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[Bookmark] Discovering the Diamond Sands and Ancestor Cats of Taketomi Island

The tiny island is full of surprising treasures and traditions in the midst of an azure blue sea. And it boasts national status as a Significant Intangible Folk Cultural Asset.

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Entrance to Kondoi Beach, Taketomi Island, Okinawa.

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Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces one overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Our hope is for readers to find new depths and perspectives to explore and enjoy.

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It is mid-October and I am walking down a road on tiny Taketomi, one of the islands in the Yaeyama group in the far south of Japan. I am wearing shorts and a tee shirt, enjoying the warmth of the semi-tropical sun. Not a soul is around, unless you count the mangy goat watching me from a nearby field.

I feel as if I have been transported to another world from the cities of mainland Japan, still under states of emergency, whose masked denizens warily go about their daily lives ー never knowing where the virus might be lurking, ever eyeing with nostalgic looks shuttered nomiya

I certainly came to Taketomi at the right time. With the infection numbers dropping throughout Japan, travel restrictions loosening and road-lust brimming up alarmingly, Japan’s tourist attractions will soon be inundated with domestic travelers. Can the arrival of hordes of foreign tourists be far off? 

Water buffalo cart

Taketomi is a mere teardrop-shaped speck in the vast azure blue ocean, measuring nine kilometers in circumference and 5.4 square kilometers in total land area. Most of it is jungle and scrub bush. The permanent population is only about 350. Yet, according to a local employee at the on-island resource center, prior to the onslaught of COVID-19, the island had approximately 500,000 visitors per year! (An official Internet site claimed it was more than 600,000!)

A number of minibuses had been waiting at the ferry landing when I arrived from Ishigakijima (a mere ten minutes away by high-speed ferry). Most of these belonged to the minshuku hostelries on the island, although I understand there is also a public bus. There are no large hotels on the island, and sales of property to outsiders is avoided.

Traditional scenery of the Taketomi Island graveyard

‘Kamekobaka’ Turtle Tombs

I always prefer walking about, even though I have a bad leg and use a cane. But it soon became apparent to me that the ideal way to see Taketomi was by rental bicycle. 

Still, I was committed to hoofing it, knowing from my prior reading that the distance from pierside to the first village was about 800 meters. As I walked along, on the left-hand side of the road I spied a cemetery containing traditional Okinawan tombs, which are of great interest to me. I decided to pay my respects.

First-time visitors to islands in the Ryukyu chain, the largest of which is Okinawa Island, are invariably surprised by the traditional tombs. Most commonly they are shaped like the back of a turtle (kamekobaka), although house-shaped tombs resembling white storehouses are also popular. 

In recent years, Okinawans have been increasingly turning to cremation and other modern burial practices common in mainland Japan. However, the time-honored customs for burying the departed and honoring ancestors were heavily influenced by practices prevailing in the past in South China. 

Above: Traditional graves on Taketomi Island

It would not be an exaggeration to say that traditionally Okinawa was a tomb-obsessed culture. Community life, to a large extent, centered around the tombs. 

Families poured a good deal of their wealth into building tombs that were to serve as the eternal homes for the ancestors. The turtle-shaped tombs, for example, are meant to represent the womb. Multiple generations from the same clan would be buried in the same tomb, with a strict hierarchy in the placement of funeral urns within them. Tombs of the royal family and aristocrats would naturally be more elaborate affairs. 

Welcome Culture Rooted in Ancestors

Okinawans have been known for centuries for their peaceful and hospitable nature, and perhaps that is at least in part due to the psychological continuum they maintain between this world and the “other side.” The religious practices of islanders in the Ryukyu chain are basically a combination of nature worship plus ancestor worship.

Whereas graveyards in the West, or even in Japan proper for that matter, often have a gloomy, even sinister air to them, in the Ryukyus the feeling is very different. For example, at the time of the spring Tomb Sweeping Festival, known variously as Shimi or Seimeisai, which is the equivalent of the Ch’ing Ming festival in China, families gather to picnic in front of their ancestral tombs. These graveside parties are far from solemn affairs, with much singing, dancing, good food and liberal consumption of awamori – the fiery local liquor. 

It is believed that the ancestors take part in these festivities, so that a strong link is maintained between the living and the dead, as well among different generations of the living. 

Modern Challenges of Traditional Burials

Traditionally, on central Okinawa Island and islands near it, when a person died, the corpse would be placed in a temporary wooden coffin and left in the tomb for a few years until the body had decomposed. Then family members would gather early in the morning to take out and burn the coffin, while the bones would be scraped clean and washed with water or awamori before the whitened bones were reburied within a multi-colored funeral urn (zushi) placed inside the tomb. 

A definite order was followed in placing the bones in the urn, and usually married couples were buried within the same urn. The washing of the bones was considered absolutely essential in order that the deceased might not appear before the kami and buddhas in a state of kegare (pollution). Not doing so was thought to bring bad joss (bad luck). 

Nonetheless, the washing of the bones was not a pleasant task, since decayed flesh would often still be clinging to the bones. Yikes! Women were expected to perform this task, and it is no wonder that young, modern women are increasingly refusing to do so.

Some scholars believe that this custom never really caught on in Miyakojima and surrounding islands or the Yaeyama group. Instead, “wind burials” took their place, in which the corpse of the deceased was left as is in a natural cave. That was the reason why the inhabitants of certain islands did not raise dogs, although there was not much they could do about the carrion-eating birds. In any event, these burial areas gave off a terrible stench and were consequently considered taboo. 

House and Garden

Living in the Midst of Beauty

I was now approaching the outskirts of the first inhabited zone, and I could see a couple of people walking in the distance. I soon found myself in the first of the three hamlets (buraku) that make up the Taketomi community (shuraku). These are the East Hamlet (Higashi Yashiki), West Hamlet (Nishi Yashiki) and Nakatsuji Hamlet. Together this joint settlement in the center of the island covers around 900 meters north-south and around 600 meters east-west, for a total of about 38.3 hectares. There are about 190 households in total. 

School entrance

I soon passed the local school, which has only about 40 elementary and junior high school students enrolled. For high school they have to go to Ishigakijima or board in Naha or mainland Japan. The ferries and high-speed boats really serve as water buses since it only takes 15 minutes to get to Ishigakijima. 

The path I was walking on was covered with pure white crushed coral, which contrasted beautifully with the whites of the wooden buildings, the red tile roofs and the mottled grays of the walls made from blocks of coral. 

Roadside flowers
Village scene

Then there was the hibiscus and bougainvillea growing rampant everywhere. Stunningly beautiful. Even the post office was housed in a traditional building. It was easy to see why in 1987 the Japanese government named Taketomi as an Important Traditional Building Preservation Area (Juyo Dentoteki Kenzobutsu Honzon Chiku). 

The crushed coral covering the island paths actually helps to control malaria, and the slithering peregrinations of the highly poisonous habu snakes. 

Typical house
Roof details
Roof details

History, Myths and Connections

Taketomi island was apparently first settled in the 11th century. According to a local myth, a samurai affiliated with the Taira clan by the name of Akayama reached here during the early Kamakura period (about 1185-1333) on the run from the victorious Minamoto clan, who were hunting down Taira remnants following the Gempei War. 

It is said that development in Okinawa in general trailed that of mainland Japan by more than a millennium. The iron age did not arrive until the beginning of the 15th century, and stone and earthenware vessels were used up to that time. The unified Ryukyu kingdom only came into existence during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). 

In any event, the Yaeyama islands were definitely developmental laggards compared to mainland Japan, or even Okinawa Island for that matter. It was always a challenge to protect the thin layer of soil and achieve self-sufficiency amidst limited natural resources. 

Village shrine

On Taketomi the traditional lifestyle continued till about 1955. From that point, population depletion became acute, and today despite the tourist boom there are several vacant houses.

The spatial distribution of the community has shifted over time too, depending on the availability of water. The 1905 census showed a population of 1,186 in 187 households. However, a huge 1971 typhoon was followed by severe drought. And the population of the island has been graying at an alarming rate. Locals say that a permanent population of around 500 would be ideal.

Torii entrance to utaki (off limits to outsiders)

Learning the Island from a Folk Song

The inhabitants of Taketomi have long been known for their spirit—hospitable but defiantly independent. That was embodied in the utsugumi (utsugami) tradition of mutual help and the yui system for pooling labor without thought of reimbursement. 

This spirit is also reflected in the “Asadoya Yunta,” a traditional Taketomi folk song famous throughout the Ryukyus. It tells the story of a young woman of astonishing beauty by the name of Asadoya nu Kuyama. It seems an official posted to the island wanted to take her as his “native wife.” But she refused with words I expect were something like the following: “Bugger off Mr. Big Stuff. My heart belongs to the local boys.” The family home and grave of this feisty lady still remain. 

The Yaeyama islands remained in the stone age up until the 17th century, whereas metal use in Japan proper had first started being used during the Yayoi period (c.300 B.C.-300 A.D.). By the Kofun period (c.300-538 A.D.) the use of metal for tools for agricultural implements and weapons was already widespread throughout the main islands.

Remains of an ancient blacksmith’s worksite, including a circle of charred stones, have been found in the forest on Taketomi. Okinawa islands lacked iron sand prior to the 14th century, even on the Okinawa main island. Thus, prior to the introduction of iron, there was very low agricultural productivity, and subsistence farming was truly for subsistence. 

Village scene

Nonetheless, that also meant there was little surplus and probably little warfare. After all, what was there to fight about if there were no spoils of war. At least that seems to have been the situation in Taketomi. Historians are well aware that the use of bronze and iron inexorably leads to greater social complexity and class differentiation. 

Blacksmithing apparently came to Taketomi during the Muromachi period, although earlier there had been imports of weapons from Japan and cooking utensils from China. 

Hence, myths developed of armed warriors coming from Japan and taking control, including one about the man who always wore black armor who came and made tools for the locals. For some reason, this fellow’s local wife stabbed him in the neck—the only place where he was unprotected. (It all sounds pretty kinky to me.) He was posthumously worshipped as a kami. 

Water well

Ryukyu Kingdom’s Dark Side

I did not stop to linger within this part of the settlement, since I wanted to visit two beaches on the island. 

On the way I stumbled upon some interesting landmarks. First, there was the water well supposedly discovered by the dog belonging to one of the local kami. It saved the people of Taketomi during a period of extreme drought and also became where the ritual first bath for a newborn baby took place. In fact, the shortage of water on the island at times became so acute that parties had to venture into the interior of disease-ridden Iriomote island, a nearby island of the Yaeyama Islands group, to bring back water. 

Nintozei commemorative monument

Very close by the well I found a monument marking the centennial of the abolition of the notorious nintozei (jintozei) system. That takes some explaining, lest you get the impression that in the past life on Taketomi was some kind of semi-tropical Shangri-la. 

The year 1609 is infamous in the history of the Ryukyu kingdom. That was the year in which samurai from the powerful Satsuma clan in southern Kyushu arrived and effectively hijacked the government. 

The odd thing was that both sides kept it hush-hush. The Ryukyu Kingdom was a tribute state of Ming China and therefore was allowed to engage in lucrative trade with the Celestial Empire. Although they kept agents in Okinawa to make sure the Ryukyu government did their bidding, the Satsuma samurai would hide when Chinese vessels arrived. 

Water buffalo at rest

Besides taking a major cut of profits from the China trade, Satsuma also demanded that the Okinawans pay it a huge annual tribute in the form of agricultural goods, especially grain and sugarcane, as well as textiles. Therefore, the Ryukyu government instituted the oppressive nintozei head tax system. 

However, it exempted from these taxes the four districts on or near Okinawa Island where the local version of the samurai lived. And in general, they went easy on residents of Okinawa Island. 

Instead, through the process of “transfer of oppression” the heaviest burden was placed on the residents of the Sakishima “forward islands” of the Miyako and Yaeyama groups, where both males and females ages 15-50 were obliged to pay heavy taxes in kind. For example, women had to produce a set quota of Yaeyama jobu and other textiles. 

Even today you can find several nintozei statues in the Sakishima Islands, with one on Miyakojima being especially famous. As the story goes, each year youngsters would be paraded past it and if the top of the head of a boy or girl reached above the top of the statue, then he or she would immediately become subject to the tax until freed by old age. However, whether this oppressive ritual ever took place or not is debatable.

After the Meiji government (1868-1912) directly took over administration of the Ryukyus, the former power-holding Okinawan aristocrats were none too happy. Therefore, to mollify them somewhat, Tokyo let them keep the oppressive nintozei system until 1903! And, even then, it was outsiders from mainland Japan, especially Jissaku Nakamura, who led the movement to abolish the dehumanizing system. 

Hut used as lookout for approaching ships

History from the Highest Spot on Taketomi

Not far from the nintozei monument is Ushioka hill, the highest spot on Taketomi at 48 meters. It is so named, because it is thought to be shaped like a water buffalo with cut grass piled on its back. This is said to have served as a lookout point from which armed merchant/pirates known as wako would scan the East China Sea when they were not terrorizing China and Korea. The wako have left many relic sites throughout the Ryukyus, especially in Sakishima.

These freebooters were active from late Yuan through the early Ch’ing period, often with the tacit support of feudal rulers in Japan. 

During Nambokucho period (1336-92), following the failure of Emperor Go Daigo to win back control of the country from the samurai class, two imperial courts vied for legitimacy. Commercial elements, including traders, ship owners and transporters, tended to support the Southern Court of Go Daigo and his descendants. More land (agricultural)-oriented elements tended to back the Northern Court and Ashikaga Shogunate. 

The Southern Court, which controlled Kyushu under Prince Kaneyoshi (Kanenaga) for about 40 years, was in cahoots with the pirate groups. 

Kaiji beach sand

Star Sands and Ancestor Cats 

I continued trudging on my way, by now a bit sore and tired, not to mention hot, when suddenly a flock of young women on bicycles came flying effortlessly by. I knew they were from the Japanese mainland by their pale skins and shouts of iya da, yabai and sugee.

Cursing my gimpy leg, I entered the side road leading to Kaiji Beach. 

Kaiji Beach

Around most of Taketomi, the jungle extends right down to the shoreline. These forested areas serve to protect against typhoons and salinization. Such was the case at Kaiji Beach, famed along with Hoshizuna no Hama beach on Iriomote, for its star-shaped sand formed from the skeletons of dead one-celled animals called Foraminifera. 

Kaiji beach sand

Here monpa no ki (Messerschmidia argentea), small evergreens crowd down to the narrow beach. Known locally as the Chinese lantern tree, their broad rubbery leaves are used to make medicine to treat abdominal pain, or as an antidote for the wound caused by the bite of a habu snake.

Beachcombing cat

My next stop was Kondoi Beach, the only beach on Taketomi considered safe for swimming due to the strong currents around the island. The beach was far bigger than I imagined and was furnished with restrooms and showers, as well as the usual resident felines. 

The ocean water was as warm as a bath. Looking into the inscrutable eyes of the cats, who appeared very much at home, I could not help but wonder whether they were not the reincarnated souls of islanders of the past. 

Boat at Kondoi Beach

The Western Pier 

Farther up the western coast of the island is the Nishi Sambashi (Western Pier). It was from here that Taketomi men would set out in itafune boats made from hollowed out trees to go over to Iriomote some 30 kilometers over the water. There they would cultivate rice paddies during the day, but spend the night in huts they built on Yubu Island, a tiny island off the northern shore of Iriomote, so as to limit their chances of catching malaria or another contagious disease. 

Sign near boat landing

The story of Taketomi can really be summed up in two words: water and malaria. It was the only island in the area not seriously affected by malaria and other pestilences. In that respect, its relative lack of water turned out to be a godsend, even if it impeded agricultural production. 

Residents of the island for the most part relied on rainwater. Actually, the coral was highly porous and absorbent, so there was a lot of underground water, although most of it was quite salty. It was only in 1976 that a water supply pipe running from Ishigakijima was installed. 

There was a 16th century local hero named Nishito who, after performing service for the Ryukyu king, was appointed as a general superintendent for the Yaeyama islands. He established the government office, which was called the Ura (Kuramoto), on his home island of Taketomi. 

Post office

Even today Iriomote, the second largest island in Okinawa Prefecture after Okinawa Island itself, is considered part of Taketomi Town, even though its population outnumbers Taketomi several times over. Taketomi’s administrative authority also extends to Kuroshima, Kohama and other islands. 

In another anomaly, Taketomi town offices are actually located in Ishigaki City. 

Water buffalo

Sowing the Seeds of History and Prosperity

Rambling on into another section of the settlement, I ran into one of the colorful water buffalo-drawn carts that add to the picturesqueness of Taketomi. Because there were so few tourists on the island when I went, there seemed to be only one or two of these operating, and I saw water buffalos lounging about in the fields. Perhaps the “lying flat movement” (a modern Chinese form of nonviolent protest) has spread to Yaeyama’s working animals.  

Water buffalo at rest
Old goat

Taketomi is a storehouse of tangible and intangible items that have been preserved through generations. Many of these are on display during the Tanadui (“Sowing of the Seeds Festival”), the big agricultural festival with more than a 600-year history held in October. 

It has been designated by the national government as a Significant Intangible Folk Cultural Asset. 

Individuals from Taketomi who have gone elsewhere to work try their best to return to the island at that time. During the Tanadui, around 80 traditional performing arts are on display, including a local form of kyogen (kyongin), dances (budui), and so on. These are dedicated to the kami who can ensure a bountiful harvest.

There are signs on Taketomi asking visitors to respect the sacred places on the island. There are an estimated 86 such holy places, including 28 utaki (referred to as on in Yaeyama dialect). These are spots where the kami are believed to come down or reside. Some are marked with torii gates or “off limits” signs.

Traditional Ryukyu religion is a fascinating subject. For one thing, the ceremonies were for the most part female-oriented, with priestesses known as noro enjoying great influence in society. 

It has often been characterized as “primitive Shinto,” implying that Shinto in mainland Japan progressed from that stage to some higher level. However, considering the great influence that Chinese culture had on the premodern Ryukyus and the apparent lack of cultural contacts between the Ryukyus and Japan prior to the Muromachi period, I greatly doubt that such a simple paradigm is adequate to explain the religion of the islands. 

I finished my Taketomi adventure with coffee and ice cream at one of the homes that have been converted into restaurants and shops selling sweets. It appeared that all generations of the family were involved in running the business. 

Entrance to village
Typical house

Their unfailing friendliness and politeness were a delightful surprise. I marveled at how the inhabitants of Taketomi could maintain such grace and hospitality when their little island has become something of an entertainment park for gawking crowds of tourists. 

I concluded that it is precisely because they have refused to compromise their heritage that they have been able to preserve the spirit of their ancestors. 

Author: John Carroll

John J. Carroll is a Kyoto-based freelance writer and translator who has lived in Japan for three decades. He is author of several books, including Trails of Two Cities: A Walker’s Guide to Yokohama and Kamakura and Japan: Soul of a Nation, as well as numerous newspaper and magazine articles. He received his M.A. degree in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii-Manoa, where he was concurrently a fellow at the East-West Center. He served with the U.S. State Department in China for three years through the spring of 2018 as vice-consul in Beijing and Guangzhou.