Kikaijima Island   Leave a comment

Kikaijima or Kikai Island may have figured as a commercial hub in relations, political and trading, between Yamato and China

Kikai Caldera, Japan. Kikai island, seen from the air in the above photograph, taken in 2005, is one of two visible islands that are part of the mostly submerged Kikai caldera. SOURCE: H. Seo, courtesy of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (Japan)

Delving into an island’s hidden history (Yomiuri, Mar 4, 2012)

Yuka Matsumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

KIKAI, Kagoshima–The smooth flat island comes into sight about 10 minutes after leaving Amami Oshima island aboard a small plane. The airplane’s shadow glides past coral reefs and sugarcane fields before landing at the tiny airport.

Kikaijima island, which lies roughly equidistant between the southernmost point of the Kyushu region and Okinawa Island, is made up of coral. It is about 25 kilometers east from the much larger Amami Oshima.

While Kikaijima is very small–its circumference is only 50 kilometers–the island’s tallest point, Hyakunodai, has an altitude of 211 meters. The island is also expanding as it has been rising out of the ocean by a few millimeters annually for the last 100,000 years.

“The islanders are friendly to outsiders,” said Shingo Kameshima, 22, who hails from Okinawa Island and is a graduate student from the University of the Ryukyus.

Kameshima is temporarily working for the Kikai town’s board of education to help excavate historical ruins.

In 2003, the Gusuku Ruin was discovered during the cultivation of a sugarcane field in the center of the island. The remains of about 300 structures and ceramics from Yamato (Japan’s ancient mainland) and China have been unearthed at the site.

The discoveries have led archaeologists to believe the area was used by a branch of Dazaifu, an ancient imperial administration in Fukuoka Prefecture that governed Kyushu. They suspect Kikaijima was used as a commercial hub after the ninth century.

The Amami island chain was once under the control of regional rulers, including the Ryukyu Kingdom and the Satsuma clan, who reigned supreme in what is now Kagoshima Prefecture. Before that, the tiny island may have been a center of trade in the Nansei Islands.

Despite uncertainty over the history of Kikaijima, it has always figured prominently in regional folk tales.

The island, which was once known as Kikaigashima, also has many historical sites: the grave of the Buddhist monk Shunkan (1143-1179), who was exiled to the island for his role in a failed coup; a fountain made by the powerful archer Minamoto no Tametomo (1139-1170), who fought in the Hogen rebellion of 1156; and the ruins of a castle built by Taira no Sukemori, who committed suicide by drowning himself in 1185 during the Battle of Dannoura, off the coast of what is now Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Another site is the grave of the tragic figure Uratomi. According to legend, the Satsuma clan governor was enchanted by Uratomi’s beauty and asked her parents that she be given to him. When this was refused, the governor levied high taxes on everyone in Uratomi’s village in Amami Oshima. In response, Uratomi’s parents put her in a small boat and sent her out to sea. She eventually drifted to Kikaijima.

“The island has preserved all the legends. If the truth remains unknown, it might be best to leave it like that,” Kameshima said.

He believes the spiritual heart of the islanders, who find symbolic value in local legends and pass them from generation to generation, is extremely important.


Protective coral walls

For many years, residents of the Aden community on the east coast of the island have heaped up coral collected from the coast to create walls to better protect themselves from typhoons.

“Many communities have removed coral walls as more people have become car owners. But this area keeps its coral walls out of respect for our ancestors,” said 79-year-old volunteer guide Heishin Masai, who lives in Aden.

The walls blend in with the tropical landscape that abounds in Japanese bishopwood and banyan trees. There were massive air raids against Kikaijima during World War II because it held Imperial Japanese Army and Navy facilities, and an airfield operated by a kamikaze contingent, but the Aden community escaped unharmed.

After the war, the island was administered by the United States until 1953.

When I visited Kikaijima the seasonal sugarcane harvest was in full swing.

I dropped into a brown sugar factory with a guide, Sunao Tonochi, who works at the Asahi Shuzo shochu brewery.

During the rule of the Satsuma clan, local farmers were forced to cultivate sugarcane. Later, the crop became Kikaijima’s main product under the Japanese government’s plan between 1965 and 1975 to develop specialized agricultural crops to replace rice farms.

Brewing brown-sugar shochu was encouraged to promote the economy of the Amami Islands after they were returned to Japan. However, Kikaijima’s sugarcane is processed mostly into coarse sugar, and the island’s shochu is made from sugarcane grown in Okinawa Prefecture’s remote islands under a system to preserve the regional economy.

This incongruous system is a result of a postwar policy created by the central government, which grouped the remote southern islands as “the edge of Japan.”

Despite this, Asahi Shuzo makes shochu by using pesticide-free brown sugar cultivated and processed on Kikaijima.

“Kikaijima-brand sake is made from Kikai-grown crops. Using specific ingredients is the trick to producing great sake,” Tonochi said as he poured some “se,” as sake is called in the local dialect.

The sweet flavor of se comes from the island’s proud and colorful history.


Travel Tip

Reaching Kikaijima island takes between four and five hours from Haneda Airport, with a transfer at either Kagoshima or Amami airport. A ferry also leaves Kagoshima for the island.

For more information, call the Kikai municipal government office (0997) 65-1111.

(Mar. 4, 2012)

File:Amami Islands-en.png

More general information, see:

Kikaijima | Kagoshima Visitor’s Guide

Introduction of Kikai island



Posted October 4, 2012 by japanexplorer

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