Takashi Jonathan Sebore at his ancestor’s grave in the old cemetery of the Omura on the island of Chichijima on the Ogasawara Archipelago. © 2016 Stefano De Luigi / VII

Ogasawara, the Mother Islands: An Uncounted Story of the American-Japanese Community in the Subtropical Seas

Photos by Stefano De Luigi and story by Alissa Descotes-Toyosaki

Isolated 1,000 km south of Tokyo in the Pacific Ocean, the archipelago of Ogasawara welcomes rare visitors who must travel over 25 hours by ferry. Without air connection, the former Bonin Islands, under the administration of the prefecture of Tokyo and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, present a unique ecosystem: whales, dolphins, huge squid and some 400 endemic species were able to be protected thanks to the geographical estrangement and the very low population. In November 2013, a new island, Nishinoshima, 130 km west of the main island of Chichijima, appeared after a volcanic eruption. The island did not stop getting bigger and drew the attention of biologists throughout the world as a study of the genesis of the ecosystems.

Link to the entire set of images in the VII Archive

A view of Tatsumi bay on the Ogasawara Archipelago from the Tennourayama mountain. ©2016 Stefano De Luigi / VII
Louis Webb, 5th generation Obekei, in the “Bouga” bar on the island of Chichijima. Archipelago of Ogasawara. ©2016 Stefano De Luigi / VII

Today, only two of the 103 islands are inhabited by approximately 2,300 Japanese and half-blood — the “Obeikei” or American-Japanese. Indeed, the Bonin Islands were the greatest colony of whalers from New England and Hawaii in the 19th century. The blood mixture between Westerners, Africans, and Asians for almost two centuries has given birth to a unique community on this island, in which culture, identity, and history is still alive. During World War II, 7,000 islanders were forced to evacuate Ogasawara.

The remains of a Japanese army freighter ship that sank in the bay of Sakura in 1944 after being hit by the airplanes of the American army. It had been traveling from Saipan to Chichijima to supply the soldiers of the Japanese army controlling the island. Chichijima. Ogasawara Archipelago. ©2016 Stefano De Luigi / VII

Living in exile, Obeikei people experienced the traumas of war through their double American-Japanese identity. Occupied by the US Navy, Ogasawara was officially returned to Japan in 1968. Only 129 Obeikei were authorized to return in 1946 and live under the US jurisdiction, whereas thousands of Japanese nationals couldn’t return home for 23 years. In the case of Iwo Jima, the 1,000 inhabitants could never return to their island after the war. Today, the “Sulfur Island” is occupied by Japanese self-defense forces, and former inhabitants, living in exile in Chichijima or Hahajima. They long for the annual journey there to mourn their ancestors and lost villages. It is the only time they are authorized to land on Iwo Jima.

Edith Washington, Rance Washington and his son Rocky Washington, three generations of Obekei, in front of their home in Chichijima. Ogasawara Archipelago. ©2016 Stefano De Luigi / VII

As the pre-war generation of Obeikei and former Japanese inhabitants, at around 90 years of age, slowly disappear, it could be the last chance to witness the testimony of their unique history and identity, both deeply anchored in American and Japanese roots. A fantastic saga, from the fierce whalers’ ancestors to the whale watching sons, from the rum-drunken pirates to the fishermen, and the war-sacrificed farmers still longing for their homeland of Iwo Jima.

An Obekei dinner party at Earl Gilley’s home in Chichijima island. Ogasawara Archipelago. Japan. April 2016.