The Forgotten ‘Euro-Americans’ of the Japanese Empire

Children of Chichi Jima in 1968.

There was a point in time when American sailors and Naval aviators did everything they could to stay away from Japan’s Chichi Jima (Japanese for “Father Island“, formerly known as “Peel Island“). The reason was fairly plain; any American who washed ashore or parachuted on Chichi Jima would more than likely find themselves eaten by the starving troops of the Imperial Army.

Case in point: A just-turned 20-years-old US Navy pilot, Lt. (jg) George H.W. Bush, who by the way was one of the youngest combat pilots in the history of the US Navy, had just found himself shot-down after a successful attack on Chichi Jima’s Japanese garrison during World War II.

As seen in the rather grainy video (below), was it captured on film a rather lanky JG Bush, known by his call name “Skin” (as in “skin and bones”), being rescued by an American sub.

While Chichi Jima is best known to many Americans as a footnote to American history, many in Japan know the island as perhaps the nation’s greatest demographic anomaly.

After all, it’s not every day that one will find a region of Japan where family names like Savory, Washington, Gonzales, and Gilley.  Even rarer, the district of a Japanese town is known as “Yankee Town”. 

With Chichi Jima island 600 miles and a 25-hour ferryboat ride SSE of Tokyo, the formerly-American occupied island isn’t much further NNE from the sovereign American soil of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

While the Mariana Islands, both the CNMI and the US Territory of Guam, have been part of the United States since 1899, Chichi Jima claims American citizens first settling there in 1830.

As noted by Nippon.com, the island was initially known to the Japanese as Buninshima, meaning “uninhabited islands”, was first populated in 1830 by Nathaniel Savory and a mixed party of two dozen Massachusetts Yankees and Hawaiian Islanders.

With essentially no government claiming the island, Savory became the de facto governor. That is, until the Japanese officially claimed the entire Bonin Islands chain as part of the empire in 1862, according to author Lionel Cholmondeley in his work “History of the Bonin Islands“.

According to Cholmondeley, while the Japanese may have planted the flag, Savory was left in charge of the island and the population.

Eventually granted Japanese citizenship, despite the descendants of the original settlers now referred to as Ōbeikei (Westerners), the whites and Polynesians and eventually Micronesians lived in harmony with the Japanese settlers imported during the late 19th century.

It was at the close of the Second World War that the Ōbeikei found themselves with one foot in the United States, one in Japan.

While the eventual intermarried Haole and Hawaiian progeny of Nathaniel Savory’s original settlers retained what could best be described as a mix of European and Polynesian physical features, they all overwhelmingly looked upon Savory’s Bedford, Massachusetts home as their version of “the old country.”

However, prior to WWII, JapanTimes.com noted in 2008, “That was a happy period in which people of European, American and Japanese ancestry coexisted without prejudice,” according to Edith Washington.

Also cited;

“The war drastically changed the islanders’ peaceful life. With mounting Japanese nationalism, non-Japanese islanders were forced to change their names. Edith was renamed Kyoko Ohira.

In 1944, she was forced to evacuate to the main islands but was allowed to return after the war. Despite the various ordeals and hardships she experienced, her love of Japan as her homeland remains unchanged. “I am a genuine Japanese, born and raised on this island,” she said.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Washington became Kimura, Savory became Sebori or Okumura, Webb became Uebu or Uwabu.”

The Savory family line.

It was during the 1944 evacuation to the Home Islands that the Ōbeikei their first experienced real racism concerning their lineage.

As the New York Times reported in 2006, Isaac Gonzales, who also forced to take the Japanese name of Aisaku Ogasawara, and is also an Anglican pastor, remembers the reception his family received when evacuated during the war;

“We are loyal Japanese, but they treated us as enemies when they saw the color of our faces and our eyes.”

Although they were not interned, the Westerners were forced to take Japanese names and were watched as possible spies. In 1944, most were evacuated along with the Japanese residents to the mainland, where they say they suffered discrimination.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the US Government in 1946 took control of many of the outlaying Japanese island chains, such as the Bonin Islands, Volcano Islands (best known for the Battle of Iwo Jima), and the Ryukyu Islands (best known for the Battle of Okinawa).

Under the administration of the US Navy, the inhabitants of Chichi Jima were allowed to return home, but only those Japanese citizens with any amount of American, Polynesian, and Micronesian bloodlines, no matter how small. However, those of pure Japanese extraction were also allowed to return, but only those related to the Ōbeikei by marriage, of whom there were reportedly many.

During the years of the Nathaniel Savory government, English was the lingua Franca. Obviously, when Japan officially took control in the 1860s, Japanese was taught in all schools. Changing again under US Navy administration, English was again taught in the schools.

It was in 1968 that the United States returned control of the Bonin’s and the other island groups officially to Japan, again, changing back to Japanese as the official language, as possibly even more important, only the Japanese government’s version of history was taught.

But with the return of the Tokyo government, prejudice against the descendants of the original people on Chichi Jima reared it’s ugly head yet again. The NYT also reported that Stanley Gilley, who also has the official Japanese name of Sutanrii Minami stated of the ruling Japanese local government, “They call me foreigner. I’m not a foreigner. I was born on this island.”

Perhaps putting it best is John Washington, whose great-great-grandfather is Nathaniel Savory, who the NYT describes as having “white skin and blond hair” in regards to his lineage;

“I feel it will all die out with my generation,” Mr. Washington said. “They don’t teach the history of the Bonin Islands to kids, don’t teach about Nathaniel Savory. The Japanese hide these things.”