An Unlikely Frontier

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2004

Japan's far east.

by By Michael E. Stanley

In this country of islands, there are a few bits of land that stand apart. One of these is Minamitorishima, or "Marcus Island" on some English-language maps. It seems a leftover fragment of an exotic archipelago set down by mistake in the waters of Japan, a stray Bahama, Tuamotu, or Laccadive somehow delivered to the wrong address.

This small island, a coral-rubble, roughly equilateral triangle just over one square kilometer in area, is Japan's easternmost territory. It is also Tokyo's most far-flung "suburb," being administratively a part of the capital metropolis despite its location--about 1900 kilometers southeast of Tokyo City Hall and a quarter of the distance from Shinjuku's towers to the sands of Waikiki.

The main photograph shows a shallow section of surge-scoured reef just inside the surf line. Seaward from this silver-blue scene, the bottom drops away abruptly to dark depths thousands of meters below.

In the early 20th century, an American ship captain named Rosehill asserted a claim on the island, blissfully unaware of the island's prior discovery (it did take a while to update charts in those days). He had landed years before and nailed the US flag to a tree trunk. The Japanese government got wind of Rosehill's activity and sent a warship with a detachment of marines to deter him. He protested to the US Congress, which effectively ignored the issue.

In succeeding years, the colony dwindled and was replaced by military forces. As many as 4,500 troops were stationed on the coral speck during the Pacific War. After the war, the US Coast Guard established a LORAN (Long-Range Aid to Navigation) radio beacon station on the island and remained there until the facility was turned over to the Japanese Coast Guard in 1993.

Today, approximately 80 personnel of that agency, the Maritime Self-Defense Force, and the Meteorological Agency are stationed on Minamitorishima. Other than some rusty relics of the Pacific War, there is nary a weapon in sight, and nothing on the island gives the impression that this is the easternmost edge of teeming, cosmopolitan Japan. @

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