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Island Hopping


If you want to stock up on cans of corned beef hash, I recommend a jaunt to Ishigaki-jima — one of the Yaeyama islands at the bottom of the Ryukyuan chain. Vegetarians may enjoy a brown sugar/brown rice drink called Miki, which is a meal in itself. For those with less discriminating and ethical tastes, a large mug of root beer and a bacon cheeseburger are always available at A&W’s fast food chain. (A&W has a fast-food chain?)

For years I have heard Japanese people obsess over the beauty and splendour [sic] of the “Southern Countries” (南国), but hailing from Florida, I had never been especially motivated to dedicate my few spare yen on a “semi-tropical” version of the country I already live in. 30,000 frequent flier miles later, however, costs for such an operation dropped to near zero, and I found myself on a Friday afternoon 747 (!) headed towards Naha.

As suggested above, the most obvious cultural delineations between Japan and its semi-colony are culinary. Even while waiting for our connecting flight at Naha airport, we quickly ran to the gift shops to indulge in Blue Seal ice cream bars and Shikuwasa juices. Although tempting at the time, we would not eat “authentic” “taco rice” until days later. The frequent use of goya bitter melon in dishes may be a natural choice from local agricultural conditions, but Okinawan cooking seems to have reached its defining moment the day American canned meats fell out of the sky in food drops. Like Hawaiians, the Okinawans love Spam. And oddly, even without U.S. military bases, Ishigaki still treats all these clearly-ration-derived cuisines as part of its local color.

On the way up to Kabira Bay at the north side of the island, where pelican-sized bats fly overhead at night in B-52 pattern formations, the taxi driver mumbled to us that he had once lived in Tokyo but found it “too cold.” Those are not usually the first adverb and adjective I use when describing my megalopolitan home, but temperature tolerance is relative. Mid-October in Ishigaki is perfect beach weather, so summer must be intolerable for us igloo dwellers of Edo.

Ishigaki’s beaches are nice and all, but the island’s buildings appear to have been built in a single coordinated effort, sometime deep in the 70s, by Mies van der Rohe’s third-worst student. Lots of geometric, semi-Modernist concrete structures that do not even begin to integrate into the otherwise “beachy” scenery. None of these houses and buildings have been touched since their initial construction, so the entire island feels a bit like the rotting remnants of the Dharma Initiative — without all the Casimir Effect mysteries.

A ten-minute boat ride, however, takes you to idyllic Taketomi-jima. This island is only 9 km in circumference and home to around 350 people. Although the beaches are relatively pleasant, the real draw is the preserved Okinawan village at the center. All of the houses have red roofs protected by Shiisaa lion/dogs. Coral walls mark off properties, and scores of stray kittens play in trees. Water buffalo — not native to Okinawa nor Japan — pull carts of tourists and guides who sing local songs on the Sanshin and explain the village history.

Although there are many day-trippers, the village becomes an almost perfect resort spot at night: a remote location, splendid architectural coordination, nearby beaches accessible by bike, few cars, healthy local foods, and a night canopy of stars . Apparently, Taketomi-jima is moments away from being accepted as a World Heritage Site. (UNESCO said, “Lose the visible power lines and we’ll talk.”) The island is living history without being as Playmobil as Colonial Williamsburg.

The real lesson, however, is that Taketomi’s success-through-tradition did not happen by accident. The island has strict rules about property ownership, thus stopping any outside parties from coming in and taking advantage of the location for more obvious commercial aims. Also, the government (unclear if prefectural or national) gives financial assistance to homebuilders who use the classic red roofs, standard styles, and Shiisaa. These legal directives make the conservation a much easier choice. Obviously, the more the island resembles a cleaner version of historical Okinawa, the more tourism increases. Everyone may understand this macro goal, but without micro-economic incentives, I doubt that individuals would take on the financial burden of working within the strict architectural rules — especially when every developer in Japan would love to sell you the ugliest, cheapest windowless concrete box that’s all the rage among Tokyo’s New Rich.

Ultimately, Ishigaki and Taketomi lay out alternate scenarios for Japan’s future. Ever since World War II, there has been a “Japan = tiny Pacific island” self-marketing message: “War? Empire? We are just a small island nation of poor, peaceful farmers.” Now that the economy has long passed the recovery point, Japan can either let global capitalism further take over the empty shell where national directive once ruled, or the “small island country” can forget the economic rat-race and reinvent itself as self-sustaining, eco-friendly, and culture-rich — like a larger version of Taketomi. Doing absolutely nothing will lead to Japan being a larger version of Ishigaki-jima — once-impressive, concrete modernist development slipping into oblivion (as already seen in such locales as Chiba and Gunma). Thanks to the self-hating tastes of the first-world traveling class, the tourist industry demands a “pure” third-world — one without the abandoned, rusting accouterments from the first-world that are a big part of the third-world’s real landscape. Unfortunately, however, getting the third-world back to its more pleasant pre-modern state will takes modernist government initiatives and technocratic economic incentives. It takes modern science to heal the bullet wound.

W. David MARX
November 5, 2007

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

15 Responses

  1. laotree Says:

    “A&W has a fast-food chain?”
    There are a lot in California apparently. I was only made aware by a Dead Kennedys song.
    I preferred JEF (Japan Excellent Foods) when I was in Okinawa; the goya burger (more like a goya omelet on a bun) was heavenly, but I guess you could make it yourself.
    Props for using Playmobil as an adjective!

  2. Matt Says:

    “Okinawan cooking seems to have reached its defining moment the day American canned meats fell out of the sky in food drops.”

    Come on, now. Don’t tell me you missed out on “sooki soba,” “umi no budou,” “tofu-yo,” “buta no mimi,” or any of the dozens of other really amazing native dishes that don’t involve canned meat (and preferably washed down with some “kusu,” single-malt awamori)? I always find the culinary choices one of the more enjoyable aspects of my visits to the Ryukyu islands.

    I suspect dollhouse-like Taketomi island is as exotic to Okinawans as it is to foreigners (and by “foreigners” I include mainland Japanese as well.) Hatoma-jima, off the coast of Iriomote-jima is much the same, only more isolated. I suspect the regulations that created these virtual (if entirely pleasant) realities are what Alex Kerr had in mind when he bemoaned the lack of urban planning in Kyoto in _Dogs and Demons_.

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    Thanks for mentioning the other specialties, because yes, there are lots of other things. I just tended to notice the canned meat thing.

    Also, awamori on the rocks is great.

    Too bad Kerr ended up demonizing all of his salient points, since Japan should probably would prosper from getting on the urban/rural planning boat.

  4. Overthinker Says:

    I think it’s a bit harsh to say Japan lacks urban planning rules – even though if, like Kerr, you don’t agree with how they are carried out. It would be more fair to say that in general, and until recently, it has lacked much of a sense of urban preservation laws: such preservation laws as did exist tended towards the piecemeal: temples or old buildings being marked as Important Cultural Properties etc. Machinami zonal preservation ideas do have a history of several decades, but that was too late for much of Japan. Some notable success stories include Tsumago, on the old Kiso road (the Nakasendo), which has similarly-draconian regulations on property buying and selling.

    However I am not sure I understand the thrust of your last few paragraphs. Do you mean that, short of becoming even more ‘capitalist’, Japan (who?) should instead promote more villages like this for the tourist trade? But can’t we have both? Develop the developed areas, clean up the older areas…. And what are you suggesting here: “Unfortunately, however, getting the third-world back to its more pleasant pre-modern state will takes modernist government initiatives and technocratic economic incentives. It takes modern science to heal the bullet wound.”? What sort of science?

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    I think my point was a bit obscure, because I am railing against a somewhat nonsense position that “the central Japanese power structure continuing to do nothing will turn Japan into a LOHAS/eco paradise.”

    I don’t mean that Japanese cities should become more like Taketomi to increase tourism – efforts should be made in the vein of Taketomi in order to increase the quality of life for the Japanese citizens. This means coming up with building planning policies that do not just try to throw as much money to the corrupt construction companies. It’s no longer the 1960s. There should no longer be any reason to build cheap and ugly out of the sake of expediency. Japan was able to get away with a lot of ugly when there was economic/demographic necessity. Now we are going to start to see a lot of rust, shutters, and yellowing tiles.

    Even if the economy continues to slow and development stalls (especially outside of Tokyo), that does not mean that Japan will suddenly revert to a more aesthetically-pleasing state. This may seem obvious, but I think some people (like Ryuichi Sakamoto, for example) see economic meltdown alone as some sort of salvation for Japan.

  6. Aceface Says:

    “but I think some people (like Ryuichi Sakamoto, for example) see economic meltdown alone as some sort of salvation for Japan.”

    So the professor doesn’t think possible economic meltdown could effect his regular trans-pacific commuting between Scarsdale and Tokyo on a first class of Japan Airline.Typical BOBOS mindset,if you ask me.

    Some of you may know(or even use)those ugly”Love-hotels” standing right up the Dogenzaka of Shibuya.Although it is something definitely important for the sexlife of us Tokyoite,it is hardly an architectual beauty like,say the village of Shirakawago in Hida Takayama,a World Heritage of UNESCO.

    These old folk houses called Gassho-zukuri are build by the mutual effort in the local villager’s group called “Yui結”and thanks to their effort it’s lovely farmhouses remain as same as hundreds of years ago.

    Now,lovehotels in Shibuya had also played crucial role in the preservation of this world heritage.
    Shirakawago is known for heavy snow in the winter time and many villagers had come to Tokyo to work and send money home.Those who had success bought Shibuya real estates in groups just like they would do so in Yui back home.
    Most of these estates had become lovehotels.

    The money earned from these hotels were sent to the Shirakawago and that had become the fund raising for Yui,of which eventually supported the preservation of the landscape.

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    Very interesting. So the idea is that the inaka should abuse the “ugly economy” of Tokyo to preserve the inaka.

    I think this was the whole LDP strategy for Japan for a half-century but they couldn’t resist the Keynesian concrete.

  8. neogeisha Says:

    aceface, that is not only fascinating, but it also indicates that i have been inadvertently accumulating good karma for much of my adult life. thank you!

  9. Overthinker Says:

    Interesting. I know Shirakawa well, living not too far from there (easy day trip), and while there are some nice old massive minka there, the area isn’t entirely bereft of the Usual Ugliness. I am slightly surprised that dekasegi from Shirakawa did so well as to be able to buy up Shibuya real estate, though. Do you know of any article either online or in major (eg in your average university library) journals about this? Sounds interesting. I’m not surprised at the idea of rural preservation being funded by Tokyo’s economy as such however. The surprise with Shirakawa is more that the money was used to preserve rather than knock down and rebuild. That’s an interesting connection, and one to look into to counter the government largesse ideas.

    “This means coming up with building planning policies that do not just try to throw as much money to the corrupt construction companies. It’s no longer the 1960s. There should no longer be any reason to build cheap and ugly out of the sake of expediency.”

    I don’t think this is the case these days, or not entirely. There are some very interesting and thoughtful designs going up, and a lot of attention paid (if only lip service, which is still a lot more than there used to be) to historical and environmental protection/development. One notable example is Hakuba, where the development was carefully controlled so as not to end up looking like Echigo-Yuzawa, for example. It is definitely not the 1960s any more, and I think even normal middle-class housing has come a long way from corrugated iron and cheap tiles.

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    I know it’s a lot to ask for but I just see handsome traditional homes in the Japanese suburbs being knocked down to build the ugliest stucco, tile, or unadorned concrete boxes (sometimes featuring windows, but only sometimes!) Maybe it’s easier outside of the Big City to build something attractive, but here it requires inherited wealth to literally “think outside of the box.”

  11. Aceface Says:


    Ofcourse not all of the lovehotels are owned by Shirakawa related landlords.As I understand the purchase of the estate was some 50 decades or so ago.At the time Shibuya was not exactly the center of Tokyo.
    This description can be found in 佐野眞一Sano Shinichi’s nonfiction「東電OL殺人事件」.It’s about a prostitute who was killed in Maruyama-cho and there is a small sentences covering this Shrakawa-Maruyamacho lovehotel connection.I was also informed my friend helped NHK program 「ものしり一夜漬け」featuring “Shibuya,you-don’t-know”.The NHK crew went to Shirakawa go to shoot some sequences.

  12. Johan Nystrom Says:

    Mr Marx, on what do you base the statement that “the economy has long passed the recovery point”? Is this a widely held consensus?

    You paint an image of a fork in the road where one path leads to further capitalism, and another leads to a “self sustaining, eco friendly and culture rich” Japan. Are these two paths really opposed? Looking back at the Japanese 80’s and 90’s, I imagine that I’m seeing cultural sophistication fuelled in part by economic prosperity and highly successful capitalism (with all the extra capital being available for art projects, cultural productions etc). Isn’t it the case that culture, and particularly pop culture, is a luxury good that is in higher demand when people are better off?

    Also forgive me if I’m displaying some ignorance here – I haven’t read the archives meticulously. Perhaps your standpoint would be glaringly obvious to me if I did.

  13. Overthinker Says:

    “I just see handsome traditional homes in the Japanese suburbs being knocked down to build the ugliest stucco”

    Traditional houses in the suburbs are almost certainly going to be farmhouses from villages that were swallowed up by expansion. However most expansion is onto former farmland (and you often find remnants of it in the midst of development). Here I see a definite improvement in suburban design between the areas developed in the High Growth Period and the recent ones. Neither are as attractive as a nice old minka, granted, but the modern ones are often done in a style that clearly incorporates traditional design ideas (unless they’re done in a very ‘traditional’ Western style of course). It may be easier outside Tokyo and Osaka, where land is not so outrageously expensive that you can’t afford to build a decent house, but I still think that the worst decades are over. That is not to say that all is hunky-dory and happy: far from it. What I see often where I live is old houses being knocked down to make parking lots, which does not impress me at all. I share your sensibilities regarding this destruction of the built environment – I just think that there is improvement and growing consensus that something needs to be done.

    Aceface: thanks for the response. I might see what something like the official history of the town says if I get the chance to look into this any deeper.

  14. Aceface Says:

    You may not gonna find anything related with “lovehotels” there.
    For that Sano’s work is important because he dug up a trivial fact on Shibuya that was before unknown,or so told me the NHK friend.

  15. W. David MARX Says:

    Mr Marx, on what do you base the statement that “the economy has long passed the recovery point”? Is this a widely held consensus?

    This is me being slightly controversial, although I tend to buy the OECD argument that Japan needs massive structural economic improvements in order to attain, at most, a possible 1-2% growth a year. Japan’s not going to sink into the ocean nor become third-world, but there are lots of pressures making economic contraction a very possible outlook.

    This is also a very long topic but the energy of Japanese culture in the 80s and 90s strikes me as being parallel to the tsukaisute (use-then-dispose) attitudes towards housing. When everyone is always moving towards new things, it breeds a lot of collective energy, but there was no “cultural permanence” to anything anyone was doing either, which brings us back to the Greatest Rock Records List. Japanese culture needs to be better reclaimed, cataloged, and ranked – from buildings to pop songs. And since no one is consuming anything new, there is no time better than now.