Notes From: Okinoerabu, Japan 沖永良部 日本
Have you ever wondered what life would be like on a small island in the Pacific? An island so small and so sparsely populated that most people, including Japanese, have never heard of it. An island where the major town only has three stop lights. An island so remote that the nearest city (Naha) is seven hours away by boat. An island that probably has more goats than people. An island where foreigners are treated like celebrities? Well, I am living on such an island. In the following paragraphs, I am going to do my best to describe my experiences, observations, and conversations with locals on life in Okinoerabujima.
Okinoerabu island measures 58 miles in total area and has a population of around 15,000. The current population is half of what it used to be fifty years ago. The island is split between two main towns — Wadomari and China-cho. The economy of the island relies heavily on agriculture with its main exports being sugarcane, potatoes, and flowers. Okinoerabu is located in between Taiwan and the southern mainland Japanese island of Kyushu. More specifically, Okinoerabu is north of Okinawa island and south of Amami island in the East China Sea.
This tiny cluster of islands is collectively known as the northern Ryukyu Islands. Officially, Okinoerabu is a part of Kagoshima Prefecture which stretches down from the southern part of mainland Japan (Kyushu) to tiny the Yoron island. Unofficially, the rich language and customs of Okinoerabu are very much a part of the Okinawan culture or Okinawa Prefecture. The local Okinoerabu dialect is a part of the Amami — Okinawa language family. The island’s elders still speak the native dialect Hogen, to this day.
Okinoerabu is literally out of the way and off the map. The island does not have any flashy resorts or swanky hotels. The only major tourist attractions are the little-publicized diving, caving, and sightseeing tours. Besides those little-known attractions, Okinoerabu styles itself as a workers island. The island is a true blue collar type of place where workers are seen doing manual labor day in and day out. Most of the people on the island live close to nature by tilling the soil or plying its beautiful turquoise oceans. Islanders come home after years of working on the mainland for the stunning ruff and rugged natural scenery. Those who return say they heard the call of the ‘Roots Island.’ Locals usually leave for a time, but some return even at the cost of a marriage or work.
To the locals who never left or those who returned, Okinoerabu is a paradise free from the hustle and bustle of modern Japan. Time seems to have stood still in Okinoerabu. While Japan has grown into the world’s third-largest economy, Okinoerabu has managed to keep things small and simple.
People have a different take on life in the islands. The locals never lock their cars or houses. The mailman still delivers packages by opening the door and putting the box inside the house if no one is home. In the morning, neighborhood announcements are broadcast over the loudspeakers. Children still walk to school in their uniforms. Neighbors treat each other like family. People bring food to each other’s homes if someone is working late. Everyone plays a role, no matter how small or large in the island community. Life on the island takes on greater significance because of the small community. In essence, everyone is important and an integral part of the island’s life and makeup.
Of course, there are two sides to every coin. Not everyone views the island life as a bed of roses. To those who left, life on the island is a life filled with long work hours for little pay. If you have ever worked on a farm, then you know how demanding the work can be. The younger generation has fled the island for mainland Japan to attend high school and work. Unfortunately, this steady exodus means the slack is picked up by those who chose to stay. This often means working three jobs or more.
My wife’s uncle is a farmer, bus driver for the local hotel (Floral Hotel), and maintenance worker. He wakes up at 5:30 am every day to either go to the fields and then work or do some other odd job that needs attention. He even gets up early on his only day off to work the fields in his old Ford tractor. To cope with the constant stress of regular twelve hour days, locals also drink hard. Locals spend their leisure time at snack bars, pachinko parlors (slot machines), and karaoke style bars. The image of the hard working Marlboro Man who drinks whiskey and gambles every day is very much alive and well on this island.
The macho Marlboro Man image harks back to when the islands were first introduced to America. Okinoerabu was once home to the 623rd United States Air Force. America set up bases all around the Ryukyu islands after WWII. Some of the fiercest fighting during WWII happened in the Battle Of Okinawa. The Peace Memorial Museum of Okinawa is a moving experience and I highly recommend it.
The civilians who were caught in the middle of a gruesome battle paid the highest price. This was consistent all around Japan during WWII. I have heard first-hand accounts of some of the horrors that people went through. My wife’s Auntie recounted how her Okinoerabu school was bombed by American forces during WWII. Once the war broke out, her family became poor and had to leave at a young age to find work in Kobe and then later Okinawa. Cape Tamina in Okinoerabu is considered haunted by the scores of islanders who committed suicide by jumping off its high cliffs to avoid the impending war. I also know and surfed at a spot in Okinawa called suicide cliffs. From what I could see, the scars of WWII are still very fresh.
Okinoerabu still has a functioning military base equipped with radar and has weather monitoring capabilities. Okinoerabu’s military base was handed over to Japan in the early sixties. Whereas Okinawa is still heavily fortified with American bases. These American bases provide economic support to the southern islands, which are some of the poorest areas of Japan. These islands rely on these bases to help the local economy. Unfortunately, the presence of these American bases is usually a double edge sword. American bases bring revenue, but at a cost of partial foreign occupation.
As for my personal views on life in Okinoerabu, living there was an experience of a lifetime. I have never felt so loved. The locals are so nice that they made me instantly feel at home. I felt like I was a part of the society fabric. Being from the major city of Miami, island life was amazing in contrast. The friends I made during my time there will be friends for life. I like to think it is my second home.
I have so many fond memories. Like surfing head high typhoon swell all by myself in crystal clear water. Family dinners with my wife’s extended family. Spearfishing with my late friend who was like a father to me. Every minute of it was a unique experience that I will carry with me till the end of my days. I learned to treasure the people in my life and the experiences I create. At the end of the day, this is what matters most in the world.
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