Kagoshima: Amami Islanders Retrace Historic Dramatic Journey

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Volunteers from Amami Oshima, Kagoshima Prefecture, complete a seven-day journey from Toshima on Takarajima to Iso Beach in Kagoshima City on July 27.

KAGOSHIMA — Volunteers from Amami Oshima Island paddled the route taken by predecessors who made a secret voyage to Kagoshima nearly 70 years ago to appeal to U.S. occupation forces for the return of the Amami Islands to Japan.

In 1951, when the islands were still under U.S. control, the islanders formed a group to petition for the return to Japan and risked their lives by sailing to Kyushu.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Amami Islands’ return this year, volunteers followed the same route using an outrigger canoe last month.

During the occupation, travel to Honshu and other parts of Japan required a passport issued by U.S. forces for official purposes only, so the islanders had to stow away to reach the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers (GHQ).

The islanders first headed north to Kuchinoshima Island, which is part of the Tokara Islands and was considered a border island. After suffering engine trouble and sailing adrift, the boat finally made it to Kagoshima City.

Immediately upon landing, police arrested them on suspicion of being stowaways. Eventually, however, they were able to get to Tokyo to appeal for the islands’ return to Japan.

Starting on July 21, the volunteer group traveled the 300-kilometer route from Takarajima, a southern island of the Tokara Islands, to Kagoshima City, taking seven days. Using only paddles, the group crossed the 30-degree north latitude line, which was once considered the national border.

Yuinchu Project, a volunteer group in Amami, organized the voyage.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An outrigger canoe used during the journey

Sixteen men and women in their 20s to 60s took turns paddling the 13-meter, six-person outrigger canoe after leaving Takarajima. A sightseeing boat accompanied the group and helped them with changing paddlers and managing safety. They faced some issues along the way, including being capsized and having low visibility due to bad weather. After stopping at several islands, including Akusekijima and Kuchinoshima, along the way, the volunteers finally reached their destination of Iso Beach in Kagoshima on the evening of July 27.

“We were able to overcome some rough weather with the support of many people,” said the project leader Shun Shirahata, 38. “We hope to pass on the spirit of the journey and the hardships our predecessors had to go through to the next generation.”

He said he would like to publicize the story on social media and give talks about the subject.

Lives on the line

The Tokara Islands, Amami Islands and Okinawa, which are all located below 30 degrees north latitude, were separated from Japan by the GHQ and were placed under U.S. control in February 1946, six months after the end of World War II.

Six years later, in February 1952, the islands above 29 degrees north latitude were returned, leading to the Tokara Islands reverting to Japan.

However, the Amami Islands and Okinawa remained under U.S. control even after the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect on April 28 of that year and restored sovereignty to the Japanese government.

On the Amami Islands, the campaign to return to Japan started early. In February 1951, before the Tokara Islands were returned to Japan, youth groups, teachers, women’s associations and others formed a council calling for the reversion to Japan, and a signature campaign was launched to demand the islands’ return.

For two months, village leaders went door to door and visited schools and collected signatures from about 140,000 residents, or 99.8% of the islands’ population ages 14 and older.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Some of the about 140,000 signatures that were collected from residents of the Amami Islands in 1951.

A delegation to present the petition to the GHQ and other authorities was formed in August of that year.

According to a magazine published by the city of Naze, present-day Amami City, the members were selected from the five islands of the Amami Islands. The group, comprising 11 men in their 20s, 30s and 40s, risked their lives to achieve their goal.

The Amami Islands were returned to Japan on Dec. 25, 1953. Okinawa would not be returned until May 15, 1972, nearly two decades later.

Amami Islands

The Amami Islands are located in the East China Sea spreading about 370 to 560 kilometers southwest of Kagoshima City. The island chain is made up of eight inhabited islands, including Amami Oshima, Kikaijima, Tokunoshima, Okinoerabu and Yoron.

The islands’ main industries are agriculture — mainly sugarcane cultivation — and fishing. Oshima Tsumugi, a traditional splash-patterned silk cloth, is also famous.