Rance Ohira, or Rance Washington, 52, owner of the Yankee Town bar.
In 1968, the Ogasawara Islands were returned to Japan, sparking the occasional land dispute between Westerners and returning Japanese. The U.S. government allowed Westerners for a limited time to choose their nationality. A large number stayed, however, viewing the island as home no matter who controlled it.
Today, most Westerners find themselves in an increasingly Japanese world. Minority languages and cultures around the world are under pressure from their mainstream counterparts. "But this is probably the only place where the endangered indigenous language turns out to be English," says Long, the professor. "The irony is incredible."
Mark Magnier is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.