Tragedy at Yonaguni Island


”Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.” ~Robert Kennedy

Life can be full of tragedy, but only if we make it that way.  Every once in a while, there comes along a heartbreaking tale that is almost too hard to believe.  This one I experienced on a remote Ryukyuan island, seemingly far from the harder toils of life.

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Infamous Kuburabari can be found at the top-center of this rather animated map.

Kuburabari, located near the west tip of Yonaguni Island, is near to Kubura village.  An infamous gorge located there is about 60 feet long, 25-30 feet deep, with a width on top of about 10-15 feet.  In the age of the Ryukyu Dynasty, foreign rulers imposed a severe tax based on population throughout this island chain then under their control.  It is said that during these sad times, to avoid an unaffordable increase in population pregnant woman were made to attempt to leap the gorge, ensuring only the strongest mothers and by extension babies survived.  But more directly to the point, to ensure that most of the woman and fetuses didn’t survive the attempt….

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Contemplating the Past

A terrible tale by any stretch of the imagination, something of which to be ashamed.  Perhaps that is why in more recent times the Yonaguni Island Board of Education has claimed the story to be only a local folk tale.  That said, Kubub Bari remains designated as an important prefectural scenic tourism spot, with signage explaining his haunted past, and with a small Buddhist altar located on-site.  Besides, there is always some measure of truth in folklore, else it wouldn’t exist.

When you visit however, you can take the edge of this sadder side of the site by going in the very late afternoon.  You see, the hill the gorge is sliced into also happens to be the last hill in Japan to see the sunset, being on the western portion of the most western island in all of Japan.

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It is said that Satsuma and his clan were ultimately responsible for such a horrific outcome.  Based in the southernmost part of Kyushu, Japan and looking to rebuild their fortunes after defeats in the Japanese home islands, they built 100 warships to carry 3,000 samurai invaders to send to the Ryukyus.  Eleven years before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Port, the Satsuma battleships left on a mission of violence on February 6, 1609.

Satsuma’s troops took over Nakijin Castle on Okinawa, then burned it to the ground as they slaughtered the local peoples they encountered on their way to capital city and castle of Shuri.  On April 1, 1609, Satsuma’s invaders rushed into Shuri Castle. Then Ryukyuan King Sho Nei was arrested and the Kingdom’s treasure and important official documents were stolen.  The Ryukyu Kingdom suddenly came under the control of Satsuma.

Ships of the Type Used by Satsumo

Ships of the Type Used by Satsuma

Removing the deposed Sho Nei and his ministers to Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Satsuma was free to prepared a wholly one-sided treaty, which was imposed on the King’s offices by force.   The Ryukyu’s “Golden Age” of peaceful self-rule had suddenly turned into a Dark Age under Satsuma colonization.  For the next 270 long years, the people of the Ryukyus suffered under Satsuma’s control, paying heavy taxes and impossible tribute to their new, brutal rulers.

Invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 17th Century

Invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 17th Century

All the Kingdom’s people between 15 and 50 years of age now had to pay taxes.  Some tales talk about a “head tax” (jinto-zei) rather than age.  In some villages in the Yaeyama islands (southern-most islands in the Ryukyu chain), stone pillars can still be found by which children were measured; once over the stone’s reach, taxes were to be imposed.  To make things easier, Satsuma blamed the taxes on the deposed King, and claimed to have come to the rescue of the peoples of the Ryukyu Kingdom.   Obviously, these lies and shams became rather obvious when the taxes were never lifted or eased, and, in fact, were not abolished until 1903 and only after a strong petition from the local peoples once under Japanese formal rule starting in 1879.

On Yonaguni Island, some claim that is was Satsuma himself who introduced sad and inhumane methods of population control.  One method was Tonguda, the rice paddy located at the center of the island.  Periodically, all islanders between ages 15 and 50 had to dash to the paddy on some signal, and those who couldn’t get there in a set amount of time were beheaded.  Obviously this most effected the physically handicapped, injured and sick….

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Placard explaining the rocks and small Buddhist altar at far right

yonaguni-2017-kubura-bari-the-jumping-point-for-sadnessyonaguni-2017-kubura-bari-rocks-to-jump-acrossAnother, more infamous method was the one detailed here:  killing of pregnant women.  Periodically, all pregnant women of the island were forced to line up on one side of the Kuburabari ravine.  They were then ordered to attempt to hurdle the ravine by jumping to the other side.  Of course attempting to leap a gap of 10-15 feet was mostly impossible for women in such a state, and most of them died after bashing against the rock of the opposite side and falling deep into the ravine.  If that is not bad enough, there are claims that most of those women who miraculously succeeded their leap of faith ended up suffering miscarriages.  The islanders usually had to pay their taxes in food (mostly rice), and only by reducing the number of mouths to feed could the taxes be afforded.  Similarly, Satsuma realized he could receive maximum tribute if he were to “help” control population.

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Sadly, there is only the smallest memorials altar placed at the site.  Although there is tourist parking and signage explaining the nature of the area, they are as much about observing the sunset here as remembering a darker time.  It seems in a formal sense that Japanese officials have ignored and discarded this shameful history as simple island myths and legends not to be taken literally.

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But the truth is always somewhere in the middle.  For me, myth and legend do not exist in a vacuum.  And I would rather say a silent prayer for all those lost here, rather than ignore the possibilities.  Rather than to act as our guide in life, tragedy can rather result in wisdom for life.

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Love and Radiance:  Sunflowers of the Ryukyus


“The sunflower bathes its flesh in golden oil, languidly craning up so high – oh how small the sun” ~Tanka poem by Yugure Maeda

MIyakojima Sunflower Field

MIyakojima Sunflower Field

Jody and I were out exploring the rustic coast of Miyakojima during a recent island getaway, with no particular destination in mind.  Heading down one of the many detours we took that afternoon, we happened upon a tall, shimmering field of sunflowers begging for attention.  Of course we had to stop… and stop we did!

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27324539151_6bbb25bba7_bThe Sunflower (ヒマワリhimawari) is a popular plant in Japan, cultivated here since the 17th century.  Over time, it has come to represent respect, passionate love, and radiance, not surprisingly.  As a countless mass of yellow and green, they were certainly standing tall that day, busily basking in the glimmering rays of the sun.

Radiance and Sunflowers

Radiance and Sunflowers

27358829101_8b6fd30fcf_bNot only did Jody happened to be wearing just the right dress for the occasion, she also happily obliged my request for an impromptu modeling shoot.  Usually reserved and quite contained, Jody seemed to absorbed some of the flowers’ radiance, then reflected that back to the iris of my waiting camera.  The flowers spoke silently to us, as they do for so many others, an essence of such plants true the world over.  But more so in Japan.  So much so in fact that the Japanese have developed a symbolic language of flowers called hanakotoba.

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26823387523_4c9bdf3e89_bHanakotoba (花言葉) is the Japanese language of flowers, or more correctly, the ancient art of assigning meanings to flowers.  Historically, and in many societies, flowers were given meaningful codes and not-so-secret passwords.  If you wanted some to know you were interested in courtship?  Wear this one.  Want to express condolences for another’s loss or suffering?  Wear that one.  This interpretation of nature takes account of the overall psychological effects and even physiological reactions which can happen under the influences of a flowering plant’s color, texture, and smell.  In other words, flowers can directly convey emotion, and communicate quite clearly without the need or use of more pedestrian words.  More mystically, flowers are often used to express that which cannot be spoken.

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27120015580_47ce4d0a95_bThese pictures are already some of my fondest memories of Okinawa this time around (See Paradise Lost for a less happy memory).  The low afternoon sun and the temperate breeze made our time in the flowering field not just comfortable, but comforting.  There’s just something about sunflowers that is special.  I’m not sure if it’s connected to childhood memories or just their sheer size…or both.  Well, it’s probably because I got to capture my beautiful wife among them and freeze the moment for all time.

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27154089480_6e3e0fe7bc_bIn Japan, flowers are not just given to women.  And when they are given, the act is not taken nearly as lightly as it is in the United States.  The underlying meaning of the flower given determines the message sent – and hopefully received.  Communicating without words can often ease tension and break the ice which is often stifling and thick and permeates many aspects of Japanese socialization.

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For me, the sunflowers speak to Jody, whispering to her of her radiance and beauty.  Things in her case for me that are best expressed through nature as they cannot be fully appreciated through spoken word alone.

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