The Ogasawara Islands: From “Tokyo’s Largest Natural Green House” to the “Galapagos of the Orient”

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For the past five years, I have been researching the environmental history of the Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands, a group of subtropical oceanic islands located approximately 1000 km south of central Tokyo. Like many oceanic islands in the Pacific, the Ogasawara Islands today are valued for its white sandy beaches, moderate climate, and “biodiversity.” It is this last category that has been promoted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government since the early-2000s. Branded as Japan’s “Galapagos of the Orient,” the islands have been included in Japan’s growing list of UNESCO World Heritage sites since 2002.

This campaign hasn’t been successful. One of the things that is keeping the islands from making the grade is that endemic species of flora and fauna that the claim for inclusion is largely based on have a lot of company. For some time, the islands have been host to a substantial resident population of invasive species that were introduced to the islands in the over its nearly two hundred years of settlement. The islands are home to substantial populations of feral goats (Capra hircus), cats (Felis catus), anoles (Anolis carolinensis), and, my favorite, being a UCSC Banana Slug, giant African snails (Achatina fulica).

Many of these non-naturalized residents date back to 1830, when former whalers and Pacific Islanders settled the uninhabited Ogasawara Islands to profit from the whaling activity in in the “Japan Ground.” Others, like the giant African snails, were introduced through large-scale cultivation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when large amounts of flora and fauna were introduced to the islands through successive waves of Japanese settlement and government-initiated projects to render the islands profitable. From the Ogasawara Islands’ incorporation into the political boundaries of Japan in 1875, government officials and small-plot farmers established an agro-economy in the Ogasawara Islands, producing marketable and refined crops of fruits and vegetables which were sold in metropolitan markets in the Japanese empire. By the 1920s, the settlers produced enough cultivated space on the islands to earn the Ogasawara Islands the label of “Tokyo’s largest natural greenhouse.” The human and nonhuman traces left over from nearly 200 years of human occupation are enough to give the people at UNESCO pause.

One of the historical problematic that drives my research on the islands is how the Ogasawara Islands have been transformed materially and imaginatively from “Tokyo’s largest natural greenhouse” to “the Galapagos of the Orient.” This process wasn’t alway anthropogenic. In fact, much of the re-branding of the cultivated pasts of the Ogasawara Islands were undone, and the figuring of the islands as the “Galapagos of the Orient” was enabled, by the nearly unrestrained growth of invasive and endemic species that flourished during the nearly fifty years of absence of cultivators and scientific work from the island landscape during a period of intense militarization by the Japanese and American militaries between 1921 and 1968.

When I first started studying the Ogasawara Islands, I naively assumed that their small size would allow me bound my research project within a neat, manageable framework. I was wrong.

Despite their size and their distance from any metropolitan center, the Ogasawara Islands are an excellent example of how routed islands are to national and global histories of biotic exchange. From the late-nineteenth century, the expansion of intensive commercial agriculture and forestry on the Ogasawara Islands was dependent on global connections that were routed through the inter-colonial transfers of agroscience. In contrast to older patterns of biological exchanges, that may have been less planned, the types of exchanges that took place on the Ogasawara Islands were similar to other organized techno-scientific projects that were centrally planned and produced through intensive labor in the context of colonialism. Examining the making of the Ogasawara Islands as a space entangled in a colonized Pacific allows the landscape, along with structures of domination and exploitation that went into its production, to be understood as part of a much larger inter-colonial process that happened in the Pacific.

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